Tucked away in a narrow street, looking almost shy to show itself to passersby, was my favorite hole-in-the-wall cantina, Chelly’s.
Neon-colored Post-Its on a corkboard stuck on bamboo slats revealed the savoury specials for the day, Filipino favorites like beef mami, lechon kawali, sisig and kare kare.
Ate Chelly (translating literally to “Big Sister Chelly”) was the tireless proprietress, waitress, and delivery woman who even hoofed it around Barrio Malasaña for door to door deliveries. She knew exactly how to cook my beef tapa to this otherwordly shade of brown – just the way i liked it.
Eating at Chelly´s had become a regular ritual each time I craved for authentic Pinoy food in all its wonderful, fatty, greasy and oddly-colored goodness. Whenever I had a bout of homesickness, cutre-licious Chelly’s was my wormhole that instantly transported me back to the Philippines.
Once, I snapped a photo of Chelly´s sizzling sisig (or fried pig’s ears) topped with a fried egg and sacrificed it to the Instagram gods. Some work colleagues were intrigued and asked me to take them to this favorite little hideaway of mine to give them a primer on Pinoy food. These colleagues included a Swedish, Basque and German girl and a Spanish guy, all well-travelled folks who prided themselves as being internationally-trained and open-minded food lovers.
To date, my invitation is still on hold. You guys aren’t ready, I said. Why not? It can’t be so bad, they said. Well, Filipino food can be pretty weird and greasy, I said. But Spanish food can be weird and greasy too, they argued.
True, the Spanish have their own version of “bizarre” food like callos (beef tripe stew) and morcilla (dark blood sausage). But I think our traditional home-cooked meals could out-bizarre any tripe stew or hemoglobin-filled sausage.
It wasn’t for lack of love or pride that explained my reluctance to play food ambassador – for I do fully embrace our cuisine, including the isaw (barbecued pig intestines) and balut (half developed duck fetus) peddled on the streets of my hometown. For me, it’s more about having deep-seated concern toward my Caucasian colleagues – I’m a bit wary of indoctrinating their untrained Western stomachs with our cuisine that often involves artery-busting, deep-fried fat and animal nether-parts. Plus, I’ve lived with enough foreign flatmates who freaked out each time I innocently opened a smuggled bottle of bagoong (shrimp paste) to know that my local food wasn´t exactly the most popular victual in the fridge.
Just to elucidate, here’s a quick Google search of my favorite Pinoy dishes:
Sizzling sisig: made from parts of pig´s head, ears, jowls and liver, usually seasoned with calamansi (local lemon), chili peppers and served with raw egg.
Kare- Kare: a stew made from a base of oxtail, pork hocks, calves feet, pig feet, beef stew meat, occasionally offal and tripe, mixed with vegetables such as eggplant and green beans. Flavored with peanut butter.
Dinuguan – a savory stew of meat and/or offal (typically lungs, kidneys, intestines, ears, heart and snout), simmered in a rich, spicy dark gravy of pig´s blood and vinegar. (It doesn´t help that it’s served with puto, which in Spanish roughly translates to “bitch male whore”).
Balut – Oh yes, that notorious star of every reality show’s gross food challenge. A developing duck embryo boiled alive and eaten in its shell.
Halo-halo – a dessert consisting of evaporated sweet milk, shaved ice, purple yam, pounded rice, boiled kidney beans, garbanzos, gelatin (usually a luminous kryptonite green), sweet potato, flan, jackfruit and ice cream.
Bagoong – a paste made with fermented fish or shrimp, usually served with green mango
Taba ng talangka – The fat of a small variety of crabs, pressed and sautéed in garlic. “This cholesterol-laden Filipino food is often used as a sauce for prawns or eaten with fried fish and rice,” thus spake CNN Travel.
I will stop at defining “IUD” (intrauterine device), since that’s pretty much self-explanatory, at least visual-wise.
Even for some of the most open-minded foodies – the reality could be hard to swallow.
“The food sucks”
International media outfits have pretty much criticized Filipino food as inedible fare, compared to the globally renowned cuisine of our Southeast Asian neighbors. As an old CNN article articulates, “While many worldwide are familiar with Thai, Indonesian and Vietnamese cuisine, fewer are devotees of Filipino food. Critics describe much of the Philippines’ cuisine as focused on relatively mundane meals and fast food, which may be why there is a scarcity of Filipino restaurants abroad.”
It goes on to quote a longtime foreign resident, who said “Philippine food is an acquired taste, and one I haven’t acquired in nearly 25 years.” He went on further with the final, reality-checking blow: “The food sucks, and it’s not that healthy.”
Another crushing critique on our gastronomie de Philippines came in the words of a Polish blogger/flavor hunter back in 2014, who traveled around Asia sampling the local street food with a daily budget of 25 dollars. Her verdict on Pinoy food exploded with bold letters in her blog entry title: “I Would Rather Go Hungry Than Eat Filipino Street Food Again!”
She chronicled her meals with painfully revealing photos. Grilled fish that looked like it barely survived a wildfire. An American-style hot dog when she asked for longganisa. An oil slick floating with the debris of chicken and potatoes that was supposedly chicken adobo. True, she did run into some bad luck with some ignorant choices – like asking for nectarines and apples at a local market. But after weeks of traveling and a serious bout of stomach flu, she concluded that, well, our food sucks.
On cue, up went the forks in defensive indignation from Facebooking Pinoys everywhere, calling the blogger an ignorant bitch, a stupid racist (huh?), an unlucky tourist who just didn’t have a proper guide to tell her what food to buy – not like that upstanding peripatetic food dude Anthony Bourdain who loves our lechon. One woman even said that, well of course with a budget of “only” 25 dollars (roughly 1,100 pesos), the blogger couldn’t enjoy authentic, quality Filipino food.
Really, if this well-meaning Polish travel blogger had a taste of anything authentic, it was a giant serving of our national dish of onion skins.
Elevate or evolve?
So if food is an expression of our cultural identity, what does ours communicate about ourselves? Impoverished and uninspired? Or would that mean the complete opposite – creative and brilliant in the face of gamey animal innards? I mean, it takes some kind of mad genius (or Arkham inmate) to think of mixing peanut butter, oxtail and eggplant with shrimp paste, or garbanzos with green gelatin and sweetened milk.
As I still want to play culinary ambassador to some degree, I thought about taking up the challenge by serving my global friends Pinoy food with some creative alterations. Why not serve adobo reincarnated in a lamb version with balsamic vinegar? Shred my refried chicken adobo and serve it with chives and crushed peanuts wrapped as spring rolls? Banana cue with dulce de leche ice cream?
And therein lies the grub. Should I dilute tradition to pander to foreign taste buds?
Perhaps I will never really see a traditional Pinoy restaurant be catapulted to the Michelin starred universe in my lifetime. But Pinoy food, much like the dearly departed, non-descript, unpretentious, and randomly embellished Chelly´s, will always inspire a loyal following among those disciples seeking the flavours that truly matter – the flavours of home.