Chef Paolo’s Art
by John Paul Briones
Much has been written and done to elevate the level of sophistication and global acceptance for Filipino cuisine locally and internationally. If there is one thing we Filipinos have in abundance of it is pride.
Pride for our heritage. Pride that enables us to prosper in other people’s land and yet still hold true our roots and culture deep in our hearts no matter how far we are from our motherland. But despite the efforts of chefs and entrepreneurs from New York to California, from Singapore to Dubai and all our effort here in the Philippines to propagate our cuisine and share it with other people, we are still left wanting.
To this very day, appreciation for Filipino food globally, is at best, obscure. Yes, there is an international following for Joliibee and Chowking wherever they pop up around the globe but that’s not really Filipino food is it? Fried chicken and burger? That’s western cuisine… actually.
There is a restaurant in New York called Jeepney that serves westernized versions of our favorite Filipino dishes. Sure it’s popular, it has its own following, but the degree of love and acceptance New Yorkers have for Filipino food hasn’t reach yet to that of Thai, Indian and Chinese dishes. For most New Yorkers if you ask them to name one Filipino food that they know of, a good number of them will stare at you and come up blank, “aahhh…”, “duh”… “say what?”
I started my culinary journey officially when a university here in Cebu co-sponsored my trip to Manila and I spent a couple of weeks in a prestigious school for hospitality and management learning the rudimentary ways of culinary arts. Later on, eventually, I came to work in hotels and restaurants and continued my journey many, many years later with my own food business serving Filipino food to a certain defined clientele.
Though I am not here to talk about my food establishment and shamelessly get free plugging and air time, I am here to talk about my passion, and my pride, your pride, our pride, our strong collective belief that Filipino food should be up there in the list and lime light side by side with Western Cuisine, Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Indian. I believe as much as I know that you, and all Filipinos all over the world genuinely believe, that our culinary heritage should be shared to everyone in all countries and they will, all of them accept it and treasure it and crave for it as we do.
Can it be done? Is it possible? Am I dreaming? Am I crazy? Have I taken my meds already? Hhhhmmm…
Let’s take for example, a case in point, specifically Thai cuisine. It is not so far off from our own. Their Tom Yum soup is similar to our Sinigang. They also have their own version of our Atchara called Som Tam, a fermented papaya salad in vinegar mixed with strong divergently flavored herbs and spices. Additionally, their use of coconut cream in their curries is very similar to our way of making all those ginataang “anything”.
Despite these similarities, Thai cuisine outguns and outranks Filipino food in the international scene and the disparity is heart breaking. After working in the industry I was lucky enough to land a job as a TESDA instructor and with a relatively free work schedule I pursued my passion in travelling. And during my travels around Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia I have come to realize that our cuisine is not so far off from theirs and at the same time wonder how come ours is not as well loved?
Although in general the flavor profiles of certain Thai dishes and other dishes from various Asian countries are different from our own, they are more or less the same to a certain degree. But how come, our cuisine does not enjoy the same popularity and consistent following as the others do? How is it that no matter the marketing strategy and effort in our part, our Asian counterparts seem to be way ahead of us in terms of status and prestige?
I’ve worked with various chefs and tourism professionals during my time with the hospitality establishments and the academe during which I’ve come to admire the tenacity of their pride and their goal to promote Filipino cuisine to our foreign guests. I’ve seen a Blue Marlin version of Inun-unan or Isdang Paksiw cooked with a poaching liquid containing white wine and coconut vinegar. I’ve seen a foreigner chef (married to a Filipina) invent an awesome Lechon burger served with a liver sauce similar to Mang Tomas and topped with atchara then served with sweet potato fries (camote French fries). This dish was served in the hotel I worked with and it sold for around p400 per serving, it was mind blowing and spectacularly delicious. There is a five star resort in Mactan that supposedly serves the best Kare-kare in the world and they market it as an Oxtail Beef Stew with Peanut Butter sauce and it is indeed mouthwatering to say the least.
I recognize that the Filipino cuisine has so many contenders that can match what the other countries are serving and we have an army of chefs and cooks that can deliver and conjure up the dishes necessary to make our name and mark. But what we lack is coordination, what we need is a strategy and a concerted effort to finally propel our food to culinary stardom.
