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Kulinarya Cooking Club: Maligayang Bati at Manigong Bagong Taon edition

Happy Lunar New Year, folks! Once again, I dropped off the face of the earth, but at least I’m re-emerging to post for this month’s Kulinarya Cooking Club challenge. It would be extra embarrassing if I didn’t participate this time around, too, as Pearl of Sassy Chef and I were the two bloggers hosting this challenge!

The KCC challenge for January that the two of us cooked up was this one:
This month’s theme is a celebration– of good health and of new beginnings!
Words and Nosh’s big 3-0 is this month, so we dreamed up a birthday challenge:
What dish (entree, dessert, drink, merienda, whatever!) do you always request,
or wish you could have, for your birthday?

As a twist, how would you modify the dish to make it more healthy? It’s the new
year, after all, and it’s time to get back on track with good eating habits! You
can make your dish vegetarian/vegan, lower fat, dairy-free, low sugar or however
else you want, so long as it’s a little bit healthier for your body and the

I had every intention of posting earlier, but alas, since it actually was my birthday last week, I’ve been out and about, with no time to even think about cooking! Finally, though, I got it together and whipped up my own take on rellenong bangus (stuffed milkfish) with sauteed kangkong (water spinach), one of my favorite dishes. Not only is it easy to make, healthy, and delicious, but also pretty enough to serve for a special celebration.


Now, you’ll notice first off that the fish I’m using here isn’t bangus at all, nor is the green vegetable kangkong. In keeping with the theme of the month, and with my general outlook on eating and cooking with local, sustainable, and organic ingredients as much as possible, I branched out a bit; I preserved the essence of the Filipino flavors but switched the ingredients up a bit. Moreover, I tried to reduce the oils and sodium as much as possible so the typical post-Filipino meal swelling wouldn’t plague me again!

Between Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and the local farmers market, I was able to source all the ingredients for the meal. Though organic is often synonymous with overpriced, by sticking to in-season ingredients and whole fish (instead of fillets), the total check was <$20 to serve 2 people. [The rice, garlic, patis, and shallots were already in my pantry so that doesn’t count!]. I’d like to think I honored Ilokano frugality by keeping the cost low!

For the fish stuffing, I mixed up the following:

  • 4 cloves garlic (chopped)
  • 1 shallot (thinly sliced)
  • small handful macadamia nuts (chopped, in lieu of traditional pili nuts)
  • 1-2 tbsp. fresh grated ginger
  • 1/2 tbsp. patis (fish sauce)
  • roughly 1/3 cup cherry tomatoes (coursely chopped)


Then I simply stuffed it into two dressed rainbow trout, along with halved small Mexican limes (kinda calamansi like, though not exactly the same), cilantro, and some green onions. To the outside of the trout, I squeezed some more lime, sprinkled a little sea salt and pepper, and a very light spray of olive oil spray.

I then baked the fish in a 400 degree oven for 20 mins, to make sure it was all cooked through but not dried out.

[An important aside on the fish: I decided to go with rainbow trout over the other whole fish available at Whole Foods not only because it was the most cheaply priced ($6.99/lb. with these two fish coming in just under one lb.) but because farmed rainbow trout is listed as a “best choice” fish by the Seafood Watch Program. That means that it is the most sustainable choice, that commits less environmental and ecological harm than other species and sources of fish. I strongly recommend that you check out Seafood Watch– they have printable cards and even smartphone apps to help you make better seafood choices when shopping or eating out.]

While the fish was baking, I prepped and cooked the greens, which were actually broccoli rabe and not kangkong. I was actually surprised at how much the rabe reminded me of kangkong in this meal, the flavors went so well with the fish.

For the broccoli rabe, you simply wash and shake out (but not fully dry off)  a large bunch of the rabe, and add to a pan where 3 minced garlic cloves have been sauteed in 1/4 cup of olive oil on med-low heat for about 5 minutes. Sprinkle red pepper flakes, sea salt, and some white pepper to taste and raise heat to med-high. Once temp is up, lower heat to medium and cover pan for about 5 minutes. The rabe should then cook itself down, the excess water from washing helping to steam it a bit. I removed the rabe when it was al dente, but you could cook it down more if you like!


