23 years ago, when I started writing about food, Filipino cuisine was mostly unheard of outside the Philippines. I was jealous of the popularity of Thai and Vietnamese food abroad. On a trip to the US, I asked one American food journalist why Filipino food was not popular. He said it was too sour and brown. I clearly got the message that my food was unappetising and boring. It was bleak news for this aspiring food writer and food stylist.
Perhaps, this is how Asian school kids felt abroad as they opened their lunch box with their mum’s home-cooked food in it. I never felt embarrassed about my food. I continued eating it and cooking it. I have always wanted to share more of my culture and my cuisine. For many years, my editors were only interested in Filipino food as an exotic food feature. Balut, the fertilised duck embryo, was frequently used as a food challenge in shows like Fear Factor and Survivor.
To me, balut is a treat. It’s a meal in a shell. Crack the egg open and you are treated to the tastiest broth, tender yolk and duck fetus. I have spent some time stalking balut vendors for my articles.
Studying my gastronomy graduate degree in Adelaide many years ago, I had a pot-luck noodle party with my classmates from all over the world. The humble pancit palabok I cooked stood out from the Thai, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese and Chinese noodles. I was thrilled my classmates, a discriminating group of serious food lovers and chefs, appreciated the Filipino rice noodles topped with prawn-infused sauce, shredded dried fish, pork crackling, hard-boiled eggs and onions.
So I carried on, educating non-Filipinos to the varied flavours of my cuisine. I continued trying to pitch stories about Filipino food to foreign editors. My efforts were rewarded when I was commissioned to write an article in 2011 for CNN on 50 best Filipino dishes, explaining each dish and giving recommendations where to find them. When Super Typhoon Yolanda hit the Philippines badly in 2013, without giving it much thought, I turned on my video and shared my simple fundraising concept (Adobo Aid) to people all over the world: cook the national dish, adobo, in your workspace, pass a hat around to collect donations, then send the money to your Filipino charity of choice.
Adobo is a simple pork and chicken stew made of garlic, soy sauce, black peppercorn, vinegar, salt and bay leaf. And Adobo Aid was a hit: people all over the Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, Dubai, Brazil, Europe, the US and Canada joined this fundraiser. Thanks to the humble adobo – yes, the sour and brown signature dish of the Philippines – many Filipinos who lost their homes were helped.
For many years, my editors were only interested in Filipino food as an exotic food feature. Balut, the fertilised duck embryo, was frequently used as a food challenge in shows like Fear Factor and Survivor.
A few Saturdays ago, I was at the Warrandyte Riverside Market in Melbourne with some friends. While talking about Filipino food, I whet the appetites of my international companions from Malaysia, Singapore and Norway. They were curious to try Filipino food. We spontaneously headed to Chibog in West Footscray for lunch. I was given the task of ordering for the group. I was thrilled to find a local Filipino restaurant I could proudly bring my non-Filipino friends to. By the end of the meal, we had wiped out all eight dishes we ordered. They all loved it and even asked where they could buy the stinky bagoong condiment. My Norwegian friend was thrilled to finally find delicious non-spicy Asian food for a change. This Filipino continues to be proud of my cuisine, raring to introduce it to a world now ready to taste it.
23 years later, much has changed. Filipino food is now cool and well-received abroad. More people are curious to try it. To that American food journalist: no, Filipino food is not just brown and sour. We’ve got this vibrant purple yam called the ube. A few years ago, it was deemed to the next matcha, the next exciting flavour. There are now ube doughnuts, milk tea, bread, cakes, pancakes and desserts in New York, Melbourne and different parts of the world. Dr Mauve Bar & Lounge, a small cafe in the town of Bright, 200 kilometres away from Melbourne, even serves a delicious ube ice cream. There’s more to Filipino food than adobo. We’ve got kare kare, a thick hearty oxtail stew with vegetables thickened with peanuts and ground rice, and served with bagoong (shrimp paste). There’s sinigang, a comforting soup often soured with tamarind. Yes, we’ve got sisig made from the pig’s face, but there are also comforting coconut vegetables dishes like laing, spiced up with chillies. Our chocolate porridge is called champorado, and we have halo-halo, an ice dessert served with a plethora of ingredients. With 7,641 islands, more than 111 dialects, a population of 110 million people and a colourful history, I can assure you there’s more to Filipino cuisine than the 'brown and sour' stereotype. I dare you to try it.
The Unusual Suspects premieres Thursday, June 3 at 8:30 pm on SBS, with the full series also available then at SBS On Demand (full-series drop).
Filipino cuisine has an impressive lineup of cakes, and Brazo de Mercedes is no exception: a roll cake made from fluffy meringue, with a centre of rich egg yolk-based custard.
These rolls, from Yasmin Newman's 7000 Islands cookbook, are a popular way to eat leftover adobo in the Philippines.
Pancit palabok combines the quintessential flavours of the Phillipines in one succulent stir-fried seafood and noodle dish. Here, the addition of tsitsaron (crisp fried pork rinds) adds a wonderful flavour and texture and tells of the Spanish influence on the cuisine.