"What Winston Churchill once said of architecture — ‘First we shape our buildings, and then they shape us’ — might also be said of cooking. First we cooked our food, and then our food cooked us.” These are some wise words from one of my favorite food authors, Michael Pollan. Here, Pollan builds on an idea from Winston Churchill, discussing food’s significant role in creating our identity, not just as Americans, but as humans as we’ve evolved.
What we eat seems to define us in a lot of ways.
Here in the U.S., we are spoiled with the access to diverse types of cuisine that we have access to (i.e. Thai, Vietnamese, Mexican, Japanese, Ethiopian). Sushi and Chinese food feel as ubiquitous as pizza. Although, Chinese food for example, is often heavily modified to suit the American palate. However, I personally cannot think of one Filipino restaurant I have been to, or even seen for that matter.
It is now the next cuisine on the rise in the U.S. as of very recently. What is Filipino food and why has it taken so long to become popular in the states? A nation consisting of more than 7,000 islands, the Philippines, has absorbed cultural elements from several other countries in its history. For this reason, it would be extremely limiting to classify Filipino food as any one sort of cuisine.
The food also reflects the nation's array of multicultural influences. To illustrate, the country had relations with China and India (through trade), Arabia (also through trade and Islamization), Spain and America (through Colonization). The influence of all of these different countries has given Filipino cuisine its three most distinctive flavor profiles: spice, sourness, and acidity.
These flavors also happen to be some of the trendiest in American cuisine at this moment in time.
Like all other Asian cuisine, it shares rice as a staple food. It also relies heavily on the use of coconut in lots of dishes. A specific dish that can be found everywhere in the Philippines and showcases some of the typical ingredients and cooking methods, is Adobo. The adobo preparation is stewing meat with spices, vinegar, garlic, pepper, and a bay leaf. Historically, this process was developed with the intention of preserving the dish. This dish successfully showcases the slight, yet distinctive sourness favored in Filipino cuisine.
Here are some examples of dishes, but what about the role of food in everyday life? When I asked our chef Chato about the role of food in a Filipino's life, she said something that really made me laugh: “Filipinos love to eat. We make up any reason to get together to eat. And when we do, we want lots of food. We always prepare too much and it is expected that when you go to a Filipino party, there is always a to-go-bag for you to take home.”
One of the noteworthy dishes of Chato’s I have had the pleasure of sampling is her Ube Cake. An ube is a purple yam. In the Philippines, Ube is most commonly used in desserts for both its flavor profile and vibrant color. Purple is known as the color of prosperity. The typical preparation of the yam is first boiling and mashing, coupled with the addition of condensed milk and coconut. Some of the desserts commonly made with Ube: ice cream, jam, bibingka (a sweet rice cake). Chato’s ube cake balls are pretty out of this world. The yam’s sweet starchiness gives the cake such a wonderful texture, moist and dense. The sweetness is just right, not overwhelming, but present.
All of these things sound delicious, right? Then why has it taken so long for the cuisine of the Philippines to become popular here? After doing some research, I have concluded that there are a lot dishes and ingredients in Filipino cuisine that may not be considered entirely “accessible” to the average American consumer. Duck embryos, pig’s blood, shrimp paste, are a few examples. In an article in the Washington Post recently, Author Tim Carman says the cuisines reliance on “pungent flavors, like the fermented baby shrimp paste known as bagoong, can make grown men flee a kitchen.” There are some elements of Filipino cuisine uncomparable to things we have in the United States, but what about things like Foie Gras and Caviar? These have become delicacies over the years. We cannot know whether we like something until we have tried it.
In the end, looking at recipes like stories, can provide a lot of insight into a particular eating culture. Chato says her mother was a “very VERY good cook.” Her favorite dish from childhood is one with sticky rice and pork, wrapped in bamboo leaves and then steamed. She elaborates that it is “Chinese influenced for sure.” The thing that makes this dish so special is that she is unable to find one as good in any restaurant.
I have found this to be true of much of my own mother’s cooking as well. When I recreate her recipes, they just don’t taste the same. It forces us to ask ourselves, is it really about what ingredients make up a dish? Or is it about who is actually making it? I think the soul of all food tends to be at the heart of our mother’s cooking.
--Caroline Myers is an intern at MarketShare