Philippine cuisine is a term not used often enough. But why make this distinction? Let us look at a couple of definitions; Cuisine is a specific set of cooking traditions and practices often associated with a specific culture. Food, on the other hand, is any substance that can be consumed by an animal for either nutrition or pleasure. The distinction between ‘food’ and ‘cuisine’ is an important one as one derives from the other; it is from Philippine cuisine that we get Filipino food. Without the traditions and practices passed down and evolving through our cultural migrants and history, the food we eat and prepare today would be something wholly different.
This distinction was never more evident than on 19th June 2008, when Philippine Generations teamed up with Asia House in order to present an evening of Philippine Cuisine. Almost 100 people, young and old, Filipino and non-Filipino, came together in New Cavendish St at the superb Asia House venue. There were three very special guests in particular who evoked so much passion and revealing many insights that bought several questions to the fore. Questions like, ‘Why is Philippine cuisine so hidden?’ ‘How come there aren’t more Filipino restaurants like the Chinese and Thai ones?’ ‘Why do Filipinos try to cater for Filipino clientele in a foreign country?’
These special guests were award winning writers, chefs, restauranteurs and Philippine cuisine experts, Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan. In 2007, their book ‘Memories of Philippine Kitchens’ won the IACP Jane Grigson Award. Romy himself has appeared on Martha Stewart twice! Through her many years of business, experience and research for the book, Amy gained an enormous amount of knowledge and insight into the whys and wherefores of Philippine cuisine. They own the famous New York Philippine restaurant, Cendrillion, known for it’s fine dining. The other guest was award winning British food writer and historian, Bee Wilson. She has a weekly food column in the Sunday Telegraph and is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times.
The format of the evening was in three parts; first a talk by Amy on the evolution of Philippine cuisine. Secondly, a short discussion with Bee Wilson, offering a British take on Philippine cuisine with a Q and A session on why Philippine cuisine is less recognised. And to finish off, a buffet with samples of Philippine cuisine from restaurants Josephine’s and Lutong Pinoy and refreshments provided by Asia House and Manila Supermarket.
Amy spoke about the many influences on Philippine cuisine over the years, how the indigenous tribes of the Philippines were documented as eating dishes like ‘suman’ as we do today. Also how dishes like Adobo, although given a Spanish name, is not a Spanish dish. And how British occupation in the 1700s brought the English language and Indian immigrants. The importance of Manila to Spain was of course as a trade route for their galleons, it was the Acapulco-Manila route that was most lucrative, the Manila Galleons. It also created many exchanges of food produce between Mexico and the Philippines, things like pineapple, coconut, bananas, chillies, mangoes, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper and Cuban tobacco seeds, to name but a few.
The discussion definitely brought up some issues. Bee Wilson is herself a renowned food writer and has a good experience and knowledge base of Philippine cuisine, she is at a loss as to why it is not more commonly known or available. One reason offered by Amy, was the overwhelming characteristic of most Filipino dishes; Sourness. In the west, sour is often used as a way of describing a negative trait of a particular dish. Most people treat sour as a quirk, not an overwhelming feature. Amy suggested using the word tangy to describe the dishes as a way of allaying that problem. Another would be to do what other Asian countries, such as India, China, Japan and Thailand have done and tweak their dishes to suit the clientele in which their restaurants are based. Hence, the difference in taste and cuisine when British people go on holiday to places like those already mentioned. The problem for Philippine cuisine is you cannot tone down the sourness of many dishes without completely changing the taste, also, many dishes are either so simple or so specific that it is almost impossible to simplify further or localise. This leads to the ultimate argument of ‘bastardising’ a nation’s cuisine, something Amy says should not really be an issue. Fusion is a means to an end, it is a way to ease dishes into a community and eventually into the mainstream.
A few of the guests that evening gave their own opinions on what the Philippines could do. One commented on an initiative from the Malaysian embassy, in which they have helped open a number of Malaysian restaurants in London. Another mentioned how the successful tourism industry in Thailand has led to thousands of people looking to recapture their holiday by visiting Thai restaurants when they return home. One other guest mentioned how Chinese restaurants serve dishes that sell, that is the whole point of even opening a restaurant! Support is also very important, the communities involved in Chinese and Indian restaurants help each other open, run and market their restaurants. Another guest commented that there is a perception that Filipinos only seem to cater to Filipinos, if there were more restaurants marketing themselves to non-Filipinos then you would see an increase in non-Filipino clientele. For instance, Filipino takeaways, diluting instead of fusing foods, or even adobo and chips! These are all lessons we can learn from.
As an overall strategy, fusion and dilution could be a way to introduce British mainstream society to a few Filipino dishes, this will in turn push a few more adventurous individuals to try more authentic dishes, suddenly a following is built up. Add to that the increase in tourism and the need to recapture the tastes and emotions of the holiday and you have a thriving Philippine cuisine industry. Fusion and traditional restaurants should serve to compliment each other.
After the discussion, everybody was looking forward to tasting some of the dishes. We had Rice provided by Philippine Generations, Lumpiang Shanghai and Pancit were donated by Lutong Pinoy, Josephine’s restaurant donated Kare Kare and Lecheflan and finally, the Torun, Adobo, Pancit Palabok and a cake were donated by the Philippine Chef Association. The dish Adobo was voted as the number one Filipino dish in a poll on www.philippinegenerations.blogspot.com and Manila Supermarket donated San Miguel beer, Coconut juice, and Iced Tea.
Notable attendees were Deputy Chief of Mission from the Philippine Embassy Mr & Mrs Reynaldo Catapang, Ed Poniente, owner of Josephine’s restaurant, Felix Bayker, Dennis Caalaman and Chef Willy from the Philippine Chef Association and Radziah Omar, MD of iEverything Ltd. From the media we had Trevor Krueger, publishing editor of Taste of Asia magazine, Gen Ashley, Editor of One Philippines, Angel Arando, from the Filipino Observer, Ed Lao and Edward Laxamana from ABS-CBN filming the event and Maryanne Tadina from www.new-manila.com taking all the pictures! There were also many food writers there hoping to gain inspiration and as some had said, looking to find the ‘next big thing!’
The overwhelming message coming out of the evening was the need for more Filipino r estaurants exposing Britain to Philippine cuisine. For all those that had not tried any Filipinos foods before the event, it was an eye-opener and something many commented they would like to do again. Currently we have a number of Filipino eateries in Earls Court and East London, like Lutong Pinoy and Blessing Buffet, but the most well known restaurant is still Josephine’s in Charlotte St, who benefit from perhaps the best location of them all, but not since Marcelino’s in the early to mid-1990’s has a Filipino restaurant totally dominated. There is a definite market out there and instead of rivals, we, as Filipinos should be encouraged by healthy competition, as one more person eating Philippine cuisine is always one more potential customer, be they Filipino or non-Filipino.
Article written by Adrian Williams
More info about the restaurants below and the video by Ed Lao & Edward Laxamanna
Photographs by Maryanne Tadina
Photogragh of Amy & Romy by Neil Oshima
4 Charlotte St
Tel:0207 580 6551
10 Kenway Road,
Tel:0207 244 0007