Adobo. Sinigang. Kinilaw. Pancit. All these classic Filipino dishes have one significant defining feature: most foreigners have never heard of them.
“It’s not a cuisine that is very accessible,” Todd Coleman, former Senior Editor at Saveur Magazine, said. “People don’t know Filipino food because there aren’t many Filipino restaurants. People need restaurants to go to.”
With all the sushi bars, Chinese dim sum joints and Korean BBQ grills in New York City, some Asian cuisines have yet to proclaim themselves beyond the immigrant enclaves. Filipino food—despite the 3.4 million Filipinos living in the U.S. making them the second largest Asian group—is one of them. It is a national cuisine often loosely defined due to the archipelago’s diverse 7,100 islands and long history of foreign trade and colonialism. But historians and food anthropologists argue that there is more to it than that.
“When Filipinos started immigrating to the United States, they weren’t prepared to announce or share their food with Americans,” Alex Orquiza, 32, Professor of American Studies at Wellesley College, MA, said. “If anything, they kept it very hidden.”
Orquiza traces this phenomenon back to the 1898-1946 American colonization of the Philippines. His research explores how American colonialists systematically made the Filipinos feel their food was culturally inferior and nutritionally deficient.
“The entire imperial project tried to get Filipinos not to take pride in their food and to eat like Americans,” Orquiza said. “They would say the food is ‘not clean,’ or ‘not civilized.’”
The public school system took the lead in trying to change Filipino dietary habits: to eat three meals a day; to replace rice with corn and wheat; and to adopt canned foods instead of local proteins and fresh fruit. These were feelings that lingered and transported themselves to the U.S when Filipinos began to immigrate in 1901.
Amy Besa, 63, cookbook author and owner of Purple Yam, a Filipino restaurant in Brooklyn, remembers feeling this way when she immigrated to the U.S. back in the 1970’s.
“American diners would reject Filipino food because they thought it was stinky,” Besa said. “Filipinos didn’t feel their cuisine was good enough to be commercial. That’s why it never got out of the shadows.”
Having been in the restaurant business since 1995, Besa and her husband Romy Dorotan consider themselves outliers of Filipino restaurant owners of their generation. When they opened their first Filipino restaurant in Manhattan, Cendrillon, they sought to reach past the immigrant enclaves. They felt they had a feel for the mainstream because of their western culinary training and weaker ties with the Filipino community. Cendrillon, which was in Soho, closed and reopened as Purple Yam in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn in 2009.
“We were the first ones who tried to do it and survived,” Besa said. “But we got lots of resentment from certain sectors. The Filipino community had a habit of not supporting any restaurant that did not fit its stereotype of what it felt a Filipino restaurant should be.”
Jun Belen, 39, award-winning Filipino food blogger who immigrated to California from Manila 15 years ago, notes a plethora of Filipino restaurants clustered in heavily in cities with large Filipino populations like Daly City, Union City, and Milpitas in the Bay Area.
“Most if not all of these restaurants cater exclusively to Filipinos,” Belen said. “Some are cafeteria-style decked out with a long steam table where stews and soups are laid out. Manny Pacquiao or a Filipino soap is almost always on TV. Prices are kept low to entice Filipinos to return. There are few non-Filipinos here and there. Most of the time, none at all.”
Now, Belen says, this is changing. Though this exclusive, hidden nature may still hold true for the older generation, for the younger generation of Filipino Americans it is no longer the case.
“Lately there has been a renaissance of some sort in Filipino cuisine,” Belen said. “These are young Filipino American [chefs and restaurateurs] who are very proud of their roots, without a trace of the feeling of inferiority possessed by the first wave of Filipino immigrants.”
Today, Filipino restaurants are popping up in neighborhoods outside the enclaves in the United States. Have it be brick and mortar restaurants and food trucks in the California Bay Area, or hip, trendy dives in New York City. These are restaurants with a modern twist mostly run by younger generation Filipino Americans.
“The question is how do you take a tradition and bring it to the forefront of public knowledge and admiration,” Topher Hwan, 28, General Manager of Maharlika, a modern Filipino restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village, said. “Maharlika prides itself on being that ambassador for Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike.”
With a focus on sourcing locally, style of service and by entertaining classic American staples like brunch—something that does not exist in the Philippines—Maharlika strives to draw outsiders in by taking authenticity and tingeing it with modern techniques of the western world.
“The reception of this is often times heartfelt,” Hwan said. “The community is very responsive to the idea that finally they have a place to go that is taking Filipino food and culture to the mainstream. It’s not only a food movement but a cultural one as well.”