Filipino Cuisine

Ube. Adobo. Pancit. These words were nonsense to classmates and teachers alike when I spoke about them in grade school. But to more and more people, these words conjure up images of Instagram-worthy plates piled high with purple desserts, deep tureens filled with rich brown hunks of delectable meats, casseroles dishes of golden noodles surrounded by shocks of bright, blanched vegetables. Even though some dish names remain obscure: sisig, champurrado, longaniza—Filipino dishes and flavors have been entering the mainstream for the last decade or so.

Myriad elements influence Filipino cuisine: seafood and coconuts common to Southeast Asia, noodles and dumplings from China, spices and dish names from Spain and Mexico, and even canned foods like Spam and corned beef from American army bases. Both colonizing influences and geography have played a historical part in shaping the Filipino palate. Define American founder Jose Antonio Vargas, who left the Philippines to join family in California as an adolescent, said, “Filipino food cannot be divorced from the history of a country and a culture that was colonized by the Spanish and imperialized by Americans. Like the Filipino people, Filipino food has had to adapt.” Take for instance the classic dish pancit, a noodle dish frequently prepared with shrimp and cabbages, drawing from Chinese and Southeast Asia—you can even find variants with chunks of Spam in them. Or take adobo, a food that shares a name with the Mexican spice, marinated meat that swims in sauces, with many regional variants in the Philippines. You’d be hard pressed to find a Filipino who doesn’t occasionally indulge in a can of corned beef cooked with onions, garlic, and tomatoes for breakfast.

The popularity of Filipino food can be difficult to trace to a single point—and honestly, it’s truer to say that there are many reasons why it’s become more well known. It does a disservice to assume that any single source is the reason why Filipino food is “having its moment” now rather than before. More importantly than popularity is the visibility that comes along with it and a look into the culture that produces the cuisine.

It’s often said that food is the steppingstone to culture—no matter where you come from, food plays a huge role in your life. Nicole Ponseca is the founder of Jeepney, a prolific Filipino restaurant in New York. Both she and the restaurant have been featured in publications like the New York Times, Vice, and Cherry Bombe. Ponseca researches food in the Philippines as part of developing dishes. Being a restaurateur is her way of educating others on her culture, which she defines as the priorities and values. “In the Philippines, people will take out loans to feed each other during the Christmas season because no one wants to be without… Values and priorities defined within culture translate into actions and decisions within food.” Sharing what you have with the community is just one way that Filipino culture views food. Many Filipino dishes are easy to prepare in large quantities with simple ingredients like vinegar, soy sauce, and bay leaves. Ponseca said, “Filipino food is a very relatable cuisine in its flavor matrix and its ingredients.”

Any Filipino chef worth their salt is well versed with the four flavors described by Doreen Gamboa Fernandez, a Filipino cultural historian and food critic—alat, pait, asim, and tamis, which translate to saltiness, bitterness, sourness, and sweetness. You can taste all four flavors in sinigang, a sour soup that’s traditionally made by boiling all the ingredients in one pot. Chunks of salted fish float and flavor the tamarind-based broth, the tartness usually balanced by heaps of white rice and tempered by the lightly bitter tamarind leaves. Nowadays, to add the sweetness that Filipinos crave in other foods, chefs boil fruits like watermelon in the broth, undercutting the salty and savory elements with a touch of sugar.

Filipinos haven’t been in the restaurant industry in America for quite as long as other Asian cuisines. Martin Manalansan, an American studies professor at the University of Minnesota, cites Filipino food’s late rise to patterns of immigration. When Chinese workers immigrated to America in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Chinese exclusion acts meant some of the only positions open to them were in the restaurant industry. Chinese people were feeding their own communities at first, but because their restaurants were often in working-class areas, non-Chinese people would eat at their restaurant and develop a taste for the food. On the other hand, Filipinos who immigrated during the 1900s were migrant farmers, also called the manong generation—they were able to immigrate unrestricted because the Philippines was a territory of the United States. The next wave of Philippine immigration would involve a quota established by the Luce-Celler Act of 1946, which would only allow 100 Filipinos to immigrate to the United States per year. This act was eventually made obsolete by the Immigration and Nationality Act established in 1965, establishing the fourth wave of Filipino immigration. These immigrants were usually trying to fill shortages in white-collar professions such as nursing and engineering, which mean their focus usually wasn’t on food service.

