Filipino Food Identity
By Therese San Diego
Like the fluid conversations and lengthy lunches that spill over to merienda and even dinnertime at fiestas, family reunions and intimate home gatherings, the pursuit to pinpoint the true identity of Filipino food seems endless.
The country’s cuisine has been shaped by a number of factors, such as diverse foreign influences from the Malays and the Spanish to the Americans and the Chinese, as well as the varied cultures, traditions, and socio-economic circumstances in every region. But while a lot of inspiration comes from their colonizers, occupiers and immigrants, Pinoys are ingenious cooks who have created—and continue to create—fresh, flavorful dishes out of borrowed recipes, each with an undeniable Filipino twist that may be attributed to indigenous cooking techniques, homegrown ingredients, or family kitchen secrets.
But there’s so much more to Filipino food that makes it extraordinary, and one cannot simply sum it up in a paragraph, in an article, or in a single book. If one wants to learn what makes food truly Filipino, he must ask not one, not two, but every Pinoy he encounters. Who could speak with greater authority on the subject than Filipinos themselves?
I myself got curious about what they would say about Filipino food identity, so I gathered some insights from a few bona fide Pinoy food enthusiasts. Five of them work with some of the country’s finest restaurants. One is the man behind what is probably the most popular street food stall in Manila, which has been around for nearly three decades. Another is an adventurous food lover who whips up the most heartwarming meals for her family and friends. The common thread that runs through them is their delight for what the Philippines has to offer their eager palates day after day.
Marketing Operations Manager, 2nd’s, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig
“I think what sets Filipino food apart from other cuisines is its ability to adapt. The beauty of it is, it continues to evolve and adapt. Each dish tells a story about a period in history and how the culture at the time influenced it.”
Home cook and food lover
“Authentic Filipino food is slowly cooked with natural ingredients sourced from the family backyard or the local market, prepared from scratch, devoid of shortcuts and food additives promoted by multinational companies.
“Fiesta best describes Filipino food and sets it apart from other cuisines. Carefully prepared ingredients cooked over low fire amid familial surroundings… Color, texture, aroma—all these make Filipino food unique.”
Cook III, Sofitel Philippine Plaza Manila
“Filipino food, to most people in the food industry, is defined as a melting pot of different cuisines. This is true. It started off with the Malays. Then the Spanish. Then the Chinese. Then whoever else. Filipino food is, for me, the gathering of the best recipes of each cuisine.
“But that is just too easy, right? That’s what I thought. Unlike French cooking, it isn’t strict and rarely has use for perfect terms and techniques. It isn’t notably simple like British food. It isn’t [as] complex as Thai and Indian. My good guess is that Filipino food came from people wanting to have a flat-out good time.
“The fun thing about it is that there are no exact recipes. While cooking adobo, or any other dish, there is no one (and I mean absolutely no one) who can tell you that you are doing it wrong. And it is almost impossible to mess up. That [can only happen if] you aren’t taking the proper precautions such as tasting while cooking, or you become an offender because you rushed, or both. The reward or punishment comes when the food tasting starts.”
Marketing Head, Casa Verde, Cebu City (and soon in Quezon City)
“One thing I can say about Filipino cuisine is that it’s never bland. It has many flavor profiles—salty, sweet, sour, bitter, umami. Even if we are an archipelago and each province has its own unique flavors, you can tell that each dish, however different, is distinctly Pinoy.
“I think Filipinos, especially the younger generation, are embracing Filipino food more now compared to before. I think there is greater appreciation for it because of how restaurants and celebrity chefs are elevating Filipino cuisine by coming up with new ways to present traditional dishes using a variety of cooking methods and techniques.
“Travel is another thing. With the Department of Tourism’s recent efforts to promote the country through the ‘It’s More Fun in the Philippines’ campaign, the people (Filipinos) are traveling more. And the more they travel, the more they discover about food in different parts of the country. Also, I think social media and the influence of food bloggers contribute to this increased awareness and appreciation.”
Lauro “Larry” Convencido, Jr.
Owner, Mang Larry’s Isawan, University of the Philippines Diliman
“Filipino food natin, originality niyan, mga gulay, pakbet from Pangasinan, Ilocos… Pag sa Bicol naman, yung laing—ginataan na may sili. And then Tagalog, halu-halo na. Pag Bisaya naman yata is danggit, isda naman. Hindi ko lang alam sa Mindanao. Usually naman, [ang] Pinoy, sanay na rin sa pagkaing Chinese eh. Pero dapat ipagtanggol natin yung sariling atin, Pinoy tayo eh.
(“Filipino food has different origins. There are vegetable dishes like pakbet from Pangasinan, Ilocos… In Bicol, there’s laing—a dish with coconut milk and hot chili pepper. And then for the Tagalog, it’s a mix of different kinds of dishes. In the Visayan region, there’s fish, danggit. I just don’t know about Mindanao. Also, Pinoys are now used to Chinese food. But [I think] we should protect our own cuisine because we are Pinoy.)
