A couple of weeks ago, I chanced upon a video clip on Facebook that featured a Jollibee branch in California, U.S.A. I was thrilled that the generally ignored part of our culture is being presented on CNN. It was a surprise to see something that doesn’t include a Filipino or a Filipina holding a microphone on the internet. It was exhilarating to see popular CNN host Anthony Bourdain having a taste of Filipino food in spite of the fact that Jollibee, being a fast food restaurant, only represents a tiny part of what we Filipinos usually eat.
The CNN program, aptly entitled, “Parts Uknown,” aspires to explore certain unpopular places and cultures (including cuisine). After living in Europe for almost a decade now, I can honestly say that Filipino cuisine is one of the least known parts of our culture. Whenever I meet people from other countries and whenever I say I’m from the Philippines, they would always tend to ask me about how our food tastes like. Filipino food is certainly unexplored by people outside the Philippines.
They always think that our food is spicy like Thai food. They have an impression that we use coconut milk and coriander (cilantro) in most of our dishes. I normally tell them that our food is more sweet and sour and that we normally use soy sauce in our dishes. It’s very uncomfortable to explain this to other people but I can’t ignore the fact that foreigners are mostly ignorant about Filipino cuisine. I feel awkward (as well as sort of ashamed) that non-Filipinos are normally more aware of how Thai food tastes like but I can’t blame them if we don’t have restaurants abroad where they could have a taste of our cuisine. It’s obvious that our cuisine is unrepresented unlike our South East Asian neighbor.
Seeing spam sandwich, not sure when did that become “Filipino cuisine,” and Halo-halo being tasted by Mr. Bourdin on CNN made me wonder if this would be the start of our cuisine being finally introduced internationally. Although the Jollibee version of Filipino cuisine is a bit Americanized (considering that hamburger is not at all Fiipino) and misrepresented, the possibility of finally penetrating the international market is becoming more and more feasible. It’s just sad that it is still to become known around the world. I suppose that this has something to do with our ingrained colonial mentality which in turn hinders every attempt to make competitive local products for export (including food of course). We have never developed that urge to make our local cuisine known around the world because we don’t think that it’s good enough compared to other cuisines like Thai or Indonesian for that matter.
A former Indonesian classmate asked me why we didn’t have a Filipino restaurant in Antwerp, Belgium (where I lived in the past). All I could say was that the demand for Filipino food is not enough to require a formal restaurant which would serve local Filipino delicacies to both Filipinos and foreigners alike. I suppose I was being a bit defensive in saying that the inexistence of a Filipino restaurant in Antwerp can be attributed to the unpopularity of our cuisine which results into low demand and small market to guarantee profit.
It’s not easy to say that despite of the fact that there are around 10 million Filipinos living abroad, Filipino cuisine has been overshadowed by other cuisines like Thai or Indonesian. I definitely don’t think that Filipino food is inferior in terms of taste compared to other South East Asian cuisines. I once read somewhere that our cuisine is very boring compared to Thai food but that’s a very biased assumption. Filipino cuisine varies from region to region (given the fact that we are an archipelago of 7,000 islands) so the probability of finding something really exquisite in taste is not virtually impossible. The only problem I see is that like most of our culture, our cuisine is not being prioritized and properly marketed. We concentrate on producing singers, boxers and beauty queens yet we don’t realize that food is a very competitive product that ensures profit. It can also be a way for us to be known around the world and be respected by the international community.
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