The passing of summer ‘16 has also brought the passing of a year’s worth of food trends. One of the biggest trends this year was the rise of matcha, the concentrated powder form of Japanese green tea used in dozens of delicious pastries, drinks, and basically anything else you could think of. Since then, another Asian contemporary flavor has taken the spotlight: ube...And therefore so has Filipino-American food culture.
Ube is a sweet purple yam used in many Filipino dishes and desserts, often in the form of a paste or cream. (It is not the same thing as taro!)
The fact that ube is just now becoming a trend in the United States is actually as alarming as it may be exciting. This is because ube represents what many Filipinos, like writer Kristina Bustos, believe to be a breakthrough of a traditional Filipino ingredient into the American palate.
However, many Filipino-Americans may agree that this process has taken far too long to occur. Why does Filipino food only gain recognition when something shocking or trendy happens?
Is it true that the quickest way to American hearts is through their sweet tooth?
What is Filipino-American food?
At first glance, it seems simple: Filipino-American food is just Filipino food made in America. But there’s so much more complexity to the culture and its culinary expression than that notion alone. It’s a movement symbolic of a tree being planted; as the branches grow taller and spread wider apart, the roots are simultaneously digging deeper.
As generations follow each other, there’s an even more aggressive movement to stay in touch with the origin. An interview from the Center of Asian-American Media recently featured chefs Amy Besa and her husband, Romy Dorotan, as the trailblazers of Filipino-American food in New York, let alone the East Coast.
Besa states that when they opened their first restaurant Cendrillon in the 1990s, she and her husband were not creating a restaurant that catered purely to Filipino immigrants or Filipino-Americans. They simply wanted to make good food that cleanly emphasized the quality of ingredients used in popular Filipino dishes, because traditional recipes tended to feature a “robust mix of flavorings.”
Over time, Besa and Dorotan noticed that customers would say that, “[the dishes] were not Filipino or that we cooked Filipino with a twist.” Since then, they have pioneered the movement to bring Filipino cuisine into international demand and onto American tables.
So is Filipino-American food not the same as food from the Philippines?
Filipino-American cuisine is a touchy subject. It can be argued that there is no difference in taste between Filipino-American foods and the recipes of the motherland, because they usually all feature notes of sour, rich, and umami. However, the central difference is the reception of such foods by a Western audience.
It’s become a statistical fact that scores of authentic Filipino restaurants across the nation go under or plateau at a certain point if they don’t market themselves the way America expects them to.
Nicole Ponseca, the owner of the Maharlika/Jeepney franchise in New York, once told PRI that restaurant stagnancy may come from the concept of hiya (a Tagalog word pronounced “hee-yah,” meaning “shame”). Filipinos are proud of their culture until faced with the challenge of translating it into Western settings—in this case onto a menu, refraining from the ingredients and flavors they'd normally use.
While America tends to proclaim itself as a diverse nation, there’s still so much ground left to cover in terms of actually achieving true cultural understanding. Which is why getting people to try Filipino food is only the baseline.
How do Filipino-American chefs respond to the issue of cultural expression?
Amy Besa says the anticipation for Filipino-American food comes from the tireless efforts of the “influx of young Filipino chefs that feel 'unleashed' or 'liberated.'” She remarks that, “whereas before there was the tyranny of authenticity, now they can let go of all their creative energies.”
Here’s how they do it:
1) Change the MEDIUM of the food.
Just this past summer, Chef Jordan Andino opened up his restaurant 2nd City in NYC’s West Village neighborhood, bringing a refreshing edge to Filipino foods. His dishes are named after tongue-in-cheek expressions (i.e. “BiCurious” for the fish and pork belly tacos, “Poke Me” for the Poke Bowl, and “Tap that Ube” for the secret menu ice cream sandwich collaboration with Jae NYC Eats).In just a span of a few months, Jordan and his team have achieved not only a name for themselves but a legacy in creatively marketing the Filipino culture. Jordan adapts his experiences with Filipino, Asian, and Pacific Islander flavors into the mediums of Mexican cuisine in order to keep it exciting to the Western palate. Check out this Adobo-Rito! Andino says that, “Across all cultures but almost intensified within America, is the fear of the unfamiliar [...] If you tell someone to eat sisig (a dish made of chopped pork belly, best served on a sizzling platter) they'll run away because they've never heard of it. That's why 2nd City is there—to Americanize Filipino food without losing its identity.”
2) ELEVATE the cuisine.
For far too long, Filipino food has been seen as “dirty” by Western audiences due to how heavy some flavors can get. Restaurants like Manila Social Club in Brooklyn, NY aim to elevate the cuisine by actually playing up those nuances, rather than completely removing them altogether.
From their Golden Cristal Ube doughnuts, to their crisp and carefully plated panna cotta, Manila Social Club strives to rebrand the image of Filipino food by putting the utmost care into every detail of the customer’s experience.This concept can even be seen from their monthly Chef’s Tables, where Chef Björn DelaCruz discusses how each dish he makes was inspired by a particular story in his life, such as his first trip to the Philippines. Authentic Filipino food being elevated to a higher standard is rarely executed well, and it also restores the intrinsic value of the meal.
3) Make it PORTABLE.
While traditionally, Filipino food was eaten with your hands (try attending a “Kamayan night” at your local cantina or with a Filipino-American student organization one day), you wouldn't normally take sisig or any other main entrees on the go. Prior to our generation, Filipino food was all about communal values, sit-down settings, and family style dining.But thanks to the food truck craze of the 2010’s, businesses like Señor Sisig in the San Francisco Bay Area have been able to evolve over time, break barriers of the “fusion food” cliché, and encourage Filipino-Americans, Filipino immigrants, and non-Filipinos alike to share the same food experience by taking it with them.
Evan Kidera, one of the founders of Señor Sisig, says that this on-the-go mentality says a lot about modern society: “The next generation, which includes my generation, understands the food and culture [because they grew up with it], but now we want to make it more acceptable...Once people accept it, then they will want to learn more about it.
It’s one thing to create a way that Filipino food can be adapted to American ideals. It’s another thing to package Filipino flavors in a way that pushes people to find out more on their own. It’s no longer a “you had to be there” experience, but a “take me with you” one.
By making food portable, you also create momentum. People transport food from trucks back to their desks at work, or home to their families, and that experience is what keeps them coming back. “We’re not done with what we’re doing either,” Kidera says. “I like that we were at the forefront, but there’s still a long way to go.”
4. Make a PARTY out of it!
At all Filipino parties, food is the party. Growing up, I always knew that when someone said kainan (pronounced “kah-ee-nawn,” a Tagalog word used for “banquet”), it was ABOUT TO GO DOWN.
This is not a joke.
Once you stepped up to the function, life took a turn. Everything troubling you was left at the door, aunties were gossiping on the latest news, uncles were hanging with the bros, parents were probably line dancing, and grandparents were killin’ the karaoke game.
And at the center of it all? Best believe it was that long potluck table. In summary, I have never seen so many people bond and rebond with peeps over food than I have at akainan.
That's why movements like Dinner and A Mixtape, a traveling food-and-music event by DJ Neil Armstrong in conjunction with chefs like Dale Talde, are dope AF and so important to defining how unique Filipino-American food is. Because food that crosses cultural boundaries should be celebrated.
Filipino-American food is so much more than lumpia, pancit noodles, and rice. It embodies generations of hard work towards a better future. It is a narrative being passed down through generations, across land and sea, that bears the hope of living on in legacy. It is a narrative young people like myself are still injecting themselves into, because it is a story that still needs to be told.
Filipino-American food is an identity waiting to be recognized by the place we have long called “home.”