"But that's not reeaalllly Filipino food though, is it?" Definitely an if-I-had-a-penny phrase if I've ever heard one mentioned. Talking about the cultural aspects of food is so difficult that I'm constantly tempted to drop the label and just call it..."food;" pure, unadulterated, homogeneous, boring, it-just-is, food. Of course that's just as irresponsible as creating imaginary divisions by arguing what makes a food Filipino (or *gasp* "authentic") enough but it's tempting nonetheless. But what IS Filipino food anyway? Who gets to decide and mandate the confines by which it's labeled? Is there someone or someone’s lola I can just go to for a final say?
You hear of people who try to find the answers through books and old recipes. Others plan Instagram-fueled trips to the motherland replete with pristine food porn trying to "find their roots." But I'd risk assuming that for most, what does or doesn't make the cut for the Pinoy food roster is nothing more than what they were fed at their most suggestible. My idea of sinigang, the Filipino sour soup, was one made with lemons and mackerel since Saudi Arabia was devoid of tamarinds and milkfish/pork and when your typical Tita Girlie scowls and says "but that's not reaaallly Filipino food though is it?", it does feel like your very identity is being questioned a little bit.
I too went back to the Philippines for an extended work trip and while I expected to definitively learn what makes a certain dish Filipino, such an endeavor proved harder than your corner kalinderya's bistek. For every dish I tasted and every home cook I chatted with, I left with more questions than answers.
Is what makes something Filipino its ingredient? Do they have to be endemic to the Philippines? What makes adobo Filipino as the majority cook it (meat stewed in vinegar + soy sauce) when soy sauce is Chinese? How about if said adobo were cooked with local coconut milk, the resulting dish unsurprisingly engendering the dislike of several diehard Tito Boys? If laswa, a Visayan vegetable soup, was cooked with a packet of MSG-laden Magic Sarap as I had it, of all places, on a farm surrounded by fresh produce, is it still Filipino? Why would Mindanao's beef kulma, a curry akin to the kormas of the Mughlai kitchens, have its Filipino-ness questioned at a friend's pop-up dinner yet not many would hesitate to call our many French pastries anything but Pinoy?
Or perhaps a dish's Filipino-ness resides in the soul of its cook. If a Pinoy lolo in frigid Minnesota started remixing the goat stew kaldereta into a beef one that didn't use as many tomatoes but instead added a seemingly misplaced spoonful of peanut butter for extra soul warming, is his dish more Filipino than that of the Dominican chef who travels to the Philippines and takes the time to taste and study the local bounty? Would the essence of a dish be destroyed if a more refined technique, no matter how good, were applied to it? If a cook were to clarify the stock used in batchoy - a scalding mixture of hot soup, noodles, and cheap cuts - rather than allow the scum to sit in the pot, or if she were to blanch the vegetables in pakbet rather than letting them turn into mush, is she less of a Pinoy?
Or maybe the food just has to "look" familiar: heaped into steam tables and bins from the turo-turos of our childhood. Brown, uniform, greasy, laden with meat. Would carefully plating it be deemed pandering to "the white Amerikanos?" Or would the resulting refined cuisine never be supported by the true bloods because Filipinos as a whole are "too cheap" as told to me many times?
I couldn't really tell. Yes...the dishes our elders proclaim we are not honoring because what we make isn't how they remember them are ever present in the old country: on the streets, in the food courts, and in our homes. Yet this wasn't the only Filipino food I ate and saw. There were artistically rendered takes on classics that intensified the flavors I so remembered, regional versions of national dishes that diners fail to recognize as having been around long enough to be called "traditional," local staples made from scratch rather than succumbing to the slow seduction of Magic Sarap and ready-to-mix sauce packets.
All around the local palates changed as fast as Metro Manila's skyline and one has to wonder whether perhaps it is us, who've spent too long cooking the same things and living in our imagined visions of what a truly Filipino experience is, who are out of touch--Narcissus staring at the adobos of yesteryear. Perhaps we forget that as our people change and walk all over this world, our cuisine can’t possibly make it out unchanged.
I don't have the answers to many of my questions. I actually don't think there are any. Perhaps all the debates really are just illusory and even a trip home will never yield an answer to an ever-changing question. Perhaps when it comes to Filipino food (or any food for that matter), it is everything and nothing all at once, simply savored and not dissected.