It never happens usually, but somehow both the fish and the veggies cooked at the same time, so they were both perfectly hot and ready to serve in half an hour after I started cooking! With some steamed brown rice, it was a perfect way to end my weekend.

Hope you enjoyed my little cooking adventure, peeps! Will try to post again soon, but no promises…



Kulinarya Cooking Club: Philippine History Edition

In honor of of August and September being Philippine National Heroes Day and Ninoy Aquino Day, the lovely folks at the Kulinarya Cooking Club dreamed up a patriotically-themed challenge: to create a dish using the colors of the Philippine national flag of red, white, blue and yellow!

I think I pretty much stuck true to theme, though played it the easy way out this month, with my not-so-original take on halo-halo! Halo-halo, which means “mix mix” in Tagalog, is basically shave ice with extra tasty goodness in it. And despite the relative ease it takes to make this, I thought it an especially apt dessert dish to fit the challenge, and not just for the colors of the ingredients I chose to make my halo-halo with.

Like the Philippines itself, there are plenty of different colonial influences in halo-halo: the ice and condensed milk (thanks, Amerikkka, for those innovations); flavored jellies, in this case lychee and almond (Chinese); and the most decadent addition, leche flan (a recipe borrowed from our Spanish colonizers and made even better). Despite all these foreign additions, you’ve still got some wonderful indigenous Filipino fruits and legumes which are my favorite part of the halo-halo– the langka (jackfruit), ube jam (pretend it’s blue, for the challenge’s sake!), sweet red mungo (mung beans), and macapuno (young coconut strings). This mix of flavors is probably the most harmonious collaboration you’ll see between these different forces; sadly, the Philippines today hasn’t benefited economically, socially, or politically from their various “benefactors”, despite the propaganda written to the contrary.

After making the flan, which is the longest part of the process and done the night before, assembling the halo-halo is a snap.

1: Shave the ice. Surprisingly fun when you’ve got a home ice shaver like this one. Way better than the tiny Snoopy sno-cone shaver from my childhood.

2. Choose your toppings. (If I had more time and money, I would’ve prepped fresh ingredients but alas… it will have to wait another day.)

3. Drizzle condensed milk on top and voila! Serve and eat quickly before it all melts!

Enjoyed my little educational cooking demo? Well, if you want more Filipino food history from someone far more educated on this topic than I am, do I have a treat for you! Next Sunday, October 2nd, the food historian Felice Santa Maria and noted chef Claude Tayag will be traveling all the way from the Philippines to San Francisco for a free food demo and lecture at the Filipino American International Book Fair. I will definitely be in attendance, and hope to see y’all there!

Like White on Rice: June Kulinarya Cooking Club challenge

I’m back! After a crazy month and a half (school ending, fellowship writing, ankle cast on and off, and Lasik!), I’ve finally had the chance to begin enjoying my summer and cooking up a storm! Lately, it’s been a mostly liquid diet; after the mister and I came back from a fantastic May trip to New Orleans, where we sampled many amazing cocktails, we’ve been on a bit of a tear trying out new cocktail recipes at home. Still, one can’t be boozed up all the time (right?!), and I’ve been playing around with recipes, figuring out ways to make them healthier, with more organic and sustainable ingredients and so on.

This dish I just made today, however, isn’t any of those things. It’s rich, wasn’t sustainably sourced (remember what I said before, about ethnic groceries and organic food?), but damn if it wasn’t incredibly delicious:

I made this dish for this month’s Kulinarya Cooking Club challenge, which called for “white food.” There are few things I love more than fresh Jasmine rice and coconuts, and so this dish was perfect for it. Borrowing liberally from a recipe I saw a long time ago in The Adobo Book, here was my take on shrimp with sawsawang adobong gata (coconut adobo sauce).

