Oh no, not again. I’m filled with nostalgia for home. Worse, it’s a nostalgia for the tastes of home, thanks to this link I found on Facebook, “10 Best Filipino Restaurants in Manila”.

True, the best Filipino food I’ve ever had is right there, happening, in the city I’ve left behind. Much of this nostalgia perhaps arises from the fact that I’ve practically witnessed Filipino cuisine evolve – what with more than 30 years of eating out, and counting! From the uncompromisingly traditional, mouth-puckering sinigang and sinus-busting bicol express at Cely Kalaw’s Grove Restaurant many many moons ago, to that jolt of an innovation – corned beef sinigang – more recently at Sentro in Greenbelt, Makati. Sentro’s sinigang was just as mouth-puckering, by the way, but non-traditional in that one would be given a sampling of the broth and the liberty to choose the level of its sourness. It also blew my mind that corned beef, something I always associated with breakfast – and an American import at that – was used in the most traditional of Filipino dishes. This, possibly, was my introduction to Filipino modern or fusion food.

Filipino fusion cuisine is a “double-kill” of a term, if you ask me. Filipino food is – and always has been – fusion, to quote Anthony Bourdain.  The late Doreen Fernandez surely meant “fusion” too when she described our food as “the adaptation of various flavors merged with our culture”. Indeed, our pot is a hodgepodge of various influences – from China, Melaka, India, Mexico, Spain and North America.

The challenge now is not so much to define what Filipino food is, but to answer “What is authentic Filipino food?”, if there is such a thing. Or, for a Filipino dining out in another country, whether there’s logic in seeking out authentic Filipino food.

Paradoxically, it’s this fusion of influences that has brought about a cuisine that is vibrant and unique in itself and, in that sense, authentic. Let me put it this way: it’s cuisine that has managed to keep its soul in spite of.  The same way a Filipino will speak in fluent English, at the same time  point to a direction with his lips. By “authentic” I refer to its bold flavours – unabashed seasoning with garlic, the liberal use of coconut milk, and often there’s vinegar in the mix. Take the Kaldereta for example with its peculiar Filipino marinade of garlic, soy sauce, vinegar and kalamansi, or the adobo that keeps its Filipino flavor profile despite additions of paprika, curry and the like. “Authentic” involves thick, rich sauces – to spoon on and mix with rice as we eat. Of course, “authentic” means bold aromas, too, of patis (fish sauce), bagoong (shrimp paste), and in some homes, the extract of charred coconut meat. We are after all a people that sniff-kiss our babies, whose descriptive for great grub is “langhap-sarap”*. And true, there’s a lot of sentimentalism every time we seek out authentic Filipino food, a pining for heritage, home and family-style gatherings at the table.

Bold flavours and a dose of sentimentality. I’m afraid that’s what some new Filipino chefs cooking for a global table don’t get. They have become gun-shy with our flavours. Is it food shame? Are they fearful our food’s vinegar-y and often pungent edges will turn off the western palate? Or are they just too preoccupied chasing the buzz around deconstruction, molecular cuisine and the latest food trends? Where does the discomfort lie? Tradition doesn’t preclude a nice plating for a bit more colour than our ubiquitous brown, does it? And it need not involve bamboo and banana leaves! Neither does it shun the idea of deconstruction as long as it doesn’t compromise the harmony of its flavours but instead highlight the inherent simplicity of our cuisine. Unexpected embellishments – like the corned beef in Sentro’s sinigang – can accentuate the adaptability of our cuisine that’s fusion to begin with. Surely, as the chefs in Manila continue to prove, all it takes is transforming this cuisine for the Filipino audience, first and foremost, playing to the inherited memories and cultural history that have shaped our palate. Let the Filipino embrace it, and the rest of the world will follow. I think this is an easy enough start for any chef who aspires to elevate Filipino food on the world stage.


Footnote: I have dined in only 6 out of the ten restaurants mentioned in the list, simply because the other four are recent additions to Manila’s dining scene. My top choice would also be Sentro 1771. “When a cuisine banks on heritage and homestyle flavors, it doesn’t leave much room for playing around. Innovation, after all, opposes tradition, and no cuisine emphasizes the latter more than Filipino fare. But Chef Vicky Pacheco of Sentro 1771 knows how to toe the line, keeping the vibrant profile that Filipinos love while adding a few embellishments here and there.” That pretty much sums it up for me.

* Langhap-sarap is a term coined by Filipino adman Minyong Ordoñez for a Jollibee ad campaign. It means “smell of delicious taste” or “smell the delicious taste”.

Other Filipino food terms: Sinigang, a Filipino sour soup; Bicol Express, dish with chillis and coconut milk, named after the train route between Manila and the Southern Tagalog Region; Kaldereta, a beef stew; Kalamansi, a Philippine lime.