The Brutal Truth about Filipino Food in America (An Interview with the Filipino Food Movement’s VP)

I didn’t expect this. Especially not after people I know here in Norway, who recently came back from trips to the United States, assert that Filipino food is mainstream in the US. If it’s already “there”, then it’s only a matter of time before Filipino food catches up globally. I’m inclined to believe so.

Based on the 2013 estimates by the Commission on Filipinos Overseas, the United States has, by far, the most number of Filipinos abroad – more than 3.5 million out of the over 10 million overseas. Inquirer.net also reported in the same year that Filipinos are the biggest Asian group in California. Given all that and the colonial history between the two countries, isn’t it about time the American public recognizes Filipino food? After all, it has been four years since American food critic, Andrew Zimmern, predicted that it was “going to be the next big thing.” It has also been many years since “No Reservations” host and chef sang plaudits to the cuisine.

This interview with US born to Filipina mother, Joanne Boston-KwanHull, is an eye opener. Joanne lives in Daly City, south of San Francisco. Filipinos makeup the biggest population in Daly City that this tongue-in-cheek, hyperbolic claim is often told:

“You know why it’s always foggy in Daly City, right? Because all the Filipinos turn on their rice cookers at the same time.”

 Joanne presents herself as a 9 to 5 employee at a medical accounting firm in San Francisco and a 24/ 7 Filipino food advocate. She spearheaded projects, such as Project Adobo and kapaMEALya, and is the Vice President of The Filipino Food Movement (FFM), a non-profit, community-driven organization that shares the same objectives as My Food Beginnings.

JoanneBoston
Joanne Boston-Kwanhull: VP of the Filipino Food Movement

I quote from the FFM website, text that resonated with me and I’m sure would resonate with most Filipinos around the globe too:

We believe that the story of our culture, and indeed ourselves, is programmed into the DNA of each ingredient, no matter where it is grown; each dish, no matter how it has evolved; and each cook, no matter where he or she may come from. “

Please tell me more about your Filipino heritage.

 My family is from Umingan, Pangasinan. My grandfather and his brother came to the United States after World War II. My mom followed here in 1983. I was born soon after. I lived in a house where Ilocano was spoken. I picked up on the language and I still remember bits and pieces; however, English is now my primary language. I wish I were still able to speak it.

How did you get started in food? What prompted your involvement with the Filipino Food Movement?

My love for food started when I was really young. My Inang (mom’s mom) would cook these great Ilocano dishes in the kitchen: dinengdeng, pinapaitan, etc. as well as adobo, arroz caldo, and tinola. I loved to keep her company while she was preparing meals for the family. My mom works in the hospitality industry here in San Francisco and she introduced to me fine dining: foie gras, kobe beef, champagne. I started blogging in 2007 and named it “Taking Over the World One Bite at a Time.” In 2010, a few friends I met through food events in the San Francisco Bay Area and I founded kapaMEALya, which at the time, was a Filipino social dining group. We hosted pop-ups at restaurants here in SF and collaborated with Filipino chefs as well. I also wrote articles for local Filipino publications which allowed me to gain access to special events.

In 2012, I met PJ Quesada of Ramar Foods, now Board Chairman of the FFM. We frequented the same community events. One day we chatted about Filipino food and he told me that he wanted to organize a Filipino food-focused festival. When I was working with kapaMEALya, we had talked about doing the same, but life happened and we never had the opportunity. So as PJ was telling me his ideas, I immediately wanted to start collaborating with him because our visions were very similar. In 2014, we began to work on the event which was named “Savor Filipino.” I was social media manager for the Filipino Food Movement then and lead food curator for the event. Later that year, I became Vice President with an emphasis on social media and marketing.

 What do you think is the American public’s general perception of Filipino cuisine?

 I still think that Americans are unfamiliar with the cuisine. A lot of feedback I hear is: “Is it Asian?” “Is it Spanish?”

Basically, since the general population doesn’t know what a Filipino is, it’s hard for them to grasp what Filipino food is.

The food and even the faces of Filipinos are so diverse. It’s hard for the uninitiated to pinpoint what being Filipino is. Over the last couple of years, with Filipino food emerging in the media, people are getting more familiar, which leads them to going to Filipino restaurants which leads to successful restaurants. We need establishments to stay open to further the exposure.

Where does Filipino food stand in the San Francisco food scene? How does it compare to the popularity of other Asian cuisines? What can be done to further boost the popularity of Filipino food in SF?

There is still a lack of Filipino restaurants in San Francisco proper. Off the top of my head, I can only think of five. It’s a shame because in 2012 there were 3.4 million Filipinos in the United States – second only to the Chinese who logged in at 4 million. Yet there is a scarcity of Filipino restaurants while there are thousands of Chinese restaurants. Filipino is still a very underrepresented cuisine; however, there are many chefs and entrepreneurs in SF who want to change that. Again, because our culture is so diverse, it’s hard for people to understand it. I believe once the general public knows the history of the Filipinos, they’d get the food. It will really take a collective effort in order for Filipino food to be recognized. Here in SF, there was an effort for the South of Market neighborhood to be recognized as a historical Filipino area of the City. They succeeded on April 12, 2016 and now that area is called SoMA Pilipinas Cultural Heritage District.

I believe this is huge for the Filipino community and Filipino businesses. This effort shows that Filipino culture is important and should be known. In addition to these efforts, it is vital for younger generations to learn from their elders or at least get themselves acquainted with Filipino food.

I know a lot of younger Fil-Ams who don’t eat Filipino food because of the negative beliefs that seem to plague the cuisine: it’s unhealthy, gross, and unsanitary. EDUCATION IS WHAT WE NEED. When we get that education ourselves we have to share it with others to keep the movement going.

