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June 06, 2010

In defense of Filipino food (a rebuttal by Claude Tayag)

June 06, 2010

In defense of Filipino food (a rebuttal by Claude Tayag)

(I love this rebuttal from Claude Tayag in defense of the Filipino Food. I'm publishing this with permission from the author so that more Filipinos could read this. Let me know what you think...)

Filipino Food Off the Menu 

(Photo from Filipino food: Off the menuLA Times, Feb. 25, 2010, by Amy Scattergood.)

May 7, 2010

The Editor
Los Angeles Times
202 West 1st Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012-4105, United States

Dear Sir:

In defense of Filipino food

This is in reference to the article, Filipino food: Off the menu (LA Times, Feb. 25, 2010, by Amy Scattergood.) featuring Filipino chefs working in Los Angeles who the author says grew up eating Filipino food although the cuisine “has yet to assimilate into mainstream culture, much less their restaurants.”

Ms. Scattergood, for instance, quoted Filipino-American chef Andre Guerrero who, by the way, I commend for being voted Los Angeles’ Top Chef by the Los Angeles Times magazine, as saying, “I love it. I grew up eating it. But how does it fit into what we do? It really doesn’t.” Yes, I agree, Filipino food doesn’t fit into what Chef Guerrero does, but how could it otherwise when he has little familiarity with it, having left the Philippines at a very young age? And subsequently, having been professionally schooled in Western/Continental cuisine, his expertise is limited only to such cooking and does not include Filipino cuisine, no matter if he says he grew up eating it and to what degree of authenticity, I wonder?

Another Filipino-American featured is LA-based food blogger Marvin Gapultos who describes Filipino food as “regional (and) we don’t have one unifying dish; there’s adobo, but there’s about 7,000 ways to make it.” Does one unifying dish like hamburger or hotdog make a national cuisine any better? I would like to stress that having such a diverse culinary heritage certainly puts the Filipino at an advantage. Filipino food offers so much variety and nuances in taste and flavor and the diversity is an asset rather than a liability. In Asia, for instance, Singapore owes its cuisine to the Malaysians, Indonesians, Chinese, Indians and Nonyas who have settled and intermarried in the little state, and yet  Singaporeans have successfully marketed an indigenous cuisine, all their own, internationally.

Author Scattergood remarks that the “diversity of people, landscape and (Philippine) history … is reflected in the haphazard etiology of the food.” To that, may I say, rather than dwell on the differences amongst the people, geography and the different foreign cultures that have colonized and influenced the Philippines, why not focus on the similarities that bind the country together?

Another LA-based Filipino chef Rodelio Aglibot says we probably have “one of the least understood cuisines: are we Pacific Islanders? Are we Asians? There isn’t a defined identity.” The Philippines holds a unique position as the only country in Asia influenced by both sides of the Pacific – from its neighbors in the region and India, and Mexico and other parts of the Americas during two and a half centuries when the Galleon Trade flourished. Add to the pot, Spain and the United States, and you have a vibrant mix of all these cultures, which rather than confuse, give modern-day Filipinos a particular personality who is comfortable with himself and, at the same time, at home with the rest of the world.

Mary Jo Gore, a Filipino chef instructor at Pasadena’s Cordn Bleu who was also featured in Scattergood’s article, seems to have a  problem with aesthetics when it comes to Filipino food. Such food, she was quoted as saying, “is comfort food (and) visually, it’s not very appealing. It’s stewed, and brown, and oily and fried.” I beg to disagree. It is only as unappealing, brown, oily, and fried as one makes it. I’ve eaten some really greasy American and Chinese food in Los Angeles and New York. Go deeper South within the US and you would find some of the greasiest grub on the planet. I invite Ms. Gore to come to Manila and I will personally treat her to some of the most gorgeously-prepared toothsome Filipino dishes here, far from the unappealing stewed, brown, oily and fried fare of her recollection.

