Cover Cantina Sunae’s ukoy (crispy prawn fritter)

For years we’ve tried to push Filipino cuisine as the next best thing. There’s still a lot to be done to get to that stage. Luckily, these culinary ambassadors are willing to put in the work.

Most of the pop-up dinners Yana Gilbuena did prove to be a challenge. In her quest to promote Filipino cuisine, the 37-year-old had been all over the map—from North and South America to parts of Europe, Australia, Mexico and New Zealand, to name a few—to cook chicken binakol (chicken simmered in coconut water) and Bicol express (spicy pork stew in coconut milk) in the hopes that more people would get to know the food she enjoyed while growing up

It didn’t take long for her to realise that introducing Filipino cuisine would be the least of her problems and that the unpredictability of things would be the single most challenging part of her tour. “Whether people will buy tickets to the dinner, whether I’ll have a host to let me stay at their place, whether I’ll have the money to pay for the bus ticket for the next city—doing the pop-ups was basically being in a state of uncertainty at all times,” she says.

There was an instance when she had to use a panini press to cook tocino (sweet cured pork) or bake rice in the oven, as well as nights when she considered sleeping on the street, for money didn’t come as easily. Still, she soldiered on and continued her Salo Project over a span of five panic-inducing but definitely rewarding years, with common customer reactions such as “that tastes familiar” and “it’s delicious”, giving her the drive she desperately needed.

Will Mahusay, who manages a lechon shop in Sydney, Australia, would get the same sentiment from his customers. “A lot of them get surprised that it’s only just now they’ve eaten Filipino food and how legit full of flavour it is! I love seeing the mixed expressions on their face, that flavour party in their mouth and the surprised look!”

His family started a catering business in the outer west suburb of the Australian capital 30 years ago and in 2019, they opened Sydney Cebu Lechon in Newtown, selling, among many things, pork barbecue, chicken humba and their signature charcoal-roast pork.

“It was challenging for the first six months because only a handful have ever heard of Filipino cuisine,” he says. “We got around that by adding English translations in our menu. Longganisa became pan-fried garlic pepper pork sausages. After that, we saw more and more locals visiting us, thanks to media coverage that gave us the opportunity to educate the public about our food.”

In Buenos Aires, Christina Sunae actively waves the flag of the Philippines—and she’s not even a full-blooded Filipino. She runs two southeast Asian restaurants—Cantina Sunae and ApuNena, named after her Kapampangan grandma—both of which serve dishes such as kinilaw na hamachi (fish cured in vinegar), ukoy (vegetable fritters), kare-kareng dagat (seafood in thick peanut sauce), bola-bola (Pinoy meatballs) as well as the Tausug grilled meat skewers called satti.

Related: A Taste of Home: Lolla Head Chef Johanne Siy Shares Her Favourite Filipino Dishes

A decade ago, it might have been hard to serve these to the Argentinians given the complex flavours, but because of the convenience in travel, they have become more adventurous and open in their dining preferences. Sunae noticed that earlier on, she would leave off the spice like black pepper from her dishes as an adjustment to the local palate, but now they ask for more of it.

Having lived in South America for many years, the Korean-American chef with a Filipino stepmum, has been teaching the locals how to enjoy Filipino food the best way she knows how. “With the kare-kare, for example, I can’t serve bagoong to an Argentine. They wouldn’t understand why we use it or even how [as a condiment], so I add it to the peanut sauce already. And for the ukoy, we serve it with sawsawan [dipping sauce] and we show them how to eat with their hands. They are accustomed to eating with a knife and fork.”

Gilbuena describes the food she serves to be “unapologetically authentic”. She says, “I never compromised the boldness of Filipino flavours, nor did I sugar-coat things such as calling dinuguan ‘chocolate meat’. I also didn’t compromise on the style in which I presented the food, through kamayan, not boodle fight. What I did do was adapt local and seasonal ingredients to my dishes. Think of it as the farm-to-table movement through a Filipino lens.”

For Mahusay, making the plates picture pretty helps. “We didn’t adjust the flavours too much, but we made the food as visually appealing as possible. Simple things like adding banana leaves on the plate generates curiosity for so many Aussies.”

There’s no contention that Filipino cuisine can satisfy even the most discriminating palates. And all three culinary ambassadors have definitely done their homework on how to make adobo stand out on the dining table. The next hurdle was to get the word out there.

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“The people in Australia do like and want to try other cuisines but we Filipino-Australians just need to talk to them more about it. They won’t know what they don’t know,” says Mahusay.

Luckily, enough intrigue and interest had been generated by their restaurants. Gilbuena was written about in the New York Times, among countless other online and printed periodicals. Mahusay guested in an SBS radio show and a yet-to-be-launched TV programme by Adam Liaw on the SBS Food Channel. And Sunae has done a cookbook on Filipino food as well as appears as a judge in Masterchef Argentina. Collectively, they have also hosted workshops, done special collaborations with other chefs and given talks at international conferences.

In a way, they stand as evangelists of Filipino cuisine and as trusty crusaders, they find themselves not only under the spotlight but also bearing the pressure of spreading the gospel on behalf of the country.

“There are expectations from the community you’re representing and those vary as time goes by so you can’t help but think if what you’re doing is enough,” says the lechonero (lechon chef). “I intentionally engage in an open conversation with other Filipino community leaders. It helps tackle some of these challenges. I’m blessed that we can all speak to one another with respect and work to try and come up with practical solutions going forward.”

“I was, in a way, a reverse coloniser as I did travel to all 50 states of America to bring Filipino food to them,” Gilbuena candidly remarks. “It’s not really a pressure for me but a weighted responsibility to make sure our cuisine is being represented right and dispel a lot of myths about our cuisine that have been perpetuated by US media and the white gaze.”

Related: On the Rise: Filipino Cuisine

She adds, “There was a lot of work to undo, like balut being a Fear Factor dare. Or like how Filipinos only eat lechon, that’s why our diet is unhealthy. The only way to address this is through education and decolonisation. Sharing the history of our country, which syncs beautifully to the evolution of our cuisine, lends people this framework of understanding about why we eat what we eat.”

The dream is to make Filipino food more mainstream. For many people all over the world to acknowledge and appreciate sisig (a dish made from chopped pork, chicken liver, onions and chilli) and halo-halo (a kind of crushed ice dessert) is already a gratifying feat. But the work doesn’t end there. It continues and these three inspiring culinary evangelists are more than ready and able to preach.

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