Food culture and the ‘authenticity’ of food

Or, the ramblings of a man mildly annoyed by an article he read on the internet

Whilst browsing Facebook during lunchbreak, I happened across an article that had been shared by some fellow Filipino foodies. It was a short promotional article in Afar Magazine, detailing Aashi Vel of Traveling Spoon’s trip to the Philippines and the subsequent expansion of her business there. In essence, Traveling Spoon offers unique culinary experiences in a select number of countries, whereby travellers can connect with home cooks and eat in their homes.

“Discover an authentic culinary experience with the best home cooks around the world”

Sounds pretty cool, no? So it was interesting to see what she thought of the Philippines’ culinary scene.

Alas, it becomes quite clear from the article that she very nearly did not have a good time of it at all. She was only rescued by two of the hosts now signed up to Traveling Spoon, who cooked for and fed her their family dishes. Because of this experience, she came to the conclusion that, to quote the article, “to get a real taste of Filipino food that truly reflects its history, you have to step inside a local home… [because] It’s still difficult to find restaurants that serve ‘authentic’ Filipino cuisine in the Philippines”. This, in her mind, makes Traveling Spoon’s mission in the Philippines crucial, because they are all about offering people ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ food experiences.

As someone who’s always enjoyed his food journeys around the Philippines and is really excited by the restaurant scene in Manila, this bold statement comes across as a bit iffy. I felt a bit puzzled about the article and left it alone, but the more I thought about it, the more my puzzlement turned into a mild sense of indignation. How can someone, an outsider, who seems to be still growing in their understanding of Filipino food, cast such generalised and damning judgement upon the entire restaurant scene of a nation of 7,107 islands and 100 million people?

And so I started writing my thoughts down, and compiling them into an essay of sorts. Want to have a read? Just scroll down!

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Every country has its great places to eat and its not-so-great (and downright terrible) places that you’d not hurry back to for a second go. So when it comes to visitors to your country, you always hope that they find themselves in the former and not the latter establishments. Unfortunately, in the case of Aashi Vel of Traveling Spoon, she found herself afflicted by bland meat, carb-heavy dishes (was it all that rice?) and no vegetables.

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We Filipinos love our rice, almost to a fault…

It is unfortunate to hear from Aashi that she had quite a negative experience. But, extrapolating from these experiences, Aashi and the article in Afar Magazine paints a picture of a country where the majority of restaurants fail to offer good ‘authentic’ meals. Is this really the case, that Filipino restaurants in the Philippines are somewhat useless at providing a good ‘authentic’ Filipino meal? What of the Filipino people who are stuck with these establishments – do they eat ‘inauthentic’ Filipino food every time they go out to eat at a Filipino restaurant? I find it therefore a bit puzzling, and quite a shame, that Aashi let her experience of the not-so-great side of the Filipino restaurant scene has led her to characterise the only ‘authentic’ food in the Philippines as being found in the home.

Beef kaldereta at Romulo Café

Beef kaldereta at Romulo Café

Furthermore, that characterisation, and the assumptions it makes about what ‘authentic’ Filipino food is, is rather problematic for me. Whilst I readily agree that some of the best food can be found in the home (as everyone says, their mum’s cooking is always the best!), to claim that this manifestation of Filipino food – or any food – is the only ‘authentic’ one is prescriptive and rather narrow-minded.

A key element of this claim is that home-cooked food is inherently more ‘authentic’. The article cites reasons such as learning recipes from relatives, or having dishes you cannot find in restaurants. I find three faults with this line of thought: firstly, the idea that there is such a clear-cut and sharp divide between what homes produce versus what restaurants produce; secondly, there seems to be a conflation of quality with ‘authenticity’; and thirdly, the attempt to judge the ‘authenticity’ of dishes or of different types of food experience, when really we should be looking at the wider food culture that these dishes and experiences exist in and contribute to.

