Three years ago, T.V. chef Andrew Zimmern proclaimed Filipino food to be the next big thing–but how come it hasn’t really happened yet?
While Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese restaurants can be found in any respectable-sized U.S. city and many random shopping malls in the suburbs, it’s just not the case with Filipino food. It’s a little hard to pin down something that originates from somewhere among 7,100 islands hugging a low corner of the South China Sea known as the Philippines. One challenge is, it’s very hard to describe.
Chef Yana Gilbuena is trying. She has a wide smile and a half-shaved head topped by spiky blonde or green hair, depending on the day. She moved to California from the Philippines over a decade ago, at the age of 20, which she admits was a bit traumatic.
“In L.A. I was trying to get on a bus. I thought it was like in Iloilo. You raise your hand and the bus will stop, but no, the bus didn’t stop. My friends told me I had to go to a bus stop. I had the hardest time getting that,” she remembers.
She dreamed of being an interior designer with her own firm in New York, but her first job wasn’t how she imagined it. She couldn’t find good Filipino food anywhere—it was either “high-end fusion or mom-and-pop stuff that wasn’t so fresh”–so she started cooking her own, at first to relieve stress. Later, gaining confidence, she invited friends for dinner parties.
She gained so much confidence, in fact, that she’s on the verge of wrapping up a tour of the U.S., offering pop-up Filipino dinners in every state. Hawaii is her final stop next month. She calls it The SALO Project. SALO is a derivative of the word “Salu-salo” in her native Tagalog language, meaning big party. “I bring people together over food who otherwise wouldn’t have met,” she says in her video.
She plans the meals and shops in the cities where she creates the dinners, swapping local ingredients for traditional ones in the country’s famous stews. The peanut curry known as kare-kare normally includes oxtail, but she has used shrimp or beef. You can add any vegetable to the spicy coconut stew known as ginataan, she says. “I am trying to preach the gospel of Filipino food,” Gilbuena says.
Chef Cathal Armstrong takes a different route at a white tablecloth restaurant just outside of Washington, D.C. at Restaurant Eve. Armstrong spent a month in Thailand as a U.S. culinary ambassador and fell in love with the Asian style of cooking. Since January, the Irish chef-owner and his Filipino wife, Meshelle, have been offering patrons monthly tastings of his interpretation of Filipino fusion food.
A recent sampling included a Filipino raw fish salad known as kinilaw, Filipino barbecued pork, complete with a runny egg on vinegared rice and several kinds of curries.
Flavor is not the problem with Filipino food. “The problem is that it’s really hard to describe,” says Joanne Boston, a writer turned advocate for the Filipino Food Movement, which promotes Filipino festivals. Basically, you’ve got to know your geography. And you’ve got to get over the potential “ick factor” because yes, there is a duck fetus delicacy that once appeared on the show Fear Factor.
More commonly, she says, “It’s a cuisine that is first Malay. That means lots of tropical fruits, coconut and seafood.”
Then the Spanish came and stuck around for a few hundred years, introducing garlic, onions, spices and adobo–a specific way of preserving meat in vinegar and spices that came in handy in the Philippines’ tropical climate. They also brought wheat, so there are European pastries, sausage and meatloaf, Boston says.
Meanwhile, Chinese and Japanese traders came and went, bringing dumplings and eggrolls (hence the springroll-like Filipino lumpia,) stir-fried noodles (which became Filipino pancit,) tofu and soy sauce. From American G.I.’s, Filipinos discovered the joy of SPAM.
It’s further hard to categorize the food because each region puts its own spin on a dish. “There are 100 million people in the Philippines now, and guaranteed, they each have their own recipe for adobo,” Boston says.
There are pockets of Filipino restaurants in areas where Filipino-Americans are concentrated – New York and San Francisco mainly, but there are a handful of restaurants cropping up in Chicago and others coming soon to Washington, D.C.
But one of the challenges in building a dynamic new restaurant culture in the U.S. is changing Filipino attitudes. “Many will go to another type of restaurant, when given a choice, because they say, ‘”Why should I go out for Filipino food when I can get it at home and it’s probably better?’” says Boston.