August 2013

Teri Vlassopoulos


The Adobo Road

A few weeks ago the New York Times ran an article about the popularity of Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi's Jerusalem. Despite some unusual ingredients and inevitable political undertones, the stars were aligned: over 400,000 copies of the book have been printed around the world to date. The recipes are fantastic and the book is gorgeous, so the success is deserved, but with cookbooks and cuisines, it's hard to predict what will take off and what won't.

The article came out just as I'd started to read Marvin Gapultos's The Adobo Road Cookbook: A Filipino Food Journey, a cookbook that stemmed from his blog, Burnt Lumpia, and his L.A. food truck. Jerusalem is obviously in a different league, but it emphasized a question I see again and again: why hasn't Filipino food had its moment? It seems to be perpetually on the cusp, but there have been no Times trend pieces; no definitive, lush cookbook; and even though according to the last census Filipinos were the second-largest Asian group in the United States, there is only a scattering of restaurants.

It reminded me of something I'd read in Linamnam: Eating One's Way Around the Philippines by Claude Tayag and Mary Ann Quioc, a guidebook, but mostly a crash course in the geographies of the archipelago country and the different styles of cooking associated with each region. During Anthony Bourdain's visit to the Philippines for an episode of No Reservations, Tayag and Quioc accompanied him on parts of his food tour. In the introduction of their book, they write about explaining to him the meaning of linamnam. It's one of those specific, untranslatable words, close in meaning to umami, the Japanese word widely embraced in the English-speaking culinary world. "Now, I get it," they quote Bourdain as saying when he makes the connection between the Tagalog version and his toddler's use of namnam when eating something she likes. "She has a Filipina nanny!" Right. And this is what I find interesting -- Filipinos have been stereotypically associated with classic caregiver roles (nannies, cleaning ladies) for so long, while the cooking aspect that would naturally follow has never quite caught on.

Tayag and Quioc published the guidebook to prove that there's more to Filipino cooking than adobo, pancit, and lumpia. And while it's true that if people know anything about Filipino food, they'll know this trinity well, how many people are actually that familiar with it to begin with? In many ways Filipino food is hard to pin down. Because of its complex colonized, recolonized, then colonized again history, the range of culinary influences is broad. There's Chinese in its stir-fried noodle dishes (pancit) and egg rolls (lumpia), Spanish in its versions of empanadas and flan, Malay in its use of fish sauce and coconut milk, and American in its Spam and fried chicken. While vinegar and other souring agents are used often, it's not uncommon to take a bite of something and encounter an unexpected sweetness. Like most Asians, Filipinos eat a lot of rice, but unlike other Asians, they don't use chopsticks. Because of all of this, Filipino food can range from exotic to unremarkable, familiar to unique.

I have a special interest in Filipino food because I'm half-Filipino; I don't know if I would know much about it otherwise. Growing up, my mother made pancit for special occasions, and I had so much adobo chicken that it wasn't until I was older that I realized its particular taste wasn't so familiar to everyone else. Filipino food is still something I associate more with dinners in my mother's kitchen, and it took years after I'd left home for it to even occur to me to cook myself, which I realized, is still something I only do rarely. I'm not sure why. Gapultos admits to the same line of thinking, although he realized much sooner that it would be more convenient to satisfy his Filipino food cravings himself.

I started mentally planning out a meal as I read his book: pinakbet (a vegetable stew with eggplant, bitter melon, pieces of pork belly, and fish sauce) and my mother's pancit. The namesake of the book is adobo, the Filipino style of braising meat, seafood or vegetables in vinegar, soy sauce, bay leaves, garlic, black pepper, and salt, so of course I would make his classic chicken adobo as well. One thing I liked about The Adobo Road was that it didn't shy away from the less glamorous dishes -- there are recipes for things like Filipino Spaghetti (the tomato sauce is sugary and cut up hot dogs replace meatballs) and Glaze Roasted Spam, which when sliced, brushed with a coffee and brown sugar glaze, and broiled is surprisingly good. One of my best friends, a fellow half-Filipino, made a batch of banana ketchup from a recipe in the book, a blend of mashed up bananas, tomato paste, annatto oil, and jalapenos. While it cooked, she sent me a text message that said, "It smells... confusing," which is a good way to describe Filipino cooking in general. Confusing, but not in a bad way. (And the ketchup was great.)

I plan to cook elaborate meals out of pretty much any cookbook I read, but I have a bad habit of not actually getting around to making them. The Adobo Road was breezy and encouraging, and for once I didn't hesitate to get to the kitchen. But while its chattiness is nice, the problem I have with so many blog-to-book cookbooks is that sometimes the writing is just a little too... bloggy. Something about a style that might give a blog a warmth doesn't always translate to the written, printed page. I found myself occasionally turning to Jennifer M. Aranas's The Filipino-American Kitchen, a book I came across a few years ago when I first decided to make Filipino food, which included dishes I'd never tasted but was curious about. The recipes in The Filipino-American Kitchen are a little fancier (e.g., no canned meat), which is why cooking out of The Adobo Road seemed more accessible and less intimidating. And so while I'll probably cook more from The Adobo Road, I'll use The Filipino-American Kitchen as a reference to learn more about ingredients like calamansi (the tiniest, cutest limes) or bagoong, fermented seafood paste.

I credit Gapultos's book for directing me to Doreen G. Fernandez, a food writer and historian who focused on Filipino food. She died in 2002 and is revered in the Philippines, but her books are unfortunately hard to find in the U.S. I managed to find a copy of Tikim: Essays on Philippine Food and Culture online, and I have a relative in Manila digging up a few others. Her book titles tend to sound dry, more like sociology texts, which is a shame because she was an elegant, rigorous writer on par with M.F.K. Fisher or Elizabeth David. By virtue of writing about the origins of Filipino food, she also snuck in some history lessons and discourses on cultural hegemony. She didn't believe adobo was the most representative dish of the Philippines ("overworked," she says!), but that it was sinigang instead, a soup that can be adapted to anyone's taste and budget, the broth tangy from tamarind.

If anything's going to catch North America's attention these days, though, it probably won't be adobo or sinigang, but the pork dishes. There's lechon kawali, chunks of deep fried pork belly, and sisig, a fried jumble of pig cheeks, ears and snouts that are chopped into bits so that you kind of forget you're eating pig faces. Sisig became Gapultos's food truck's best seller, and his version in the book only uses pork jowls, which are a little easier to find than snouts. But all of these dishes play nicely into the nose-to-tail trend that sometimes turns into a Portlandia-esque competition ("Yeah, but have you eaten this?").

In the end, does it matter if Filipino food becomes mainstream or not? There are so many other countries' cuisines that haven't gotten their due, either. Will someone try to cook through, say, The Filipino-American Kitchen the way people have with Jerusalem? I mean, this shouldn't matter -- the Filipino diaspora is strong; the cuisine isn't in danger of dying out any time soon -- but the question is revisited, even if just briefly, in every book and documentary and television show about Filipino food that I've come across. Food is generally the easiest way to cut to the heart of a place, a way to learn and explore it in a non-problematic way, cheaper than travelling. But because of the diversity in Filipino cuisine, the messy, colonialist history is highlighted rather than glossed over. Maybe this preoccupation with whether Filipino food will ever get popular is because if it did become as widely known as Chinese or Vietnamese or Thai, it would deflect some attention away from the questions of where the food came from originally. Certainly, despite its influences, Filipino food is its own and for a country that has had so many different countries' embroiled in its history, it would be nice to be simply known as itself.

Gapultos's hope is that The Adobo Road "serves as a starting point that will spark a new and lasting interest in Filipino food and culture." I hope that others take him up on that.