Propelling Filipino cuisine to the world stage
Every Filipino knows that Philippine cuisine is one of the best in the world. Filipinos love it. Filipinos are passionate about it. The increasing popularity of food tourism in the Philippines indicates that travelers visit the country not only to see its historical sites and natural wonders but also to experience the unique flavors Filipino food has to offer. Travelers often associate destinations with local cuisines. Since culinary tourism generates opportunities for our local cuisine; hence, Filipinos should be proud of it, patronize it, and share it to the world. This was the general idea shared by experts who participated in the forum The Pinoy Taste Buds: What's Cooking in Philippine Food Tourism last 10 September 2014 at the First Philippine Holdings Caseroom of the Asian Institute of Management, Makati City.
There have been efforts to develop and promote the Philippines as a culinary tourism destination. The Department of Tourism (DOT) has been actively creating awareness about Philippine cuisine and advocating for the preservation of Filipino culinary traditions. According to Mr. Ryan Sebastian, the Tourism Operations Officer of the DOT, it is imperative to highlight Filipino cuisine as a tourism product because studies have shown the importance of gastronomy to the industry. Sebastian emphasized that food and beverages are the only tourism attractions that are not seasonal and are truly crucial to the tourist's experience. Likewise, it provides instant gratification and creates instantaneous memories. On a macro-level, Sebastian underscored that "culinary tourism is a low-impact, high-yield tool for community and economic development." Thus, it warrants further development because culinary tourism is "the last component of the visitor experience" according to Sebastian.
Filipinos have developed a global yet local cuisine because of the Manila Galleon Trade of the 16th to 19th centuries. According to Dr. Fernando N. Zialcita, a Cultural Anthropoligist from the Ateneo De Manila University, Filipino food has its own achievements. Take the case of tuba. Zialcita told that Filipino seafarers who disembarked in Acapulco, Mexico brought with them the knowledge of cultivating wine from coconut sap and they taught it to the Mexicans. Henceforth, tuba became a favorite beverage in Mexico that they drink it more often than Filipinos do. He also gave the example of Pancit Luglog, a very festive-looking dish because of the lipstick plant (also known as atsuete, achuete, bixaorellana, annatto) from Mexico. Likewise, the pork crackling (also known as chicharron) that came from Spain adds texture to the dish. The noodles of course came from China but the sautee/stir-fry method (with garlic, onion, and other spices to create flavor) is arguably both Chinese and Spanish. As Zialcita explained, Filipinos did not just get. They also gave.
Of equal importance, Chef Claude Tayag, an accomplished sculptor, painter, furniture designer, chef, writer, and owner of the restaurant Bale Dutung, highlighted contemporary achievements of Filipino cuisine. Tayag quoted various esteemed food experts such as Simon Majumdar (author of Eat My Globe), Anthony Bourdain (an American chef, author, and television personality), and Andrew Scott Zimmern (an American television personality, chef, food writer, and teacher) who have praised Filipino cuisine. Majumdar said, "the cuisine of the Philippines turned out to be a huge surprise. I underestimated how delicious Philippine food is. I think it's one of the few undiscovered culinary treasures in the world. And if the Filipinos attack the marketing of their foods, with the same gusto taken to eating it, it could be the next culinary sensation." Meanwhile, when Bourdain came in the Philippines in October 2008, he sang praises for the dish sisig. Bourdain said, "sisig is delicious. That is everything I love about food – chopped, sizzling pork bits. You know, with all that good rubbery, fatty, crispy. It goes well with beer. It's just wonderful." Also he claimed the Cebu lechon "is the best roast pig in the world." On the other hand, Bourdain provided an explanation why Filipino food has not reached international recognition – "it's a PR issue. There is little known of the Philippines abroad. Moreso about the food." With the right publicity, Zimmern predicted in June 2012 that Filipino food is going to be the next big thing.
Tayag and See challenged everyone to share what Filipino cuisine has to offer to the international kitchen that will put the country in the culinary map. Filipinos must be conscious of its culinary heritage whether it is a fine dining or street food. He concluded that once Filipinos found pride in their "sariling atin", the tipping point would turn in favor of Filipinos; hence, Filipino cuisine's time has come to be famous across the globe.
Food tours can contribute to raising this consciousness. Some travelers may not be adventurous but they will always eat. Ms. Clang Garcia, the Managing Director of Jeepney Tours, said that food tours are not just about the food but also about cultural heritage. The story of the destination in relation to food gives depth to the gastronomic experience.
