Filipino cuisine gaining popularity in the US

BABE’S EYE VIEW FROM WASHINGTON D.C. - Babe Romualdez - The Philippine Star

More people in the United States are now interested in tasting Filipino cuisine. This escalating interest was evident during the first-ever, extremely successful “Taste The Philippines: D.C. Filipino Food Festival” held recently at the District Pier at The Wharf in Washington, D.C.

The event attracted over 12,000 visitors who enjoyed the activities that included cultural and musical performances as well as martial arts demonstrations. Foodies relished samples of Filipino dishes from participating restaurants that include Kaliwa, Kuya Ja’s, Purple Patch, Daikaya, The Game Sports Pub, Ekiben, Timothy Flores and Tigerfork. (Photos will be featured next Sunday in This Week on PeopleAsia at the Allure section of the Philippine STAR.)

Our Philippine embassy booth showcased the best of Philippine coconut products such as Magnolia macapuno ice cream, coconut water, coconut wraps, jam, cereals and buko pancit, with free samples of virgin coconut oil in ready-to-go packs also given to festival goers. 

Participating restaurants also presented dishes that made use of coconut, such as the lobster laing from Kuya Ja’s and pastry with coconut and ube from Kaliwa. National Coconut Day is actually celebrated in the US every 26th of June, so the event was very timely in terms of elevating awareness about the availability of coconut products in the US market. In fact, the US government also recently gave the green light for young coconuts from the Philippines to be exported through all ports in the US. 

Actually, because of the growing number of Americans of Filipino descent, more Americans are enjoying Filipino cuisine. Newly elected Congressman TJ Cox (whose mother is Filipina) of the 21st Congressional District of California is one of those. I invited him, his wife Kathleen and their children over at the Philippine embassy residence for a Filipino lunch. 

We’re happy to see more Filipino restaurants coming out and taking part in cultural activities such as Filipino Restaurant Week (FRW), a gastronomic festival participated in by 24 restaurants and pop-ups from several states. The FRW was started by the Philippine consulate general in New York in 2015 seeking to highlight Filipino restaurants, with 13 of them initially joining. 

The recent FRW showcased various culinary offerings that feature flavors of the Philippines, covering a wide array of Filipino dishes. And for the first time ever – through the efforts of the Public Diplomacy team of the Philippine embassy in Washington, D.C., new restaurants from Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. joined the mainstay restaurants from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. Hawaii also held a Filipino Food Week a few weeks ago, with 19 restaurants on Oahu and Maui presenting Filipino-inspired dishes using coconut – the ingredient which was also highlighted during the FRW.

No less than the late American celebrity chef and “Parts Unknown” host Anthony Bourdain foresaw the rise of Filipino cuisine in the consciousness of Americans, even saying that sisig (chopped pig’s head or cheek served sizzling in a skillet and usually with an egg on top) is “perfectly positioned to win the hearts and minds of the world as a whole…” 

Bourdain – who said Filipino dishes are among the most underrated but delicious cuisines – was convinced that sisig is the “gateway dish” that will hook the interest of people who have had no prior exposure to Filipino food to look further and beyond. In fact, sisig was our embassy chef Abie Sincioco-Mateo’s winning dish during the 2018 Embassy Chef Challenge that bagged top honors in both the Judges’ Choice and People’s Choice categories.

A National Geographic online article published last month also acknowledged the rise of Filipino food as well in the UK, with lechon, sisig, and adobo among the favorites and must-try dishes. And so, while Thai food and Japanese food have previously captured the imagination of foodies, the buzz about Filipino food is now getting louder, and perhaps this can be attributed to an emerging new generation of chefs. 

One of those who easily comes to mind is Filipino-American chef Tom Cunanan of Bad Saint, which is one of the top restaurants in Washington, D.C. Cunanan – who was born in Olongapo and migrated to the US when he was three years old – bagged the Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic Category during the prestigious 2019 James Beard Awards which is dubbed as the “Oscars” of the world of cuisine, with awardees chosen by more than 600 culinary professionals.  

Bad Saint opened in 2015 and immediately caught the attention of food critics, and named the following year by Bon Appetit magazine as the No. 2 best new restaurant in the US. I haven’t tried eating at the 24-seat restaurant yet because I’m told there are very long lines of people waiting to be seated – some as long as three hours. I am told the only one who didn’t have to line up was Barack Obama. But then again, he was the president.

Another Filipino restaurant that is also getting a lot of traction is Ma’am Sir in Los Angeles by young chef Charles Olalia which was included in GQ magazine’s list of Best New Restaurants in America for 2019. Brett Martin, who wrote the review, was especially wowed by the lumpia (deep fried spring roll) and the sisig, describing the latter’s “layer after layer of alternating flavor and texture that I’ve thought of nearly every time I’ve been hungry since.”  

It is no exaggeration to say that Filipino cuisine is coming of age in America, and we at the Philippine embassy will surely build on this cultural asset in promoting the Philippines.

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