THAI, Chinese, Japanese — their cuisine, or at least iterations and versions of them, have already made themselves known to the world. The West has adapted some of these dishes for their own repertoire. If California Maki and Orange Chicken exists, well, why haven’t we heard of, say, a San Francisco adobo?
Mikey del Rosario, Chef Consultant at Mabini’s in Malate, shares its space with another icon, Tesoro’s. Both serve the same goal: Tesoro’s shows the refinement of our craft and native dress; and so does Mabini’s with our food, with such creations as a pancit with hand-pulled noodles, or else balut (fertilized duck egg) in crab fat and butter.
Mr. Del Rosario appeared on the second episode of Manila Storytellers, an educational series by curated tour organizers WanderManila. Here, host Benjamin Canapi picked Mr. Del Rosario’s brain about the Manila food scene and why Filipino food hasn’t reached the heights of our neighbor’s cuisines.
“Up until lately, it’s always been just your homegrown kind of cooking…,” he said of the restaurant scene. “ That’s always been the food scene in the Philippines, and even abroad. People abroad, [the] restaurants they put up, they’re not very high-end,” he said in a mix of Tagalog and English. “It’s just basically catered to the Filipino people,” he said.
But he noted that in the last five years, things have changed. “These restaurants that have elevated the cuisine started popping up.” He cited Toyo Eatery, which bagged 43rd on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants List for 2019. “Slowly but surely, it’s starting to get there man. It’s slowly inching its way into the global scene. Not as fast as we would want, but it’s getting there; there are steps.”
He pointed to a survey by YouGov last year, which had 25,000 respondents from 24 countries, where Filipino food rated as the fourth least popular. “Not many people know about it, not many people like the cuisine,” he said.
“I think one of the hurdles is, well, Filipino ingredients are kind of hard to come by abroad,” he said. “I’ve cooked Filipino food also abroad. The ingredients I get; they feel too clean, almost. Everything’s so polished; the eggplants look so nice.”
Then there is the diversity in the country, spread as we are across a few thousand islands: sometimes a treat, sometimes a threat. “Another problem I think I feel [with] Filipino food in general is that… as a country, we’re kalat (spread out),” he said. “The cohesiveness of the food is not there. It’s very hard for me, for you, to define filipino food in one sentence. There are too many things going on.” He cites for example, the many recipes of adobo, or even the different souring agents of sinigang soup. “There’s way too many factions for you to be able to say, this is Filipino food.”
As for restaurants abroad, he mentions that a certain mentality blocks restaurants from reaching meteoric heights. We do however, have to cite the fame of Bad Saints in Washington, DC, and Bib Gourmand awardee Purple Yam in New York, two Filipino restaurants, in two main cities of the United States. There was also Aux Iles Philippines by Nora Daza in the 1960s in one of the world’s culinary capitals, Paris. Of course, for three success stories, there are other hundreds that didn’t make it.
“The people that left at the time were not chefs or cooks, they weren’t even businessmen,” he said. “Filipinos really weren’t bred to be entrepreneurs. We’re always pigeonholed into thinking we’ll be great employees.”
“That’s what happened when we went abroad. The people that wanted to put up Filipino restaurants didn’t do it well,” he argues. By that, he doesn’t mean the food, but a lack of business skills such as in costing and accounting, and the more boring matters in the restaurant business. “Hopefully, we can get that good food out there without compromise.”
“It’s very hard to rally around a single cause, more so food. I’m not giving up hope, obviously. Maybe in the future, Filipino food will get its due.” — Joseph L. Garcia