The shrimp itself is super easy to prepare. While the recipe called for charcoal-grilled pandan-wrapped shrimp, necessity and time restrictions led me to simply pan-grilling the shrimp with liberal squirts of lemon (no calamansi either, natch).

For the adobo sauce, I basically got these ingredients

and cooked them all up together. First sauteeing the 5 cloves chopped garlic, small piece crushed luyang dilaw (turmeric), and 1 chopped red onion until translucent; then adding 2 chopped sili labuyo, 1/2 tsp bagoong alamang, 1 tbsp turbinado sugar, and a can of coconut cream (the fatty stuff!) and simmering until thick.

I bought about 1 1/2 lbs of prawns and had enough for two generous servings plus leftovers, so this recipe could serve four for a main entree if you added more side dishes. My tummy’s still full from this lunch, and next time I’m in the mood to bust my diet, this dish will definitely be high on the list!



(For more “white challenge” recipes from Kulinarya members, visit their websites linked here!)

My ugly duckling: the 2011 Brazo de Mercedes Experiment

Happy Easter, folks! I’m still stuffed from a huge Easter brunch / dinner party, and I hope you ate just as well today. Contrary to my most recent posts, I *do* still love writing about and cooking food, and have joined up with the Kulinarya Cooking Club as an extra motivation to push myself to try new-to-me Filipino food experiments.

This month’s theme, courtesy of Lala, was “decadence” and I immediately knew what I had to try my hand at making: Brazo de Mercedes (translated from Spanish as “Mercedes’s arm”). Don’t worry, there were no body parts involved in the preparation of this decadent dessert, though trying to cook and bake all day on a sprained ankle really was a painful bodily experience.

I didn’t have Brazo de Mercedes very often as a kid– this rich cake, basically a meringue sheet wrapped around yema or an egg custard, was pretty hard to find in the very puti neighborhoods of my youth. When I did come across it, though, I would always have to order it– the fluffy, sticky sweet meringue and the filling which was like a leche flan on steroids was simply too good to resist.

When a friend threw her annual birthday dinner party, and asked us all to bring a food item featuring some kind of citrus, I knew what I had to do: make a Brazo de Mercedes with a twist, adding Meyer lemons to make a filling akin to lemon curd.

Unfortunately, finding Meyer lemons proved to be impossible, but lemons from our home lemon tree and some extra sugar came to the rescue. Everything at first went really well. Our meringue sheet, which dear hubs mixed up in our Kitchenaid, came out beautifully:

And baked up perfectly brown and lovely. Basic meringue recipe (8 egg whites, 1 tsp. cream of tartar, 3/4 cup Caster sugar, 1 tsp. vanilla) on a slightly too-big 12×17 jelly roll plan:

When it came to filling, though, I began to run into some trouble. The “Filipino-American” cookbook I used diverged from the typical Brazo filling, asking for gelatin and whipping cream to be folded into the egg yolk/condensed milk mixture. That, plus the juice from the lemons I added, made this filling soooo runny. Even after cooling down in fridge and waiting for gelatin to set more, it wasn’t doing the trick. My poor Brazo had to be subjected to some plastic surgery to make it to the birthday party intact:

Even if it was a little whole lot uglier than the beautiful Brazos I remember, people still loved it, and I must admit the filling was delish, with the lemon lightening up the yema nicely.

I was going to just brush this sad experiment under the bridge, but then remembered we would have a second chance to make it again– for the Easter brunch we were invited to today. This time around, I turned to the queen of Filipino home cooking: Nora Daza. I followed her instructions to a T, and was feeling much better about this experiment. Sadly, this time too I was destined to have an ugly Brazo de Mercedes. The hubs got a little too over-zealous with the Kitchenaid mixer, and the meringue sheet didn’t rise, and my filling was still too runny, though not as much as before. My poor Brazo was the ugliest desert in the house, but at least she was delicious!

