Eats More Fun in the Philippines
THE CORNER ORACLE - Andrew J. Masigan (The Philippine Star) - September 11, 2019 - 12:00am

Last week, the Department of Tourism (DOT), in collaboration with Jollibee, released a three-minute documentary entitled “The Pinoy Table.” The video is the centerpiece of the “Eats More Fun in the Philippines” campaign, an adverting offensive meant to promote Filipino cuisine to a worldwide audience.

Produced to go viral on the digital sphere, the video was shared 36,964 times just 48 hours after being uploaded. Its initial success is irrefutable. According to DOT Usec Bong Bengzon, the video will be condensed into a 30-second TV commercial for worldwide airing.

The documentary features chef JP Anglo, chef Jordan Andino and comedian Mikey Bustos in an interplay of skits meant to explain the nuances of Filipino cuisine. The video was expertly produced with well-styled food shots, gorgeous takes of Philippine landscapes and mouth watering sounds of Filipino delicacies on the sizzle.

The campaign could not have come at a better time. It has been three years since the country hosted Madrid Fusion Manila and awareness on Philippine cuisine overseas has started to wane. DOT Secretary Berna Romulo-Puyat is astute to restore the momentum that Madrid Fusion started.

In one of my conversations with former DOT Secretary Mon Jimenez, he mentioned that gastronomy was the missing link in the Philippines’ proposition as a tourism product. While the country is competitive in eco, heritage and adventure tourism and superior in sun, sea and surf tourism, the fame of our cuisine pales in comparison to that of Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Enjoying local cuisine is one of the compelling reasons why tourists select certain destinations. The Philippines needs to strengthen its position in the culinary map if it is to compete on an equal footing with its neighbors. This is why the DOT, under former Sec. Jimenez baton, worked hard to win the hosting rights for Madrid Fusion. It is the world’s foremost culinary event, after all. Unfortunately, the program was cancelled after the third installment due to the change in administration. In its short run, however, the light shined on Philippines gastronomy and gave it momentum.

Awareness is always welcome and we appreciate the DOT’s efforts to bring our cuisine to worldwide consciousness. As an owner of a restaurant group and one who has opened a restaurant in Europe, I know, first hand, that it will take much more than awareness to bring Filipino cuisine to the level of acceptance of Thai or Vietnamese food. It will require a communication strategy that is deliberate and multi-layered.

My European experience taught me valuable lessons about how to promote Filipino cuisine in foreign markets. Perhaps the DOT can use my experience to further sharpen its communication strategy. These are the lessons I picked up.

There is no need to promote the entire constellation of Filipino dishes – this will only achieve a zero-sum effect. What successful governments have done is to promote one or two dishes that best represent their country in terms of ingredients, flavor, appearance and traditions. These dishes are called “food ambassadors.” It is what Pad Thai is to Thailand and Phó is to Vietnam. Not only do they serve as the representative dishes of the country, they are also its entry point for trial usage.

Adobo has evolved to be the de facto food ambassador for the Philippines for its sheer popularity. But Adobo did not sell well in our restaurant. It is often confused with the Spanish adobo from Cadiz and the Mexican adobo. Worse, the Philippine version comes in various forms using various ingredients that make it look and taste different every time. In promoting a dish to a worldwide audience, recipe consistency is key. It is what makes the dish recognizable and habit forming.

What sold well in our restaurant was Chicken Inasal, Pinakbet-Bagnet and Bicol Express because they were distinct and unlike anything they would find in other Asian restaurants.

As a side note, food historians agree that “sour” is the mother flavor of Filipino cuisine and that Sinigang, Paksiw and Kinilaw (all of which have a sour element) are dishes that are truly indigenous having neither Chinese, Spanish or Malay influence. Purists recommend that these dishes are more befitting food ambassadors for the Philippines. 

Appreciation of a foreign cuisine is not only about taste but more so about the unique experience it offers. Romanticizing food traditions is an effective way of selling a cuisine. This is the second lesson I learned.

The Japanese have succeeded in educating the world on how to mix wasabi to soy sauce before dipping uncooked seafood into it. The Vietnamese introduced the practice of mixing bundles of fresh herbs into soups and savory dishes. The Indians have taught us to scoop and swipe curries using nan bread.

Filipino cuisine offers its own unique experience. Dunking an entire stick of barbecue into a bottle of sauce, the boodle fight and serving dishes that need to be mixed by the diner (Pancit Luglug, Halo-Halo and Sisig) are scenes seen on a Filipino table. These practices add facets to the Filipino dining experience. It makes it more interesting, more fun.

In communicating the Filipino food narrative, we should remember that food traditions are just as important as the dish itself.

The third lesson learned is how to describe our cuisine to a market that has no idea what to expect of it. It is not enough to describe our food as “delicious” or one that utilizes ingredients from tropical Asia. The description must be its differentiator, just like Japanese cuisine is “umami”, Indian cuisine is “spice-heavy” and French cuisine is “dairy-rich” (buttery and/or creamy).

What differentiates Filipino cuisine is the use of flavor contrasts. This is a powerful selling point. Filipino gastronomy is among the few that mixes salty and sweet (Champorado at Tuyo, Humba, Tocino, Binagoongan) and salty and sour (Paksiw, Adobo and Sinigang)

The notion that our food is too brown, too oily or too salty to be palatable for the foreign palate is false. There are enough layers of interest to our cuisine to make it globally acceptable, if not favored.

It was good effort by the DOT and Jollibee. Moving forward, let us remember that an awareness campaign that provides context and differentiation is more powerful than awareness, per se. It will result to appreciation – and this is what we are going for.

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