Yesterday, via my Twitter account and Facebook Page, I shared a piece from The Atlantic Wire about Halo Halo, the unique Filipino dessert loved by millions. The article discussed the ingredients of Halo Halo and the author offered how, growing up, he never got into it or understood its seemingly strange combination of ice cream, gelatin, shaved ice, milk, leche flan, beans, ube paste and, occasionally, strips of langka (jackfruit). Ostensibly, the article is about Halo Halo but really, for me, it answers a question I’ve been pondering for months, even years: When is Filipino food going to get its day in the sun here in America? Based on the article, written by Alexander Abad-Santos, the answer is now.
Growing up in Hong Kong, which is one of the most diverse cities in the world, in a multicultural household (I’m Fil-Am and so is my mother and our American side comes from German stock. My father is Filipino but with Spanish and Chinese heritage; his mother was half Manchurian.), savouring different kinds of cuisine was never an issue for me or my brother and sisters. We enjoyed full scale Chinese banquets at Fumania and Yung Kee, humbler ngau lam lo mein (beef brisket over noodles) at local noodle shops, Bulgogi and Tempura Udon at our favourite Korean and Japanese food spots in Causeway Bay, five-star Western dishes at Landau’s, fast food at McDonald’s and Indian and Pakistani food at various spots throughout Hong Kong and in several friends’ homes. My favourite Lasagna and my favourite Cannelloni, to this day, are the ones I’ve eaten at Rigoletto, which was located in the area where Wanchai and Causeway Bay meet. Dim sum was enjoyed at City Hall and, of course, at the Luk Yuen Tea House, located in the Western District of Central. At home, my mother cooked up all sorts of stuff, too. For Christmas – we didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving until we moved to America – we’d enjoy a roasted turkey with my German-American grandfather’s chestnut stuffing.
Food, ‘different’ food, for my family was never a thing or a trend. We eat what we like when we’re in the mood for it and we like a nice variety of cuisines. In the mid-1980s, however, with an apparent global health kick, Japanese food was touted as the healthiest food one could get and the savior to battle obesity and rising cholesterol levels. At the same time, egg yolk, which recent studies show is not bad for you, was among the rising stars of culinary health villains. As a result of this, Japanese food surged in popularity. I recall a minor spike in Indian food popularity in the late 1980s, shortly after moving to the United States, and, in the 1990s, there seemed to be a boost in Spanish food. In the early 2000s, I noticed a sharp increase in the number of Vietnamese restaurants opening up. Sadly, the number of Vietnamese restaurants that popped up appear to have vanished just as quickly, at least here in New Jersey. Thai restaurants started to pop up in the late 1980s but they seemed to have their sharpest popularity spike in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I’m glad to report that within the last year a new spot has opened up close to home. More recently, restaurants offering Thai but also Indonesian and Malaysian cuisine have been growing in number. My favourite is Penang in East Hanover, New Jersey.
So, with food popularity ever changing, it’s only a matter of time before Filipino food, the taste of my native land, comes into vogue. And, being a country with a storied history and diversity within its shores, it has something to offer every palate. The Philippines, being the largest archipelago in Southeast Asia, has an abundance of seafood. Rice, a staple in the Filipino diet, like it is in other Asian cuisines, is commonly offered plain or fried with browned garlic. In addition to rice as part of the main dish, there’s an array of rice-based desserts to enjoy; treats like Bibngka, Puto Bongbong, Kutsinta (my personal favourite), to name a few. Many of our dishes are stew-type. There’s Adobo, the peanut-sauced Kare Kare, Afritada. Many of these kinds of dishes can be made with chicken, pork or seafood. Coconut milk is often added to Filipino dishes and these dishes can be made with and without it, illustrating the chameleon-like adaptability and palate of the Filipino. Paksiw is a seasoned fish stew that has a version that is made with coconut milk and one without it. Pork is another staple in the Filipino diet and it comes in the aforementioned stew-type dishes but is also enjoyed grilled, Inihaw na Baboy. Click here for my recipe for that. Not to be left out, Kaldereta Kambing is a dish that is best described as a Filipino sister of Indonesia’s Beef Rendang but with goat meat.
