What makes Filipino cuisine unique is something that evades many foreigners. Compared to other Asian countries like Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, the Philippines has yet to establish its place in the global food arena.
That was before.
Television host, culinary expert and cookbook author Nancy Reyes-Lumen says Filipino food is in fact on the threshold of becoming the newest culinary darling of world gastronomy. According to her, misconceptions about the Pinoy food are becoming
a thing of the past. She explains that from the global gastronomic point of view, it used to be that the Philippine cuisine was thought of as lacking in variety of color thus it was not appetizing.
“There was no ‘red’ element to attract the eye. Most of the dish- presentations seen in our food photos were brown, shades of brown, greasy, oily food with unrecognizable meat cuts under a cover of thick brown sauce. The recipes were too diverse. They lack a definitive taste profile.”
Philippine cuisine was described as “primitive” as well, having only two tastes – salty and sour – dominating most recipes. Some dishes and ingredients were even considered much too exotic for international standards. Think dinuguan (some European countries have blood sausage which uses pig’s blood as main ingredient), balut (Vietnam’s own recipe has eggs that are “older”), dog meat, insects like crickets and grasshoppers, bagoong, among others.
Reyes-Lumen says that global travel and work overseas have spurred a culinary revolution among the traditionalists and the young chefs. As such, the Filipino cuisine is now at its most exciting and creative era. “We are in the cross currents of global-regional- traditional movements when it comes to our food. Our cuisine is taking shape. It is becoming healthier, fresh, [and] more nutritious.”
Reyes-Lumen defines Filipino cuisine as a rich, flavorful mix of East-West influences interwoven with the fresh seafood and coconuts of the islands. The Philippines was once a colony of Spain, the US, and Japan.
“Our traditional cuisine is of a diverse colonial as well as Malay thread,” enthuses Reyes-Lumen. “Spanish/Mexican ingredients and cooking techniques are basic cooking styles in homes. Chinese cooking abounds as deeply rooted as the Filipino’s love for American food.”
The food expert says Spain and Mexico introduced us to ingredients like fruit-bearing trees, vegetables, pantry goods like butter, sugar, milk, among others. They also taught us cooking techniques like guisado.
She adds that the only missing link to European cooking was the use of wine which the creative Filipino substituted with vinegar leading to many new recipes and innovations.
Composed of 7,107 islands, the Philippines has long coastlines rich with coconut trees. “From this ‘tree of life’ we get coconut milk, coconut water, heart of palm, and leaves used as natural food wraps.”
The base flavor of Philippine food, Reyes-Lumen says, is Malay because it is the ethnic root of the Pinoy. “Filipino cuisine is the sum of all parts – colonial, islands and Malay. [Our food is] not fully Asian yet enriched with the flavors of Spain, Mexico, America, Japan, China, a bit of French, etc. As Nick Joaquin [National Artist for Literature] wrote: Our cuisine is ‘Cajun.’ Read: Mestizo. How unique can we get!?”
As an introduction to the Filipino food culture, Reyes-Lumen recommends foreigners to try adobo. “[Adobo] travels well. It is popular. The tourists may have heard of the word. It has many versions each to fit a preference.”
Other must-tries are sinigang, which is the best medium for fresh prawns, fish, fish head, and vegetables; chicken inasal, bangus ala pobre, chicken barbecue, grilled tuna, pancit luglog and lumpiang Shanghai. “I learned from [Philippine culinary legend] Nora Daza that Europeans like the taste of paksiw!”
First-timers to the Philippines are encouraged to join a food tour. The most popular destinations in Luzon are Pampanga, Bulacan, Laguna and Ilocos. “Every region has a different special recipe for guests,” says Reyes-Lumen.
Visiting the islands offers tourists a taste of coconut milk dishes and fresh seafood. Asked what is the best way to enjoy Filipino?
“Dine with company. For a fun element, eat with your hands as your wet feet get massaged by gurgling water on a lake!”
Nancy Reyes-Lumen is a self- proclaimed “Adobo Queen.” She is co-author of bestselling books like The Adobo Book, The Malunggay Book, Make Good Money with Malunggay and the ALBA Book. All books have won local and international awards. She belongs to the Reyes clan of Aristocrat, one of the most popular restaurants (and one of the oldest existing) in the Philippines. A branch of the Reyes clan is in the production of worldwide known Filipino sauces: Mama Sita brand. She is also a freelance TV cooking show host/ culinary trivia provider for radio. Read more about the Philippine food expert through her blog, www. pinoyfoodies.com.