Food by VICE

Filipino Chefs Are Taking Back Control of Their Cuisine

Filipino food is gaining worldwide popularity. But as the diaspora grapples with the country's multicultural history, the cuisine's identity is yet to be established.

by Sai Villafuerte; illustrated by Elnora Turner
Sep 16 2019, 2:01pm

This article appears in VICE Magazine's Borders Issue. The edition is a global exploration of both physical and invisible borders and examines who is affected by these lines and why we've imbued them with so much power. Click HERE to subscribe to the print edition.

In the early 90s, Jeremy Villanueva was a young aspiring chef who had just bought himself a one-way ticket from Quezon City in the Philippines to Blackpool, England. At vocational school in his new home, he spent his afternoons following British recipes for shepherd’s pie or Lancashire hotpot, or French classics such as ratatouille and navarin d’agneau. After every long day’s work, Villanueva yearned for the Filipino cuisine he grew up with, yet the ingredients of his home were neither affordable nor easily attainable in the Irish Sea coast town. One day, he saw his classmate discarding a rack of lamb and asked if he could take it home. He wasn’t quite accustomed to the pungent taste of the meat. But new to the country and with barely any money to spare, Villanueva wanted to see what he could do with it.

That night, he riffed on a dish called sinigang, a sour soup typically rendered in pork, beef, or shrimp and made acidic with tamarind, coconut vinegar, or green mangoes. “The lamb ribs saved me from making a hole in my wallet,” he said, “and lime was the only item available to make it sour.” Using a fusion of unfamiliar ingredients, Villanueva re-created the dish without compromising the familiar taste of the Philippines. As he grew as a chef, the modified dish remained a permanent fixture in his arsenal of recipes, and he gave it an updated name to reflect his reinterpretation of Filipino cooking in his new home: sinigang na daya—“cheated sour soup.”

When Anthony Bourdain visited the Philippines in 2008 and had his first taste of sisig, a medley of chopped pig face sizzling on a cast-iron plate, he boldly proclaimed the dish “perfectly positioned to win the hearts and minds of the world.” In 2017, noticing how Filipino cooking was coloring the restaurant scene in Los Angeles, the critic Jonathan Gold heralded it as “the Filipino food moment.”

Yet, as interest in Filipino food rises in the West, captivating taste buds with a spectrum of earthy and pungent flavors, the determining features of the cuisine remain ill-defined at best. This a symptom of the country’s confused cultural identity, resulting from centuries of foreign intervention—from early exchanges with Chinese, Arab, and Malay traders, to its colonial past with Spain, the United States, and Japan. Through this encounter with a new culture, Filipino chefs in the UK like Villanueva have begun the project of confronting the nation’s rich history from afar, defining for themselves a food culture that will not easily unravel itself in a way that feels authentic to them.

Ramen, pad thai, and chow mein are examples of Asian dishes that have become household words in the West. Yet, Filipino cuisine thus far hasn’t manifested this way. Rex De Guzman, a former line cook at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze in London, has made it his mission to change that. At his pop-up restaurant Lasa London, where he offers “a taste of the Philippines,” and at his roving street food stall, TURO TURO, De Guzman is attempting to introduce British diners to Filipino cuisine one dish at a time.

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TURO TURO’s name means “point point”—a colloquial Tagalog term for food bought in carinderias (street canteens), where customers point to the dishes they want to buy. When De Guzman, a British-born Filipino, traveled to the Philippines in 2016 for a culinary research trip, his favorite turo turo was chicken inasal (or char-grilled chicken), a dish from Bacolod City in the Western Visayas region, which is typically marinated in calamansi (a type of citrus fruit), coconut vinegar, and achiote. He wants to introduce this dish to the UK as the Philippines’ answer to the South African peri peri chicken at the popular chain Nando’s.

But, De Guzman notes, Filipino cuisine resists neat categorization; its “authenticity” is made murky by the Philippines’ long history of colonization and cultural exchange . He referred to a dish he developed for one of his previous pop-up dinners—a variation of the Cantonese 叉燒包‬ cha siu bao (barbecue pork steamed bun) using a duck and Filipino kare-kare filling. Kare-kare is traditionally prepared as an oxtail stew simmered in a thick peanut sauce, but his interpretation isn’t as foreign to Britons as it might seem. Kare-kare itself shows influences of the country; it was developed during the British occupation of Manila between 1762 and 1764—an improvisation with Filipino ingredients on the curry the British had grown accustomed to in India.

