Back in 2012, bizarre foods aficionado Andrew Zimmern predicted Filipino food would be the next big thing, as if it were some burgeoning food trend, like kale or juice cleanses. Trends aside, this prediction highlighted something important about Filipino cuisine. In the United States, Filipino Americans make up the largest group of Asian Americans in 10 of the 13 Western states, and are the second largest Asian American group in the U.S. (second to Chinese Americans). Yet Philippine cuisine has remained underrepresented compared to its more accessible Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian and Thai counterparts.
For the uninitiated, Filipino food may seem anything but gourmet or appetizing. At first glance, it might simply be passed off as greasy, unglamorous, even odd. But anyone who grew up eating Filipino food knows that its sights, aromas and tastes are not just about eating. Philippine cuisine is storytelling in its most basic, richest sense. It is an amalgamation of native ingredients and colonial influences, a collection of histories and cultures from a nation with more than 7,000 islands and approximately 175 languages and dialects—Asian fusion before it was a thing. It is a cuisine that is both bold and humble, at once complex and simple.
That kind of claim from Zimmern went unheeded for the most part, but perhaps he was onto something. The following year, food writer and Parts Unknown host Anthony Bourdain featured the Filipino fast food joint Jollibee in an episode on his show. In that same episode, Korean American chef Roy Choi described the prevalent under-representation of Filipino food in America. “I think they’re going through what we went through [with Korean American food], where the glass hasn’t been broken yet to translate it but still keep the core and soul of it. But it tastes delicious,” he said.
In a 2010 Los Angeles Times article, Food Editor Amy Scattergood wrote that Filipino cuisine was a deeply flavorful mélange of foods that “seem to resist assimilation into mainstream culture, thriving in home kitchens but stubbornly remaining there.” That tide may finally be shifting with a recent surge of Filipino restaurants, food trucks, pop-ups and general interest throughout the U.S. Is it due to a new generation of Filipino American chefs and innovators who are craving to showcase, even make sexy the foods they grew up with? Is it social media and a wave of Instagramming, blog-happy foodies? Or is mainstream America now ready for the next big thing, as Zimmern predicted?
There are a growing number of chefs, restaurateurs and activists who have helped put Filipino food on the radar. To name a few: there’s Santos Uy and Charles Olalia (Rice Bar, Los Angeles), Nicole Ponseca (Jeepney and Maharlika, New York), Tim Luym (Attic Restaurant, San Mateo), Patrice Cleary (Purple Patch, DC), George Quibuyen and Chera Amlag (Food & Sh*t pop-up, Seattle), Cristina Quackenbush (Milkfish, New Orleans), Evan Kidera and Gil Payumo (Señor Sisig food truck, San Francisco) and Eric Pascual, Jeff Martinez and Alex Retodo (The Lumpia Company, Oakland), all offering modern Filipino fare to diners. There’s Top Chef Season 9 winner Paul Qui of Austin, Texas, and Season 10 contestant Sheldon Simeon of Hawai’i, both of whom showcased Filipino dishes on the show (Qui with adobo and Simeon with sinigang). There’s Lily Prijoles of Filipino Food & Bakery in San Diego, who not only feeds the large Fil-Am community there, but also uses her restaurant as a community center to host regular Filipino food and cultural events. And of course, there’s White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford, who recently served bangsilog, a Filipino dish made of bangus (milkfish), fried egg and garlic fried rice, to Pope Francis.
We asked a few others at the forefront of this scene to discuss their thoughts on the current and future state of Philippine fare. The following are interviews with Amy Besa, Dale Talde, Yana Gilbuena, Chase Valencia, PJ Quesada and Aileen Suzara.
—Lisa and Irene Yadao
Click the photos below to discover these Filipino American tastemakers!
For those who are not familiar with Filipino cuisine and Tagalog terminology, we’ve provided you with a cheat sheet!
Irene Yadao is a freelance writer and editor who made her way to Maine eight years ago by way of San Diego, New York, and New Mexico. She has written and edited for the likes of The Village Voice and the San Diego Union-Tribune, and currently pens profiles for Maine and Old Port magazines, as well as food pieces for the EatMaine blog. She studied journalism at San Diego State University and earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Naropa University. Irene is a member of the Steel House in Rockland and is working on a web-based project about the experience of growing up as a twin. When not at her computer, she plays roller derby for the Rock Coast Rollers.
Lisa Yadao is Business Affairs Administrator for the video and photo teams at Square, and also serves as Contracts Manager for the Center for Asian American Media. She was born in Honolulu, two minutes before Irene, and was raised in San Diego, where she received a BA in English at San Diego State University. Most recently, she studied Video Production at Bay Area Video Coalition, and is a member of the Scary Cow film co-op in San Francisco. In her downtime, she enjoys screenwriting, working film festivals, and eating her way through San Francisco and various parts of the globe.
This story is a part of Off the Menu: Asian America, a multimedia project between the Center for Asian American Media and KQED, featuring a one-hour PBS primetime special by award-winning filmmaker Grace Lee (American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs), original stories and web content.