For the first time this March, Filipino food will take centre stage at a major Australian food festival.
With three events over three days bringing together celebrated Filipino chefs and ambassadors from around the world, the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival showcase will include masterclasses, dinners, discussions and, for the food champions among us, celebration. It’s been a long time coming.
I’m also one of the headliners, joining New York restaurateur and newly anointed cookbook author Nicole Ponseca; Manila’s beloved Jordy Navarra, chef-owner of Toyo Eatery and 2018 winner of Asia's Best Restaurants Miele One to Watch award; and Ross Magnaye, executive chef at Melbourne’s lauded Rice Paper Sister, where one of the events (a collaborative dinner series named Barrio thanks to sponsors Cebu Pacific) will take place.
As the author of 7000 Islands: Cherished Recipes and Stories from the Philippines, I’ve observed and taken part as Filipino food has carved its way into public consciousness. Its early lack of representation was, in fact, the inspiration for my book. As the daughter of a Filipina and a curious food journalist, it plagued me that so little was known about the cuisine and country I loved, while knowledge about food from nearby Thailand and Vietnam was deep-set. It was echoed by a recurring question from friends or strangers I’d meet: “What is Filipino food?”
Six years since its first release, 7000 Islands has just been published in a new collector's edition. At the same time, respected publications (including The New York Times) have hailed the cuisine as ‘the next big thing’, and modern Filipino restaurants, like Sydney’s Rey’s Place, are opening their doors to throngs of excited diners.
Then there's The Entree.Pinays (pinay meaning women in Filipino): these female entrepreneurs are on a similar mission to spread the word about Filipino food – they're the ones spearheading the Filipino presence at the festival. “At the moment, there are community festivals and turo turo (eateries),” says The Entree.Pinays' Fides Santos-Arguelles, referring to events and shops traditionally geared towards the Filipino community. “But we are working towards greater awareness in the Australian mainstream.”
It plagued me that so little was known about the cuisine and country I loved, while knowledge about food from nearby Thailand and Vietnam was deep-set.
To make a case for Filipino food's place in the local culinary landscape, the group lays out stats: Australia is home to around 250,000 people of Filipino heritage and Philippine-born people are the fifth-largest migrant community in Australia.
“Never in our wildest dreams did we ever think we’d be speaking with – let alone hosting – the likes of Jordy Navarra, Nicole Ponseca, Yasmin Newman and Ross Magnaye,” says Grace Guinto, also from The Entree.Pinays. “Having reached out to key government departments, influencers and media, we are also thrilled for their support.”
While the menus are still being finalised (just to tease you a little more), I can personally guarantee flavour, and lots of it. Big, bold salty, sour, sweet, bitter and umami notes – colliding in delicious and sometimes unexpected combinations against a pure backdrop of rice – is a cornerstone of Filipino cuisine, along with a love of fresh seafood, oodles of noodles, the scent of charcoal barbecue and richly prepared meats, especially pork (just ask Anthony Bourdain).
For Magnaye, he's excited about the challenge of combining Australian ingredients with Filipino favourites – like Western Australian marron with bagoong (shrimp paste), perhaps? “Perfection!” he says.
When it comes to ingredients, his personal pick is a coconut vinegar from Davao, in the country’s south. “I love its unique flavour and diversity. You can use it in pork and chicken adobo, for kinilaw (ceviche) or simply for sawsawan (dipping sauce).”
My favourites? I can’t go past the Philippines’ awe-inspiring sweets and the exotic ingredients that bring them to life, from pinipig (toasted glutinous rice) and makapuno (a type of coconut) to ube, the naturally purple yam that stole global attention last year.
For attendees, each of the cooks and chefs will bring a unique perspective to the series of events. Magnaye, for example, is known for his modern, seasonal outlook; Navarra is lauded for his elevated approach; Ponseca brings an urban flair; and I celebrate rustic, home cooking and the stories behind Filipino food.
From tales of Arab traders, Chinese seafarers, Spanish conquistadors and American GI Joes to the Filipinos who took these influences and made them their own, come delicious dishes including bringhe (Filipino paella), crispy pata (deep-fried pork knuckle) and cassava and coconut caramel cake, and inimitable eating experiences – like the boodle fight. Filipino food is just waiting for you to discover it.
Get your fix of Filipino food through one of these events:
10 March, The Coopers Malthouse Theatre, 113 Sturt Street, Southbank
12-13 March, Rice Paper Sister, 15 Hardware Lane, Melbourne
11 March, Books for Cooks, 115-121 Victoria St, Melbourne
Unlike other chicken soup recipes, Filipino native chicken soup, or binakol, is made using coconut water instead of plain water or stock.
Sinigang is a popular Filipino soup with a trademark sour flavour. It can be made with meat or fish, like this recipe.
At work, my mother was affectionately known as the Cassava Queen. She made cassava cake countless times over the years for colleagues who repeatedly requested the exotic dessert for office gatherings. Also known as cassava bibingka, this Filipino classic is characterised by a springy, elastic texture. It is also very easy to make. Stock up on pre-grated frozen cassava from Asian grocery stores, then thaw when you are ready to begin the recipe.