Thoughts on No Reservations, part 3: Pampanga with Tayag

Miss me, friends? I’m back with another quick recap and review of the No Reservations episode in the Philippines, this time focusing on Bourdain’s dinner with Claude Tayag, or what I’m calling “Tony’s Bougie Night Out.”

A word on Philippines geography before moving on, since it is relevant not just to this scene but to the rest of the episode (and heck, to the entire episode!). The three major island groups in the Philippines are Luzon, the Visayas, and Mindanao. Within each of these island groups are regions, followed by provinces within those regions, followed by cities and municipalities, and barangays. So, to relatavize this to US-centric terms (sigh), regions might be thought of like states, provinces like counties, cities like… cities, and barangays like clusters of neighborhoods within the cities. Got it?

Up through this segment, Bourdain has been in Luzon, the large island group in the northern region of the Philippine archipelago. Manila is the capital not only of Luzon, but of the entire Philippines, and is the Philippines’ second largest city; Bourdain started his trip off here, with Ivan Man Dy. Then, Bourdain went to the province of Pampanga, also in Luzon- first to Angeles City, and now (in this segment I’m reviewing) to some undisclosed second location, also in Pampanga, where Claude Tayag has his restaurant. (Note: his resto is Bale Dutung on the outskirts of Angeles City). The last portion of Bourdain’s trip, that I’ll be reviewing last, is filmed in Cebu, the large island in the Visayas island chain in a more southern area of the Philippines.

In sum: half of the trip is in Luzon, half in Cebu. Bourdain is in two cities in Luzon: Manila and Angeles City. Angeles City is in the province of Pampanga and this is significant for Tayag’s musings to Bourdain on Philippine identity. Then Bourdain flies south to Cebu for his time with Augusto and ends the ep. Guess Philippine geography isn’t so quickly explained after all!

So back to the segment, which is but a brief five to seven minutes in the show (it is the first five mins. of the YouTube clip above, plus the end of the clip just prior to this one). The gist is that Bourdain goes from eating street food in Angeles City to having a more traditional and yet infinitely more bourgeois eating experience with Tayag at his multipurpose establishment, Bale Dutung. Not simply a restaurant, Bale Dutung also features a gallery of Tayag’s art, a collection of everyday and high art cultural items from around the Philippines, and serves as home to the artist and his wife Mary Anne. (A great review of the Bale Dutung experience with some amazing photos is here).

First thoughts on Bale Dutung and the experience of eating at a place like this: While Tayag lauds this as a “traditional” establishment where you can get the “real” cuisine of Pampanga, I am marveling at just how unreal this place is. How many other Filipinos can afford such an amazing space, or have Le Creuset-esque cookware in their ‘traditional’ outdoor kitchen outfitted with time-saving and up-to-date technology? How much do tourists and rich Filipinos pay to have an aesthetic experience of traditional Kapampangan cuisine? (Answer: a lot). This is some brilliant cultural tourism right here, and kudos to Tayag for profiting off his art and cooking, but please don’t call this the ‘real’ Philippines when it’s not accessible to the majority of the Filipino population!

The food, however, does look damn fantastic. A quail adobo, with smoked bacon and chicken liver added (traditional? probably not. amazingly delicious sounding? heck yes!). Sinigang with bangus (called only “milk fish”, argh) made sour with guava– I messed up when I said earlier that tamarind was the only souring agent possible for sinigang. While certainly gussied up, this isn’t just the Spanish- or American-influenced Filipino cuisine being presented here. A lot of native vegetables and seafoods, garnished with bagoong— sounds about right to me. Nevermind the exorbitant price tag you’re paying for such ‘real’ local fare… it does look mighty delicious.

Of course, this wouldn’t be the Philippines episode of No Reservations if Bourdain didn’t start grilling Tayag on his thoughts of Filipino food, culture, and identity. Whether or not Bourdain went in thinking this was his theme, or his producers and editors decided after the fact this would be the angle, it seems you can’t go two seconds in this episode without Bourdain trying to ‘figure out’ the Filipino identity (a point I’ll elaborate more upon in the last review on Augusto and Cebu).

Tayag’s got a few gold nuggets to share, and of the other local guides, I generally tend to agree with his viewpoint the most, as he’s slightly less assimilationist than the others. He brings up the idea that Filipinos are “alienated from the rest of Southeast Asia” as they “look westward” towards the United States, their “last colonial master.” This Americanization and/or assimilation routine is repeated ad nauseum by every other Filipino guide, but Tayag seems to be the only one who makes the US-Philippines colonial connection explicit. It’s more than just free-floating “influences,” there is actual power involved! Crazy idea, I know.