I’m not sure I’ll be trying this recipe again soon– it is a decadent recipe, after all– but if any of you are Brazo de Mercedes pros, please send along your tips! Now that I have these jelly roll plans, I think I want to bring back the old-school Filipino roll cakes of my youth– the mocha roll, buko pandan roll, and DEFINITELY the ube roll. Anyone want to be a taste tester for these upcoming experiments?

Treading (more) lightly: thoughts on Filipino America and veg*anism

In case you didn’t know (as if it’s unsurprising, given that I am of Filipino descent), I’m totally a lapsed Catholic. For a lot of reasons, most significantly my anti-racist/feminist/queer politics, I haven’t been involved with the church for a very long time. That being said, I do still appreciate the beauty of many church / religious rituals– especially after my grandfather passed in January, going to mass has been a way for me to work through my grief, in a place that was so dear to him. Maybe it’s been the recent visits to church, or my latent fear of being sent to that ring of fire (I may no longer be Catholic, but I still have a ton of Catholic guilt), but I’ve been observing Lent this year, and have been abstaining from meat on Fridays.


"California Roll" salad with miso-green onion dressing

It’s been surprisingly easy to keep meat-free on Fridays, since even before that I’ve been cutting down on meat consumption, at least when it comes to home cooking. My acquisition of the absolutely fantastic vegan cookbook Appetite for Reduction (so amazing, it deserves its own post with photos!), and my general turn to eating healthier and with less processed foods, coincided perfectly with Lent and so I’ve actually been cooking nearly entirely meat-free meals at home most days of the week. This isn’t the first time I’ve gone nearly meat-free– I have had short but failed stints as a pescetarian, as well as brief intentional periods of total meatless-ness– but in the context of my growing interest in and work around food justice, it definitely feels different this time around, in that I’m reflecting much more on how a meat-free diet has the potential to be an extension of a radical Filipino/American politics of decolonization, but also how it may not, as well.

Besides reveling in the health benefits I’ve reaped from keeping a mostly-veg*an diet, I  have really been trying to sort through my feelings about veg*anism and racial and social justice. I really respect and appreciate the the way that, for some, being vegetarian or vegan is part and parcel of their work in fighting institutionalized ‘isms: species-ism, ableism, racism, classism, sexism/homophobia, etc. As food justice advocates such as the lauded Michael Pollan have written, the general nastiness of the meat industry, not to mention the use of otherwise fertile farming land for cattle farms, is a large contributor to the global food crisis. I don’t know how many yoga seminars I have been to where this fact is illustrated by my veg*an yoga instructors, with varying degrees of graphic details and photos– while I disagree with some of their shock tactic methods of inciting guilt and shame (who knew yoga guilt could be just as bad as Catholic guilt?), I am generally on board with the call to end factory farms, for the sake of both the animals and for the hungry and obese people of the world who are suffering under the current food regime. This kind of veg*an political ethos, I think, has very much informed my recent refraining from preparing red meat at home now, and in my ongoing attempt to cook and eat ethically-sourced and environmentally-sound meat both at home and when eating out (Fish is another story. I need to start using my Seafood Watch app way more!)

But as Breeze Harper and the other bloggers at Vegans of Color have also pointed out, I’m also painfully aware of the outright racist and classist assumptions made by more “mainstream” (aka white) veg*an individuals and organizations in their campaigns for animal rights and so-called food justice. This post in particular really hit home, especially in light of my prior research on the US colonial regime’s display of  Igorot “dog-eating and head-hunting” at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair as evidence of Filipino racial savagery, in order to justify American “benevolent assimilation” of the Philippines. I hesitate to identify myself with a veg*an movement that doesn’t question its own internalized racial logic, and that uses the language of “us vs. them” or “enlightened vs. savage” to make its political and moral claims– rather than working for the decolonization and justice of all, these kinds of movements are reserved for the privileged, “enlightened” few who can then deem the rest of us (mostly brown) folk to meat-eating barbarity.

