By Cherie M. del Rio
It does not matter which corner of the world we are in or for how long. Sooner or later, our gustatory senses will be craving for the lutong bahay meals that we have grown up with. It seems that we cannot get by without the traditional Filipino recipes to delight our taste buds on a regular basis. But unlike other Asian cuisines — -such as Thai, Vietnamese, and Chinese—the Filipino culinary arts seem to be confined to a handful of Filipino restaurants scattered inadequately in remote states and suburbs. We don’t just walk into any dining hotspot, open the menu, and find a section which contains Filipino dishes. Our adobo and kare-kare haven’t earned fame and patronage the same way the Japanese sushi or Chinese dimsum have made their way in restaurant specials.
Why haven’t we made it? Where lies the problem? Why hasn’t the Filipino cuisine invaded the global scene? A friend cleverly offers a theory: “Because everything is brown.”
And while this is partly amusing and partly true, the color of our dishes is the least factor in our inability to join the ranks of other
world-renowned Asian cuisines. In a recent interview with Chef Gene Gonzales of Café Ysabel, he graciously shared his insights as to why Filipino dishes still haven’t made it globally. Chef Gene, who is the co-founder of Alta Cocina Filipina (the movement for contemporary Filipino cuisine), has authored many cookbooks and articles on the culinary arts for Manila’s major newspapers. His knowledge and brilliant observations on the current state of the Filipino culinary arts pave the way for the even more remarkable visions he has for our native cuisine.
“There is no problem with flavor, ingredients,” Chef Gene explains. “Presentation can be attained by a new generation of food stylists and chefs without altering the time character of the recipe or dish.”
For Chef Gene, the problem lies with a weak marketing campaign and an even weaker political will. He believes that anybody interested in food will try a dish if explained well in a context that the person can relate with. He elaborates, “It can have a historical, anthropological, sociological, medical nutraceutical or a combination of several factors of how a recipe could have evolved.”
Where then should our focus be in order for our cuisine to have a global reach?
Chef Gene offers the most interesting and profound answer: we should emphasize the bond of our culture with our cuisine. Both locals and tourists should be able to identify the strong connection between our cultures and traditions and the food we eat and serve. It must be recognized that when we speak of Filipino culture and heritage, we likewise speak of the Filipino recipes that have been handed down from one generation to another and vice versa.
He looks back at the culinary events he has attended and shares his observations on how the other Asian cuisines have been marketed. “Take the Thai, Malaysian, and Vietnamese experience. Food is always part of any tourism promotion the Philippines has only started the past years,” Chef Gene says. “I’ve been doing Philippine food festivals every year abroad and a good appreciation for our cuisine is obvious among those who try our spreads for as long as the dishes are well explained.”
The man behind Café Ysabel’s world-class cuisine also recounts an example that bolsters the need to highlight the bond between a country’s culture and culinary arts. “Take the Thais,” he says. “It took an American P.R. firm to teach them how to market their food and it was successful. All over Thailand, a Tom Yam looks like a Tom Yam, so does their Red Curry or their Papaya Salad. At present, any Thai national that sets up a restaurant outside of Thailand gets a royal subsidy from their embassy because they want to prove that it is one of the best cuisines of the world.”
It is clear. The Filipino cuisine hasn’t penetrated the global culinary arena not because all our food is brown or that our recipes are not healthy enough or not varied enough. We have not reached that most coveted world-class level because we do not have an adequate marketing scheme that will push our recipes forward, neither do we have sufficient government support. “It’s a marketing and government problem,” Chef Gene emphasizes.
Having identified our weakness, Chef Gene now relates his compelling vision for the Filipino cuisine and how it can flourish both locally and globally. “We should include Filipino cooking in every grade school and high school curriculum. We should make it a required subject in all professional culinary programs,” he suggests.
He says we explore and be conscious of other culinary arts such as the cuisine of our Muslim brothers in Mindanao, the Filipino ethnic or tribal cooking and its documentation, the Filipino-Chinese cooking, particularly Tsinoy Binondo cooking which has evolved and is its own cuisine.
Chef Gene likewise believes that creating special awards on regional Filipino cookbooks (without the Fusion, of course) can help push our culinary arts to excellence and popularity.
Another one of his well-established suggestions is to create a Food Almanac and document all the specialties on a per town basis. “This can be done on a local government level since all local government units have a tourism office,” Chef Gene offers this insight. “Filipino cuisine will proliferate and will experiment a great push if the multi-sectoral effort will be spurred by a government that realizes the bond of culture and cuisine. Only then can we truly see the reality of a dream of evolving new and more dynamic Filipino recipes.”
And only then can we be closer to the day when we shall walk into a restaurant in some diner in Chicago or Houston and find, perhaps, the sinigang featured in the regular menu. Only then can we claim that our Filipino cuisine has finally descended upon the international culinary scene.