Filipino food is the next big thing—again.” Bloomberg Pursuits kicked off 2017 with this attention-grabbing headline by respected food journalist Kate Krader. According to Krader, Google searches for “Filipino food” had doubled since 2012 and queries for “lumpia near me” (fried Filipino spring rolls or mini popiah) have skyrocketed by 3,350 per cent. Much has been written about this cuisine’s rise but is 2017 finally truly its year?
There are several factors that would point to a resounding yes, and it is safe to say that all of them coming together at relatively the same time is what has given Filipino cuisine its long‑awaited “push”. First, there is a massive shift in the food world where going back to basics—from using local ingredients in their purest forms, cooking over fire and wood, to natural fermentation—has become one of the biggest global movements. Not coincidentally, Filipinos have long been cooking in this manner, and the sour taste profile (often associated with fermented food) is not uncommon to the cuisine.
“There’s currently a food revolution happening in the Philippines,” declares Chele Gonzalez, chef and co-owner of Gallery Vask, the sole Philippine restaurant on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, which went up four spots to number 35 this year. “It happened with Spanish, Mexican and Peruvian cuisines. Filipinos are starting to value what is in their country even more now.” Jordy Navarra, who staunchly advocates Filipino produce at his Makati-based Toyo Eatery, where he is chef and owner, shares the same sentiments about the coming of age of Filipino cuisine. “The emergence of Filipinos being proud of the food we have was a turning point,” he says. “There are less mentions of balut (fertilised duck egg) and other intimidating food, and rather more of the tasty day-to-day food we grew up with, that made people realise we don’t need to be quirky or different, we can just be ourselves.”
Gonzalez adds, “Other people, not just Filipinos, want to learn about what’s locally available in the Philippines and therefore Filipinos have started to become even more proud of their cuisine and produce.”
Fusion of Flavours
Part of this can be credited to Madrid Fusion Manila (MFM), a gastronomic event whose third edition concluded in April. “It was a game changer. It put the Philippines on the culinary map,” says the country’s Department of Agriculture undersecretary Berna Romulo‑Puyat. “Foreign chefs and media became curious why our country was chosen to hold this culinary event.”
MFM is the only Asian edition of the renowned international gastronomy congress Madrid Fusion, and before it came to the Philippines in 2015, only a handful of chefs would go directly to local farmers to use their ingredients. “After the event, chefs have been buying directly from our farmers, and now travel around the country to get to know our farmers and fishermen,” notes Romulo-Puyat.
Restaurant André’s André Chiang, Odette’s Julien Royer, Central’s Virgilio Martinez and Narisawa’s Yoshihiro Narisawa are just some of the noted chefs behind Michelin-starred and World’s 50 Best Restaurants who have graced the Philippine capital as speakers for MFM, along the way exploring its local culinary scene, produce and culture.
Even Filipina Karla Mendoza, former executive chef of Pizzeria Mozza in Marina Bay Sands, decided to move back to the Philippines last year. After working with international chefs such as Nancy Silverton and Mario Batali, she has chosen to open her own restaurant against the country’s dynamic dining landscape. “You can tell that Filipinos love to eat because of the volume of restaurants in almost every neighbourhood—whether it’s a kiosk or a brick-and-mortar establishment,” she says.
The Real Deal
The Philippine table is a reflection of the country’s history, with Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and American influences. “Filipino food is a different approach to Asian food. It has a very strong personality and Filipinos love pronounced flavours. They like salty, sweet, sour and fatty,” shares chef Gonzalez. “Once you get to study the cuisine deeper, you understand that every ingredient in the dish plays an important role.”
Adds Romulo-Puyat, “Filipino food is highly diverse. Each island or province has its own speciality and it would be difficult to pinpoint the best among them. Each region specialises in the production of a certain agricultural produce, hence enabling its people to come up with various dishes using that certain ingredient. For example there’s coconut milk and sili (chilli) from Bicol, tuna from General Santos, heirloom rice from the Cordillera mountains, calamansi from Oriental Mindoro.”
What binds Filipino food together are the staple elements of rice, seafood, meat and vegetables and a penchant for sharing the feast. “The main ingredients remain the same though there’s always a twist in terms of preparation,” stresses Romulo-Puyat. This is why a dish like pancit, which is essentially noodles, has numerous varieties nationwide—pancit luglog (the province Pampanga’s take using thick noodles); pancit batchoy (a noodle soup with pork, beef loin and round noodles from Iloilo City); pancit malabon (the city of Malabon’s version loaded with seafood); and pancit lomi (a Chinese-Filipino dish that uses egg noodles popular in Batangas), just to name a few. And that’s just the noodles!