Filipino Food & Assimilation

So my Filipino Facebook friends have all referenced this article today about Filipino food in American culture in the Los Angeles Times discussing how Filipino food has remained “unassimilated” despite the relative prominence of Filipino chefs in various parts of the country who cook at highly regarded restaurants. All throughout the article, I noticed some rather interesting observations about Filipino food by these chefs: that it’s a “home cuisine”, bound by apparently monolithic cultural traditions; that because Filipino culture is seen as a mish-mash of different cultural influences that Filipino dishes are automatically assumed to be from someone else, raising the question of what exactly IS Filipino; and even rather interesting observations about how Filipino cuisine is “visually unappealing,” relegated to comfort food and not easily translatable to so-called high European-style cuisine.

I honestly would beg to differ about these observations. In San Francisco, as I mentioned in my very first post here on 8Asians, after Saveur declared Filipino food the new soul food, a lot of interesting and exciting Filipino restaurants suddenly opened up all over the Bay a few years ago. Unfortunately, at the same time, the real estate bubble began to crash here, so a number of these restaurants ended up folding. I noticed that in the Castro, arguably one of the whitest parts of San Francisco, there were two Filipino restaurants there for about 6 months, and both did relatively well until rising costs forced both of them to close.

I also noticed how there was a distinct difference between the various types of Filipino restaurants that popped up. Those that catered to a more immigrant population were clearly less focused on visual aesthetics, which is a prime part of European and American high cuisine, and more on taste. Those that catered to a more Filipino American population has begun to realize that in order to survive, that they have to cater to those American sensibilities, and because of this, quite a few Filipino restaurants are weathering the current financial storm relatively well, even expanding across the Bay Area.

There are a lot of different things at play with regards to the opinion that Filipino cuisine is low brow; I think there is a definite belief among Filipinos that for some reason the Filipino culture is not on par with other cultures, so there is a definite undercurrent of self-hate (as evidenced by the “unappealing” comment of Filipino food). Also, because of our relative ease in which Filipinos can integrate themselves into American culture, and the constant brainwashing among many Filipino immigrants that non-Filipinos think our food is weird and inaccessible, this causes many Filipinos not to celebrate our tasty cultural roots to non-Filipinos except for the holy trinity of adobo, pancit and lumpia.

As the author of the Burnt Lumpia blog (one of my favorite Filipino American food blogs) also stated, the very nature of the Philippines itself, an arbitrary grouping of 7,000 islands forced together by an outside entity under a supposed ethnic identity, means that for many Filipinos, the region where they come from is vastly more important than the rather abstract nature of being Filipino.  There’s also no one singular Filipino dish that’s easily identifiable by mainstream American culture. Unless one lives in an area where there are Filipinos, the most popular Filipino foods “lumpia”, “pancit” and “adobo” have no meaning — but giving them a description that makes it more understandable to Americans (like eggrolls, Filipino chow mein, etc.) necessarily dilutes and distracts the fact that many of these dishes are uniquely Filipino.

Seeing that there is so much cultural baggage by the very nature of being Filipino and Filipino American, it’s little wonder that it’s difficult for Filipino foods to become more accepted in American culture. Honestly, it seems that the people who are running these successful Filipino restaurants are realizing that really the only way to make Filipino cuisine more accessible is to simply make it more accessible by creating food that’s tasty, presentable, and most importantly, unpretentious.

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About Efren

Efren is a 30-something queer Filipino American guy living in San Francisco. In the past, he was a wanna-be academic even teaching in Asian American studies at San Francisco State, a wanna-be queer rights and HIV activist, and he used to "blog" when that meant spewing one's college student angst using a text editor on a terminal screen to write in a BBS or usenet back in the early 90s. For all his railing against the model minority myth, he's realized he's done something only a few people can claim--getting into UCSF twice, once for a PhD program in medical sociology which he left; and then for pharmacy school, where he'll be a member of the class of '13. He apologizes profusely for setting the bar unintentionally high for his cousins. blog twitter
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