“What does Filipino food taste like?” is a question I’ve often been asked during my three years in Wellington, and it’s a question I’ve struggled to answer. It is the cuisine I was raised on, whose flavours and smells have defined who I am, but my attempts to describe this familiar and beloved cuisine often fall short. I’ve found myself resorting to the convenience of comparisons, saying, “It bears some resemblance to Chinese but not quite, it’s similar to Spanish food, and it has American influences too.”
But to imply that Filipino cuisine is only derivative of all the cuisines it has encountered disregards the inventiveness of Filipino cooks whose innovations have resulted in a rich and complex cuisine. How else can one talk about the garlicky sweet-sourness of adobo, or the alternating richness and delicateness of a slice of sans rival?
The best way, of course, to introduce people to Filipino food was to let them taste it themselves. But despite the abundance of Asian restaurants in Wellington, where were the Filipino restaurants, and why can Filipino food be so hard to find? The 2013 census found there were over 40,000 Filipinos in Aotearoa. There were 10,000 fewer Koreans, and yet how much easier is it to find a Korean restaurant than a Filipino one?
It was only during community gatherings that I’d witness Filipino cuisine represented in all its diverse, flavourful glory, which made me wonder why none of the talented cooks whose creations I enjoyed weren’t opening restaurants with the same range of options I’d find in other Asian restaurants in the city.
"Our openness as a culture to foreign influences, as well as our well-known ability to adapt to whatever culture we assimilate into, has come at a cost."
Our openness as a culture to foreign influences, as well as our well-known ability to adapt to whatever culture we assimilate into, has come at a cost. Although it has given us a cuisine that’s cosmopolitan and versatile, it has also kept us from asserting our unique cultural identity in the countries to which we migrate. Centuries of colonialism have trained Filipinos to adjust to the dominant culture, and we risk becoming invisible to the people whose ways we embrace.
Things are changing in New Zealand, thanks in part to the worldwide Filipino food movement that has brought a sense of newfound pride among diaspora Filipinos for their cuisine. With no less than Anthony Bourdain calling Filipino food “the next best thing”, Filipino-Kiwi chefs have caught on to the movement. I’ve witnessed how Wellington’s Filipino food scene has grown exponentially in my years in the city, moving from Filipino suburban enclaves and the obscure corners of night markets and into supermarket shelves and mainstream thoroughfares.
Clark Figuracion is the owner and manager of Grill Republic. As I waited to talk to him, I ordered his famous chicken and pork adobo, which remains a favourite from the days when Grill Republic was still a food truck at the Te Papa Sunday Market. Adobo is a popular dish of chicken or pork (or both combined) stewed in vinegar (or the juice of calamansi, a tiny citrus fruit popular in Southeast Asian cooking), garlic, soy sauce, bay leaves, and peppercorns, and served with rice. The dish is versatile and adaptable, and every Filipino family has its own version of adobo.
Clark is passionate about the ingredients that go into the food he serves, a passion he traces back to a childhood in what was then a rural pocket of Metro Manila called Kamarin, Novaliches, where the grandparents who raised him grew much of their food in their own backyard. His upbringing as a cook consisted of knowing exactly where the food came from, and how all these ingredients came together in the kitchen.
He immigrated to New Zealand with his wife and kids in 2005, partly to seek respite from the dangers of his job as a police officer in the Philippines. “I came here because I needed my life back,” he said. “I was getting tired of leaving the house with a gun everyday, not knowing what dangers were in store for me.”
His first foray into the food business was in 2013, when he made Filipino-style barbecue (or pork kebab) for a Filipino community event. “I didn’t expect it, but the 400 sticks I made were gone in less than an hour,” he said. “That’s when I knew that this could be a thing.” Inspired by his initial success, he took a culinary course at WelTec to sharpen his skills, and opened a food stall at the Te Papa Sunday Market in 2013. His main offerings were also hits at the community events he catered for: pork barbecue, basted in sweet-sour sauce, and his slow-cooked adobo.