To identify more entrepreneurial opportunities in Philippine culinary tourism, there is a need to understand the behavior of the individuals who bring Filipino cuisine to the world. Chef See Cheong Yan, the Culinary Head of Enderun Colleges, shared the defining characteristics and food preferences of the "Millenials" – these are the generation after the baby boomers, the largest generational group. Some of the food preferences of the Millenials according to See are: health conscious, share food via social media, possess good knowledge about food, adventurous with food, explore culture through food, and curious about the food circle from farm to table, among others. It is also critical to recognize the facts and paradox about Filipino food. According to See, Filipino food "is not world class compared to French, European, etc... [food]. This is because most often, the ingredients used are inferior, the presentation is crude, and the dishes lack originality.
To add the paradox that See mentioned, Dr. Michael Angelo A. Cortez, a balikbayan, food enthusiast, and an Associate Professor from Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, observed that most Filipino restaurants are expensive. A USD 15 to 20 average bill is exorbitant considering that the movement towards farm-to-table naturally supposedly cuts down the supply chain. Getting the freshest ingredients in season should cut the cost of dining.
Another issue raised by Zialcita, is the invisibility of Filipino cuisine worldwide. Zialcita argued that there is a problem with the curriculum in Filipino schools nationwide. Even if culture is part of the curriculum, a cross-cultural perspective is not discussed. There is also a tendency to view culture simplistically. That is, "everything western is bad."
The main problem is, according to Zialcita, the curriculum is hyper-pragmatic – it is concerned with immediate utility and long-term benefits are not given importance. Another problem calls for deeper cultural studies Zialcita believes that through cros-cultural comparison, Filipino identity can become more sharply defined.
Of course, there is still a bright future for Filipino food. There are just steps that need to be undertaken. To invigorate the future of local cuisine, See recommended that local and foreign customers must be differentiated and most importantly, pride in cuisine, products, and heritage must be instilled among Filipinos. Doing so will establish the credibility of Filipinos in showcasing local cuisine to foreign tourists. See also provided specific steps to undertake. He encourages budding chefs and entrepreneurs in the food industry to find the best seasonal ingredients, connect to artisans and support them, practice sustainability and environmental conservation, consider local before imported goods, observe traditional cooking methods and techniques ("good Filipino food is slow cooked"), and improve and modernize presentation, among others.
Cortez furthered that we cannot discount the importance of the Filipino tourists and/or hosts who bring the tourist. As such, there should be an independent program courtesy of the local host bringing their guests from abroad on their own independent food journey. He argues that only a Filipino host will be able to make a story out of the food. Sebastian concurred, saying that "it's really the Filipinos who can give the best hospitality." That is why, the DOT initiated the program called "Filipino Brand of Service" to encourage foreign tourists to experience how it is to be accommodated by Filipinos.
Furthermore, food information is also critical according to Cortez. Food tours must be cognizant of allergic reactions to food, halal certifications, dietary and caloric requirements of visitors.
Zialcita also suggested to augment the curriculum of the social sciences – "it has to be rethought." There is a need to encourage students to ask "why?" "what is it for?" to allow them to think outside the box. Meanwhile, Chef Bambi Sy Gobio, the owner of Restaurante Pia y Damaso, advocates that students need to learn from the outside. Practitioners cannot fully grow in their respective fields if they would not explore and experience other cultures, methods, and practices. This was supported by Mr. Alvin Lim, the Director of Restaurant Hotel and Restaurant Association of the Philippines, whose inspiration to establish a restaurant came from his travels abroad. Being exposed to something that is foreign is a powerful influence. As Lim emphasized, "being Western is not a bad thing, and maybe that's what makes Filipino food unique – we're Asian but Western."
The experts agreed that to uplift the image of Filipino cuisine, it should start from home. Parents must teach their kids Filipino food. Educators must instill in their students originality. Children must be taught as much as the older people were taught. These starting points would set the path towards seeing Filipino food contribute to the international kitchen. There has been tremendous effort by the DOT. Everyone must work together to promote Filipino cuisine. It is not just the role of DOT, food operators, or tour guides – it is a collaborative effort where everyone has a role to play.
The forum was organized by the AIM Dr. Andrew L. Tan Center for Tourism. XO46 Heritage Bistro catered the event. Approximately 90 participants from the government, the private sector, and the academe from the travel and tourism industry attended the session.
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