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By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor
By Wanda A. Adams
Invite a foodie friend over for a regional Southeast Asian menu: ratatouille, shrimp ceviche, salad of tender vegetable shoots, green-papaya stew and pork stir-fry.
Then tell them it's Filipino food: pinakbet, kilawen, ampalaya, tinola and guisantes.
"I know what will happen," said Cece Manibog, a Filipina who loves to cook. "You'll get a joke about eating dog or pig's blood or intestines."
The joke, Manibog says, is not funny — and it's on you. "There's not one of these dishes that you mentioned that the average person in Hawai'i wouldn't like. But most people just wouldn't try them," said Manibog, who was shopping at the well-stocked Pacific Supermarket in Waipahu. She lives in Hawai'i Kai but makes forays to Waipahu for ingredients that are hard to find in conventional supermarkets.
This year, the Filipino community celebrates 100 years of significant Filipino presence in Hawai'i. Yet few Islanders can name more than two or three Filipino dishes — adobo, lumpia, pansit, guisantes, maybe bibingka. There's a Vietnamese sandwich shop, Japanese sushi bar or Chinese eatery on every other block, but Filipino restaurants are few.
Hawai'i-based L & L Hawaiian Barbecue, the country's largest Asian food chain, is owned by a Filipino — and doesn't serve Filipino food. The Yellow Pages don't break out Filipino restaurants in a separate listing, though Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese restaurants get this spotlight. Plate-lunch menus, a showcase of our polyglot culture, generally feature only adobo from Filipino cuisine, if that.
Why? Why, when the food traditions of most other cultures have blended almost seamlessly into the melange called "local" cuisine, has Filipino food remained almost exclusively within its own community?
Stereotyping, says Manibog, a second-generation Hawai'i resident who, like most Hawai'i Filipinos, has roots in the Philippines' Ilocos Norte region.
"People think we eat weird food. But, really, it's no more weird than some of the things that other cultures eat, like natto or blood sausage or bird's nests. And, as a matter of fact, especially today, most of us don't eat those so-called weird things very often, if ever. My kids won't have anything to do with dinuguan (pig's blood stew), but they love the fried fish, the mixed vegetables flavored with the roast pork, the sweet rice desserts — especially the desserts. I'm sorry, but I think many people still look down on Filipinos, and laughing at our food is one way that they express that."
Eddie Flores Jr., president of L&L Hawaiian Barbecue, has thought a lot about why Filipino food isn't more popular. While the L&L chain is successful (52 outlets here and on the Mainland), he tried to do Filipino fast food at a single airport location some years ago, and it "didn't work." He has served chicken adobo at L&L from time to time. But, he said, "it's not in demand."
Flores said several factors block Filipino food from the mainstream. First is the perception that Manibog mentioned: that Filipino food is all half-formed chicken eggs (balut), smelly shrimp paste (bagoong) and, yes, that pig's blood that keeps coming up. Second, he said, is presentation: Filipino food is heavy on stewed and simmered dishes of cut-up vegetables and meats, all mixed up and monotonal in appearance. "It's not too appetizing if you don't know what it tastes like," Flores said.
As a Filipino who loves the food of his culture, Flores has argued for years that it's time for Filipino food to break out. But as a businessman, he's concluded that the only place you can be successful with a Filipino restaurant is in a neighborhood where many Filipinos live. A chain called Jolly Bee has done well in Filipino communities in California, for example.
"But you don't see a Filipino restaurant in Kailua. You don't see one in Hawai'i Kai," he said. "You see Filipinos eating in Chinese restaurants, but you don't see Chinese eating in Filipino restaurants. It's just how it is."
NO UPSCALE ATTENTION
Nor has Filipino food made it into the high-end mainstream, where deconstructed, dandied-up versions of local dishes enter the $20-a-plate circle.
If there's anyone on O'ahu who could give Filipino cuisine a haute makeover, it's Elmer Guzman, the Maui-born Filipino chef trained by Emeril Lagasse and Sam Choy. But when Guzman went out on his own last year, he opened The Poke Stop, a take-out place focused on seafood.
"I thought about it and thought about it," he said of the high-end Filipino restaurant idea. "I knew it wasn't going to work. Maybe in San Francisco; not in Hawai'i." Given the already narrow audience for big-ticket dining, and the general lack of understanding of Filipino food, "you'd be taking a big chance." This despite the fact that many, many of the line cooks in top restaurants are of Filipino descent, he said.
Guzman also was concerned about communicating the subtleties of his culture's "soul food." On the surface, many Filipino entrees have a sameness: they begin with onion and garlic, they're simmered or boiled, they feature a lot of vegetables, they're flavored with different meats or seafoods, plus dried shrimp or fish sauce. To those who know the difference between pinakbet and sari-sari, both vegetable stews, the nuances are obvious, but they're likely lost on the rest of the audience, he said.
Guzman featured a few Filipino-style dishes when he was chef at Sam Choy's Diamond Head Grill — adobo leg of duck with crispy skin, for example. But, he said, "the thing about it was, visually, you don't have the wow. You might have the flavor, but not the wow appearance. People eat with their eyes." There's also the fact that the minute patis — the fish sauce that's the Filipino cooking equivalent of shoyu in Japanese cuisine — hits the heat, it sends out a powerful scent, one that some diners might not appreciate.
Guzman's comments hint at another point that may explain why Filipino food has not spread: Many entrepreneurial immigrants have been willing to doctor the foods of their home, toning down potent flavors and eliminating unfamiliar ingredients, to make the food acceptable to a Western audience. But, said Stephanie Castillo, a filmmaker and lover of her mom's Filipino cooking, "I don't think Filipinos thought of their food as something to be marketed."
SO MANY VARIATIONS
While street foods are ubiquitous in the larger cities of the Philippines, and the Tagalog center of Manila is home to fine restaurants, there may be less of a dining-out tradition among Filipinos than other cultures here. This may be partly economic, but, said Castillo, it's also a matter of taste:
"Home is where the good food is. Anything else, you compare to your mom's, and it's usually not as good."
There's also the fact that in a sense, there is no such thing as Filipino food. The Philippines has five major culinary regions, and each has distinct traditions. Ask an Ilocano about a Visayan dish and they'll look at you blankly.
Eddie Flores, who grew up in Hong Kong eating Tagalog-style food in the small Filipino community there, misses dishes like his favorite mungo beans with parilla leaves. Ilocanos tend to use the shelled yellow mungo beans, but he grew up eating the whole green ones.
Besides regional differences, there are generational differences. Loretta Seina, a member of the Filipino Women's League, differentiates between "Filipino Filipino" food and the preferences of third- and fourth-generation immigrant people. For example, first-generation cooks tend to use bagoong. Those who have been acculturated a bit usually use patis, which is more refined and less fishy-tasting.
Seina's contemporary recipes acknowledge the acculturation process. She puts a little shoyu in her adobo marinade, makes pig's feet soup with spare ribs instead of trotters, adds a touch of cinnamon to her guisantes and tends to use menpachi instead of milkfish.
"My mom was second-generation. She didn't cook Filipino food all the time," said Seina, who grew up in a plantation camp in 'O'okala on the Big Island. "We lived in a Japanese camp, my mother was Tagalog and my father was Ilocano, so that's why I'm really confused," she added, with a laugh.
"As you go along, you kind of change the basic recipes, and because we're local-born, we're not used to that old Filipino cooking," said Seina.
Neither, yet, is the rest of the world.
Reach Wanda A. Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org.