Home cooking versus restaurant cooking

Let’s look at this supposed dichotomy of home-cooked ‘authenticity’ versus restaurant ‘inauthenticity’. I would argue that this doesn’t really exist in the first place, or at least not to the extent as the author of this article would have you believe. In the Philippines, and indeed all over the world, I would hazard that many restaurants, especially traditional and neighbourhood ones, started out producing dishes cooked to the owner’s home recipes; many successful companies and restaurants have roots as family businesses that leveraged an original family recipe to create a much-loved product, or have pioneered their own special twist on common and familiar dishes.

Additionally, there may be some dishes that people enjoy that are primarily store-bought or eaten in restaurants, with a key part of the experience of eating these dishes revolving around getting them from this particular store or that specific restaurant. This could be because the dishes are time-consuming or hard to make at home (sans rival can be made, but it is significantly quicker to just buy it from Sans Rival in Dumaguete); maybe the restaurant or shop is reputed for their dish (think of the famed salt beef beigels in Brick Lane in London); maybe it’s a relatively unknown dish or has a secret recipe (Luini in Milan is the only place in town selling panzerotti, a dish from southern Italy that is rarely seen up north); or maybe there is actually a long tradition of going out to enjoy these foods (it is a Cantonese tradition to go out for yum cha).

The famous silvanas of Sans Rival Cake House in Dumaguete. Credit to www.topten.ph

The famous silvanas of Sans Rival Cake House in Dumaguete. Credit to www.topten.ph

For many people, not just in the Philippines but elsewhere in the world, these experiences of eating out and buying food from outside of the home are an important way in which they can exemplify the food culture that they exist in. Eating out at a restaurant can be instilled with just as much history and tradition as eating at home.

It therefore seems to me to be a bit erroneous to say that the food found within the home is more ‘authentic’ than food you can find at a restaurant – or vice versa – when both scenes can play big parts in the everyday food culture of a people. To argue this is, as I’ve stated, prescriptive and rather narrow-minded, and delegitimises a significant portion of everyday food culture.

Is it ‘authentic’, or is it just good?

The article posits that “You won’t be able to find authentic Filipino food in the Philippines – until you step into a local’s home”, and that it is “still difficult to find restaurants that serve ‘authentic’ Filipino cuisine in the Philippines”.

As mentioned, I find it hard to believe that the huge numbers of Filipino restaurants, serving Filipino food, in the Philippines, to Filipino people, are not serving ‘authentic’ Filipino food.

I can think of numerous food experiences that I have had in the Philippines that have happened in restaurants and outside of the home and which have been thoroughly enjoyable. I have eaten a whole array of delightful dishes that form up the pantheon of Filipino food, including those cited in the article that one “can only find in the homes of locals”, in these restaurants. So, unsurprisingly, I am somewhat bemused by the article’s casual dismissal of the Filipino restaurant scene as mostly ‘inauthentic’.

Crispy pata at XO 46 Bistro Filipino

Crispy pata at XO 46 Bistro Filipino

Aside from the promotion of Traveling Spoon, which markets authentic culinary experiences with the best home cooks around the world (which actually sounds pretty cool), it just seems that Aashi just had some pretty bad dining experiences during her trip.

“Instead, I mostly found bland meat and carb-heavy dishes with not a vegetable in sight. It surprised me to find such minimal use of spices and flavors on a tropical Asian island”.

One may want to find out what her preconceptions were of what Filipino food should taste like, and one may question whether she is just exaggerating to help explain the raison d’être of Traveling Spoon.

A bit harsh, but it is funny and it was the first 'Filipino food meme' to be found on Google

A bit harsh, but it is funny and it was the first ‘Filipino food meme’ to be found on Google

But I think it’s more instructive to take this description at face value and to contrast it with the glowing descriptions of the food served at the homes of Nayna and Isi, two of her hosts during her visit – they seem worlds apart.

There is the sense that this is the case because Nayna and Isi offer a more ‘authentic’ take on Filipino food. They may offer up dishes that use recipes passed down through the generations, but as argued this may not necessarily differ from the situation in certain restaurants. After all, those dishes that they served to Aashi aren’t quite the hidden gems that they are made out to be.