poster for 1904 St. Louis World's Fair

Also– and this is my biggest contention/concern– I’m still not quite sure how a veg*an diet fits in with a Filipino decolonial politics, in terms of the cultural appropriateness of a veg*an diet to Filipino culture. Definitely, I’m down for turning to a more natural diet with less processed, colonially-derived meats like SPAM, and of course want the Filipino people to have control over their food production, distribution, and consumption– that’s the essence of decolonization and the very meaning of food sovereignty, is it not? But wanting/working for those things isn’t the same thing as cutting out meat entirely from the Filipino diet, especially not fish, which historically has been the basis of many in the archipelago’s livelihood. Not to mention, can I really ever let go of the swine? Look at this pork-y deliciousness that is lechon:


(being inappropriate with lechon, September '10)

Perhaps my own gluttony is what keeps me from making a final jump into full veg*an territory– I’ll admit, I’m a weak soul. At the very least, this time has allowed me to more critically self-reflect on the ways I embody and live my politics on a very corporeal scale, and to think not only about why I fight for food sovereignty, racial and social justice, but also about how.

Talking about food justice, hitting a wall

[Note: I had originally posted this on my Tumblr, but decided to repost here for better documentation and possibly more discussion. There was a news article I referred to that immediately preceded my own musings– for clarity, I just added an external link here. Would love any thoughts and feedbacks on this quickly-written musing!]

I had a challenging time last night trying to facilitate an educational discussion about food justice in the SD Fil/Am community with some friends of mine that I volunteer with (we are in a progressive Filipino/American high school student mentoring program together). I tried to get us all thinking about ours and our families’ shopping and consumption practices as a gateway to talking about structural barriers to getting affordable, healthy food, but we never seemed to get beyond a discussion of “cultural differences” between Filipino markets like Seafood City versus mainstream shops like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s or even Von’s. “Cultural differences” became the explanation for why prices are lower and why Filipino folks keep returning to ethnic groceries, and that alone was the answer.

Now, while it’s true that there are things that ethnic grocers can provide many services, products and relationships that puti markets can’t, to claim that a cultural difference alone keeps prices lower and products varied at Seafood City is to ignore the vast structures underlying food production and consumption in the US and around the world. To say that Filipino/Americans just “aren’t used” to buying organic food or even lots of vegetables (organic or not) is to defer a conversation about why our national or cultural diet might be so poor— about why many in our community have limited financial means or access to fresh produce and meats; about the colonial and neo-colonial origins for many of our so-called “unhealthy staple foods” (such as SPAM and sisig); about the linked causes for hunger and obesity in communities of color in the US with the growing international food crises in places like Korea and the Philippines. The conversation wasn’t able to progress to even begin discussing these things, and I self-critique for not being able to facilitate in a way that could get us there.

I guess it was so hard for me to have this discussion about food justice and communities of color without getting into everything— the FDA complicity with corporate ag; the neo-imperialism of land and labor exploitation on Third World plantations (aka the Philippines); white middle class privilege in demanding “good food” at the expense of poor immigrants of color who are being paid below living wage to produce it; and so on. These are all huge topics that at the very least folks should ideally read a little about before we engage in a (BRIEF!) 30 minute educational discussion about it, but in the absence of that, what else could I have done? Lecture? Brought in a news article like the one above as a piece to center our discussion?

Even in a very short news article like the one above, you have so many issues at once intersecting— gentrification, white privilege (and white guilt), different cultural discourses on what qualifies as “healthy food” and “diverse neighborhoods,” and that’s just hitting the surface. Even bringing in these two paragraphs seems overwhelming, when folks are coming from different places and have different viewpoints on all these topics…

Meh. I’m not trying to figure it all out now, just venting/processing a little on this blog. More or less, I’m frustrated with my own inability to translate my “intellectual work” (whatever that means) into real talk, to actually work with the community instead of me continuing to talk “at” them. question!

what is your favorite filipino food?