“Ang mga kabataan ngayon, bihira nang kumain ng pagkaing Pinoy, puwera lang ang mga taga-province. Sa probinsya, di nakakalimutan ang pagkaing Pinoy, pero sa Manila, mayaman o mahirap, wala na. [Pero] madali naman siguro silang i-invite [na subukan ulit ang pagkaing Pinoy] kasi ang Pilipino naman adventurer, eh.
(“Kids nowadays rarely eat Pinoy food, except for those in the provinces. Kids in Manila, rich or poor, don’t eat Pinoy food anymore. But maybe it would be easy to invite them [to try Filipino food again] because Filipinos are adventurers.)
“Mahilig sa pagkain [ang mga Pinoy]. Pag pumunta kang Tagaytay, o, bulalo ‘to—sarap naman! Madaling i-promote! Ako nga di nahirapan i-promote yung mga [paninda] ko. Hindi pagkaing normal yan, ‘di ba? Noong mga ‘80s, hindi kinakain iyan. Pero ma-e-engganyo ka. Ang Pinoy, madaling mabighani. Parang madali kang ayain. [Sasabihin mo lang,] o, pare, tikman mo ‘to… Friendly kasi tayo.”
(“Filipinos love food. When you go to Tagaytay, you’d want to try the bulalo—it looks delicious! It’s easy to promote! I myself did not have a hard time promoting my food. That’s not normal food, right? In the ‘80s, people didn’t eat [pork and chicken innards]. But you’d be enticed. Filipinos are easily fascinated. They’re easy to invite. [You just say,] hey, buddy, try this… We’re friendly.”)
Chef De Partie, Blackwood Bar and Grill, Ortigas, Mandaluyong City
“Filipino food is interesting in its origins: from Malay, Chinese and Spanish cuisines, Pinoy food is a mix of sweet, salty and tangy flavors. Our food identity comes from borrowing and adapting these foreign influences to the native cuisine that we have inherited from our ancestors. Some of the familiar dishes that we have—like the adobo, pochero, pancit, menudo—actually contain elements of the cuisines mentioned earlier.
“Now, what sets Pinoy food apart from other cuisines is not found in the ingredients of the dish, nor cooking methods. One difference lies in the way we regard food—as a centerpiece in birthdays, fiestas, events and other occasions worth celebrating. The second distinguishing factor is the act of making dipping sauces (sawsawan) which adds another level of flavor and contrast. This allows us to personalize our meal by mixing and matching condiments; in doing so, we are being active participants in the creation of the meal itself.”
Dee Jae Pa’este
Co-founder, Manila Pop Up; Partner, PREMIO Bar & Restaurant, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig (also an artist, muralist, designer, event/television host and self-confessed foodie)
“These days, Filipino food has many forms and shapes, from the fusion of a longaniza slider to a sisig taco. So many flavors and profiles from Pinoy food are borrowed to make already delicious things even more amazing.
“I think the fact that there is so much intense flavor in Filipino food is a very unique quality, and the fact that Filipino cuisine itself is a collection of so many cultures and influences from throughout the years is amazing. Mixing such a culinary broadness of taste from the local indigenous flavors, to Spanish rooted dishes, even the Chinese influenced soups and appetizers that we all grew up loving… We made everything our own in a manner of not looking at the origins, but looking at what region it came from or how it was prepared. We rely on the salty, the saucy, sweet and savory, garlic filled, ginger infused, soy sauce marinated or vinegar soaked. Our food is full of so much umami factor that you always end up eating way more than planned. No one sets out to eat one lumpia, or just a bowl of pancit. The Filipino food experience is all about the balance of having just [the] right amount of meat or main dish to match the amount of rice.
“[We] keep the history and rich culture of the Philippines alive through the dishes and foods from our past to our present. Through the food, we remember the smell, the flavor, the taste, the sight, and the texture. We gather at parties and dinners and stay connected over eating, sharing, over tradition, and extend that to our future generations, with love, with pride, and with our secret recipes or versions of our own personal takes on all of the favorite Filipino food dishes. There is adobo, my mom’s adobo, my grandmother’s adobo, a restaurant’s adobo, my own adobo and an endless amount of other unique concoctions all around the country. Just like the many versions of one amazing dish, Filipino cooks add a bit of their own experience to the ingredients of each dish they create, which, for me, has always tasted like home wherever I go.”
Filipinos may have different perspectives about their nation’s cuisine, but many share a strong sense of pride in it. To uphold this, it’s important to keep the conversation going. But beyond that, we can only truly understand and appreciate Filipino food with our taste buds. So dig in!