Thoughts on No Reservations Philippines: Part 1

So, I know I’m tardy on my promise to blog my thoughts on the much-anticipated episode of No Reservations in the Philippines, and it’s frankly because I wanted to watch the episode at least one more time before weighing in. In case you don’t stalk food blogs like I do, let me just say there has been quite a bit of controversy about the episode, with the high (or low?) point being renowned Filipino blogger MarketMan’s outburst for the haters to leave poor Augusto alone. So, yes, I am a bit nervous about putting out my thoughts on this episode given the fact I might be torn to shreds for saying one negative thing (and sorry, I will be), and I’ll be taking my time to write up my full review as I rewatch the show, segment by segment.

First, though: Who’s Augusto? What’s the controversy? Let me break it down for you real quick. Augusto, the Filipino American man who came in second place in last year’s fan contest (winner gets to take Bourdain to their location of choice for a taping of No Reservations), was brought back in as one of Tony Bourdain’s ‘local guides’ when they finally decided to shoot an episode of the show in the Philippines. Augusto, raised in Long Island, NY and having only spent a total of one week in the Philippines prior to this episode, did not, let’s say, “perform” his knowledge or love for the Philippines properly, or so the critics claim. Battle royale ensues.

Before I weigh in on the Augusto situation, let me share some thoughts on the other segments of the episode before he really enters the picture: the segments filmed in Manila and Angeles City/Pampanga. And before we get any farther, I should let you know up front: this episode made my soul hurt, and not necessarily in a good way.

Part 1: Bourdain in Manila

Tony Bourdain starts the episode in Manila, guided by Ivan Man Dy, proprietor of Old Manila Walks and professional foodie tour guide for primarily non-Filipino tourists. As most of my family that still lives in the PI live in the Metro Manila area, and it’s the part of the country I’ve spent the most time in, I was super excited for this segment. The two began in Binondo (the “Chinatown” of Manila) and are shown in the famous food market (dampa) in Cubao. They eat, they chat, it’s business as usual on No Reservations.

First thought: for a foodie tour guide, Man Dy’s factual statements on Filipino cuisine seemed a little… different than how I’ve learned about Filipino food from my family, from cookbooks, Filipino chefs, and other sources. For example, his definition of adobo as “anything that’s cooked with soy sauce, garlic, peppercorn, and onions” just had me shaking my head. I’m wondering if they cut out the first part of his list of ingredients, because the KEY ingredient to adobo is not soy sauce, but vinegar. As the existence of adobo puti attests to, and the writings by folks like the authors of The Adobo Book I reviewed a few posts back corroborates, you can certainly have adobo without the soy. Oy.

My second thought was that as engaging as Ivan is, I can’t get over the fact he’s calling nearly all the food items not by their proper Filipino names, but instead listing their ingredients and likening them to American/Western dishes. Taho, the breakfast treat of the masses, is simply referred to as “tofu with tapioca syrup.” Now, when those taho vendors are walking down the residential streets in the early morning, they’re certainly not yelling out “tofu with tapioca syrup” to entice the people to buy… they’re calling out “TAHO!” The pancit (“which can mean anything”), the “chicken balls” dipped in “spicy sauce,” and the “pork rind” (chicharron) are similarly treated, and I can’t stop cringing every time a new dish comes on screen.

I’d like to believe Ivan knows better, and maybe this is how he makes Filipino food palatable to the ‘average’ non-Filipino/Western tourist, but c’mon. This is a foodie show! It would behoove the viewer, and Bourdain, to learn what the names of some of these foods are… so when you (the ‘average’ US-based viewer trying out Filipino food for the first time) are in a Filipino joint in Daly City or Queens, you’ll know that pancit means a noodle dish and that bagoong is the ‘shrimp paste’ Ivan refers to. I mean, if you went to an Italian restaurant, you wouldn’t just ask for “the starch with the red sauce,” now would you? Why should Filipino cuisine be flattened out to a few banal descriptives unconnected to the actual names of any of these dishes or ingredients?

I mean, even the famous jeepneys, those brightly-painted former US military trucks now used as public transport for the majority of Manila’s citizens (at least those who can’t afford drivers and armored cars…) are called “jeeps.” Can we call things what they are, please?

I don’t mean to hate on Ivan, but as the first “food ambassador” to Bourdain in this episode, he got me worried as to what would be following. While I loved his enthusiasm and clear love for Filipino cuisine, I wish he would have given Bourdain (and the viewers) the benefit of the doubt and called just the food by its local names. Is that too much to ask?

