Pinoy Food and the lack of representation

Or why the comments of a Filipino-Norwegian Chef may be indicative of a general perception of Filipino Cuisine

It began the way most Internet firestorms began. While guesting in a Norwegian TV show, Filipino-Norwegian chef Jonathan Romano stated that Filipino Food is “bad food”. This isn’t a case of taking his words out of context, mind you. He really did say this on TV. 

“It’s very bad food. In the eyes of a chef, there is no food art in my eyes, unfortunately,” Romano said. “Lots of deep-fried, lots of fried-to-death stuff like casserole dishes if you can put it that way. They do not have the same taste composition as Thai food. Filipino food is more on the sour side,” he added.

Oh dear. Those are fighting words.

The fact that Romano is a chef and a judge on Masterchef Norway adds insult to injury. Sure, we can understand foreigners not liking Pinoy food. Sure, we can understand locals who prefer foreign cuisine over Pinoy food. But a chef dismissing Pinoy food as “deep fried”, “no food art”, and “more on the sour side” displays total ignorance of the cuisine. That’s not a good look for a half-Pinoy chef who is presumably on top of his game.

Turn on the captions because they’re speaking in Norwegian. Unless you can understand Norwegian, in which case good for you. Video and English captions provided by NordicPinoy.

Predictably, the Filipino Internet Machine got on Romano’s case. Filipino foodies, chefs, food personalities, and historians (deservedly) railed on Romano so hard that he had to apologize for his comments. He even threw his own mother under the bus by saying she was a bad cook. The Philippine Embassy in Norway even came out with a statement that basically said “Anybody who says our food is bad should really visit the Philippines more”. Ouch. Looks like Romano’s not going to get invited to any salu-salos soon.

While the backlash on Romano was expected, some of the comments on the Philstar article were a bit more telling. Comments along the vein of “Our food IS bad”, “Mas masarap sa (any country) kesa sa Pinas”, “Expats don’t like our food”, while in the minority, could be found across the comments section. Unfortunately, this perception of Filipino cuisine as decidedly inferior to the cuisine of other countries is rather commonplace. It is also wrong.

Filipino Cuisine is the lovechild of our regionalistic nature, our unique flora and fauna, and the influence of numerous countries. There is so much variety and complexity in our cuisine that each region has their own staples. Bicol’s love for chillies and coconut milk, the richness of Pampangueno cuisine, the heavier Spanish influence on Negrense dishes, or even how closer Maranao food is to our Southeast Asian neighbors than to the rest of the Philippines. The list goes on and on. To simply label everything as “brown”, “fried”, or “sour” is unfair and flat out wrong. Filipino cuisine is rich, unique, flavorful, and worthy of the world stage.

So why does the myth of the inferiority of Filipino Cuisine continue to persist? Why do some Filipinos readily buy into the myth? Why do we as a people underestimate our food so badly?

There are many reasons that contribute to our inferiority complex. One, our cuisine is decidedly homebased. The best food is the food your family cooks. Your Mom’s Adobo. Your Lola’s Arroz Caldo. Your Tita’s Dinuguan. And so it goes. The issue with this is that our standards for Filipino food will also always be homebased, and thus it’s hard to standardize what good Adobo, good Arroz Caldo, and good Dinuguan is supposed to taste like. 

The lack of standardization has a huge impact on how people can experience Filipino food outside the home. One needs to be very picky to find restaurants and carinderias that serve legitimately good Filipino food. We hate to say it, but not all Filipino restaurants and carinderias serve good Filipino food. There are many establishments whose goal is to simply feed people and not much else. Whether that’s because of the cook’s skills, keeping prices low, or trying to be efficient by eliminating variables, the result is a lot of mediocre restaurants and carinderias all across the country. While there is nothing wrong with that, there is a missed opportunity to better represent our cuisine in this playing field. 

Then there’s the issue of sanitation, or the perceived lack thereof. This is a presentation issue that is easy to resolve, if you want to resolve it. Actually, this dovetails neatly to the next issue, which is perception.

Perception. Our own perception of local cuisine is honestly dragging it down in everybody’s eyes. For every Pinoy who can’t wait to drag foreigners to gorge on Lechon or Crispy Pata, there is a Pinoy who would rather bring guests to a McDonalds, firmly sure his guests won’t like Filipino Food. You can point a finger to good old Colonial Mentality, to begin with. The homey, rustic nature of our cuisine plays a part too. We were subliminally and blatantly raised to think our food is basic and ordinary. Think about it, what does your family prepare for Noche Buena? For your birthday? Where do you eat for special occasions? There’s this impression that Filipino food is everyday fare and it can’t be leveled up for special occasions (Lechon notwithstanding). This has to change.

SImply put, if your household cooks mediocre Filipino food, and you live in a place that has mediocre restaurants, and you grew up thinking hamburgers are the best, where does that leave you?

Fortunately, the tide is turning. People are starting to take Filipino food seriously, locally and abroad. Prior to the pandemic, Pinoy cuisine has been popping up across the world, particularly in the United States where it was a major trend. There has been a move to start standardizing Pinoy food (to a certain extent). The efforts of industry giants such as Doreen Gamboa-Fernandez and Tatung Sarthou are starting to pay off. We need more of these. Pinoy food is potentially a bigger market than most people realize, especially with the tourism market (When it returns). Food markets, Culinary workshops, food tours, we are sorely lacking these. We need to represent our own cuisine. We need to own it.

We can’t wait for the day when this comes to pass. For now, we’ll keep our eyes out for more misguided Fil-Norwegian chefs.

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