The Best Food You’ve Never Had

    If a friend called you up and invited you out for chicken pad thai or samosas, you would probably know what she was talking about (and you would probably say “yes!”). But if someone asked if you’d rather order some balut or sisig, you would most likely have no clue what she was talking about. Balut and sisig are both traditional Filipino dishes, but very few New Yorkers know that, because very few New Yorkers have encountered Filipino food, and this is because there are very few Filipino restaurants in New York City. In fact, there are only five. This number seems low on its own, but when you take into account the fact that there are over 100,000 Filipinos living in Manhattan, it seems implausible (Ray 2013). And compared to the 400 Thai restaurants in the city when only 4,000 Thai people live here, the statistics go from implausible to seemingly impossible (Ray 2013). So why is it, then, that there are so few Filipino restaurants in a city that so many Filipinos call home? After interviews, research, and a couple of seriously delicious meals, I realized the answer to this question goes far beyond taste or even business—it stretches back into the complex past of the Philippines and their history of colonization, as well as their contentious relationship with the United States.

    On the surface, the reason that so few Filipinos own restaurants in the city (or in the United States at all) is because Filipino immigrants and Filipino-Americans are predominantly in the medical community, not entrepreneurs. The primary reason for this high percentage of Filipinos in the medical community comes first from US immigration policy in the mid-20th century, which gave preferential immigration status to professionally trained Filipinos after the Asian-immigration restrictions were lifted in 1965 under the US Exchange Visitor Program (Choy 62). These policy shifts coincided with the beginning of the tumultuous presidency of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, leading many Filipinos to do whatever it took to get out of their unprofitable and unstable country. Medical training virtually assured them acceptance into the United States, and so a professional background became the path of choice for Filipinos—and a far less risky choice than an entrepreneurial endeavor such as opening a restaurant.

    These policies combined with the status-focused culture of the Philippines, an attitude created by a history of colonization (primarily by the Spanish, but also by the United States), perpetuated a cycle of Filipinos who trained to become doctors or nurses and then immigrated to the United States. This cycle proved extremely fruitful for many Filipinos, and today the average income of Filipino-Americans is higher than the average income of New Yorkers on the whole (Bayor 2011). Though a few “mom-and-pop” Filipino restaurants used to exist in the city (many near hospitals), most have closed in the last decade. Only recently has a new crop of “hip” and fancy Filipino restaurants opened up and started catering not only to Filipino expats, but to the hipster-foodie crowd as well.  This generally wealthier Filipino population combined with a newer, clientele may also explain why the few Filipino restaurants in Manhattan are far more expensive than the prices ranges at we are used to at restaurants serving “ethnic cuisine” in the city.

    I was lucky enough to sit down and chat with two owners of three Filipino restaurants out of the five in Manhattan—Nicole Ponseca of Jeepney and Maharlika, and King Phojanakong of Kuma Inn (and Umi Nom in Brooklyn). Though I was unable to reach the owners or chefs of the two remaining Filipino restaurants (Grill 21 and Pig & Khao), the first-hand experiences and opinions of Nicole and King were invaluable insights into the nascent world of “cool” Filipino cuisine in the city. Both Nicole and King share an incredible wealth of knowledge about the lack of Filipino restaurants in the United States as well as excitement and optimism about paving the way for a boom in the popularity and recognition of their native cuisine.

    Before we dive into the historical and cultural implications of Filipino cuisine, let’s get down to the meat and potatoes (or perhaps meat and rice) of what constitutes Filipino cuisine. The Philippines are a series of islands in Southeast Asia that are located in the western Pacific ocean. The cuisine is based off of access to tropical produce with strong culinary influences from both Asia and Spain. Filipino food tends to feature meat, rice, and vegetables and is often fairly sweet and sour all at once. Pork is quite common as is the use of coconut, tamarind, and vinegar. The unofficial national dish of the Philippines is adobo, which is meat or vegetables marinated in garlic, oil, and spices. (Though ask any Filipino and they’ll tell you that adobo preparations vary not just from region to region, but from household to household.) Beyond just adobo, Nicole Ponseca offered up her Top Five Key Filipino Dishes: arroz caldo, rice porridge; sisig, sizzled and crispy pig parts; sinigang, sour soup often made with tamarind; kare kare, stewed oxtail; and pancit, or Filipino noodles. In both the names of various dishes and the cooking process, the Asian and Spanish influences are obvious—arroz caldo means “rice broth” in Spanish, and countries all across Asia have their own version of noodles. Maybe even more important than the dishes themselves is the sense of pride and community that surrounds food in the Philippines. Meals are a time to share love, laughs, and a beer with friends and family, and food is the centerpiece of that camaraderie.

    So if food is such a huge part of Filipino culture when at home in the Philippines, what happened over the years of immigration and colonization that led to such a lack of Filipino food in the United States? Let’s start first with the laundry list of countries that colonized (or tried to colonize) the Philippines at various points in history. Spain was the first and arguably most influential of the colonizers, but others included Portugal, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Japan, and our very own United States. (From 1899-1902, the United States occupied the Philippines in what is now known as The Philippine-American War. Following this war for independence, Filipinos were granted preferential immigrant status as “American nationals,” because of their brief annexation.) As if this parade of foreigners staking claim to their homeland wasn’t stressful enough, the unrest increased with the corrupt presidency of Ferdinand Marcos in 1965, which led to unemployment and economic instability (Bayor 2011). Filipinos at this time were searching for a way out of their country and for somewhere with opportunities to call home.

