Today I want to talk about Filipino food. I am half-Filipino (on my mother’s side), and half-Caucasian. I grew up eating a very unique mix of cuisine, mostly American, but with some Filipino influences along with traditional Jewish food. My best friend growing up (hey Camille!) is also Filipino (we were paired in Kindergarten because we were both brown, so thanks for building a lasting friendship, racist Kindergarten teachers!), and so I would sometimes get invited to Filipino parties. Now, for non-Filipinos, pinoy people LOVE throwing parties…And these are not your typical dinner parties. They are all out, invite the entire neighborhood over, let’s have a potluck with 50 people and teach all the titas how to dance the “Cha Cha Slide” kind of parties. And the biggest center of all of these celebrations is one thing: FOOD.
For non-Filipinos, food from the Philippines can be intimidating because it is not common to find in a typical Asian restaurant….You can find Thai, Chinese, Japanese, etc. everywhere, but not Filipino. I have not found a good answer anywhere for why there are no FIlipino restaurants. but this article starts to answer that question.
Why do you think Filipino food has not broken into the mainstream American restaurant diet?
Filipinos are the second largest Asian minority group in the United States, and in the top tier of highest educated and income. And we speak English in the Philippines — it’s a mainstream language for us. We fought in the US military, we were allies of the United States and had a military base. Yet we know food from Thailand, Korea, and Vietnam more than we know Filipino food.
One of the reasons could be that we were not raised to be entrepreneurs. We were raised to be doctors, lawyers — risk-averse careers. I do think there’s a Filipino renaissance right now with artists and entrepreneurs.
Second, there’s a [Tagalog] word called hiya, which means shame. That’s why [some restaurants] give the “white-man menu” [to customers] because they think they’re not going to like dinuguan, which is a pork blood stew. But why have hiya when the French have boudin noir and the Spanish have morcilla? It is because when you’re colonized over so many years, you don’t value your own culture, even though we have so much pride.
My mother, my brother, and I are all chemical engineers. Camille is a nurse now, as her mother was before her. So maybe there is some truth into Filipinos being pressured to follow “risk-averse” career paths, I’m not sure. But anyway, what it comes down to is that there are very few true Filipino restaurants in the United States.
If you are lucky enough to find a Filipino restaurant, TRY IT. Filipino cuisine is very unique…Think of it is a fusion of Malaysian, Spanish, and Chinese foods (we were a Spanish colony for a very long time). Filipino food has a lot of range, but key flavors are savory, sweet, garlic, pepper, vinegar, etc….We cook a lot of pork too. I will give you some basic foods that I have loved some childhood, and if you see them on the menu you can definitely order them knowing that even my kano fiance loves to eat them (he’s super white and grew up eating chicken wings and pizza).
- Lechón – This is a whole roasted pork, typical served in bite size pieces for easy dipping into Mang Tomas sauce, which is a liver-based sauce that is a little sweet. This is my absolute FAVORITE Filipino dish, which is normally reserved for special occasions (think Christmas, weddings, etc.), so if you see it you should order it immediately! The pig is roasted whole so all of the juices stay intact…The best part is the super fatty pork belly where the outside skin is cooked crispy and there’s still fat leftover (yes, it’s supposed to be fatty). It’s soo good, you won’t even think about the calories! haha
- Lumpia – Lumpia are Filipino pork egg rolls, rolled tight and thin. There’s no cabbage or carrots in these babies, just pure meat! They’re awesome and they normally come with a sweet red chili sauce for dipping. My 99 year old grandma rolls these by hand still, and sometimes she lets me bring home some frozen ones when I come home for Christmas. They taste like my childhood. In my household, we always ate them dipped in white vinegar (vinegar is a very popular ingredient in Filipino cuisine).
- Adobo (typically chicken, sometimes pork) – Every Filipino tita (that means “aunty” for non-Filipinos) has their own recipe for adobo. I’ll post my recipe in another blog post if you want to try it. But the basic ingredients are chicken or pork, a 1:1 ratio of soy sauce and vinegar, black pepper, garlic, and whatever other secret ingredients you have to make your adobo special (I also add bay leaves and a little bit of brown sugar). The meat is slow cooked for hours until it is super tender. This is something that we would eat regularly (like every other week) in my house.
- Pancit (or Pansit) Bihon – Thin, Filipino rice noodles served with soy sauce, lemon, sliced meat, and sliced veggies. My grandma always served our pancit with slices of lemon so we could squeeze more lemon juice over the top. My brother loves pancit, and will eat at least a pound of it if you put it in front of him.
Those are the basic Filipino dishes. I will come back and write another blog post for “Advanced” Filipino dishes, like longanisa and kare-kare, but this should at least get you started with some of the most approachable Filipino foods. Now go out and try it!