Kate Walton tweeted that Filipino food was "bland" and the "worst in the region". But what do Filipino's think about that?
By
Pilar Mitchell

16 May 2019 - 12:24 PM  UPDATED 16 May 2019 - 2:37 PM

"Kumain ka na ba?" is one of the few Tagalog greetings I remember from my childhood, but it's an essential one. It means, "Have you eaten yet?"

It's a misleading question. Nobody cares if you've already eaten; Filipinos always insist that you have more.

"Everything is centred around food in the Philippines," food photographer Luisa Brimble tells SBS Food. "To get to know someone, you talk around a meal. It's a common language."

You can't judge an entire country’s food on a couple of dishes.

If food is central to Filipino culture and identity, then insulting the food is like insulting an entire people.

That's why Cornell University instructor Tom Pepinsky's tweet ranking Filipino food last on a list of South East Asian cuisines stings so much. And that's why Kate Walton declaring that the food is "bland" and "the worst in the region" incited anger online.

 

Bland? Have they ever burnt their tongues on a chilli-laden Bicol Express? Have they ever eschewed vinegary sawsawan dipping sauce because a good Cebu Lechon is already so flavourful it needs no accompaniment?

IT'S GOT SO MANY FLAVOURS!
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It's hard to say what informed their opinions, but if they're based off an unfortunately dry pancit (noodle dish) or the strange mouth feel of balut (partially-developed duck egg), then the conclusions aren't fair. It’s like someone saying they don't like Thai because all they've had is takeaway green curry. 

If food is central to Filipino culture and identity, then insulting the food is like insulting an entire people.

You can't judge an entire country's food on a couple of dishes, particularly when the culinary history is so diverse and informed by centuries of colonisation and trade.

If Filipino food is as good as we think it is, why hasn’t it taken off like Vietnamese or Thai?

In an interview with Splendid Table author, Amy Besa puts Filipino cuisine into two categories: "food that was always ours" and "food we borrowed and made our own". In the first category fall the vinegar-dominated cooking methods of adobo (braised meat), sinigang (sour broth) and kinilaw (ceviche). In the second category, there are influences from China, Spain and America.

Rey's Place chef Nico Madrangca's favourite examples of Filipino food fall neatly in Besa's categories. "We've got siomai sa tisa, a pork dumping dipped in garlic sauce. And in Cebu ginabot is famous. It's vinegar-marinaded, pork intestine crackling. You dip it in sawsawan, which has soy, vinegar, tomatoes, onions and chilli."

Surely Walton doesn't really think food like this could be bland.

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Let's play devils advocate for a minute. If Filipino food is as good as we think it is, why hasn't it taken off like Vietnamese or Thai (numbers one and four on Pepinsky’s list)?

Maybe Filipinos are uncertain that others will appreciate their food. I remember my mum eating bagoong (fermented shrimp paste) smeared on mango after the rest of the family had left the table. She thought the pungent smell might offend us and didn’t want our complaints to spoil her treat.

Rey's Place owner Jonathan Bayad understands this sentiment. "I think there's a bit of fear that people won’t like the food; there are some dishes that are an acquired taste."

Maybe Filipino food isn't popular yet because it's still in its first wave in Australia.

But he also thinks proximity is a problem. "The stronghold for Filipino food in Sydney has always been out west. If the community was in Newtown instead, so many people would have tried Filipino food."

Will Mahusay, owner of Sydney Cebu Lechon, has broken the mould and opened in Newtown. "Sixty per cent of our customers are non-Filipinos which tells me that slowly but surely our food is getting recognised," he says.

Maybe it's just that Filipino food is still in its first wave in Australia, meaning it's mostly served the traditional way in the outer suburbs of capital cities. In America, the second wave has begun. People are comfortable enough to start riffing on the flavours and ingredients to create something modern.

THE DISHES ARE NEVER ENDING
Filipino chicken noodle soup (sotanghon)

This simple Filipino chicken-noodle soup stands or falls on the quality of the stock; by cooking the chook in chicken stock (home made, please!), you get a doubly-rich liquid with lots of flavour and body.

"I went to LA where the Filipino food movement has blown up. It's not traditional anymore. If you want to mainstream Filipino food, you have to introduce it in a different way," says Brimble.

Filipina cultural historian Doreen Gamboa Fernandez once wrote, "Food to the Filipino is history. It is also bond, culture and identity."

Walton has since apologised for her tweet, but the online consensus is too little, too late. The next time she makes a throwaway comment that encompasses a country's culture and identity, I hope she approaches it with the sensitivity it demands.

Love the story? Follow the author on Instagram @cultofclothes

ALL ABOUT FILIPINO FOOD
Coconut water chicken soup (binakol)

Unlike other chicken soup recipes, Filipino native chicken soup, or binakol, is made using coconut water instead of plain water or stock.

Sour soup with tiger grouper (sinigang)

Sinigang is a popular Filipino soup with a trademark sour flavour. It can be made with meat or fish, like this recipe. 

Meet the #uglydelicious sizzling sisig platter, the beloved Filipino pork dish you need to try
This new Marrickville eatery offers much-loved Filipino comfort food that brings the country’s complex culinary history to light.
Cebu lechon, the Filipino whole roasted suckling pig that draws crowds across Sydney
So famed is the Cebu version of lechon, it's not uncommon to fly a whole pig from Cebu to Manila, but we've got a version right here. Be prepared to queue at Sydney Cebu Lechon.
Filipino rolls filled with adobo (adobo pandesal)

These rolls, from Yasmin Newman's 7000 Islands cookbook, are a popular way to eat leftover adobo in the Philippines.

How to cook Filipino
Filipino cuisine takes its influences from a number of cultures, mainly Chinese and Spanish. Before Spanish colonies settled in the region, the produce available in the Philippines, as well as the methods used to cook it, came from neighbouring China. Rice was widely cultivated and ingredients such as soy sauce, tofu and bean sprouts were traded into the Philippines. When the Spanish arrived, they brought supplies from the Americas such as corn, tomatoes and potatoes, and introduced different styles of cooking, such as frying. The Filipino longanisa sausage is very similar to the Spanish chorizo. Today, the Philippines is known for its sweet, sour and salty cuisine, and communal way of eating.
In the kitchen: Filipino
Cuisine from the Philippines has evolved over centuries to include a diverse array of dishes – from pinakbet to paella – that fuse the best flavours from the east and west.
Crisp-fried pork belly with sticky tomato shrimp paste sauce (binagoongang baboy)

Filipinos go gaga for binagoongan. It combines two of their most cherished foods – deep-fried pork and bagoong (shrimp paste). The key to this recipe is the guisado base of garlic, onion and tomato. Don’t rush the process, particularly with the tomato; you want to slowly cook it down for a sticky, almost caramelised, finish.

Chicken and coconut milk adobo (adobong manok sa gata)

Compared to Italian, French or even Thai cookbooks, there are only a handful written about the food of the Philippines and even fewer that document the country’s culinary history. Part of this small group is Memories of Philippine Kitchens written by Filipino-Americans Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan. Their book has provided me with boundless information and inspiration, including a recipe for adobo with coconut milk. Coconut milk melds magically with vinegar, tempering the acid base of adobo and adding a creamy richness. This loose adaptation of Besa and Dorotan’s recipe is also derived from other versions I have enjoyed, which add turmeric for its yellow tint or ginger for its zing.