Tayag also goes to say that for him, identifying strongly with his ethnic group and province as a Kapampangan (one from Pampanga) is primary, done before he identifies as Filipino: “You cannot be Filipino unless you’ve become a Pampangan first.” Tony seems to like this viewpoint, concurring that he identifies as a New Yorker before he IDs himself as American. Seems pretty reasonable, no?

Well, this little point made by Tayag caused a FUROR on the internet boards and blogs, with everyone identifying this as but another example of Filipino ‘disunity,’ or ‘why we have no strong culture’ et. al. To me, it was perhaps the most prescient thing any Filipino on the show had to say about Filipino identity and culture, and this criticism really educated me about how the mainstream understanding of national culture and sentiment really works: namely, that to properly claim Filipino identity, you are supposed to deny affiliation with anything else, particularly with regional or ethnic ties that threaten to undermine the ‘unity’ of the national culture.

Much has been written about nationalism that I won’t get into here, though perhaps the most quoted has been Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (I prefer the decolonial works of Frantz Fanon, myself). The basic idea about nationalism that Andreson puts out is that the perception of a unified cultural and social milieu greatly contributes to nation-building and furthermore, to projects of nationalism. So, for Tayag to stress regional loyalties based on shared language, ethnicity, and food cultures over a homogenized “Filipino” identity is read as somehow nearing treason. But what marks “Filipino” culture, anyway? In the US, what has come to be identified with Filipino food (in particular) is actually heavily based on “lowland Tagalog” foodways, and particularly with the more Hispanicized or American-influenced versions. I’m with Tayag on this one– to claim a homogenous Filipino identity does not reflect the realities of the Filipino people, who are tied to their local land, languages, cultural practices, and foods out of both desire and necessity. Why try to flatten that?

Yet, even as Claude extols the virtues of Pampangan food and identity, his wife Mary Anne offers her own speculations on the apparent un-popularity of Filipino cuisine in the US, which are:

1. not many people come to the Philippines
2. “our food is different [in] different [Filipino] restaurants, so that’s why people don’t remember it,” giving an example that if you go to 5 different Filipino restaurants, you’ll find 5 different flavors of adobo.

Now, here’s where I offer my quibbles with this perspective. On point 1 (not many people come to the Philippines), I have to disagree. While, yes, the Philippines hasn’t been promoted as a Southeast Asian vacation destination like, say, Thailand, there are several reasons for this that beg to be explored. The first being that due to its successive colonization by Spain and the United States, the Philippines has already been understood as a place without ‘authentic’ native culture unlike those other Southeast Asian nations. A brief historical foray clearly shows this idea (of the Philippines as the only colonized Asian nation) to be false, if you note the fact that of all the Southeast Asian nations, only Thailand has remained free of colonial rule. Still, this perception of Filipino culture being too ‘westernized’ by colonial influence, and therefore less ‘authentic,’ persists– even if most people don’t consciously know the history of the US-Philippine colonial relationship! Enough subliminal and overt messages have permeated US pop culture for the ‘fact’ of Filipino non-culture to just exist, without any understanding or context for why this ‘fact’ came into being.

I guess I want to push us think about this: is this claim that the Philippines is ‘culture-free’ due less to the tourists’ perception that there are no pretty beaches or native dances (of which there are an abundance of in the PI), or does it really have more to do with America’s desire to ignore the impact of its colonial history on the real ‘natives’ of the Philippines? I mean, why visit a former US colony, whose economy has been decimated due to US foreign policy and the ravages of the IMF-World Bank, when you can visit someone else’s former colony instead, somewhere like Indonesia, where you can marvel at their Dutch-inspired architecture and eat their ‘pure’ native food? No guilt about their poverty, if you see it- it was someone else’s fault! Pure joy at their technology- how westernized and modern! Something to chew on, perhaps.

A second reason there is a perception that ‘not many people’ visit the Philippines is the character of the tourists who most likely go to the islands, one that the tourist bureau would rather not have you hear: again, due to the history of US military presence in the islands, they have come to be known as a savory destination for sex tourism, not just in Angeles City but throughout the country, particularly in Visayan beach towns like Boracay. When you’re an American or European male tourist busy exploiting the women and children of the Philippines for your sexual pleasure, you maybe don’t care so much about the food, no?