Other traditionally Filipino dishes similarly show signs of foreign influence. The Chinese were among the Philippines’ first trading partners, during the 12th century, later giving birth to the country’s own version of 米粉 bí-hún: pancit bihon, a thin rice noodle dish fried in an assortment of meat, seafood, and vegetables seasoned with soy sauce. The Tagalog term pancit was later adapted generally to mean “noodles,” derived from the Hokkien word 便食 pian i sit, meaning “convenient food.” After 300 years of Spanish rule, mechado is a salutation to the Iberian carrillada—a braised beef stew. Not only is mechado simmered in Asian ingredients like soy sauce and calamansi, but its flavor is enhanced using the traditional European practice of larding, in which strips of pork fat are threaded into the meat.

Indeed, when making his chicken inasal for TURO TURO, De Guzman uses cider vinegar to make the dish more acidic, because coconut vinegar is not readily available in the UK in large enough quantities. When scrutinizing the authenticity of Filipino cuisine, De Guzman believes Filipinos have historically made a practice of resourcefulness, using various elements from different countries and making them their own. “You have to understand the history, because there’s so much that’s happened and things can get lost in translation,” he said. “Using what you have around you for something to taste Filipino, I think that’s authentic.”

Food is a potent symbol of a diaspora’s fluid identity, shaping how individuals view their relationship with home and with themselves. Nicole Coson is a London-based Filipina artist who works with analog printmaking methods. She is reinventing her artistic practice by incorporating this understanding of authenticity to her relationship with food. Her most recent print venture, Food Stories, includes a curation of recipes, artwork, and essays inspired by the culinary influence of the ancient Silk Road. “Food and cuisine are not entities that can be fixed to a time and space,” Coson wrote in the book’s introduction. “[It] is all at once a reflection of ourselves as well as the histories that have preceded us.”

The impact of food on a diaspora’s identity is reinforced by the emotional experience of eating one’s home cuisine outside one’s home country. Coson vividly recounted eating sinigang na baka (beef sour soup) with her dad in a dimly lit Filipino eatery on the American West Coast. “Even though I was just a kid and on vacation, it made me so homesick,” she said. “It suddenly brought me back to learning how to swim and having sinigang after—how nice it was, the change of temperature.” Migration changes the way we perceive our cuisine by inducing a state of nostalgia, overwhelming our experience of the past as memories of food are coupled with notions of identity.

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This connection between food, nostalgia, and identity is a scientific fact. In 2011, a study conducted by psychology researchers at Sewanee: The University of the South and the University of Buffalo found a cognitive link between comfort food and strong relationships where the former activated feelings of belonging among individuals. Likewise, in 2015, psychologists from Virginia Commonwealth University and University of Southampton investigated how scents evoked feelings of nostalgia among research participants—nostalgia being closely related to self-esteem and social connectedness. It was clear to Coson how food anchored her relationship with home where nostalgia brought her Filipino identity under a unifying culinary experience. “It’s not even about how much time I’ve spent away,” Coson explained. “It’s the fact that I’m away that makes experiencing Filipino food so emotional.”

This emotional connection with food is helping Filipino cuisine realize the scope of its own agency as chefs and restaurants revisit what it means to be authentic. Rowena Romulo owns Romulo Café, a Manila-based Filipino restaurant that opened an offshoot on Kensington High Street in London in 2016, inspired by the heirloom recipes of her grandparents—one of whom was the late Carlos P. Romulo, a former Filipino ambassador to the United States and a president of the United Nations General Assembly. According to Romulo, dismissal of her restaurant’s authenticity neglects the multiplicity inherent in Filipino cuisine.

“When we first opened the restaurant [in London], we were also criticized that our food was not authentic,” Romulo said. “I actually hate the word. I think every family has their own interpretation of a certain dish.” The illustrious adobo, which some dub as the country’s unofficial national dish, is a quintessential example. “Adobo is not a recipe, it’s a process of cooking,” she said. In the southern part of the largest island, Luzon, such as in the Bicol region, adobo is commonly pork or chicken in a pool of soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, black pepper, and bay leaves, sometimes even simmering in coconut milk. But in Camiling, a city in the northern part of Tarlac from which Rowena’s grandfather hailed, adobo is dry and crispy.

“The diaspora is so big now, there’s no basis for saying that Californian Filipino is any less Filipino,” said Villanueva, who, after 28 years of living in England is reclaiming his relationship with Filipino food as the executive chef at Romulo Café. “The Philippines, as a republic, is relatively young compared with countries such as France,” he said. “There was a time in our history when ‘sophisticated’ and ‘refined’ food meant colonial food. But now we’re trying to apply this principle of refinement in our own cooking by experimenting with new things.”

Indeed, as the reputation of the cuisine continues to flourish, Romulo believes Filipinos will slowly feel pride and confidence in their food. “A lot of the Filipino guests who come tell me, ‘Ah, I now have a place to bring my non-Filipino friends and hindi ako mapapahiya’”—she said, translating from Tagalog—“‘I finally won’t feel embarrassed.’”

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