Ms. Scattergood mentions the notion in her article that “if there are 7,000 adobo recipes, then only one of them is the one you grew up with.” To say that there are 7,000 such recipes is an understatement. Truth to tell, there are as many kinds of adobos as there are Filipino households. To treat adobo as a dish is incorrect. It IS a cooking technique, that is, it is the braising of any meat (chicken, pork, beef, quail, duck, venison, seafood, etc.), or vegetable in vinegar, garlic, black peppercorn and bay leaf, with regional variations or personal preferences in adding soy sauce, achuete (annatto or Mexican achiote), coconut cream, lemongrass or turmeric. It can be made like a saucy stew, or thickened with chicken liver, or the adobo-cooked meat may be pulled apart to be deep fried into crispy flakes.

This versatility makes it the most popular and well-loved Filipino comfort food, along with sinigang, a clear-broth soup dish made sour with certain kinds of local fruit which, again, is used depending on the region or season when such fruit is available.

The sense I get as I read Ms. Scattergood’s article is that the Filipino-American chefs she interviewed seemed to be apologetic and/or ashamed of their cultural heritage. I wonder, could their having adapted to and excelling in the Western way mask an inordinate desire to belong and be accepted in the Western mainstream, leaving them at risk in forgetting their provenance (Ang taong di marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan ay di ....)? They have been away from the Philippines far too long to even claim they eat “Filipino” food at home.

Aglibot asked rhetorically, “Why hasn’t Filipino food assimilated? Because it’s still assimilating.” On a final note: Filipino cuisine is “happy food.” It is meant for sharing, just like most other Asian cuisines which are served family style. All said, in spite of all the political turmoil and economic setbacks the country has been plagued with since time immemorial, Filipinos are found to be the happiest people in Asia, and the 6th happiest in the world (World Values Survey, 2004).

At this point, I’d like to take this opportunity to invite any or all of the Filipino-American chefs interviewed in the article to share a meal with me at Bale Dutung and reacquaint themselves with the food of their childhood and how it has evolved in these current, contemporary times. Ms. Scattergood, you’re very much welcome to come, as well. The tab is on me.  

Truly yours, 

Claude Tayag
Bale Dutung, Angeles City, Pampanga, Philippines

JUNE 11, 2010 UPDATE: The "Behind the Scenes" aspect of Amy Scattergood's article 


Thanks for your response, and I'd appreciate it if you could share these to your colleagues as well. Amy is a good industry friend, and she means well, I assure you this as I "cc" her this email. Our cuisine will make it out there, there are a lot of people working hard for it, the time is now, but times are tough... It's going to take talent, a good knowledge of the food we hold so dear to our hearts, and some money to do it right. But it will get there, and more and more people are jumping on the bandwagon. 
Konteng hintay na lang,  malapit na... 
My mom and her family are your cabalens (from Minalin, Pampanga), and I know I've got good training from both of them. ;)   

Allen 'bsc' 
+Allen+ , passion, food   

On Jun 8, 2010, at 10:46 PM, claude tayag <
claudetayag@gmail.com> wrote:

Hi Allen,
Thank you for sharing the "behind the scenes" aspect of Amy's article. Indeed, now I view it differently. It just proves we (the readers) don't have to take everything we read hook, line and sinker. Though I believe it's the prerogative of the editor to edit/publish a story according to his/her judgment, it was definitely biased and probably didn't do justice to the writer and all those interviewed. It seems all the negative quotes (the article sounded like a Pinoy cuisine bashing party) were taken out of context to lead us readers into the "slanted" story the editor wanted, and got the effect he wanted eliciting all these reactions like mine. Still and all, we wouldn't have been connected in cyberspace had it not been for the article. and for that, I thank its editor.
May I pass on your letter en toto to a friend blogger Anton Diaz (ourawesomeplanet) to illuminate the Pinoy foodies who are just as agitated as I me?
best regards