We need to introduce slowly our dishes to the world. We can start with five dishes, five quintessential Filipino dishes that define us as a culture. We start with that then we slowly introduce another five dishes. This is how Thailand conquered the gastronomic universe, by introducing little by little certain dishes that aptly represents their culture and heritage.
At the top of my head, if I were to pick the five dishes that we need to introduce to the world first, I would say number one, Lechon. Number two, Kare-kare, number three Bicol Express, number four Chicken Pork Adobo and last but not the least, I’ve already mentioned this, Sinigang (either shrimp or pork will do).
What government agencies and Filipino entrepreneurs around the world can do is they can work together and come up with food carts, food trucks or establishments that will focus on introducing these five dishes to the world. It can be featured in world fairs as can be organized with the Department of Tourism. It can be featured in existing Filipino restaurants all over the world with special promotional activities maybe with the combined efforts of the Department of Foreign Affairs and international Filipino communities.
And it can be simply sold in parks and gatherings during special community occasions by Filipinos all over the world. They can bring their foreigner friends and guests and they can literally hand feed them these dishes just to educate them about our cuisine. I know these communities exist and I know they are well organized. When I went to Dubai I had the privilege of meeting a large group of Filipino engineers whose organization is formally recognized by DFA and they conduct special activities there. They can easily organize this and start the Filipino food invasion to the rest of the world.
As a chef I have learned in all my years of working with the industry and academe that when you are cooking, less is more. When you are cooking a certain dish, the less complicated the dish is to prepare, the more likely it is going to be provocatively delectable. Also, as a chef I need to accept the fact that not everyone has the same taste as I do. Westerners do not eat as much rice as us (or me), they eat bread or any of the potato-based dishes. So for this we need to consider adjusting our recipes to fit their foreign flavor profile. Let’s face it, Lechon was meant to be eaten with rice, making a version of it that matches with French fries or mashed potato is possible, may be difficult but at this point, irrefutably necessary.
And yes, one thing, we need a unified, standardized recipe for all the dishes that we have. Lechon and Adobo has so many versions it is confusing even for us Filipinos. Let’s agree on which version we should use in debuting our food to the world.
I have two friends in the US who live near each other. During meet ups with their family and friends especially during special occasion, they cook and prepare lechon belly. But because one friend is Cebuano and the other is from Mindanao, they use different methodologies and style. This confuses their guests. Also it is difficult for them because the ingredients are not complete. Good luck finding Silver Swan soy sauce at your nearest 7-11 store when you’re living in Northern America. And this, again, presents another problem for us in our road to recognition.
For adobo, each region has its own version and you can tell by the way a person cooks it that either he comes from Luzon, or the Visayas or Mindanao. The Luzon adobo has a thick rich sauce while the adobo in the Visayas, in Cebu, particularly, has no sauce at all. Quite frankly we like it like that, as is, me being a certified true blue blooded Cebuano. And with this we see another problem, how to come up with a unified recipe, an international version of our food specifically made for the purpose of promoting it.
Developing the product shouldn’t be too difficult, again let me reiterate this, we have enough talent and resources to pull this off, but the problem is agreeing on which version to use and actually coming up with a compromise. The Cebuanos are fiercely proud I’m sure they will insist their version of the Lechon should be the one sent to the next food expo in New York, but as a compromise Manila’s version of the adobo can be the standard for Adobos all across our country and soon the rest of the world. If we can agree to do this and find a way to move forward and promote these dishes, then honestly, we will have a fighting chance.
I don’t know who can jump start this culinary revolution and lechon invasion I am imagining in my dreams both awake and while asleep. But this needs immense effort from all of us especially from our Filipino brothers and sisters who have chosen to migrate to other countries. Those of us who are stuck here in our country, the best we can do is to educate the foreign guests we meet one by one, patiently, slowly and surely in a glacier’s pace so they can go back to their home countries and spread the good news about the awesome food they tasted here in the Philippines.
Yes, it is a dream, it is a goal or rather a vision. But if we do start now and create a caucus maybe, just maybe, we can find that right step, the right step forward. That step towards our goal of getting that much deserved respect and attention from our global peers. Indeed our country is hungry for greatness, but not hungry for awesome food, because we have that day in and day out, no matter which part of society you’re from. If you are Filipino, you have good food at the table, and love and joy in our home and with family, happiness all to our hearts content.