There’s no denying Filipino restaurants are becoming increasingly popular in major cities around the United States. There are Filipino restaurants in New York, in San Francisco, and Houston and international media is paying attention. There are also Pinoy dining spots that have made their presence known in London and Seoul. Still, people ask: why is Filipino cuisine not as popular globally as the cuisine of our Asian neighbors? Filipino food didn’t even figure in this best cuisines list.
Anthropologist and University of the Philippines professor Michael Tan attempted an answer to the question at the 25th anniversary of the Center for Culinary Arts. The theme for the event: “Cooking for the World.”
Tan gathered a few theories from overseas Filipinos and from a recent Quora post to answer this question. He brought up the “We don’t put up as many fine-dining Filipino restaurants as the Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese do” reason. He mentioned the school of thought that insists it’s because “our food is too brown—it’s all soy sauce.” Tan also raised the belief of some that “Our food is not healthy—too much salt, too much sugar, too much fat.”
But an article that came out in a blog called Style Democracy back in 2018 has a different point of view, Tan said in his talk. Writer Julia Melcher wrote, “Filipino food is the original fusion cuisine, a mix of Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Western, and Pacific Islander flavors that show the country’s rich and varied cultural history.”
Melcher also pointed out the absence of dairy or gluten in our food, which is a good thing. “Which makes the cuisine friendly to restricted diets. It is eaten family style, with heaping plates of sharing dishes. It uses vinegar instead of Western sauces full of sodium and fat. While its dishes are pork heavy, seafood and tropical fruit are made into light dishes that are far from bland. And it is full of acids and sweetness more than any other cuisine.”
So if indeed our cuisine is rich and our food versatile, what can we do so that Filipino food can shine globally and enjoy the same regard as Thai, Vietnamese, maybe even Malaysian cuisine?
Tan said that while there are many Filipino restaurants now all over the world, we should focus on restaurants that better reflect the wide spectrum of Filipino food. Meaning, our restaurants need to showcase our regional recipes more.
“For example, let’s look at sinigang’s many variations,” he said. There are Filipinos who are not even aware of the wide variety of souring agents available in the Philippines. Aside from the sampalok fruit and leaves, there’s kalamansi, bayabas, kamias, karmay, batuan/binukaw, libas leaves, alibangbang, labug, bilang bilang, pidada, pahu, santol, green mango.
It’s a matter of coming up with innovative ideas in order to cater to a wider market, the columnist said. “I love going to Chinese groceries whatever city I am in the world. There, you’ll find all these dried stuff from China. That is one part of our food heritage that we need to build up,” offered Tan.
We also need to be more experimental, suggested the academician. Take the case of kinilaw or kilawin, a dish we can certainly present to the world. “Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan’s book ‘Memories of Philippine Kitchens’ reminds us of the equation ‘fresh raw main ingredient + souring agent (optional) + condiments = kinilaw’” says Tan. “The raw ingredient doesn’t have to be a fish. It can be meats, or even the coconut beetle (abatud) or the shipworm (tamilok).” The key is innovation using the stuff we have in the country.
Speaking of souring ingredients, the Philippines also has a wealth of vinegars: tuba (from coconut), sukang Iloko (from sugarcane), sukang paombong (from nipa), Negros sinamak, Surigao’s buri vinegar. And when it comes to neutralizing agents, or getting rid of the lansa or fishy odor of our seafood, we have valtinog from Batanes, dungon pulp, pungango (small young coconut), bakawan (mangrove bark), and tabon-tabon from Mindanao.
The problem is, many of us Filipinos don’t even know we have these in our disposal, says Tan. “It’s this variety that the world looks for in our now very cosmopolitan milieu. People want to see that in our foods as well.”
True, we might know what food or ingredients are available in our region but many of us aren’t familiar with what other regions of the Philippines have to offer. “I think the key here is to innovate in terms of processing and packaging because we want to go out into the world. We have to have these condiments. We have to have these sauces out there,” said Tan.
He said there’s a learning or two we can pick up from the Vietnamese sauce Sriracha narrative. “It’s made from red chili peppers, garlic, vinegar, salt, and sugar. Simpleng ingredients but they are able to put it together,” Tan says. History has it that David Tran, a Vietnamese immigrant to the US, once felt homesick. He was longing for his hometown sauce so he decided to make his own and started selling it from a van. Now his company, Huy Fong Foods, is a multi-million dollar company, and his hot sauce has spawned many imitations.
“Let’s learn from the versatility of sriracha. It can be used as dipping sauce. It can be used for marinade, for soups and stews, eggs and cheese, and even for Bloody Mary!” he says.
Filipinos need to look into our heritage foods and recipes as well—our upland rice varieties, for instance, are estimated to have a potential of P2 billion a year if its developed, said Tan, citing a report from the International Rice Research Institute. Filipinos have to think bigger. And by that, he meant exploring niches such as heritage foods, plant-based food, halal, and even kosher.
“Since there is a demand for fermented foods such as Korean kimchi, we should also look into our many fermented foods. Let’s create markets in the Philippines. Let’s think global and act local,” said the professor. “The diaspora will make our foods popular internationally.”