Cover Squid Ink Laing Stones with flowers, one of Hapag's signature dishes | Photo: Instagram / @hapag.mnl

This 2021, the Asian Culinary Exchange shifts its focus to Filipino cuisine, looking to the past, present, and future of our food cultures - here’s what the Philippines' leading culinarians had to say

“If I may play the devil’s advocate . . . why do we need their approval?” says chef Claude Tayag. Over recent years, Filipino cuisine has garnered much more recognition around the world. Just a few months ago, sinigang was voted the number one international vegetable soup by Taste Atlas. Filipino talents have received accolades for proudly showcasing our cuisine in their international communities through pop-ups, tasting menus, and restaurants. Our food has also been commemorated on the global stage through shows like Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and Parts Unknown, and Netflix’ Street Food: Asia. But how important is recognition, really? 

Tatler Asia
Margarita Fores
Above Margarita Forés | Photo: Francisco "Paco" Guerrero

At this year’s Asian Culinary Exchange (ACE), pivotal Filipino culinarians like chefs Tayag and Margarita Forés participated in a series of deep-dive panel discussions about Filipino cuisine. “Instead of learning about the cuisine of our neighbouring countries,” ACE founder Angelo Comsti explains, “we take a deeper look at our own from the lens of the past, the present, and the future”. The event also featured chefs championing Filipino food abroad and the local chefs who are modernising our cuisine, engaging them in thought-provoking debates.

Ultimately, three central themes emerged from the discussion: recognition, preservation, and (re-)discovery. Do you think our cuisine needs to be recognised internationally or is our own recognition enough? Would a Philippine version of the Italian D.O.P. help preserve our regional culinary heritage? What remains to be discovered about our cuisine, and what have we lost that we can discover once again?

See also: Why Is Filipino Cuisine One Of The Richest Food Cultures In The World?

Recognition

As one of the only chefs cooking Filipino cuisine in Paris, Erica Paredes considers the Parisians’ unfamiliarity with Filipino food a double-edged sword, enthusing “I’m pretty lucky that I can introduce [Filipino cuisine] without them having many expectations”. Meanwhile, Sydney-based food photographer Luisa Brimble highlights that by showcasing better-known dishes “like the adobo, sisig, kare-kare, and halo-halo,” we fail to recognise a wealth of regional cuisines that are shoved further into the shadows.

See also: The Food Evangelists: Meet The People Promoting Filipino Cuisine Across The Globe

Conversely, our local ambassadors acknowledge that we have come a long, long way. “If you talk about awareness before and awareness now, it’s night and day talaga (really),” shares chef Jordy Navarra. Echoing these sentiments, Forés points to the tireless advocacy of secretary Berna Romulo Puyat, the Madrid Fusion Manila congresses, and the proud work of Filipino chefs across the globe. But why seek recognition to begin with?

“If Filipino artisans do not benefit from it, what’s the point?” asks chef Myke “Tatung” Sarthou. Filipino cuisine has certainly received more recognition over the past decades. However, without access to Filipino-made products like locally-produced coconut milk from locally-harvested coconuts, or local vinegar crafted through traditional methods, Filipino artisans are stripped of their own recognition. “If we stop at just promoting”, says Tatung, “bongga tayo, sikat tayo, pero wala naman tayong hanapbuhay (we’re impressive, we’re well-known, but we don’t have a livelihood)”. 

See also: Filipino Food—How Can We Go Further? Margarita Forés, Chele Gonzàlez, And More Speak Out

Preservation

Preserving our culinary culture also remains a common concern. Filipino cuisine is inextricable from family recipes, which unfortunately often live and die with their author’s lineage. On her travels throughout the country, Forés witnessed the death of traditional craftsmanship as descendants grew uninterested in the art, and artisans themselves refused to share their know-how out of “fear that you’re going to take the business away from them”. Likewise, Tayag aired his frustrations with the relentless commercialisation of local products like patis - “if you’re not careful, you will buy patis flavour [instead of authentic patis] . . . natural fermentation is nine to twelve months . . . [mass producers] do it in six days with acetic acid, so how can you compare?”

Discussing the issue further, the panellists called upon the government for three key points of action. Firstly, the interest and pride young culinarians demonstrate in our own cuisine have exposed the need for an institutionalised Filipino culinary education. Improved accessibility to historical texts is another key avenue for education, especially since most classics are out of print and cost hundreds of dollars online. Secondly, Navarra also posed an enthralling concept: a Philippine protected designation of origin similar to the Italian D.O.P. (Denominazione d' Origine Protetta) to preserve our artisanal products and local produce. Finally, Tayag and Tatung called for aggressive exportation and marketing tactics for Philippine products abroad.

See also: The Philippine Tastemakers 2021: The Most Influential People In F&B Today

The modernisation of Filipino cuisine may also be considered an approach for preservation, though often contested and at times even rejected by orthodox diners. “Modernising food is essential in any culture,” says Linamnam’s chef Don Baldosano, “it’s an important aspect of any cuisine, it should never be stagnant.” Similarly, Hapag chefs Thirdy Dolatre and John Kevin “Nav” Navoa view modernisation as an opportunity to “discover something new for Filipino cuisine”, and perhaps even “showcase [native ingredients and flavours] even more using the right techniques”. 

See also: How Are These Chefs Pushing The Boundaries of Filipino Food?

(Re-)Discovery

The chefs also seek to preserve the diversity of Filipino food, from produce like Cordillera truffles to products like batitits (bottled baby oysters in brine) and the endless portfolio of dishes across the archipelago - some of which these experts had not even heard about until the panel. For Paredes, cooking Filipino food in France has opened her repertoire to a world of French produce “that’s not available back home, and yet works so well with our food.” This discovery and re-discovery does not only diversify our cuisine but celebrates and conserves the regionality of food cultures, allowing even greater innovation.

The resurgence of age-old values like sustainability, locavorism, and plant-based principles also inspire further creativity. At Linamnam, Baldosano raises his own livestock for meat, using their byproducts to help grow other produce for the restaurant as well. Chef Don Colmenares of Berbeza Bistro on the other hand has shifted his focus to seasonality and quality, working with ingredients when they’re at their prime. At Hapag, chefs Dolatre and Nav revealed that replacing their signature dish's squid-ink dough with coconut dough to accommodate their vegetarian diners actually produced a better-tasting dish.

See also: 5 Native Filipino Liquors, Spirits, and Wine

Our love for local has certainly deepened and accelerated. “You’ll notice a lot of Filipinos now locked up in their homes are cooking recipes they’ve long forgotten,” Tatung notes. Whether this fervour inspires us to advocate for further recognition, preserve our food cultures, innovate and modernise, or discover lesser-known facets of our cuisine, I am positive that this eagerness will only blossom - and in doing so, enrich our culinary heritage even more.

As Forés so passionately pleads, let us “continue this love affair with everything that’s truly our own.”

Tatler Asia
Hapag
Above Photo: Instagram / @hapag.mnl

See also: Essence of Asia 2021: Loving Local Elevated 4 Filipino Restaurants Onto The Global Scene


Content from this feature was sourced from Asian Culinary Exchange 2021: Homecoming, co-presented by Nespresso Philippines and McCormick Culinary Philippines, with media partners Philippine Daily Inquirer, Inquirer Mobile, FoodPh, Inquirer Lifestyle, Lifestyle.inq, inquirer.net, F&B Report, Tatler Dining Philippines, and the Asia Society Philippines.

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