On Filipino Food

palabok.jpgIn 2011, Ligaya Mishan, in her review of the Filipino restaurant Maharlika, wondered if Filipino food might finally be having its moment. In 2012, Andrew Zimmern predicted that Filipino food is the next big thing in America. In 2016, in another review, Mishan again says that Filipino food might have reached a tipping point in popularity.

Maybe it has and maybe it hasn’t. I’ve been hearing a version of this since the early aughts. There are certainly many more Filipino restaurants in New York these days, trendy ones worlds away from the old Elvie’s Turo-Turo. And if Filipino food has indeed reached a certain level of popularity, it’s probably because of the heroic efforts of Ligaya Mishan herself. Mishan, a restaurant critic and contributing editor at the New York Times, is Fil-Am, and uses her position, energy, and talents to promote Filipino cuisine.

Last year, Nicole Ponseca and Miguel Trinidad, owner and chef of thriving Filipino restaurants in New York, came out with the cookbook entitled I Am a Filipino and This Is How We Cook. The title is somewhat unsettling, with the drama of its declaration, the confusing pronouns, and the inconvenient fact that Trinidad is Dominican and not Filipino.

But it’s also ballsy and quite brilliant. Ponseca used to be an ad executive and obviously understands marketing. In an America that’s struggling to be woke, the book has been noted and celebrated. It’s in Sam Sifton’s list of 2018’s best fall cookbooks, in the New York Time’s list of 2018’s best fall cookbooks, featured on Saveur, and one of the sixteen books of the year featured on Food52’s Tournament of Cookbooks.

And the cookbook deserves the acclaim. It’s comprehensive, knowledgeable, and accessible. Ponseca’s love for the cuisine and the culture is clear and quite moving. I have to admit that I haven’t had great experiences in her restaurants. I’ve mentioned in another blog post here how the kare-kare and sisig in Maharlika, while delicious, tipped into being cloying, and how a carelessly served cold tinola in Jeepney made me sad.

And the first time we went to Maharlika, we were made to wait and then not given a table after waiting. The restaurant had just opened a few months before, it was lunchtime on a Sunday, and the place was packed. We didn’t have a reservation and we didn’t think we could get seated, but we were in the area anyway so we went. The hostess told us she might be able to seat us if we were willing to wait for twenty minutes. For some reason, she made the assumption that the group of people with a reservation wasn’t coming. Or maybe she wanted to make sure that, in the slim chance that the group didn’t arrive, the table would be occupied. She was in her twenties, with glowing dewy skin, a spiky crewcut, multiple earrings, a flannel shirt under her apron, a swaggering confidence. In my mind, she looked like a film student from nearby NYU and was supercool, incredibly pretty, a Filipino-American obviously, an Asian-American, a New Yorker.

We waited, got hungry, and didn’t get seated. It would be a couple of years before we had the opportunity or inclination to visit Maharlika. By that time, the excitement about the restaurant had subsided and it was easy to get a table. A few months after, we went and ate at Jeepney, its sister restaurant, one billed as more casual.

Who is a Filipino? What does it mean to be a Filipino? The young gorgeous Fil-Am at the restaurant is a Filipino. The beauty queens on the walls of the restaurants are Filipinos. Jose Rizal, his iconic image shown in the restaurant, is a Filipino. In photograph after photograph in the cookbook, Filipinos are in marketplaces, kitchens, fishing boats, food stalls, and carinderias. Filipinos are cooking, eating, and smiling. And the Philippines is a verdant country with abundant fish, meat, and all kinds of produce. It has urban spaces with tangled electric wires, churches and Catholic saints and jeepneys, mildewed walls in markets that are strangely haunting and photogenic.

I like the cookbook but the narrative it offers is obviously simplistic. One can even argue that it’s problematic, with its strange epigraph from Carlos P. Romulo, its tired tropes of smiling Pinoys and colorful jeepneys, and the overarching importance invested in the idea of some kind of American recognition of the wonderfulness of Filipino food. I mean, we love our food. Isn’t this enough? Why do we need Americans’ approval of our food? Why does Filipino food have to be, as Ponseca says, “universally regarded as one of the world’s classic cuisines”? What does that even mean? And does it only become valuable if this universal recognition is attained? These are complex questions and I truly don’t know the answers. Or perhaps the answer requires a book. (Or perhaps a longer essay, this time from Carol.)

Ponseca herself calls her book a manifesto, not just a cookbook. It works brilliantly as a cookbook—I’m so inspired to cook old favorites like kare-kare and pancit palabok. I was introduced to dishes like sinanglay na isda and manok sa tsokolate. Last week, I cooked tortang talong. Every time I open the book, I long to go back home and feast on batchoy and burong mustasa and sinigang. I’m delighted that there’s even a recipe for burong mustasa, a dish that, in my hometown, was traditionally bought from a street peddler who, legend has it, sent his four children to college from his burong mustasa revenues. But that’s another story.

One shouldn’t really ask for more from a book, and I don’t. I applaud Ponseca’s entrepreneurship and championing of Filipino food. I want to drive to DC and check out Bad Saint. I love Mishan’s columns and have gone to other Filipino restaurants she has recommended. My husband and I have been disappointed by most of them, however, and our hearts continue to belong to Ihawan in Woodside.

Maybe I should write about that next time.

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