Food & Drinks, Life

My Filipino food and heritage isn’t for Americans to colonize

My culture isn't here for you to commodify.

If anything makes me feel most connected to my Filipino heritage, it’s my family’s food.

I feel rooted in our heritage and filled with nostalgia when I watch my mom cook adobo, kare kare or pinakbet. The fruits of her labor are an extension of our history, and that’s valuable to me.

The Filipino food scene is all about the family.

When I was younger and my family and I felt like venturing out of our own kitchen, the Filipino restaurants we found were always small and quaint but felt like home. They were family-owned establishments with little fanfare or fuss, and that was enough.

But we’ve always wondered why Filipino cuisine has never hit the mainstream like other popular Asian cuisine. All we know if that we love our food, but apparently it isn’t palatable enough for American standards. No big-name chefs have ever specialized in Filipino cuisine or have ever given our food the praise it deserves. That is until recently.

American chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain recently declared that Filipino food could be the next big food trend in the United States. According to Bourdain, Sisig, a popular sauteed pork dish, will be the crowning dish to win over American foodies. In fact, he believes in it so much that he’s adding Sisig to the menu of his future New York street market Bourdain Market.

Bourdain called Filipino food underrated, and I completely agree. But I also struggle with the narrative of a white man “discovering” new cuisine.

Let’s remember this: Filipino food isn’t newly unearthed. Filipino Americans make up the second largest Asian American group in the United States, and we’ve been here since the 1800s. So Filipino food in America has been a diasporic reality for decades.

But for years Filipino food has been outcasted by the global culinary scene. It’s often deemed hard to stomach, too sour or too bitter for “Western tastes.” People even make a spectacle out of national delicacies like Balut, a fertilized duck embryo, and grimace at Dinuguan, a stew made of pork meat and blood, vinegar and spices.

What’s unpalatable by American foodie standards is what makes Filipino food so dynamic. We use all parts of an animal, and a lot of our dishes take up nodes of vinegar and bitterness in the best way possible.

If Filipino cuisine makes the mainstream in the United States like Bourdain predicts, who will have the authority on Filipino cuisine? My problem with food trends centered around cuisines from different ethnic communities is how often those movements are not led by anyone from those communities.

We’ve seen this with popular Asian cuisines like Chinese or Japanese food. The Intersectional Analyst blog took to The New York Times Cooking to see how many Chinese recipes were authored by white chefs, and it turned out that of the 90% of the 263 entries under ‘Chinese’ were under White people.

It’s not the people of these respective ethnic backgrounds that are the leading voices of these cuisines – it’s White people.

If Filipino food is going to be the trend that Bourdain declares, then the movement has to be led by Filipino-Americans.

We’ve already been graced with young Filipino American-owned restaurants that have met remarkable success, from Washington D.C.’s Bad Saint and Purple Patch to New York City’s Jeepney and Maharlika. DC’s Bad Saint was even recently named the second best restaurant in the United States in 2016.

These restaurants are certainly not your father’s restaurant. These establishments put a chic, “modern” spin to the food Filipinos have known and loved, and are paving the way for other Filipino American chefs to make their marks on the scene.

In an interview with NBC Asian America, Nicole Ponesca, owner of NYC’s Jeepney and Maharlika, said she wanted to change the conversation about Filipino food and turn around anything in which she felt “hiya” (shame in Tagalog). She wanted to change the narrative on often-shamed delicacies like Balut and also wanted to normalize Kamayan dinners, where you use your hands to eat.

I am proud of my heritage, and as much as I love sharing my Filipino culture with others, I’m also protective of it. We’re not here to assimilate our food to bland palates. And we’re definitely not here to fill a void of hipster trends.

If Anthony Bourdain’s prediction comes to fruition, I want our community to take control of the national narrative of our people and culture, and the dynamic food we have to offer.

  • Alicia Soller

    Alicia Soller is a first generation-born Filipinx American digital storyteller committed to uplifting the narratives of communities of color. She is a graduate of the University of Florida, where she received her B.S. in Journalism and began her involvement with community organizing. She currently does freelance writing, marketing and design work with non-profit organizations.