Ginataang hipon sa taba ng talangka, one of Nayna's delicious showstopper dishes. Credit to Traveling Spoon

Ginataang hipon sa taba ng talangka, one of Nayna’s delicious showstopper dishes. Credit to Traveling Spoon

The key difference may therefore be the execution: Nayna and Isi may just be really skilled cooks and may have excellent recipes to hand, whereas the restaurants Aashi went to were just really bad. That does not necessarily mean the former are more ‘authentic’; they’re just good.

But how do you define ‘authenticity’?

The elephant in the room that I’ve been ignoring so far, so to speak, is what we mean by the using the term ‘authentic’ – and more specifically, how we are using that term to define food in a certain way.

How do you define what is and is not ‘authentic’? Who gets to define it? Is the definition of an ‘authentic’ cuisine set in stone, or can it change as tastes evolve and dishes fall in and out of popularity? And what do we even mean when we talk about ‘authentic’ food?

As I’ve discussed in a previous essay, these questions are particularly pertinent to the Philippines, as there have been so many external influences that have been taken on and subsumed by Filipinos over the centuries of colonialism and immigration that, as the article recognises, the food has changed fundamentally since pre-colonial times. And indeed, it still continues to change – recipes evolve, new ingredients are added, new trends emerge, some things fall out of fashion etc. Just look at hot dog spaghetti or Spamsilog to see how some of these, er, innovations have been embraced as a part of the modern day Filipino food experience.

Spamsilog! Delicious delightful Spamsilog!

Spamsilog! Delicious delightful Spamsilog!

Some people say that this acceptance of disparate influences makes Filipino food a bit schizophrenic, in that over the course of one meal someone can shift from Chinese to indigenous to Malay to Hispanic and even to American influences. But the thing is, as a whole it all makes sense that this experience is a very Filipino one. That is perhaps a defining feature of Filipino food, which marks it out amongst the Asian cuisines: its willingness to incorporate and Filipinise whatever comes its way, and to embrace them all in one go.

Food on display at Salcedo Market

Food on display at Salcedo Market

Given this huge variety within Filipino food, I think the focus needs to be less on deciding which dish is or is not ‘authentic’ and more on understanding the characteristics of the food culture that those dishes exist in – in other words, how people enjoy food with others around them. When I think of Filipino food culture at its very basic level, I think of friends and family around one big table, all of them sharing everything and socialising with everyone, and welcoming even more people to the table. You can see this in homes, in restaurants, in fiestas and indeed anywhere that Filipinos find themselves.

If we focus on the food culture that people exist in as opposed to the specific dishes, the distinction between home cooking and dining out becomes less important, because both can contribute to the propagation of a food culture. And this focus can allow us to be more open-minded to really understanding and enjoying the way that a people enjoy their food, because we recognise that we can have fun eating like the locals wherever the locals eat, whether it is at the side of the road, in a fancy restaurant or in someone’s dining room.

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So there you go. Did that make sense? I hope so. I did spend a lot of time trying to make it make sense *puppy dog eyes*.

But we’re not quite yet done. In an extension of my attempt to disprove the statement that “It’s still difficult to find restaurants that serve “authentic” Filipino cuisine in the Philippines”, I thought I’d leave you with a select list of some of my favourite Filipino restaurants in the Philippines that serve Filipino food to Filipino people.

Chef Laudico Bistro Filipino

3rd Avenue corner 28th Street, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig, Metro Manila

Modern, bold and satisfying Filipino food found in Bonifacio Global City; the 8 course degustation menu is the best, and most coma-inducing, way to experience all of the modern flairs Chef Laudico dishes out.

The Goose Station

W Tower, 1117 39th Street, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig, Metro Manila

Pronounce this like a Filipino so that it sounds like ‘degustation’, and you’ll see why I like this one. Whilst I haven’t been here, my friend rates it highly. Check out their Filipiniana Concepts to see their interpretations of Filipino food history.

Fely J’s

2nd Level, Greenbelt 5, Makati, Metro Manila

The recipes are reputedly those of Felicidad de Jesus-Cruz, the eponymous Fely J and the late mother of the late restaurateur Larry J Cruz. Regardless, I loved their crispy pata and their dilis-cious rice (rice with crispy fried dilis mixed in). Hearty traditional dishes in big portions – what’s not to love?

