Ask any overseas Filipino worker or naturalised citizen anywhere in the world where they usually enjoy authentic Filipino dishes; most likely, they’ll reply to the dish prepared at home. That’s because it isn’t easy to find Filipino restaurants.
The explosion of popularity of Jollibee may have helped uncover a bit of Filipino food culture. But spaghetti or fried chicken, the main staples at any Jollibee outlet, are not how we describe Filipino food.
In Australia, where Filipinos represent the fifth largest migrant group, there isn’t even a Jollibee branch. So finding a Filipino restaurant can be a challenging expedition, except in pockets of the neighbourhood that have a significant presence of Filipino communities.
In an SBS article, a few Filipinos described why Filipino food is not yet ubiquitous as the other Asian cuisines. As of 2019, there are almost 300,000 Filipino-born migrants in Australia, more than the number of people from Vietnam or Malaysia. But it’s much easier to find Vietnamese banh mi or Malaysian satay dishes than, say, pinakbet or adobo in a random food court across the country.
Adopting a dish doesn’t even have to depend on the volume of migrants where that food came from. For example, Chinese or Thai cuisine is adapted well by the mainstream audience. But on the other side of the spectrum, Filipinos looking for Filipino restaurants may be stomped to find out their presence is limited.
The popularity of home cooking
“That food only happens at home” is how Luisa Brimble of the Australian Chapter of the Filipino Food Movement describes the Filipino dish.
“There’s this mentality: Why go out when my mum could cook it better at home?” she adds, to which the author is firmly affirmative.
Ingredients are not hard to find, even for dishes conveniently classified as odd, like dinuguan (pork blood stew). Cooking is also straightforward and doesn’t require complex equipment nor significant investment of time. Coupled with the frustration of hardly finding a Filipino restaurant except in places like Sydney’s western suburbs of Blacktown and Seven Hills suburbs, the Filipino diaspora often resorts to homestyle Pinoy cooking.
Alignment with objectives of migrants
Adopting Filipino cuisine isn’t just about accepting its perceived taste or first impressions of a curious gourmand. Instead, culturally speaking, Filipino migrants lean towards adjusting to their newly-adopted environments.
According to Will Mahusay of Sydney Cebu Lechon, migrants tend to lean towards jobs that may be challenging but enough to establish their foothold so their children wouldn’t have to go through the same experience.
“Many first-generation migrants probably think, ‘We need to do something safe, like work in a hospital or a warehouse to earn money and establish ourselves, so our kids don’t have to go through what we went through,” he says.
First-generation migrants were willing to take multiple shifts in their jobs as nurses or take part-time roles at convenience stores, to earn extra income. Establishing Filipino restaurants to promote Pinoy food culture may be among the last things they would like to do. After uprooting their family back in the Philippines to settle in a new country, they want to ensure their gamble pays off through those conservative paths; opening a Filipino restaurant is not high on their priorities. Such bias has left a small number of people trying to put Filipino food on the Australian map.
Adopting the local food scene
A natural tendency for Filipino migrants who lean towards conservative pathways is to assimilate as much as possible. This tendency includes adopting the food widely available, cheaper or easier to prepare.
“It happens with a lot of migrants. It’s a rejection of culture: When you’re in a different environment, you have to try to fit in,” FFM’s Luisa Brimble says.
Grace Guinto of Entrée Pinays, agrees.
“Assimilation goes back to various times of occupation in the Philippines. When a person moves away, I think they say to themselves, ‘I will forgo my language, my food, my culture to show that I’m the model migrant’,” she says, adding that the influence of centuries of colonisation has shaped Filipinos to have that ability to assimilate.
Guinto says that Australia is still in its infancy on people’s understanding of Filipino food, with adobo, pancit and lumpia acting as a shorthand for Filipino cuisine.
Lack of breaks in mainstream media
Food is an attractive topic in the land Down Under, where the amalgamation of cultures produce a variety of both authentic and fusion of delicacies. As evidenced by highly-rated TV shows such as My Kitchen Rules and MasterChef, Australians have a strong inclination towards food themes.
(Filipino food was even labelled ‘very bad’ by a MasterChef judge in Norway.)
Regarding the latter, Filipino cuisine is still yet to receive the spotlight. However, a brief feature of, say, adobo or Lechon would have ignited some interest or curiosity from the viewers.
The identity of Filipino food
That level of curiosity may not need to come from viewers of a prime time TV cooking show. They can be anybody from colleagues intrigued by what’s in your lunchbox or Aussie friends who thought deep with the question, “what is Filipino food?”
It might sound absurd, but many Filipinos find it hard to describe their very own dish by way of its characteristics. American food may be commonly associated with burgers, Indian with curry, Mexican with tacos and Chinese with dumplings and noodles. It is hard to encompass the menu in a short phrase due to the diversity of Filipino food that it might have an identity crisis.
From the exotic (dinuguan and “Adidas” chicken feet) to soups (sinigang, bulalo) to noodles (pancit Canton, pancit lomi) to stew (batchoy, menudo) to rice varieties (lugaw, sinangag, champorado), Filipinos abroad grapple at how to respond to those who are asked to describe what a Filipino dish is. Such variety came from centuries of influence from other cultures.
So unless we come up with a unified understanding of our national food identity and promoting it actively beyond just presenting a dish during an office “cultural day”, Filipino food may not get the attention it deserves from an Australian or international audience.