March 19, 2016

The Making of the Filipino Culinary Quilt by Chef Claude Tayag

Chef Claude Tayag’s talk during the launch of Food Crew PH

I’m pretty sure you’ve heard it all before. Why has Filipino cuisine not known internationally? But as every Filipino knows, ours is probably one of the best cuisines in the world. We love it, we are passionate about it, and we eat it every day. So, what gives?
But that question no longer holds true. We’re not the only ones raving about it. Back in 2008, Simon Majumbar, Cutthroat Kitchen and Iron Chef judge, told Metro Home magazine that he had “underestimated” Filipino cuisine. He called it “one of the few undiscovered culinary treasures left in the world, and if the people of the Philippines attacked the marketing (highlight mine) of their food with the same gusto that they apply to eating it, it could be the next culinary sensation.”

Anthony Bourdain wrote in his blog after the showing of the Philippine episode of No Reservations in January 2009 that sisig is “one of the world’s best beer drinking dishes,” whereas slow-roasted lechon from Cebu elevated the Philippines to the top spot in his Hierarchy of Pork. He also told Therese Jamora-Garceau of The Philippine Star that a tourism push could help the country become a food destination on par with Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. “It’s an unfair thing to capture in a few images and dishes the heart and soul of Filipino cuisine, but you promote that,” suggested Bourdain.

Andrew Zimmern, host of Bizarre Foods, told in 2012 that given a couple more years, Filipino cuisine would be “the next big thing.” In an interview with PEOPLE Magazine, he also ranked Filipino cuisine second among his Top 10 Food Trends of 2013. The Filipino food movement, he said, will one day be traceable to Paul Qui (a Fil-Am Top Chef winner) serving dinuguan (pork blood stew) at his restaurant Qui in Austin, Texas.
Last March 2015, we at Bale Dutung were in Singapore to join the World Street Food Congress organized by Makansutra founder KF Seetoh. We were invited to sell pork sisig at the 5-day congress, together with Dedet de la Fuente of Pepita's Lechon and Paul Qui selling his fish kinilaw and chicken inasal tacos in a food truck. Well, to jump ahead of my story, the three of us had probably the longest queues among the 24 vendors coming from different parts of the world. During the last night at the farewell party, Seetoh approached us saying: "Filipino cuisine is so good, man! Why are you hiding it form the world?"

There are two points I’m leading up to by citing these: One, it’s been a marketing problem from the start. Two, we need to serve our food the way it is. All 4 food writers – Majumbar, Bourdain, Zimmern and Seetoh – love it just the way it is. It doesn’t need to be presented the Western way or glossed over. Remain true to its taste and essence, just use better-quality ingredients, leaner cuts of meat, fresher produce, and make sure to adhere to hygienic practices.

Of course, the proverbial proof is in the actual eating, especially with the emergence of several upscale Filipino restaurants here and abroad. But which Filipino cuisine to push one may ask, given the cultural diversity of our archipelago?

The phenomenal rise in popularity of the Ilocano Bagnet, Pampango Sisig, Ilonggo Chicken Inasal, Cebu’s Boneless Lechon, or Cagayan de Oro’s Sinuglaw into the national culinary scene is a good illustration on how the best, or at least the most popular, of a regional cuisine actually takes part in weaving the quilt that makes up Filipino cuisine as a cohesive whole. Is it by coincidence that the DOT’s “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” logo has the Philippine map woven like our tightly-knit banig (mat), with its multi-colored mosaic representing the different regions/cultures that make up our nation?

The emergence of chef- and/or regional-centered Filipino restaurants is a clear proof that there’s a local market to sustain them. The Filipino diner has come of age: He goes out with an open mind and palate. There has been a rediscovery and appreciation of the sheer diversity of our cuisine.

If we were our own worst critics before, we could be our best ambassadors today. Filipinos have finally found pride in the sariling atinWe may be late bloomers, but we have definitely taken off for a long haul across the Pacific and the world.

The resounding success of the Madrid Fusión Manila held last year in April delivered the message loud and clear, not only to the Spaniards but to the whole world! We rose above divisiveness (sarili/self) and showed the world what we (bayan/nation) have to offer. And yet, initially, it was this sarili/self that was highlighted in each of the three days of the culinary conference – Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao, each one given a day to showcase the best it has to offer, and it wowed the palates of the 1,400 foreign and Filipino delegates. There was cooperation, and most importantly, there was mutual respect of our differences. There was unity in diversity. It was from this heap the bayan/national cuisine emerged, and conquered the world by storm! It's a proud moment for us Pinoys.


The Ilocanos’ most popular contribution to Philippine cuisine is perhaps the pakbet (pronounced pak-butt, a.k.a pinakbet), for one can find it anywhere you go in the country. It has traveled the length of our archipelago brought about by the Ilocano migration to greener pastures. Yet, this seemingly simple vegetable stew elicits much debate as to what the genuine article is, perhaps much in the same way as adobo does. But what is “authentic” nowadays, as most traditional dishes have been transformed into different variants and interpretations, although each adaptation credits its origin by calling it by its original name. Much of Filipino dishes are cooked in conformity with the maker (to taste) and not to some codified recipe.

Ilocano tradition dictates how specific the veggies are cut, and the manner of cooking, placed in a palayok or earthenware pot in layers, doused with bagoong isda (salt-fermented anchovies), covered and steamed in its own juices. The pot is given an occasional shake. After all, its original name comes from pinakkebet, literally meaning “to cook till wrinkled, shrunken”. More often than not, the poor vegetables, small as they are, are all dull brown in color and wilted beyond recognition (much like ratatouille, perhaps?). And, if the gods are kind, chicharon (pork rind) or bagnet (lechon kawali or crispy pork belly) may be added.
Pakbet’s combination of vegetables may vary, from the bittersweet ampalaya, whose bitterness defines much of Ilocano cooking; the slimy okra; sitaw or yard long beans; sigadillas or winged beans; lima beans, green finger chilies; to the eggplant, having a pleasantly bitter taste (again, that Ilocano thing) and spongy texture, that, when eaten, leaves a somewhat biting sensation to the upper mouth.

Anathema to the purists is the use of bagoong alamang or shrimp paste, which is preferred by the non-Ilocanos, to be sautéed with onion, garlic and tomatoes (pls. refer to pakbet sofrito). Kalabasa or squash in pakbet is also a big no-no, but then included in most pakbet outside Ilocolandia. Ginger strips are also added after sautéing the garlic and onions, which this author subscribe to, to somehow neutralize the fishy smell/taste of the bagoong, of either fish or shrimp.

In the runaway bestseller cookbook Kulinarya (now on its fourth printing, available in National Bookstore and Powerbooks nationwide), the vegetables are blanched separately as each one has a different cooking time, to ensure they are cooked but remain firm. A little salt is added to the boiling water for blanching to help retain the veggies’ natural color. Blanching the ampalaya also lessens the bitterness. Kulinarya aims to inspire today’s kitchen practitioner the best practices in the selection of ingredients, its preparation, presentation and understanding of Filipino cuisine. To paraphrase an old cliché, the proof in the adobo/pakbet is in the consistency and presentation. 

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