During the 1990s, Filipino Americans began to have more of a political identity as Asian Americans. They were beginning to realize that even after Filipinos had been allied with the United States and fought in their wars, they were still othered in America—assimilation with white America wasn’t possible and the solidarity between Asians was growing. The desire to connect with their cultures grew too and one of the avenues for that was food. “Food becomes a way of thinking about one’s identity and a way to discover,” Manalansan said. “It’s no longer just something that you eat to satisfy your hunger. It satisfies a different kind of hunger, I think: to search for one’s heritage.”

Some of the younger, more politicized Filipinos felt the drive to connect their community through food and started entering the restaurant industry, like Nicole Ponseca and Tom Cunanan, three-time nominee of the James Beard Foundation Award and executive chef at Bad Saint. Around the same time, the Food Network launched in 1993, marking a shift in food culture. The celebrity chef was born, glamorizing food from screens in people’s homes. Ponseca fondly remembers Anthony Bourdain as a source of inspiration for her. In a time where shows like Fear Factor and Andrew Zimmern made Filipino food seem unpalatable, Bourdain was thoughtful about his displays of different cuisines. “He put a backstory for food so that it created humanity. Nothing beats human connection,” Ponseca said. Bourdain’s endorsement for Filipino food, especially the pork dishes lechon and sisig, was used by Jacqueline Chio-Lauri, the editor of The New Filipino Kitchen when pitching the book to publishers. She said in a Huffington Post opinion piece, “[It] was essential evidence that there is and will be interest in Filipino food beyond Filipino communities. In a homogeneous and white-authors-dominated cookbook industry, it made a difference.”

In the 2000s, Filipinos, along with other Asians, were partially responsible for the spike in food truck popularity. No longer seen as the blue-collar eateries of worksites and commuters, food trucks became cool places for young diners to seek out delicious street food. Mark Manguera, a Filipino-American, founded Kogi Korean BBQ in 2008 as a fleet of food trucks, which would go on to be named America’s first viral eatery in 2009 by Newsweek. This blend of reasons: the history of immigration, the development of cultural identity and pride, and the jump into the food world’s consciousness through various paths all contributed to Filipino cuisine’s rise.

In the last ten years, many Filipino restaurants have opened and flourished. In New York, Bon Appétit put Bad Saint, a small and highly demanded fine dining restaurant, at number two on their Best New Restaurants list in 2016. In Los Angeles, Lasa, an upscale establishment owned by brothers Chad and Chase Valencia, won the 2018 Food and Wine Restaurant of the year. Angela Dimaguya, a food critic for the New York Times and chef at Mission Chinese Food serves chicken relleno at $75 a plate, adapted from her mom’s collection of recipes. Nicole Ponseca and Michael Trinidad’s “I am A Filipino” a cookbook and cultural compendium that Ponseca’s friend and business partner Jose Antonio Vargas compares to Toni Morrison’s “Black Book” catalog of African American culture was a 2019 James Beard Award Finalist. Vargas, one of Ponseca’s friends, invested in Jeepney early on because of his “belief in Nicole and her idea that Filipino food brings people together.”

Ponseca, who graduated from the University of San Francisco in 1998, has spoken at length, both publicly and in the book, about the reasons for Filipino food’s late, yet meteoric rise. She attributes part of it to hiya—shame—as a characteristic that Filipinos feel around their food. Racist stereotypes of “dog-eating Asians”, foods that are unusual to others like dinuguan (a pork blood dish) or balut (duck embryo) drive Filipinos to become insular in their dining habits. Hiya about beloved foods has tended to keep these dishes off restaurant menus, even though they are enjoyed in Filipino homes. Ponseca pushed back against this when she entered the restaurant sphere. “I was either going to win or fail by having a restaurant that served balut, that served dinuguan, that ate with its hands—all the little ways I was embarrassed to be Filipino, that others were embarrassed, that we were the butt of the joke. When you come in [my restaurant], it’s sexy, it’s fun, it’s drinks. I know how to put on a show, that’s part of my skillset as a restaurateur. But make no mistake, underlying everything is a political choice.”

For Filipino Americans, separated from the Philippines, food becomes a cultural tether and a marker of identity. Anthony Ocampo, an associate professor of sociology at Cal Poly, said, “Filipinos have had to contend with growing up with knowing certain foods that outsiders don’t know […] and that creates a bond, that Filipinos know what it’s like to wink at each other about the ube trend or tapsilog.” In Ocampo’s book, “The Latinos of Asia”, a Filipino is quoted saying, “You’re not really Filipino unless you eat Filipino food.”