    Fortunately for many Filipinos, Marcos’ tumultuous regime coincided with the United States finally lifting its restrictions on Asian immigration with the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965 (Bayor 2011). This act, combined with the Exchange Visitor Program (which had been administered by the State Department a few years earlier), highlighted the need in the United States for trained medical professionals and the country’s willingness to allow these professionals easier entrance. Over 230,000 Filipinos took advantage of this legislation and left Marcos’ country for the United States in the decade that followed (Bayor 2011). In fact, the mass exodus of professionally-trained Filipinos from the Philippines during this time was so extreme that it caused a phenomenon called the “brain drain,” in which the country was almost entirely devoid of its professional and medically-trained citizens.

    Once this method of medical professionalism as a route to the United States proved successful, many Filipinos saw little reason to stray from it. According to Ronald Bayor in Multicultural America: An Encyclopedia of the Newest Americans, “Filipino Americans have a deep regard for education, which they view as a primary avenue for upward economic and social mobility. Historically, the goal of obtaining a college degree has been a main driver for Filipino immigration to the United States” (Bayor 2011). So one possible factor to explain the absence of Filipino restaurants is that status and professional education took precedence over following creative or business-related passions such as starting a restaurant.

    Immigrants often struggle with finding a job in their new country for three major reasons: the degrees and licenses they earned back home are no longer valid; they have very little disposable income; and their knowledge of English is sometimes limited. Starting a business is usually one of the only options an immigrant has, and this pattern can be easily seen around our own city, with deli-markets owned by Koreans or cabs driven by immigrants from the Caribbean, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Specifically though, there is a long history of immigrants in the food industry because cooking requires little mastery of the English language and is often a trade people already know (Ray 2013). But because of Filipino’s status as “American nationals,” much of the professional training they receive in the Philippines is valid in the United States and, statistically-speaking, Filipinos have a better handle on English than many other Asian immigrant groups (Bayor 2011). With such a professional upper-hand, maybe taking a gamble on a small restaurant business seems foolish to many Filipinos.

    But even with such a dominant professional and medical force within the Filipino-American population in New York City (and nationwide), there are a few brave outliers who have passionately brought Filipino food to the forefront of foodie cuisine in the city. During my interview with Nicole Ponseca, the Filipina-American who was born in the United States to Filipino parents, I learned that she studied marketing in school, but had a long-standing love for the food her father cooked for her growing up. When she saw this gaping hole in the culinary world, she jumped at the opportunity to marry these two passions. “As a Filipino it’s much more than a restaurant for me,” Nicole told me over the blaring surf-music one afternoon at Jeepney.  “It’s also a chance for me to show other Filipinos that you can be an entrepreneur, that you can be prideful of who you are. And that we can really start the dialogue of what it is to be Filipino.”

    Maharlika and Jeepney are just that—purely Filipino. Nicole is adamant that her menus stay strictly Filipino, no fusion allowed (though the dishes are certainly sleeker and more modern than what the mom-and-pop Filipino joints known as “turo turo” were ever selling). To Nicole, the most important thing about her restaurants is that “everything is 100% pinoy” (Pinoy being a slang term for Filipino or Filipino immigrants). Beyond her dedication to modern authenticity, Nicole’s agenda was simple: please the people who matter, and the rest will follow. “I knew that if we made Filipinos happy and we made them feel proud of what we were doing, if we could touch their heart, we would have won them over. And they would have been the biggest word-of-mouth that no amount of press or PR could equate to” (Ponseca 2013).

    Whether it’s the marketing genius, hipster appeal, or just straight-up delicious food, Maharlika and Jeepney are booming hot spots for Filipinos, New Yorkers, and tourists alike—with write-ups in magazines like the New York Times Magazine and Bon Appetit. But even with this brilliant and current idea, it was a struggle for Nicole to get started because finding a willing Filipino chef proved impossible. Nicole remembers her relentless search, meeting with cook after cook only to have him say “I don’t think Filipino food is even gonna [be anything]..” and she would plead back “No, it is! I think it’s gonna be it. You just have to do it right, and the first person there is gonna get it” (Ponseca 2013). Only after Dominican chef Miguel Trinidad found Nicole crying in a booth at a Soho restaurant and offered his culinary skills did she find a way to make her dreams a reality. It took serious trial and error, relentless training, and a trip through the Philippines for Miguel to master this foreign cuisine. But I can tell you first-hand that master this cuisine he did—just go taste the balut or garlic rice at Jeepney if you don’t believe me.

