Once upon a time, Filipinos, living in America, wondered: Is Filipino Food Embarrassing? Perhaps we are ashamed of our food, some lamented. But Filipino food trudged onward. Then, big food celebrities caught on and declared: Filipino Food Is The Next Big Thing. And again. And again. Finally, in 2015, Filipino Food Has Arrived to the party.
The trouble so far with the mainstream narrative of Filipino Food’s “arrival” is that 1. for many of us, it’s always been here (arrived where?), 2. it plays into the whole "flavor of the month" carousel that exoticizes, appropriates and eventually moves on from cultures that long existed before and after becoming a "thing" And 3. it’s condescending as shit. It’s almost like that old Cinderella-turned-Hollywood-teen-movie trope: there’s a Cool Food Kids party and poor lil Filipino Food has never gotten the invite. But underneath it’s shy, shoddy appearance is a beauty and personality no one (except its stubborn suitor) has noticed. That is, until it got a makeover, chasing other people’s standards, losing its shoes in the process. (Roll credits, repeat same story with a new cast next year).
On the other hand, it’s a beautiful thing to see Filipino cuisine get some overdue shine and potentially open the door for uninitiated diners to try out what they’ve been missing. That’s great. Filipino food has been great for a long time, is great now, and is currently going in many different great directions, with or without a big name chef stamp of approval or a wave of trendiness. Folks like Filipino Food Movement have recognized the potential of Filipino food long before the spotlights were being turned on, and are doing a great job setting a thorough, inclusive narrative. A look at their instagram feed seems to embrace all styles from traditional to modern, home cooked to fine dining. There are no borders, literally: the narrative is that Filipino food, for many people in the Philippines, in America, in the over 150 countries that Filipinos have migrated to, has been blowing up.
So, has Filipino cuisine truly, finally found a place at the American “mainstream” table? We’ve created a menu to test out that theory. All bagoong everything. Bagoong aramang, bagoong guisado, bagoong monamon, sweet bagoong, spicy bagoong, sweet and spicy bagoong — all infused into a 5-course menu. Yes, dessert too.
If Filipino food is really ready to be embraced for what it is, and not a watered-down version of it, then Bagoong must be invited to the party too. Bagoong: that pungent pinkish grayish fermented seafood semi-liquid that is the soul of many Filipino kitchens. An indigenous, time-tested product that existed before Spanish colonization and American imperialism, always ready to funk the party up.
The late Filipina writer Doreen Fernandez wrote in her excellent book Tikim: Essays of Philippine Food & Culture:
Bagoong is a paste of salted, fermented shrimps or fish. The tiny shrimps or fish (again, those not of commercial size) are mashed with salt... The stage of readiness depends on the region and the purpose. Bagoong can be made in one's kitchen, in a jar, and be ready in a few days... When the poor man has nothing to go with his rice, he may have just bagoong with it, although even the non-poor may have bagoong with rice by choice.
In much of the Philippines, bagoong isn't just condiment, it's a staple. Many of the Philippines rural and urban poor, who make up nearly 70% of the Philippine population, eat it 3 times a day. During the Philippine Revolution of 1896 against Spain, revolutionary Katipuneros were said to have travelled with only two items: their weapon, and a small jar of bagoong. Newer restaurants in the Philippines like Bagoong Club in Quezon City have made it the central flavor of its menu.
Despite its centrality to Filipino culture, for many Filipinos growing up in America like myself, bagoong was and still is also a source of that “shame” mentioned earlier. I always loved it, especially with green mangoes, but always saw and heard non-Filipino folks pinch their nose and crunch their face at it. It became a secret pleasure; I was convinced it wasn’t worth sharing with others out of fear of rejection or shame. For me, bagoong became that homie who’s always down for you, but who you hesitated to invite to parties with your other friends out of fear your homie wouldn’t fit in. Or, worse yet, remind you that you’re trying too hard to.
Sometimes it’s fun to crash a party you weren’t invited to. But the best parties aren’t the ones where people are wondering what you’re doing there (or what they’re doing there) but the ones where everyone wants to be there, everyone wants you to be there, and no one minds if you bring your salty but well-meaning friend with you.
Crispy Kangkong w/ Calamansi Bagoong Mayo
Bagoong Alamang Dungeness Crab & Longanisa Gumbo
Grilled Pinakbet & Bagoong Fried Rice
Bagoong-Brined Lechon Liempo w/ Bagoong Monamon & Seasonal Greens
Green Mango Cheesecake w/ Palm Sugar Bagoong Syrup