reprinted from Filipinas 2.0 magazine
Listen up, everybody. This is an article on Filipino food in a magazine for Filipino readers, so you are expected to refrain from snickering when reading funny-sounding words such as ukoy or sisig. Neither are you supposed to run out of the door, hand cupped over your mouth, when you hear details about balut.
So, OK, you all ready? This is what you should remember about the state of Filipino cooking. It's pretty gruesome.
I don't know about you, but my life is full of vivid memories of being chased Listen folks, balut is just a duck egg - presented the way duck egg would be if it were James Cameron shooting another chapter of Aliensfrom banquet tables and office canteen counters by slobbering, grinning misbegotten abominations. I'm talking about the food. Oily caldereta. Rubbery relleno. Fried pork tocino gleaming a sickly shiny pink. Substances that were once leafy greens cooked until they'd stopped screaming and then cooked some more. Say, was that supposed to be adobong pusit? I thought it was a failed attempt to duplicate a Nazi medical experiment!
Yes, of course, some of us eat things that might seem strange to westerners. Dog for instance. Crickets. Frogs legs (I like them fried crisp and served with garlic). Nothing seems to cause as much sensation and nausea, though, as balut. Listen folks, it's just a duck egg - presented the way duck egg would be if it were James Cameron shooting another chapter of Aliens. Really though, I don't understand the fuss. All these macho westerners seem to quail when it comes to gulping down the egg. In our country, what separates the men from the boys is the ability to separate the chick from the yolk. I've heard that some people prefer to eat balut in the dark.
But I'm not talking about food like that. I'm talking about everyday fare that's bad. It's no use pleading poverty as an excuse - rich and poor Filipinos eat the same tepid stuff: "curry" made with Mccormick's silly yellow powder; plastic-like fish sarsyado in tasteless tomato sauce; sickly laing; mechado as greasily foul as boiled congressman ; pork chops as evil, surly and indigestible as a Michelle Malkin column . And what's with the overboiled spaghetti smothered with sugared tomato sauce and hotdog bits? As a contribution to international cuisine, this ranks somewhere on the same level as steamed boots.
Not only is a lot of Filipino food overcooked, fatty and served at corpse-like temperature, there's also very little variety. To Filipinos, adventurous eating is like travelling to Europe. They don't want to see -- couldn't care less about -- the Santa Maria dei Frari in Venice, Sans Souci in Berlin, or Versailles in Paris. They only ever want to go to the Vatican, Buckingham Palace and Lourdes, always Lourdes. In the same way, they don't care to know about ratatouille, salt-and-pepper crab, mussels in wine or roast duck rice. It's always sinigang, adobo and pansit.
You know what makes it all so sad? Several reasons, actually. How about this one: lechon roasted with such care that although the meat is tender, the skin's crispy brown and melts like butter when you bite into it. Have that with fluffy rice, liver sauce and a foaming ice cold mug of beer and you're well on your way to bliss.
Or how about: shrimp fritters - ukoy - bursting with sweet potato, bean sprouts and green onions, fried until golden crisp, not greasy, and then accompanied with a dip made of vinegar, chili and crushed fresh garlic? And seeing as how we're into food that can be dipped in vinegar, don't forget fat and juicy barbecue (like the kind sold at Aling Nene and Mang Siding) grilled over charcoal - the hell with carcinogens. And the same for cholesterol, the moment you face a properly-cooked sisig, smoking and sizzling, , garnished with chili and calmansi and topped with a raw egg.
Our style of cooking isn't complex, involved or obsessive. Now the French…they spend weeks arguing in Le Monde about the proper ingredients to use in salade niçoise. Their Guide Michelin Rouge exceeds 1,700 pages and lists more than 10,000 eating places in France (only 500 of them are bestowed stars). They'll get into arguments whether an omelette should be cooked with a cast iron or copper bottom pan.
Filipino cooking is nothing like that. Our cuisine isn't sophisticated, but heartfelt. If, on a rainy monsoon driven morning, you've ever awakened to a breakfast of garlic rice, fried egg and toasty daing, accompanied by a steaming frothy cup of freshly whisked sweet chocolate, you'll know what I mean. We might not have a clue how to cook truffles, but we'd certainly have instant ideas what to do with the pig that the French use to root them out. So we don't do crepes flambe. What about fried suman sprinkled with pinipig, served with chocolate sauce and Selecta ice cream?
Problem is, there seems to be a general deterioration in our culinary standards. I've eaten food off street stalls in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, and it's always been better than what I could get in comparable places in Manila. There's way too much overcooking taking place - instead of wielding the kawali lightly by swift sauteing, many of our cooks seem to be into deep frying. And they rely too heavily on pork fat, salt, pepper, sugar, patis and vinegar. I've hardly ever tasted fresh coriander, lemongrass or pandan in carinderia food.
What they don't seem to realize is that Filipino food cheerfully welcomes adaptation and modification. Adobo can be readily adjusted to be slightly more healthy: drop the pork and use chicken (which you can lightly dust with paprika and then saute in olive oil), lessen the vinegar and soy sauce, add red wine, smother with lots of garlic fried in the remains of the broth, serve with a salad of fresh tomatoes and chopped raw onion. Even that staple, galunggong, can be improved merely by sprinkling it with a little rock salt, crushed peppercorn and paprika prior to frying.
The grim fate that Filipino cooking faces is indifference. Who cares about criminals roaming the streets? It's the ones in our kitchens we should worry about - those cooks play for keeps, and their indifference could end up killing Filipino cuisine.
My hope lies in the fact that we Filipinos love to eat out so much that we are apparently, slowly, becoming more adventurous. For example, shawarma has made inroads in Manila. And I've eaten in a few stalls where the food was memorable. I remember grilled blue marlin sprinkled with chili sauce, served with sinigang broth made from fish stock. End that kind of meal with a mango crepe, or fresh buco pie without any extenders, or real kesong puti, (not the pathetic sliver they sell in the supermarkets, wrapped in layer after layer of banana leaf) and you can almost forgive the thought of sweet spaghetti.
YOU could. I won't.