    King Phojanakong, the owner of Kuma Inn (and Umi Nom in Brooklyn), has a very different story from Nicole’s, but has faced many similar struggles as a Filipino-Thai-American chef. Born in the United States to a Thai father and Filipina mother, King thought he was going to be a musician, but fell (happily) into the world of cooking and went to culinary school after graduating college. For King, the decision to open a restaurant that serves Filipino food was less of a statement of pride and more of a labor of love; this is the food he grew up eating (both Thai and Filipino), and so it was the food he grew up loving, and wanted to share it with the world. Driven by creativity, King often blends different worlds of cuisine to create unique (and tasty!) dishes that bring Filipino food to New Yorkers in an inventive way. For example, with his sisig tacos, he takes the traditional Filipino sizzling pig ears and snout and serves them in a Mexican tortilla with lime.

    King opened Kuma Inn over ten years ago, far before small plates or “foodie-ism” was trendy. His decision to design his menu tapas-style was so that Americans who had never encountered Filipino food could realistically sample a wide variety of the foreign fare in one sitting. Choices such as this one show the sorts of obstacles King had to take into consideration as someone trying to bring an unfamiliar cuisine to the US public. And though his parents were supportive, he was also familiar with the identity struggles immigrants face when they arrive. “When [you] come to this country, you want your family to assimilate, you want to be ‘American’ and it spills over into the language and the food and everything” (King 2013).

    King has pushed past the identity struggles and instead focuses on what matters most to him: the food and the people. He’s not cooking for anyone in particular—not Filipinos or Thais or tourists—just the neighborhood and the friendly faces of people who love to eat good food. King also has a strong connection with the way Filipinos in the Philippines take pride in their food and use it as a warm, social, and universally welcoming aspect of their culture. “We’d get calls, even three or four years ago like ‘uh…is it really authentic?’” King tells me as I ungracefully try to fit an entire sisig taco in my mouth, “…and I’d be like ‘I don’t know what you consider authentic because you can look for a sandwich, a hero, a hoagie all across the US and it’s going to be different everywhere you go. It’s the same with Filipino food.’” Authenticity to King means staying true to the basic ingredients; the rest is up to interpretation.

    Nicole and King are not the only Filipinos who are calling attention to their nation’s underrepresented cuisine. In an article just published in the Filipino Magazine Rogue, Clinton Palanca brings up the personal impact such a deficit can have on an immigrant group. “We want Filipino food to be accepted and admired abroad because there’s so much of us in it, to the point that it becomes a stand-in for how much we are liked, or respected, abroad. Ultimately, there’s something very provincial and me-too about desperately wanting “them,” those white folk in them big cities, to notice us and give us attention” (Palanca 2013). This lack of Filipino restaurants is not restricted to New York City, but is felt across the country. For example, in a recent article for Huffington Post Los Angeles, writer Anna Almendrala claimed that “Filipino food has all the trappings of the next big ‘it-cuisine’ in the United States restaurant scene. Yet unlike Korean, Thai or Vietnamese food, most Americans would probably be hard-pressed to name or describe even one Filipino dish” (Almendrala 2013).

    Clearly there is a small, but mighty Filipino food movement starting, but where is it all headed? With the popularity of food at an all-time high, the sky’s the limit for this underrepresented cuisine. “I think fashion is to the ’90s what rock bands were to the ’80s what food is to now,” says Nicole of the cultural status of food these days. King feels no differently, claiming that “everybody is a ‘foodie’ and is into food and wants to try this and that and everybody is an ‘expert’ good or bad and…is looking for the next new thing.” This current cultural value of having tried the craziest, bacon-iest, spiciest, or rarest dish lends itself to the potential success and allure of the “unknown” Filipino restaurant. Even the media is cashing in on this nascent trend with people like Anthony Bourdain eating balut on CNN and travelling to the Philippines for an episode of No Reservations. People want something new, something bold, and yet something authentic from their food, and that’s good news for these young and unique Filipino restaurants.

    “I’ll be both self-satisfied and then a little bit wistful when Filipino food is on every corner,” says Nicole, “because it would’ve meant that we did something, we helped a movement to legitimize it, but…I hope the quality doesn’t go down…that it [doesn’t] become bastardized.” King shares a very similar set of hopes about where this cuisine is headed. “I feel like it’s going on the right path, Filipino food,” projects King, “and now with the media I’m seeing more and more all over the country. Like in LA they’re doing Filipino food trucks, and I think it’s great. I think it’s the best thing to just keep telling more and more people about it, and have more and more people taste the food. I know the flavors are there, so it’s just a matter of people eating it and sharing it with other people. And maybe one day we’ll see a Filipino restaurant on every corner.”

    Though all of these projections are just speculative, they are far from unrealistic. Given a long history of facing oppressive colonization, corrupt governments, discriminatory legislation, and status pressures—Filipinos have overcome countless hurdles in the past, and with the help of young foodies and nostalgic expats, there’s no reason that overcoming adversity in the culinary world should be any different. The passion, the exposure, the talent, and the customers are all in place, and pioneer restaurants like Maharlika, Jeepney, and Kuma Inn have set the ball in motion. For anyone in the know, it’s clear that this cuisine could be the next big thing, and with a proverbial ear to the city ground, Nicole says it best: “it really feels like a movement.”

     

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