The food truck’s success encouraged Clark to open a stall at Reading Cinemas’ The Courtyard in August 2018 (currently closed for earthquake risk assessment, but keep an eye on the Facebook page for updates). One of Clark's goals is to reach out to all New Zealanders, and to show them how good Filipino food can be. “It’s all about introducing it properly, and cooking it properly,” he said. Kiwis are open-minded, he says, and by presenting food well, serving generous portions, and making sure that ingredients are fresh, he gives Filipino food its fair due.
Elvis Kong Trocio manages CBG Ensaymadas. Ensaymadas are popular pastry in the Philippines, evolving from the Mallorcan original into a brioche baked with butter and topped with grated cheese and sugar. It is so popular in the Philippines that it has become a cultural symbol, and this sweetbread follows Filipinos wherever we find ourselves overseas. The challenge however is in getting the bread’s unique fluffy texture right, and judging by the number of subpar ensaymadas I’ve had both over the years, it’s a pastry that’s easy to botch.
Elvis began his business primarily as a passion project: he and his wife, Carolyn, simply missed the Filipino breads they grew up with when they moved to New Zealand in 2008. It was hard to come across these breads in Wellington, and when they did, they were always disappointing. Elvis, who had studied baking in the Philippines, knew he could do better.
The first time I had Elvis’ ensaymadas at the Saturday Underground Market near the waterfront, I was blown away—they were dense, yet fluffy and pillowy. “We wanted Filipinos here to taste good quality ensaymadas and Filipino breads,” Carolyn says, “especially since food eases homesickness.” Indeed, just by maintaining a high standard for their product, they have helped preserve the authentic flavours of Filipino breads in their adopted country, sustaining an important Filipino tradition in an immigrant community that now calls New Zealand home.
Because the business is in its infancy (it opened in 2018), Elvis has not yet given up his day job as a financial adviser, and the financial rewards for their efforts have been slow to come, especially since it has been a challenge for them to attract non-Filipinos to their products. “The rewards have largely been emotional,” the couple told me. “If you’re doing this for the money, you’ll surely be disappointed,” Carolyn added. “Making people happy is always the reward you should seek.”
At the New Zealand Chocolate Festival in 2018, I sampled one of La Pasteleria’s twists on the sans rival, a beloved Filipino dessert traditionally made of alternating layers of vanilla-flavoured buttercream and meringue, and topped with crushed nuts. La Pasteleria’s dark chocolate sans rival was made with layers of rich chocolate buttercream and chocolate meringue, and was full of crushed cashews and topped with a thick dark chocolate frosting and a sprinkling of more nuts. The result was a rich, decadent twist on a Filipino classic.
Though there are different theories as to the origin of the sans rival, the cake has undergone a dramatic evolution from its European origins to become a uniquely Filipino dessert. One theory is that it developed during the Spanish colonial period in the Philippines. Another theory is that Filipino bakers took their inspiration from the dacquoise, a French dessert introduced to the Phillipines in the 1920s and 1930s by Filipinos who had studied in France. Whatever its origins, it has transcended them. As Peter Cruz, owner and manager of La Pasteleria Sans Rival, explained: “We’ve taken that cake from the Europeans and made it our own. Europeans might look at it twice to recognise it, because it’s become totally different.”
A trained baker, Cruz first thought of trying his hand at making sans rivals when he tasted a cheaper version of the dessert at Burger Machine, a budget food truck chain in the Philippines. Though he didn’t find their version objectionable, he thought it was a cake he could also make, and make well. He and his family immigrated to New Zealand in 2008, and shortly afterwards, in 2009, he received formal chef training in the classical method, and then in patisserie in 2014, at WelTec. He sold his first sans rival when he opened his shop in October 2014. By Christmas, good reviews were pouring in.
He has developed other flavours inspired by what’s popular in the Philippines, such as mango, ube coconut, pineapple coconut, and white chocolate. Indeed, as a dessert that evolved from its European origins, the sans rival is a versatile pastry that adapts well to innovation, though he adds that one has to be philosophical about pushing the sans rival too far. His words could be applied to the dangers of evolving any cuisine past the point where it becomes something else entirely. “At what point can we keep pushing, until the product evolves into something totally different? At what point will it stop being sans rival? Some lines must not be crossed.”