Ube, a purple yam used in Filipino food, exploded in popularity on Instagram in 2016, thrusting Filipino food into the internet spotlight. According to GQ, much of ube’s popularity that year could be traced to the marketing of New York City’s Manila Social Club. Its exorbitantly priced donuts were all the rage: one with gold flake, Cristal champagne, and ube mousse for $100, or with just the ube mousse for $40.

In 2018 and 2019, Lindsey Cichonski organized SF UbeFest in San Francisco. “SF Ube Fest has sold out the past two years with around 1,200 guests who come through SoMa StrEat Food Park each day [of the festival],” Cichonski said. “With SoMa StrEat Food Park being located in San Francisco’s Filipino Cultural Heritage District, it was the perfect festival to celebrate Filipino culture and ube.” Ube remains as one of the most popular dessert options in the Philippines, from ube halaya, an ube jam usually found on bread, to ice cream that tops a frozen crushed ice dessert called halo-halo. It’s one of the native plants of the Philippines and as a starch in the cuisine, rivals both rice and bread in how often it’s used.

In San Francisco’s SoMa (once home to many Filipino immigrants before redevelopment displaced them), there’s a Lumpia Palooza every year. Pistahan, the Filipino festival celebrated in the Yerba Buena Gardens, draws all manner of food vendors who serve both traditional and fusion dishes. And Filipino restaurants from the backyard based barbecue of The Park’s Finest in L.A. to the classic servings at Elena’s Restaurant in Hawaii have been featured on Food Network.

In Daly City, a restaurant called Fil-Am is famous for its barbecue. Even when driving by, you can smell its thick and savory scent. The owners immigrated in the late nineties and the management of Fil-Am was passed to them in 2003, according to Ariel Guevarra, their daughter. Fil-Am opened a second location in South City in 2014. Guevarra, a psychology major at the University of San Francisco, works there when she’s not studying. “When I went to college, I
realized there are more than just the turo-turo (mom and pop) style restaurants… Fusion restaurants are more Instagram worthy… but we definitely have people coming in to try Filipino food.” Though the name seems to suggest that it’s Filipino-American cuisine, Guevarra says otherwise. “My dad says that the title is a way to reach out to Americans—like, Hispanic people, African-Americans, white people—everyone should try the food […] you don’t have to be Filipino to eat the food, or even make it.” Guevarra’s family tries to foster a sense of community between all sorts of people that want to eat Filipino food, a term called kapua, a term that encompasses identity, community, and solidarity between those who share something with you.

Filipino food has been declared the next big thing in food over and over again in the last decade. And over those years, the cuisine and culture have continued to carve out a niche for themselves, regardless of the spike in media coverage. Lots of the popularity of Filipino food is tied up with social media marketing, done within the community of people preparing the food. In fact, the press about Filipino food often paints with too broad of a brush. Anthony Ocampo, a professor at Cal Poly, said, “In the process of declaring something as new, what you implicitly do is you erase everyone who’s been busting their ass and working in this industry forever.” And that process of seeking out new foods can be finicky as well. Ponseca said, “We could be any cuisine. It could be Somalian—it’s just that the timing was right… Is it because Filipino food is the next big thing, is it so amazing? It’s good. Yeah, it’s great! A lot of food is good and great.” More important than the “moment” that Filipino food is supposedly having is the future of the impact this has on the culture.

Martin Manalansan, a professor at the University of Minnesota, is excited about what Filipino cuisine’s rising popularity will do for food culture. He said, “Philippine cuisine on a global stage invites the disruption of monolithic cuisine.” Essentially, if a cuisine that seems to have disparate elements becomes popular, it stops people from thinking food has to be one thing—mapped onto a particular cultural landscape.

Jose Antonio Vargas, a prominent immigration rights activist and undocumented Filipino immigrant is hopeful about what restaurateurs like his friend Ponseca will do. “My hope is that Filipino food, like its people, will be ubiquitous, celebrated for its myriad flavors, inseparable from the very distinct culture that it comes from.”

Guevarra is uncertain whether she will take over Fil-Am from her parents or pursue her plans to become a psychiatrist. She recounts her close connection with her culture’s cuisine, especially in high school when she brought lunches from home. “People would always ask me in high school, ‘What’s that?’” Guevarra chose to recognize their curiosity rather than get angry. She chose to build kapua and educate through her food, offering not just a taste of the dish but a taste of the culture and its rich history. “It’s a Filipino thing to share food. We just keep doing it.”

Artwork by Elizabeth Oswalt