Kanin Club

Several branches in Makati, Muntinlupa, Quezon City and elsewhere in Metro Manila

Simple and unpretentious place that serves traditional Filipino dishes with the occasional twist that makes you sit up and say, “Say whaaaat?”. Some of my highlights include sinangag na sinigang (sinigang fried rice!) and the crispy dinuguan – the crispy parts being chicharron!

XO46 Bistro Filipino

Several branches; the one visited was 130 Valero Street, Salcedo Village, Makati, Metro Manila

A rather special place that serves traditional regional dishes, prepared ‘the traditional way’, and tries to couch the whole experience in a Filipino setting of the distant past – it’s all heritage here. Loved their empanadang bilbao ala Vigan and their crispy pata XO style, and absolutely adored their adobong batangas.

Romulo Café

148 Jupiter Street, Bel-Air Village, Makati, Metro Manila

Not only is this quite a smart place to enjoy some fantastic food, it’s also an ode to (and history lesson about) Carlos P. Romulo, one of the Philippines’ great statesmen and diplomats. Lola Virginia’s chicken relleno, boneless crispy pata binagoongan, gising-gising and turon were all winners that night.

Café Juanita

19 West Capitol Drive, Kapitolyo, Pasig, Metro Manila

This restaurant can really claim to be home cooking, because it’s, well, in someone’s home. Decked out like some eccentric lola’s house, filled with all of her bric-a-brac, the food offering here is strictly traditional and hearty.

C2 Classic Cuisine

Several branches in Metro Manila and elsewhere

It’s been a while since I was here, but I remember the maruya to be quite something. Bills itself as ‘redefined’ Filipino classics.

Salcedo Market

Jamie C. Velasquez Park, Salcedo Village, Makati, Metro Manila

For those Londoners among you, think Borough Market – except with sunshine, humidity and Filipino food. Copious amounts of freshly-cooked Filipino fare is on offer, along with a smattering of other cuisines from around the world. Of great interest though are the small stalls with artisan products – last time I was there, I picked up some delicious malunggay pesto and bangus paté. Well worth a visit.

The Grill by Antonio’s

One Direction, E. Aguinaldo Highway, Tagaytay City, Batangas

This is a real gem of a place, set in some beautiful countryside just outside Tagaytay. Chef Antonio is classically-trained and so has built his name doing primarily Western-influenced dishes (at the original Antonio’s), but the grill sees him drawing upon his Negrense background to deliver a selection of his favourite Filipino dishes. Well worth the excursion from Manila.

Kinabuch’s

Rizal Avenue, Puerto Princesa, Palawan

A bit of an institution in town, this is a very chilled primarily outdoor place, befitting the tropical feel and ‘final frontier’ status of Puerto Princesa. Alongside the standard Filipino dishes, you can get a vast array of the excellent local seafood, dishes of tamilok (woodworm) marinated in vinegar, and the speciality crocodile sisig.

KaLui

369 Rizal Avenue, Puerto Princesa, Palawan

Another Puerto Princesa institution, it’s all about the seafood here. We dined here on our way to the airport for the flight back to Manila; it was a fitting way to say goodbye to Palawan.

Yoghurt House

South Road, Sagada, Mountain Province

Whilst yoghurt itself may not seem that Filipino a dish, you cannot go to Sagada without dropping by the Yoghurt House. Thick, sweet-sour dollops of yoghurt are teamed up with the bounteous local fruit and jams that the Mountain Province is famous for – it makes for a brilliant breakfast. I’d recommend the strawberries with yoghurt.

Sans Rival Cake House

3 San Jose Street, Dumaguete City, Negros Oriental

If you know me, I love my sans rival (and I love making it too for our supper club). So I was very happy to have been brought to Sans Rival Cake House in Dumaguete, which is renowned for its sans rival and its silvanas (the smaller biscuit version). Stock up on them to bring home, or eat them there and then – you can’t go wrong with this place.

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1 Comment

One thought on “Food culture and the ‘authenticity’ of food

  1. Pingback: On food culture and the ‘authenticity’ of food | Boy Mestizo: Hoy, London!

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