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Filipino Cuisine Poised to Break Gastro Ceiling

Posted: Jan 29, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO – The Year of the Dragon will be the Year of “Adobo” if some local foodies are predicting it right. Braised chicken or pork in soy sauce, vinegar and garlic, adobo is considered a signature dish in Filipino cooking, which, judging from the buzz at this year’s Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco, could be poised to ride the next gourmet food wave.

The show’s organizers, the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade decided on a Filipino dish for the cover of their latest magazine edition. In her feature story, Joanna Pruess cites what makes this cuisine stand out: “big, bold flavors of sour, sweet and salty.”

One example is “Kare-Kare” or oxtail and vegetable stew in a peanut sauce, which no Filipino will eat without a dab of “bagoong,” a pungent fermented shrimp sauce.

Veteran food writer Nancy Freeman has been a long-time fan. “I think there are so many hot Filipino restaurants now, and they have really helped get this food bubbling to the surface of the marketplace,” she said during the recent “Kulinarya” event in San Francisco, a celebration of Filipino cuisine. As president of the Asian Culinary Forum, Freeman also organized a chefs’ panel for the organization’s Filipino Flavors Symposium in 2010 in San Francisco.

In the Bay Area, several hotspots for Filipino food have emerged, ranging from fine dining restaurants to lounges, bakeries, and popular gourmet food trucks, including Adobo Hobo, Señor Sisig, Hapa SF and Lumpia Cart. At The Naked Chorizo’s food booth at Kulinarya, hungry guests lined up for tasty chorizo tacos with avocado and salsa.

Filipino Culinary Superbowl

Organizers for the Kulinarya, led by the Philippine Consulate General in San Francisco, say they want to elevate the cuisine to the next level and make it more palatable for American tastes. Many believe it’s just a matter of time, pointing out that Filipino food -- like the community – is a sleeping giant ready to join the ranks of other Asian fare already popular in the American gastronomic vernacular.

The consulate is working on plans to introduce culinary travel packages designed by the Philippines’ Department of Tourism in conjunction with Philippine Airlines aimed at attracting more U.S. travelers to the Philippines, giving them a chance to discover authentic regional cuisine there. 

Over several centuries, Philippine cuisine has evolved from its Malayo-Polynesian origins to a mixed repertoire with Spanish, Mexican, Chinese, American and other Asian influences. Provincial specialties have added to the mix of styles.

“Out of these influences and combinations, we developed our own distinct taste,” says chef and event judge Ron Bilaro, host of “Adobo Nation” and one-time sous chef for Art Smith, Oprah Winfrey’s personal cook. That taste was on display at the Kulinarya, where three amateur and three professional chefs presented 4 courses each: a starter, a 1st entrée; a 2nd entrée: their own interpretation of the classic “Adobo” and dessert.

Among the judges were Lynne Bennett, staff writer and wine coordinator at the San Francisco Chronicle, and Pinay food bloggers Joanne Boston and Rose Ravasco aka Urban Food Maven.

In the amateur division, Arlene Nunez took the prize for her “Vegetarian Fresh Lumpia” and savory “Adobo Banh Mi” - crossing the Filipino dish with the classic Vietnamese sandwich.

Manila-born Chef Albert Rivera, meanwhile, won in the professional division with a sampling that included shrimp and vegetable fritters with a “calamansi” ponzu sauce and “halo-halo,” a dessert of shaved ice, evaporated milk and a mixture of various fruits and beans topped with purple yam ice cream.

Healthier Filipino Food: The New Niche

For some Filipinos it’s a bit of a paradox -- since many traditional recipes call for deep-frying, fattier cuts of meat, salt and sugar. But at the Kulinarya competition, chefs found ways to stay true to the flavors of beloved classics while using healthier ingredients and techniques.

Gloria Ramos, a self-confessed foodie and published author who competed in the amateur division, believes that’s the ticket for Pinoy food to make it big time in the culinary world.

“I veganized it,” she said of her Afretada, a tomato sauce-based stew traditionally made with chicken or pork, which Ramos replaced with soy protein and tofu. “My daughter turned vegan and I had to create different things for her,” she added.

Ramos’ spin on the classic Adobo, featuring lettuce wraps, is another example of how “Filipino food can be healthy, attractive and tasty,” appealing to even the most health-conscious of mainstream consumers, like those found at Whole Foods.

A new line of frozen appetizers named “Kusina ni Maria,” or Maria’s Kitchen, is now available in almost 20 Whole Foods Markets and select Costco Stores across Northern California. Linda Zavoral of the San Jose Mercury News described these new products, which were featured at the SF Winter Fancy Food Show, as “a great answer to those late-night lumpia or adobo cravings.” 

Nicholas von Wettberg is managing editor with the local Fil-Am Star newspaper. Covering the Kulinarya event, he agreed that Filipino cuisine could “break through the mainstream food scene by making it as healthy as possible, especially by cutting down on grease and sodium i.e. soy sauce.” He cites an example from the cook-off, where one of the chefs in the Adobo entrée round cooked the bone marrow into the dish, rendering it “too fatty.”

But overall he says he was impressed with the level of creativity displayed by the competitors in the professional divisions, especially with their desserts. “The way the chefs presented their dessert courses was very colorful and vibrant…It’s satisfying to know that there are young Filipino chefs out there who are thinking outside the box, there was definitely love and care for detail with these dessert dishes.”

Re-Inventing Filipino Food for the American Palate

Filipino food’s global heritage may be the biggest key to its breakthrough, according to Nancy Freeman, who for years has been touting its wine pairing characteristics. “I believe this is primarily because of the Spanish influences in the dishes…Spaniards drink wine all the time,” she explains.

Freeman cites “Kare Kare” as a perfect example, because it’s very similar to a Spanish dish, only that the Filipino version uses peanuts instead of almonds. “But since it’s not hot/spicy nor sour, you don’t have to compensate for heat nor sourness when you pair it with wine.”

Freeman was married previously to a Filipino man and lived many years in the Philippines, and in that time she learned many of the traditional recipes. “I divorced him, but I didn’t want to divorce the food… I don’t want to leave a culture I’ve adapted to,” she says.

Freeman also stresses that another important step for Filipino chefs is to consider veering away from “lutong buhay,” or home-style cooking, as much as possible and work towards making it more creative and commercially appealing. “It can’t just be as my mom or grandma makes it. It can be however you want to make it, it can be a modern take, it can be fusion, it can be whatever tastes good, as long as it reflects its roots,” she said.

At the Mercury Lounge in San Francisco’s South of Market district, Chef Dominic Ainza showcases his unique Filipino fusion creations including “kare-kare” dumplings, “Pinakbet” (ratatouille of long beans, onions and tomatoes in a shrimp paste) Pizza; and “Tocino” (cured pork) Truffles.

Chef Kristela Mendoza is also doing her part as executive chef at San Francisco’s Pyramid Breweries. Mendoza described one of her entrees in the competition. “I’m making hand rolls with sisig, which is traditionally pork belly rendered down with calamansi and a lot of spices… I make that into a soy-sushi wrap.”

Mendoza’s got a secret ingredient of her own for this popular dish. “One of our signature beers is Thunderhead IPA. So instead of San Miguel beer,” popular in the Philippines, “I use our own brew to de-glaze the meat and because of that, I am able to serve sisig in an American restaurant.”

“And everybody loves it, even if they have no idea what it is,” she says.

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