Ok, so onto Mary Anne’s second point- that there is ‘too much diversity’ in Filipino cuisine for it to be memorable to American consumers. I mean, really? So what if there are many different versions of sinigang, some made with shrimp, others with fish, others with goat or beef? Does that make the Filipino cuisine inherently any less desirable than another? Again, it presumes that in order to identify a cuisine with the nation, that a homogenized unity must exist to the exclusion of any variation. To use the case of Italy as counterpoint to this false logic– five Italian restaurants, five different versions of ravioli. Does this make people not like Italian food? Italy, here, is interesting because, like the Philippines, it is a country that is intensely regional, with much variation between north and south, urban and rural, etc. While there are hundreds of Olive Gardens and Sbarros pushing out standardized versions of Italian classics, that’s not what foodies seek out, is it? No- they go for the regional, or the hole-in-the wall mom and pop shop, or the Mario Batali renditions. So, again, why should the Philippines sacrifice its regional flavors to appeal to some (false) idea that westerners only know singularity?

Now, my dismantling of these claims doesn’t change the fact that Filipino cuisine still isn’t the ‘next big thing,’ to Bourdain’s chagrin. My thoughts on why this really is coming up next, along with my final review of our poor maligned friend, Augusto. Oh, and the lechon! Oh, the lechon.


Posted on March 3, 2009, in mutterings and musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Again, a very well written and insightful post.

    There are two points in this post that really interested me. The first was defending what Tayag said about one not being able to be a Filipino unless one is Pampangan first. Though our well-intentioned guide most likely did not mean that other groups in the Philippines aren’t as Filipino as the people from Pampanga, he didn’t phrase his statement well and left it open for many people to misconstrue his words. Maybe if he was speaking Tagalog or Kapampangan he could’ve gotten his point across better, but I think he still represents the Manila/Luzon-centric point of view that the region has become known for in the Visayas and on Mindanao. This is definitely up to interpretation, but I don’t Bourdain saying that he’s a New Yorker first and and an American second is quite the same thing. Most people in this country and in the Philippines identify themselves by their specific region first and their country second, but saying one isn’t Filipino unless they’re a Pampangueño is just like saying a person isn’t American unless they’re from western Pennsylvania– which did happen last year to negative reactions.

    The second point you made that I found interesting is that many American tourists go to the Philippines for many reasons that don’t involve food (or sight seeing, for that matter). It’s not uncommon to find in the Philippines a 60 year old American man surrounded by three 20-something young ladies of varying degrees of attractiveness. This has given both the US and the Philippines a less than desirable image, and both countries have to take responsibility to see that this growing sex tourism trend stops. Though, I fear that tourism would also disappear if the Philippines doesn’t “put out” anymore. It’s a lose-lose situation.

    I’m sorry that this reply has grown so long. I’m just very passionate about this.

  2. “When you’re an American or European male tourist busy exploiting the women and children of the Philippines for your sexual pleasure, you maybe don’t care so much about the food, no?”

    hahaha you’re absolutely hilarious! where were you when i was pulling all-nighters writing about colonization and gender?

  3. oops i forgot to actually talk about Bale Dutung.

    first off, as a lover of Filipino food, i am elated anytime there’s a mention of our cuisine anywhere beyond our homes. it is a rare thing, and even rarer when it is in a substantial light that is beyond ‘bizaare foods’.

    when i saw the previews, i was so excited, even more that he went to Pampanga (i’m Kapampangan). Then i saw….Bale Dutung. at first glance, the couple’s spread was fairly decent, no doubt delicious. but further research on my part revealed that he serves almost the exact same thing to his other guests during other visits. innovating.

    then i saw how much they charge: P1,500 each person and minimum groups of 12. quite a contrast to the name ‘Wooden House’. one doesn’t need to know numbers well to see that that place is only accessible to those who can afford such luxuries, clearly reflective of those who provides these luxuries under the guise of ‘traditional’ – dusty wooden furniture an all.

    so after travelling across the world to understand what Filipino food and culture is all about, they went straight into a place that catered specifically to this curiousity.

    instead of soaking in a country rich of history and food and culture that was right in front of them the entire time, outside of the Wooden House, the trip to my hometown was nothing more than a glorified, exoticized bizaare foods edition where instead of eating duck embryos, they ooh-ed and aah-ed at wooden furniture and a backyard garden only available to wealthy land owners.

    sorry for the very long comment, but i’m excited, u see!

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