FFE Magazine

Giving Filipino Food An Identity

“Why is Filipino food not as popular as the other foreign cuisines?”

This is the perennial question I often ask myself regarding the low recognition of Philippine cuisine in the international food scene. For me, the question seems ironic given the growing number of talented Filipino chefs, the country’s fresh and natural sources of food, and the diverse food traditions of its various regions.

The common theory for most Filipinos is the “lack of identity” plaguing Filipino food. For instance, most foreigners are not aware of chicken and pork adobo as the country’s signature dish. This is in contrast to the popular dishes that are instantly associated with their countries of origin— Vietnam’s Pho noodles, China’s Peking duck, Thailand’s Tom Yum soup, and India’s Tandoori Chicken.

Likewise, Filipino food is believed to be suffering from an “identity crisis” in terms of tastes and presentation. In some cases, a number of foreigners get “surprised” each time they sample a chicken or pork adobo because of the inconsistencies of the tastes– sometimes too salty, too sour, or too spicy. Other times, the adobos served to them look different each time- most are garnished with huge chili peppers or laurel leaves; others are mixed with coconut milk; while some are paired with boiled eggs and potatoes. This is different from the other international dishes that remain original and consistent in their appearance and flavors with minimal variations. For example, Japan’s tuna or salmon sashimi is usually sliced thinly and served fresh with wasabi on the side; while Malaysia’s Nasi Lemak is predictably simple and spicy with its rice commonly wrapped in banana leaves.

This supposed “lack of identity” or “identity crisis” is all the more aggravated by deliberate attempts to alter Filipino food to suit foreign preferences. In the Foreign Service, for instance, Filipino diplomats are trained to prepare adobo to accommodate the tastes and sensitivities of the countries where they are posted. For those assigned to the Middle East, there is no pork, only chicken or lamb adobo sometimes served with pita bread that are eaten like a shawarma. For those posted in Europe, chicken or pork adobo can evolve into adobo flakes served as toppings for pasta mixed with its savory brown sauce. Thus, these many adobo variations magnify the identity dilemma of Filipino food that ultimately results in the poor international recall of the nation’s banner dish.

For many people, this adaptability is perhaps what blurs and confuses the identity of Filipino food. While other countries prepare their dishes the way they are supposed to taste, Filipinos cook their food in a manner that it can be accepted. For Koreans, their kimchi is definitely zesty and spicy— take it or leave it. Some foreigners may not like the taste and smell of it, but kimchi stays true to its flavors. Meanwhile, for Filipinos, adobo is everything they want it to taste. Its original flavors of vinegary and saltiness are adjustable especially for foreigners. Thus, the identity of Filipino food is perceived to have been “lost” as it blends in and adapts to the tastes of others.

Moreover, too much variety is believed to be another reason behind the identity problem of Filipino food. This is because of the country’s archipelagic geography, strong colonial influences, various local cultures, and deep-seated regionalism that reinforce the ambiguous nature of the nation’s cuisine. For example, the popular dish known in Manila as laing is commonly called pinangat in the Bicol region. Its different names, due to the country’s many local languages, also come with several flavors and presentations brought about by the various regions wanting to make their own interpretations of the dish. Both dishes’ main ingredients are taro leaves, chilies, meat, and coconut milk that result in almost the same spicy flavor. However, laing is more saucy and loose while pinangat is neatly wrapped in gabi leaves and tied securely with coconut leaf. Because of these regional varieties, the identity of Filipino food is believed to be less cohesive and ill defined.

Ultimately, these adaptability and variety of Filipino food reflect the diversity and fluidity of Philippine culture and identity. Essentially, what we eat and how we eat is a remarkable reflection of who we are. The flexibility of Filipino food to satisfy foreign tastes is a depiction of us as a people with our innate adaptability and hospitality that generally endears us to the rest of the world. At the same time, the diversity of Filipino food is a representation of us as a nation rich in local traditions and colonial influences that infuse and animate our culture. Indeed, the notion that a nation’s food is a gastronomic expression of its culture and identity has never been more valid and apparent in the Philippines.

In a way, these elements also exacerbate the “identity dilemma” of Philippine cuisine. As a people, we always accommodate others, adjusting our food to please their palates, sometimes at the expense of our comfort and tastes. As a nation, we possess so many varieties in local cultures and traditions, hindering a definitive character for Filipino food. Because of these, we tend to rationalize that our food suffers from a “lack identity” or an “identity crisis.”

However, taken from a different perspective, the adaptability and variety that result in a general “fusion” in Filipino food, is perhaps what essentially defines it. Filipino food is therefore considered “unique” in the sense that it has the tendency to adjust to a foreigner’s palate unlike other international cuisines. Filipino food is also deemed “fascinating” in the sense that it blends regional and colonial influences in its various dishes. Both these elements ultimately characterize Philippine cuisine.

Thus, the common notions of its “lack of identity” and “identity crisis” are unfair descriptions of what is supposed to be a very distinctive food culture. It is true that Filipino food is not prominent in the wide spectrum of international cuisines. And admittedly, Filipino dishes are not in the consciousness of most foreigners. But to say that our food lacks its own identity is essentially exposing our lack of understanding of who we are. Our accommodating nature and the blending of our various cultures, although these sometimes aggravate our less cohesive identity, are what truly define us as Filipinos. And this is reflected in our country’s distinct cuisine that, while its trappings are a synthesis of different influences and interpretations, remains significantly true to its identity. As Raymond Sokolov writes in his book “Why We Eat What We Eat” describing his Philippine dining experience: “I have never encountered a food world more complex and diverse yet more of itself.”

Perhaps more than dwelling on its obscurity compared to other international cuisines, we must instead embrace the adaptability and diversity that define Filipino food. Given the advent of globalization that accelerates the exchange and fusion of cultures around the world, it is highly probable that, as Sokolov remarks “every cuisine will end up Filipino.” Though it may seem to be the “underdog” of Asian cuisines, Filipino food has a great potential to assert its presence in the international food scene and may become an exemplar for other cuisines to follow in a more global community. We must therefore be confident that Filipino food will be able to break into the consciousness of food lovers around the world.

Perhaps more than frustrating over its low international recognition, we must instead continue to be proud of Filipino food and the nation and people it represents. This means more than regularly eating our local food. It means exploring the diversity of our food culture and patronizing the various delicacies of our different regions. In effect, before we expect outsiders to eat our food, we should love eating and discovering our own food first. This essentially implies that, before we expect outsiders to recognize us, we should take pride in ourselves first.

Like most Filipinos, I have pondered on the reason why Filipino food lacks the international attention it deserves. But I have been more curious why other foreign cuisines, particularly Asian cuisines, are more world renowned and globally accepted than ours. I realize that it is not merely because they have richer food cultures and more distinctive food identity. In my observation, what Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Vietnamese cuisines have in common is that they represent a strong sense of nationalism and pride among their people. Ultimately, the international recognition their cuisines enjoy reflects their nations’ love for their food and, most importantly, their love for their culture and identity.

Hopefully, as we Filipinos delight in our scrumptious cuisine, we will constantly be reminded and take pride in the unique culture and identity that our food represents.

Manila Bulletin || Nov. 10, 2012

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