SF Chronicle reported that Filipino restaurants, like Mercury Lounge, Poleng Lounge, Intramuros and Bistro Luneta closed down. Why do Filipino restaurants struggle to survive in San Francisco?

Those restaurants were ahead of their time. They all ceased to exist about 5 years ago – before this surge in Filipino food popularity. Those restaurants were dear to kapaMEALya because that’s where we held our pop-ups. Chef Time Luym of Poleng Lounge went on to open Attic in San Mateo which is doing well. Intramuros rebranded and is now Fort McKinley. Again, people were uneducated and weren’t enticed at the time. It’s slowly changing.

The food scene is still in this old school – new school battle. Business owners have to ask themselves if they should delve into contemporary preparations of the food because some of our elders won’t like it. That struggle is real.

As an advocate of Filipino food culture, what do you consider as your biggest achievement? Biggest frustration?

Savor
Photo Source: The FFM

Sous Vide Pork Adobo with brocolli rabe & fried mushrooms by Chef Jerrick Figueroa at Pampalasa Restaurant in San Francisco.

I would have to say that Savor Filipino (the country’s first Filipino food festival) was our biggest achievement and frustration. It was a triumph because 30,000 people came to the event! This was the first Filipino food-focused event ever held in San Francisco. Being part of the steering team was a great learning experience. Again, it took a lot of hard work, lots of late meetings and sleepless nights. We noticed a lot of things before, during, and after the event:

1) Filipino chefs were eager to work with us during this event and they did not hesitate to collaborate with each other. This was great to see.

2) Patrons were saying that the prices were too high. It almost made me think that they did not believe value can be put into Filipino food. We had top-notch, nationally known chefs cooking dishes that can appear in a white table cloth restaurant. Yet, there is this ridiculous belief that Asian food – especially Filipino food – should be “cheap.” At this event, we had quality ingredients made by quality chefs. Nothing cheap about that.

3) There are still people who cannot let go of the fact that Filipino food is evolving before our very eyes. Filipino food is special to our chefs because it is so attached to their memories and families. They like to pay homage to a moment in time or even a person in their life through a dish that they fashioned themselves, but was motivated by a traditional Filipino dish. Old school believers do not like that. I highly doubt that the Filipino food from 2010 is the same as the dishes in 1910, 1810, 1710, and 1610. Sure the evolution came over a course of centuries, but now there is a fear that the integrity of the dishes we know and love will be lost if it is customized too much. That’s totally understandable, but we also have to understand that we can respect the traditional and give room for the contemporary at the same time. Change always comes with time.

 I read about your food blog, Project Adobo (a very interesting concept!) and all the different and amazing stories and versions of the dish you managed to gather.  Which one is your favorite? What particular memory does adobo stir up in you?

Thank you! I truly enjoyed interviewing all of the contributors. They all had different stories despite the fact they were all talking about the same dish. That’s the beauty of adobo right? One simple dish can be translated in so many ways. All of them are so good!

It’s hard to pick one, but one of my favorites is the adobo sandwich made by Jeepney Guy. I remember going to the Gilroy Garlic Festival and meeting the owner Dennis Villafranca there. He was selling his adobo sandwich at the festival and I fell in love. I kept in touch with him and I still see him at events. His boneless lechon is out of this world. He is one of my favorite Filipino food vendors ever. Adobo makes me think of my mom and my Inang. Even though it is such an easy dish to make, I can never make mine taste as good as theirs. It reminds me of the days they used to “subo” or feed me with their hands and having great times at home.Pork Adobo-Dennis

 BBQ smoked pork adobo flip-dip sandwich by Jeepney  Guy

(Photo courtesy of Project Adobo)

 

What is your advice to the global Filipino diaspora who would like Philippine cuisine to be globally recognized?

Be present. Go to Filipino events. Go to family parties. Cook the food. Do anything that will potentially teach someone about the cuisine. Share it on a blog. Take photos. Teach a class. Cook a dish for your friends from a Filipino cookbook. We need to expose the food. All the while, we need to keep an open mind.

We shouldn’t judge someone else’s adobo or afritada because it will never be exactly as how you grew up with it. We shouldn’t write off anyone else’s dish just because it doesn’t look or taste like your mom’s. Enjoy it for what it is. If we constantly compare our standard to everyone else’s version, we will be disappointed majority of the time.

A lot of people tell me that because there is this competitive spirit in Filipinos, it will be naturally hard to impress each other. This is why people refuse to eat out and prefer to have Filipino food at home. If they choose to eat out, they’d rather eat Japanese, Italian, Indian, etc. This can be why there is a lack of restaurants.

What’s your goal in the next few years?

It may not be a goal that will be accomplished by me, but I hope that there is constant Filipino representation on mainstream television. I hope there will be a go-to figure that will educate the general public about the dishes. Another goal I have been holding is to open a Filipino culinary culture center somewhere in the Bay Area. I live in Daly City – one of the most Filipino-dense cities in the country. I would love to open one near there. It would be a place where we can have workshops, wine tastings, pop-up dinners, chef seminars, classes and so on. The sky’s the limit! My general goal is to have Filipino food recognized as a delicious cuisine that isn’t automatically linked to Fear Factor.

*Joanne Boston KwanHull is one of the contributing authors of our upcoming book, The Migrant Filipino Kitchen – a collection of Filipino food memoirs.

The Filipino Food Movement  on social media:

Instagram: @FilipinoFoodMovement

Facebook: The Filipino Food Movement

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The Brutal Truth about Filipino Food in America (An Interview with the Filipino Food Movement’s VP)

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