Filipino New Wave: The Sweet Stink of Success

Filipino New Wave: The Sweet Stink of Success

In a wave of homesickness, Filipino immigrant Ernesto Mabalon laid smoked dried fish on a coal grill. The ensuing reek permeated the California neighborhood, and his father told him never to do that again. People were offended.

This was in 1955. Since then, Filipino food has remained unpopular. Its few holes-in-the-wall quietly catered to an almost exclusively Filipino clientele.

In 2003, one Chowhound board in the greater Seattle area wondered why. “Is Filipino food embarrassing?” was the topic. Discussion of the cuisine’s use of pig ears, fermented shrimp, and duck embryos ensued. SF Weekly called the cuisine a “victim of isolation, misconception, of the stubborn residue of America’s 100-year-old judgment of the Philippine Islands as backward.”

But in the last year, Filipino food is finally getting a little love. Adobo, a dish typically prepared with vinegar, garlic, and peppercorns, “holds the power to change moods and alter dining habits,” according to the New York Times in a recent article. Brooklyn’s Purple Yam restaurant, with roots in Philippine cuisine, also received the Times’ favor. And for food trucks and carts in San Francisco, such as Senor Sisig and Adobo Hobo, business is booming.

However, none of the chefs responsible for the cuisine’s growing popularity serve food found in a typical Filipino home. Adobo Hobo’s version of adobo comes in a tortilla with a dash of crema. Sisig, a carnitas-like dish of pork dressed in lime and chilis, dresses a heap of nachos at San Francisco’s Mercury Lounge. The Purple Yam’s eye to fresh-from-the-farm ingredients and rigorous sourcing smacks of Chez Panisse. The food is vamped up and fused with American values and American flavors.

“Every cuisine fuses with its neighbors,” said Dawn Mabalon, daughter to Ernesto, and professor of history and trustee of the National Filipino American Historical Society, in a talk recently given in San Francisco. It’s a natural process, especially for a cuisine that has absorbed Chinese, Malay, Spanish, Mexican, and American influences.

The forefront of this new wave is largely made up of people who are second and third generation Filipino American. “This new second generation grew up on Filipino food but are also into the restaurant scene and into organic food and local food, this trendy food culture,” Mabalon said.

Romy Dorotan, formally trained chef of the Purple Yam, said in a telephone interview, “When I started this restaurant, I knew more about non-Filipino food than about Filipino food.” Both Dominic Ainza, chef of the Mercury Lounge, and Jason Rotairo, owner of Adobo Hobo, grew up in the U.S., and looked to the Internet, books, and their mothers as guides to the cuisine. Neither has yet to go back to the Philippines to learn more.

Their clientele, food-curious and multi-ethnic, aren’t generally familiar with the mélange of sourness, coconut, seafood, and chile that makes up the palette of Filipino flavors. The food trucks in particular have a role in teaching the public. “They’re bringing the food to the people. The people are not coming to them,” Ainza explains.

Although each chef puts their own spin on the cuisine, all of them display a love of freshness and good ingredients. Dorotan visits farmers markets and laments having to use MSG-laden products when there are no other alternatives. One of Rotairo’s favorite ingredients is achara — pickled green papaya — to counterbalance the savory sweetness of grilled meats.

The restaurants are also doing away with the cuisine’s reputation for being salty, greasy, and unhealthy. One restaurant, No Worries, in Oakland, California eliminates meat entirely. The restaurant is vegan — a complete reversal from the standard Filipino American fare of meat, meat, more meat, and rice.

While restaurants are coming to the forefront, home cooking is on the decline in Filipino American communities. “A lot of Filipinos are working two jobs,” Mabalon commented. “People have not learned the recipes of their families and so they’re ordering from different Filipino restaurants.” Recipes are being lost, and with them, cultural connection.

“For me [cooking] is a way to stay in touch with the culture. Because these days, you get a lot of Filipino Americans that can’t even speak the language. It’s one of the first things you lose. But then, through food you get the culture,” said Rotairo.

In response, Ainza teaches classes in Filipino cuisine, often to a largely Filipino American audience. Dorotan’s restaurant partner, Amy Besa, travels to the Philippines, in an effort to archive and preserve recipes as well.

“It’s an exciting time in Filipino American food,” said Mabalon, 56 years after her father was told not to cook his native cuisine. The new popularity of a once “offensive” food brings with it new possibility — one need only look at the difference between Chinese food in China and the food at the local Chinese American restaurant to see how far Filipino food might evolve from its mother source. But, as Dorotan insists, “Filipino food is really good. It doesn’t need a lot of tweaking. You know? If we do it right, it’s good.”

Photos: Mercury Lounge Sisig Nachos by besighyawn; dried fish by Jametiks