But moving on… In this introductory segment, Bourdain begins sharing a quick-and-dirty summary of 500+ years of Filipino history, emphasizing the cultural/ethnic mix of Spanish/Mexican, Malay, Chinese, and US influences on Filipino culture, particularly the cuisine. Ok, valid claim. As you’ll see as the episode progresses, this will become the refrain of the show, with any and everyone featured proclaiming this hybridity. Unfortunately, the ultimate take-away from all this lamenting/praising of the ‘mixed’ Filipino culture is that this is perhaps the reason why 1) Filipino cuisine is not popular in the US, and 2) why Filipino/American people have no discernible identity or culture. !!!

Wha? Yes, dear readers, if you know anything at all about me, you’ll understand when I say that this constant refrain of cultural assimilation and dilution had me absolutely fuming. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In the next post, I’ll share some thoughts on Bourdain’s next stop: Angeles City / Pampanga… so hold off your flaming of my review just yet, please!

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Posted on February 20, 2009, in mutterings and musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Great post! I don’t think this episode has hit the airwaves in Canada just yet so I haven’t seen it myself. However, I have been looking forward to your commentary on it and you didn’t disappoint.

  2. hon- the YouTube links I’m posting are segments– the entire episode is on YouTube in five or so parts! I’ll be putting up the relevant segments here but you can always look up the rest and see it all 🙂

  3. WCS Minor Circuit

    Good post. I think Ivan using non-Filipino terms for Filipino food is a good example of trying to avoid any “foreigner confusion”, which of course is popular in the Philippines (I’ve seen many foreigners have a hard time learning Tagalog in the Philippines because Filipinos refuse to speak to them in their own language, opting for English instead).

    All of this being said, I cringed whenever things on the show were mislabeled, not by Bourdain but by the Filipinos presenting them. It really bothered me. I can relate to you when you said “this episode made my soul hurt, and not necessarily in a good way.” I’m eager to hear your take on Augusto.

  4. Nicole Schauder

    I think Ivan did his best. And trust me, I was going it’s “Taho” to my husband and he was like “what?” Then, I had to explain
    “It’s tapioca with syrup..” Explaining takes too much air time.
    So for a foreign audience this was a good take. For a Pinoy audience, I think, it was still a good take. Other any other Pinoy food docus out there? At least it gets us talking about things like officially, Adobo must have vinegar (which btw, my husband also said while watching the episode).
    But what I really wanted to ask you was… Are you born and raised here? I just notice Fil/Ams born and raised here say PI (which is a pre-war term) instead of RP. No offense to you meant, just curious.
    Kumain at magsaya!
    Nicky

  5. Nicky- yes, I was born and raised in the US, but that’s not why I say PI instead of RP. I wouldn’t mind calling the Philippines a republic if it actually functioned as one, instead of as the Southeast Asian arm of the US empire…. but anyway. We’re here to talk about the food, no?

  6. I saw this episode. It has to be said that the host, Anthony Bourdain, is a partying man who absued drugs for most of his life – it shows on the haggard facial lines, the nicotine-stained teeth and yes, the bitter cynicism that poses as dark wit tempered with absurdist musings – and his show reflects the bilious stew of Bourdain’s preference: “authenticity” means pig parts usually not consumed by the average person and joy means the fantasy of a quaint, tribal menu. He did not like this trip, it is obvious, but it may have nothing to do with the Philippines as much as Bourdain’s postcolonial id. Watch his episode on Vietnam, a country he gushes over. The Americans almost decimated that country and it kicked back, thrived and now seems to Bourdain a serene, mystical country full of pig parts for the tourist to enjoy. Vietnam kicked America’s ass while the Philippines “assimilates,” kowtows, bends over backwards to make life easy for the American visitor. Augusto and the tour guide who calls “taho” tofu embody this simpering servility, so very much against Bourdain’s fantasy of the leathery street urchin who kicks butt. Bourdain ridiculed Augusto’s eagerness several times; to Bourdain’s credit, Augusto sounded like the “little, brown(noser)” urchin to the American fief. It was painful to watch, as it is still painful to watch the Filipinos’not quite requited fascination with America.

    But in the end, let us remember that Bourdain is the chef of a very mediocre New York French brasserie that serves pseudo-French food – what does he know about the nuances of vinegared adobo and the esthetics of the right lumpia wrapper? And why should we care? Bourdain’s type of foodism is a stand-in for hedonistic gluttony posing as esthetics. The tourism he espouses is ultimately toxic to the culture it parasitizes. Filipinos should be GLAD that Filipino cooking is not going the route of Italian cooking. Does anyone really have a longing to have adobo bastardized by Chef Boyardee?

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on No Reservations, Part 2: Angeles City, Pampanga « Words and Nosh

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