Ooh, this is a tricky one!
Let’s see, I love making chicken adobo and kaldereta, probably because I know I can make them well. But I love eating kare-kare, pork sisig, sinkamas, Brazo de Mercedes, and grilled pusit– I just don’t have the time or materials to commit to making these! But I think the absolute, number one best Filipino food I’ve ever eaten is my Lolo’s Ilokano cooking– my grandfather is a great cook, and I love his pinakbet, chicken tinola, or really anything else he makes! Wow, I could keep going, I love Filipino food so much, and am always trying to improve my cooking. Just made a big batch of pork lumpia for my birthday part last night, and it was a hit, though I know I need to tweak the recipe now!

Ask me anything


Things I’ve put in my mouth recently (sorry for the laundry list, it’s been a long couple of weeks ’round here):

(ice cream from the UW Babcock Dairy, eaten on the lovely waterfront Memorial Union Terrace)

(My labor of love: home-made kaldereta for a class ‘piyesta’/fiesta. Best thing at the spread, don’t meant to boast but my meat brought all the boys to the yard.)

(Amuse-bouche at Harvest. Bougiest dinner I will have had in Madison by the time I go. Worth it.)

(Table of shame: $1 mixed drinks at the Nitty Gritty. I don’t care if it’s “the birthday place,” you’re never catching me dead in there again.)

(The Wisconsin Benedict at the Old Fashioned. That would be a brat patty under the egg.)

(Lingering suspicions and pre-existing bias confirmed: not pizza @ Gino’s East, Chicago)

(neon green relish. a tubular meat’s under there, i think. @ Underdogg, Chicago)

(Most amazing mojitos at Blue Line Lounge in Wicker Park, Chicago. The coconut mojito and the Social- topped with champagne- are incroyable.)

Chicago’s Chinatown eats deserves its own post. Consider it added to the list of shit I haven’t blogged about yet…

July 4 longaniza-fest

Some people spend the nation’s birthday by grilling up hot dogs, throwing back some beer, and watching the fireworks. Always the subversive, I prefer my tubed-formed meat products the Filipino way, in the form of the sweet and sticky porky goodness of longaniza. Our semi-impromptu July 4th brunch didn’t disappoint– with enough pork, fried eggs, suka, tomatoes and rice to feed the masses. Some folks even represented with some home-made beef tapa. Sige what!

cooking longaniza

A little bit blurry, but I wanted to include a picture of the longaniza cooking. As with any fresh sausage, you have to make sure you’ve cooked it the whole way through. Standard longaniza cooking procedure: fill fry pan with longaniza and add water 1/2 way up the skillet. Boil until water’s all gone, approx. 30 minutes (and don’t forget to turn over the longaniza at least once!). When all you have left is the oil from the casings, then fry that shizz until the outside of the longaniza is nice and carmelized. What you should see when you’re done is this:

cooked longaniza

This batch was especially sticky– it was a local-ish brand called Oscar’s (I think) and it was pretty tasty! The meat was definitely fresh, and there wasn’t any added MSG or coloring like some of the mainstream brands (carried by Ranch 99 and larger “Oriental” stores esp. on the West Coast) have. I didn’t know what to expect, since I picked these up at a small store in Madison, but it was straight. I did notice that for the first time ever in my life, I didn’t have a single longaniza burp the rest of the day. If you’re a longaniza virgin, a longaniza burp is the signature (re)experience: after eating longaniza in the AM, you’ll usually burp a few times later in the day, and have the distinct taste of longaniza in your mouth afeterwards. It’s the meal that keeps on giving!

A few more pics of the rest of the breakfast spread before I run out the door:



(ugh, I don’t know why this picture is sideways, I’ve rotated and uploaded it 3 different times to no avail.)

The crowning glory: losilog, just before I added that Jufran banana ketchup (nectar of the gods) to the rice. Happiness in a warm plate.


Happy weekend, y’all!

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.

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