I walked through the aisles of the Asian market today as I gathered the ingredients to make a big ass pot of sinigang. I gave myself a pat on the back for 1) knowing the ingredients I needed by heart and 2) the impending look of satisfaction on the faces of those who will be enjoying it.
And then I got to thinking…. Whenever I’m asking my friends what they feel like eating, “Something Asian” seems to come up as a fairly popular answer. Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese? Lets go. Filipino? Not so much. Why is it that Filipino food has not yet caught on like the other Asian cuisines? (Don’t get me started on the “Filipinos aren’t Asian” debate. I will cut you.) I know there are some misunderstood conceptions of the Filipino culture: we eat dog (we don’t), we eat duck embryos on a daily basis (thank you Fear Factor), chocolate meat (stop being so closed minded), but for the most part our food is ridiculously delicious and much more expansive than lumpia and adobo.
That still doesn’t explain the lack of popularity against other ethnic foods. Filipinos are no more or less assimilated into American culture as it’s other Asian counterparts, and yet, I can count on one hand the number of Filipino restaurants I can recommend (all within a 2 mile radius of each other, mind you.)
Bizarre Foods’ Andrew Zimmerman made a bold statement saying Filipino food is the next best thing. “I predict, two years from now, Filipino food will be what we will have been talking about for six months … I think that’s going to be the next big thing,” he told Today.com. “I want to go on record — this is not something that’s hot now somewhere and will get hot everywhere else,” he said. “It’s just starting. I think it’s going to take another year and a half to get up to critical mass, but everybody loves Chinese food, Thai food, Japanese food, and it’s all been exploited. The Filipinos combined the best of all of that with Spanish technique. The Spanish were a colonial power there for 500 years, and they left behind adobo and cooking in vinegar — techniques that, applied to those tropical Asian ingredients, are miraculous.”
….Which speaks to my own theory.
It seems to me that there is a fundamental mismatch between the American palate and Filipino cookery. Although Americans have developed a taste for bolder flavors in recent years, they still prefer balanced flavors and in lower doses than is native to other cultures (notice the “dumbing down” of flavors/spice for American patrons). Filipinos, on the other hand, love bold flavors, often all at once (hence the tradition of sumsuman). Fatty lechon kawali takes centerstage next to tart atchara, a super-salty salad of itlog na maalat and rich sweet flan. Inoffensive fruit cocktail gets a Filipino makeover with the addition of rich/cloying condensed milk and mildly tart cream cheese. Spaghetti becomes a sweet and cheesy treat barely resembling its Italian-American counterpart. Where Japanese cuisine relies on clean flavors, Korean on singular bold flavors and Thai on balanced flavors, Filipino throws it all at you at once.
Take away the bold tools of the Filipino chef and perhaps you might attract some Americans, but no Filipino will patronize the restaurant. “Magkano??? Walang lasa!” Leave the chef to his designs and all the Americans will touch are lumpia, pancit and adobo. Why not just eat a bowl of rice? Plus there’s the problem of Filipino food’s general lack of visual appeal. Rellenong manok and pancit palabok notwithstanding, Filipino food tends to be brown and soupy. The only way to improve the look of adobo is serving it in a pretty bowl. I can see Filipino gaining acceptance in certain markets (i.e. New York where offal and shrimp paste are the new truffles), but in less experimental regions like the Midwest or Pacific Northwest, I am doubtful.
Will it catch on like Zimmerman says? Who’s to say? Until then, you’re all welcome to come over for a nice pot of arroz caldo. I kill that shit.
Why do you think Filipino food hasn’t caught on yet?