Not to be outdone by the Chinese, who waste nothing (think Fung Chow, steamed Chicken Feet, which is one of my favourite dim sum offerings), Filipino cuisine includes Chicken Ass, the fried butt of the chicken which is perfect with a serving of garlic rice. Banana leaves are often used on top of the plate or serving dish at Filipino restaurants. Another kind of leaf, those from taro after the root has been used to make a variety of other dishes, is made into a dish called Laing, which sees the leaves stewed in coconut milk and garnished with green chili pepper to give it a little bite. Then, there is Sisig. Simply put, Sisig is a sizzling plate of a pig’s snout, ears and tail seasoned with garlic, pepper and salt and dipped in a soy sauce-vinegar combo when eaten. Often, a raw egg is served on top and mixed in with the pig parts on the sizzling plate. This version of Sisig is one of the more traditional ones. In today’s modern and, perhaps, more squeamish times, Sisig is more commonly made with diced pork. And, for the truly brave at heart, there is Balut, an embryonic duck egg, boiled just so and eaten from the shell with Filipino rock salt.
From what I know, The Philippines is the only country in Southeast Asia that was conquered and ruled by western countries from both parts of the western world. Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan led a Spanish galleon, via Mexico, to The Philippines. Eventually – the armada’s first attempt failed thanks to Lapu Lapu, the country’s first national hero – Spain conquered the island nation that would become The Philippines (named after King Philip II of Spain). In addition to Catholicism, language, architectural innovations, Spain’s culinary influence on the natives also made an impact. Adobo is largely a Spanish-originated dish. The Philippines now has longanisa, which is arguably derived from the Spanish chorizo. Filipinos have their own versions of tapa that range from a dry but tender variety to a softer kind (Bistek) seasoned with soy sauce (toyo in Tagalog) and kalamansi. When the Americans took over, after the Spanish-American War, and with its continuous influence stretching up to and through World War II, American flavours have taken hold as well. Spaghetti is an Italian dish but it was likely introduced – Spaghetti and Meatballs – to Filipinos through the Americans. Whoever introduced it, there is now something called ‘Filipino Spaghetti,’ which boasts a sugariness that is not typically found in other forms of the pasta dish. And, of course, as every Filipino will attest, there is Spam. Spam, in a strange way (to Americans), is a delicacy to the Filipino. Sliced Spam in warm pandesal is a common midafternoon snack.
As a widely used port for traders, The Philippines met the world and the Chinese settled in as well. The Chinese influence in Filipino food can be seen, largely, in our noodle dishes, some of which resemble the lo mein you can get in some Chinese and Chinese-American restaurants. Char Siu Bao, a steamed bready white bun with roast pork inside has also been evolved in The Philippines into a steamed bready white bun with a sweeter pork inside, less red in colour, called Siopao.
Even as a single nation, the variety of Filipino dishes is rampant. Adobo, for instance, is the national dish but there are variations based on cooking style and regional origin. Some versions of Adobo are saucier and darker, with more toyo, than other varieties. Some are boiled then friend twice, reducing the toyo, rendering the sauce into a lighter and thicker oil dip. Some version are made with chicken, some with pork, some with shrimp, some with a combination of the three and others have liver thrown in. And this is just with Adobo. The same kinds of – and more – variations exist with other dishes.
So, really, Filipino food does have something for everyone. When pressed for a quick explanation of what Filipino food is like, I usually say something like, “Take Spanish food, Chinese food and a roaming goat or pig and mash it up. Throw in some coconut milk and serve it over rice and there you go.” To some, that might not sound exactly appealing. When you break it down to its component parts, though, the options are endless; or, at least, as varied as the country’s more than 7,000 islands.
For a sample of Filipino food recipes, check out this link. http://www.filipinofoodrecipes.net/
If you’re not prepared to cook them yourself but you’re ready to try some of our dishes, here’s a list of some of the Filipino restaurants in and around New York City.
Grill 21 http://www.thegrill21.com/
Click here for Mr. Abad-Santos’s article.