On Wed, Jun 9, 2010 at 7:16 AM, allen bsc <likoyb@yahoo.com> wrote: 
Mr Tayag, 

My aunt just sent me a copy of the letter you sent to the LA times, and I truly appreciate your response. I think you made several good points, and all of which I totally agree with. I just wanted to share a few things with you from behind the scenes of the article. Amy had very good intentions with this article. She, personally, had noticed that there's a lot of Filipinos working in the culinary industry, particularly in Los Angeles. And most of them were featured in the article, she spent a few weeks interviewing several of these people trying to figure out why Filipino food hasn't gone as far as other cuisines in the states, when there are so many of us in the industry. She initially interviewed a couple chefs, and then by different connections was directed to another one, and then another, and then another. (It's a very small world) She, as a matter of fact, kept learning of more and more chefs in the industry, and she actually was able to gather a lot of information. By the way, this article actually made it on print, front page, food section, (I'll send you a hard copy if you want). The problem was, she was able to gather so much information, that her editor asked her to make it a little smaller (when this version is already a big article). Long story short, Amy wanted to make a difference, Amy was curious why the food is not as big as it could be, her published article didn't do her research any justice, nor did the article do any justice to the Filipino chefs featured in it, not even the Filipino food that was the focal point of her article. Instead, the article ended up being a collection of quotes from the different chefs that were interviewed, and after reading your email,  I sent her a copy of it and an email asking her to try to publish the rest of her research at some point, since she wasn't able to. Amy has been a good colleague in the industry and she meant well, so is Chef Rodelio Aglibot (chef rodelio has a restaurant in Chicago called Sunda, I recently moved to Chicago and made sure I reached out to him, and we've actually hung out a few times in the last few weeks, and on his menu Pan-asian fusion menu are a few things Filipino, like Adobo, crispy pata, pancit canton, and my favorite off the menu item Sisig). Mary Jo gore also is a very close friend, and her quote on the article was not necessarily a criticism of the food she grew up with and loved, but a quote from her hour long interview with Amy, Mary Jo grew up in Pasig, and knows Filipino food very well, she is a well trained chef in western cuisine, and is now teaching at a culinary school to share her knowledge to culinary students. Her and I had this conversation a few weeks ago, and to be quite honest, both of us agreed that any and every Filipino chef most likely has that little secret file in their arsenal of recipes, of both classic and modern ways of doing Filipino food. Unfortunately, not a lot of us have been given the opportunity to cook Filipino food and serve it to the same people we try to cook for. There are a lot of existing Filipino restaurants in Los Angeles, and all over the United States who do a very good job serving authentic Filipino food, but their main demographic is their kababayans, and the setting is usually not too inviting to everybody else. That is why, in my opinion, the food has not assimilated into the mainstream American culture, unlike our neighbors have. I don't think there's anything wrong with this, but at the end of the day, you have to look after your business, and that usually means, you have to make sure that if you put up a restaurant, that it is a sure success, which translates to targeting your kababayans as your main customer. Rest assured Mr. Tayag, that the Filipino pride is in our hearts, and there's nothing more fulfilling to a Filipino chef than to take the food of his/ her home country, and bring it to a level it has failed to get to for years. We are all in the same boat, including Amy, and we all have the same goal : To take Filipino food and elevate it to a different level. 

I recently took a job with Lettuce Entertain You in Chicago, (one of the biggest restaurant groups in the US), (www.leye.com <- they own about 80 restaurants, with 50+ different concepts, ranging from bao's, Chinese food, Mexican, Italian, French, and to even very well known and upscale fine dining establishments) and part of my agreement with Richard Melman (who owns the company), is to give me the opportunity to showcase the food that I grew up with, and he is certainly more than willing and excited to do that in the future. Taking Filipino food to that next level is my life's goal Mr. Tayag, I am doing my best to continually grow and learn in this industry, while making sure that at some point, Filipino food will make it to the mainstream culture. 

I hope this sheds a better light on the subject, rest assured that we are all in the same page, and all the people involved, and featured in the article and other Filipino chefs would love the same.   

Thank you so much, and I hope to meet you personally in the future, I'd love to try some Adobong quail. 

Here's a few other things and links on some other things Filipino in the Culinary world: 

The Manila Machine: Filipino Food Truck Rolls Out

The New Food Show Food Buddha with Rodelio Aglibot on TLC

(this is the link to the Yelp page of Wolfgang Puck's WP24 in Los Angeles, whose pastry chef is Sally Camacho, who is incorporating calamansi, ube and atis on her desserts at the restaurant. 

Spago pastry chef Sherry Yard, WP24 pastry chef Sally Camacho with Barbara Lazaroff

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