A Filipino’s Food Pride Runs Deep

My pride in Filipino food is marred with a long-running underdog complex. I once brought <i>paksiw</i> to my workplace, doused so enthusiastically with fish sauce a colleague actually remarked, “What smells like wet boot?”

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Sep 14 2015, 4:00pm

Photo via Flickr user allthingschill

A large part of my self esteem derives from my Filipino heritage and the weird and/or heinous things we eat. It's as though certain dishes have given me a point of difference from my Anglo friends: "Here is a picture of me eating a stillborn duck fetus" or "My lunch contains shrimp paste and peanut butter." And let's not forget the time I brought paksiw to my workplace, doused so enthusiastically with fish sauce a colleague actually remarked, "What smells like wet boot?"

When my mother visits her local butcher, she points to the beef bones and orders a kilo. Oftentimes the butcher asks, "For your dog?" She laughs and replies, "No! My people use this for soup."

My pride in Filipino food is marred with a long-running underdog complex. In Sydney, Thai takeouts dominate the main drag of my neighbourhood, while Pinoy restaurants total three in the whole city. Vietnamese is also on the up-and-up, thanks to its herb-fresh vermicelli salads and generations-perfected pho broth. But what of triple-fried pig's trotters and the tangy surprise of sinegang?

And let's not forget the time I brought paksiw to my workplace, doused so enthusiastically with fish sauce a colleague actually remarked, 'What smells like wet boot?'

It comes down to marketing. In what's been coined "gastrodiplomacy," the South Korean government has come up with numerous events to introduce international chefs and journalists to the flavours of Korea. I, in fact, attended one such media dinner in which I was fed a multi-course extravaganza and walked out with a gift basket of Korean ingredients so heavy that I was forced to hail a cab. Short of a petition for the Philippine government to do the same, I believe it's on us Filipinos to do the spruiking. Cook for your friends, neighbours, and co-workers. Instagram the better-looking staples. If we each convert a newbie to love the cuisine, we can all stop complaining about our under-appreciated culinary hotchpotch. (Disclaimer: vegetarians are very much at a loss.)

Unless you have a friend or lover from the 7,000-plus-island archipelago, perhaps you haven't yet had a taste. May I direct you, then, to the entry-level's favourite: chicken adobo, or the tomato-rich beef afritada. With a few eggs and a smoky, barbecued eggplant, you can make my utmost favourite: tortang talong, an omelette of sorts in which a charred, roasted eggplant is butterflied, fried with beaten egg, and served with vinegar and rice.

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I'm currently living in Lyon, milking one of those year-long visas they give cheese enthusiasts and vin rouge freaks. As we know, French food is refined and technique-driven; ingredients have an air of sophistication (lookin' at you, truffle-specked Dijon mustard). Filipino food, by contrast, will never win the fancy contest. But so what? It's fun and comes with rice! It's cheap-cheap. The eating of it is messy and perilous. It straight-up sheds ego from the dining equation.

Pancit Palabok 3

Pancit palabok. Photo courtesy of Trissalicious.
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As I'm sure you can relate, my life is richer for having eaten certain things. That's the lotto of life, right? Italians hold all pasta-bragging rights, Greeks are octopus masters, and Hawaiians have their bowls. For example, it's through certain dishes that I finally understand the very-real poverty of my family. My late-grandmother lost her shit for lugaw—a congee-like soup of rice, chicken, garlic, and tofu. A plastic bag of it costs a dollar or so at a street stall. She daily longed for this simple, hearty sludge and I was eager to try it.

Of course, the nearest lugaw stall was just 100 metres from where she lives. We handed over a few pesos and took a seat as the wife-and-husband team, who greeted my relatives by first name, prepared shallow metal bowls of the steamy broth. Fried cubes of tofu or pork come with, as does sweet soy for drizzling into the pale rice soup. Slurping it by the plastic spoonful, I was relieved to find I loved it. Each mouthful confirmed what we know to be true: a good meal can cost you hundreds, a great one nothing at all.

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In February 2013, I flew to my mother's native Taguig, in southeastern Manila, for my grandmother's 85th birthday. The family home is a basic structure subdivided into four "apartments" shared by various aunts and uncles. I splurged on food supplies because I had the means and because splurging equalled one fancy dinner in Sydney—if that. In broken Tagalog, I asked, "Inang, what would you like to eat for your birthday? Anything at all." Turns out she didn't mind which dishes were served, so long as there were enough leftovers for her to prepare take-home packages for her best friends.

Urged by family members I'd met just days earlier, I drank nasty rum in front of my littlest cousins and passed around the karaoke mic. Even the dirt-poor know how to party.

Lists were made, ingredients were bought, and my aunty got started on pancit palabok and pork afritada. (Plus, a purple slab cake was ordered that very near fed the whole street.) After the meal, the party kicked on. Urged by family members I'd met just days earlier, I drank nasty rum in front of my littlest cousins and passed around the karaoke mic. Even the dirt-poor know how to party.

After two weeks spent merrily examining the food of my mother's youth, we flew home and landed in Sydney, only to receive word that my grandmother had passed away while we were in transit.

My mother was distraught as her legs gave out following the news. "Don't leave me, Inang," she wailed over and over. Though it was too early to say, I was grateful that we were there for her last hurrah, that I'd laughed with her and held her frail figure close for one last hug.

Right now, my own mother is oceans away and, like countless expats, I miss her cooking: her paksiw, her busy-with-peppercorns adobo, her beef soup with bok choy and, weirdly, corn cobs. In this swell digital age, I call her over the internet and take notes; stirring with one hand, seasoning with another, a phone wedged between my cheek and shoulder as she instructs me: "Fry the sibuyas and bawang, OK? Not too long!" Subtext tells me she knows I really haven't got a hang of this at all. Bless her heart, the woman keeps it to herself.