What is Filipino food?
Updated: Jan 25
For my They Draw and Cook Global Cuisine design challenge entry, I want to feature the Filipino culture of communal sharing at the table, with what is now happily called a "Boodle Fight", coined from the military style of dining as one. Laden with fresh banana leaves and foods varying from vegetable side dishes to seasonal fruits, grilled meats, a mélange of seafoods, of course, our staple, white rice and in many occasions, a roasted suckling pig aka lechon, the bountiful table showcases how Filipinos love feasting with family and friends indoors and at best by the beach on a hot summer's day. We eat with our hands, please!
That is the question, huh?
Filipinos are highly adaptable and that has influenced much of our culture, attitude, and more so our identity, which leaves most, if not all visitors confused. Even we Filipinos cannot clearly define ourselves when asked inevitable questions like, who are the Filipinos? What is Filipino food?
In my travels, I've grown tired of explaining to friends and people from all over what is typical from the islands and it's becoming really irritating defending our beloved dishes that our mothers, grandmothers, great grandmothers, and ancestors lovingly cooked for us. So I just cook a dish or two for my guests and have them describe it themselves.
Yes, WE LOVE OUR FOOD. Unfortunately just like our country's ill reputation in tourism, in spite of the innate beauty of the more than 7,000 islands, our cuisine is vaguely cited in the culinary world, in spite of the earthly infusion of flavours that embodies Filipino food. The notorious "Balut" does not really fare well as the Pinoy food ambassador. In fact, there is not one definition for the Filipino food taste. Sweet, sour, a little bit spicy, heavy, soupy, porky… Need I say that Filipino food is never intended to be gourmet?
Filipino food is simple. We are not compelled to complicate our food with strong flavours, spices and flourishes.
Gourmet food is daunting to most Filipinos, which probably explains why the newly opened five-star restaurant in the corner is already closing down and which is why the newly installed grilled chicken kiosk is almost always an overnight sensation. With industrious people who work as long as there is daylight, we don't have the luxury to decorate our dishes. As soon as it is cooked, the food is laid out on the table with banana leaves functioning both as plates and "table cloth" that we eat with our hands and family, friends and neighbors by the beach as the sun sets. And then we entertain ourselves with our own musical numbers.
Filipinos are resourceful yet thrifty. We do not waste anything as each grain of rice is equivalent to every drop of sweat and tears from tilling the soil that grows the very rice served on our table. (Whenever I eat rice, I still clean my plate from every bit of grain stuck onto it). Every part of the animal we butchered is dropped into the cauldron along with the home-grown ingredients to come up with a simple yet satisfying meal. The farmer would rather sacrifice his pig or chicken because the cow and the water buffalo is more helpful in farming. But the humble porker's status is elevated as the lechon becomes the centre piece in our most important celebrations. Prior to refrigeration and because electricity is such a commodity (even until now), we try to keep the food as long as we can, hence the sour base that is ever present in most Filipino dishes, and we have perfected this technique to improve the flavours over time. Food extenders work well for our extended families. As for the fruits and vegetables, we wait until it's their time to reign, ready for the picking and pickling or until the jeepney delivery arrives from the mountains amidst typhoons, landslides and bandit raids.
"Tuloy po, Kayo" means "Please come in"
If there's one trait we're proud of, it's our hospitality. We are too welcoming to visitors that we let them have our own beds and even our country (for nearly 4 centuries)! We treat our guests as kings and queens and we make it our point to serve the best meals to our clueless callers. We give what we ourselves would fight over the table: the oxtail, fish head, chicken feet, pork innards… We simply ask our honored guests to trust us on this because we know what's in their plates, we invented it and we eat it too! We only forget to tell them that it is not supposed to be gourmet and that is because the word is not in our vocabulary.
Filipino food is simple. We are not compelled to complicate our food with strong flavours, spices and flourishes. We use what nature has bestowed upon us and we keep it down to earth. We cook with our hearts and more importantly, share it with our loved ones. We love it and we'll keep on craving for it.