A Westerner said 'Filipino food is the worst.' Here’s why we care so much

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Filipino food might be deemed bland by outsiders looking for 'exotic' Asian food. But this ignores the region's food cultures’ histories and complex relationships with their eaters. Illustration by CARINA SANTOS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — I still remember in 2008 when we found out that Anthony Bourdain was coming to Manila for the first time. There was a hum around the city, our culinary glitterati sent into a tailspin.

Where will he eat? Will he like the food? He definitely has to try lechon. Can you imagine Tony eating isaw? We can call him Tito Tony! Will he be too mean? Will he be mean enough?

It was something of an event, the arrival of the food world’s preeminent chef, the spotlight shone on what is arguably a forgotten food city, the prodigal child of Southeast Asia. The patron saint of food television was finally on his way to lay his blessed, calloused feet on our parched soil, giving our ulam and merienda his benediction.

Christ was coming and we weren’t ready.

What were we getting ready for exactly, though?

Was it the “global spotlight” that Filipinos crave so much, which Bourdain would undoubtedly bring with him? Did we want a mere glimpse of representation, the kind of attention the pale-skinned, rosy-cheeked domestic goddesses and barefoot contessas of the Food Network received on a regular basis? Or did we seek approval from our taskmasters? Were we so unsure of the inherent joys of our food — complex and wrought with history — that we needed to hear those sitting on their handsome mid-century furniture sing the praises of adobo, lumpia, and pancit themselves?

The answers, as is always the case with this sort of thing, are rather complicated.

Historically speaking, we don’t have to look too far down to understand exactly why the Western gaze and the Filipino consciousness are so deeply entwined.

Centuries of colonization by Caucasian forces have left an indelible mark on the Filipino psyche, and even the most radicalized of us cannot immediately cut the cord between themselves and the monolith that is the Western (see: American) media machine. There is no denying that American media is almost Filipino in the way that it persists in local conversation.

Such is also true, funnily enough, with the way we eat. Beloved food historian Doreen Fernandez wrote in her book “Palayok: Philippine Food Through Time, on Site, in The Pot” that contemporary Filipino food is so profoundly influenced by America, that if you cross your eyes it may seem impossible to see a difference between the two.

“It is no wonder, therefore,” she writes, “that if one watches T.V. today and reads the advertisements in the newspapers and magazines, one might conclude that all Philippine food is American: hamburgers, fried chicken, steak, sandwiches, ‘junk’ food, fast food.”

The Filipino eater, it seems, is almost as much American as they are of this land, which explains exactly why we crave for our food to be seen beyond our borders, for it to be deemed delicious and understood by those who are oceans away from us.

This explains the amount of online vitriol aimed by Filipino twitter users towards Cornell University political science instructor Tom Pepinsky when he “objectively” ranked Southeast Asia’s many cuisines in a tweet, placing Filipino food last, followed up by Jakarta-based feminist activist Kate Walton’s bold refrain that “Filipino food is the worst.”

Both users are white foreigners who have travelled throughout the region. They are familiar with the food they speak of but they are — ultimately — outsiders. They can be considered a symptom of a wider sentiment of white Westerners viewing the food of the other (in this case, Southeast Asians) as something that is meant to be discovered and therefore exoticized while altogether ignoring the respective food cultures’ long histories and complex relationships with their eaters.

What just so happened to get caught in the crossfire was Filipino food. When compared to other Southeast Asian cuisines, Filipino food — with its lack of spice, use of unorthodox ingredients such as offal, and focus on sourness and linamnam — may be deemed by these outsiders as not “exotic” enough to be worth their interest, as being both too alien and too “bland.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I must admit, there is a certain thrill to having dishes you grew up with described with such beauty and adoration by some of the best American food writers.

When Jonathan Gold, the legendary LA Times food critic and as close to a food writing god as you can get, describes the arroz caldo at Los Angeles’ Sari Sari Store as “rice seethed into a loose, hot porridge, fragrant with ginger and fried garlic, thick with chewy mushrooms and little cubes of pork,” you can’t help but take notice.

But, it is key to remember that while Western staples like fried chicken and spaghetti dominate here, they are, in their DNA — coated thick in banana ketchup and shreds of cheddar cheese — still very much our own and, more importantly, not anyone else’s.

While food is inherently joyous and is meant to be shared with an open hand, it is also important to note that the joy and pride that we take when we speak the language of our food must not hinge on those who were not meant to understand it.

On the contrary, we must grab the intangible heritage of our cuisine and see that its beauty can be found in its unique capacity to tell the story of our struggles and how exactly we as a people rose up to overcome them.

In that vein, Eddy Alegre in his book “Sarap: Essays on Philippine Food” says that “eating is language that speaks of the nuances of what we are. Eating is making alive the various and variegated conjugations of our lives.”

Strangely enough, in a twist of fate, Bourdain — chosen one, the rarest of tourists unlike all others, a perpetual foreigner who was always aware of his white privilege, and a genuine lover of all things deeply delicious wherever they are from — might have put into words exactly what few outsiders could only dream of understanding about Filipino food. During one of his final visits to Manila, eating at — of all places — Jollibee, he called the almost cloyingly sweet spaghetti “deranged, yet strangely alluring.”

And in that moment, he captured the spirit of what makes Filipino food — our food — so glorious.