On May 2nd, a small group of old college friends and I feasted on Filipino food that had nothing to do with Manny Pacquiao’s fight. It was mere coincidence that a friend and I planned a long-awaited get together at her place that night. I don’t follow boxing, but I am a self-identified Fil-Am, so when I realized Keith and I would be cooking traditional and inspired Filipino food for a small dinner party on the night when Pacquiao would finally have his chance at Mayweather, I knew we wouldn’t be the only household in the world crunching down on lumpiang shanghai, dipping some version of succulent pork in a bowl of vinegar, or slurping strings of pancit. I knew that San Miguel beer sales would dramatically increase, because how else would you down all that salty and sour goodness? Maybe Pacquiao had nothing to do with my meal (there was a valiant attempt to live stream the PPV event for free), but cooking and consuming Filipino food that night had everything to do with celebrating the Filipino, at home and abroad.
We were all eating together, from Boston to New Jersey, NYC to Chicago, California to Hawaii, Dubai to Tokyo, Canada to China, and wherever else we landed during the many years of Philippine diaspora. Of course, we were all breaking bread with our kababayan back home, who ardently watched their countryman fight for national pride. Come to think of it, I bet Manny was the only pinoy not enjoying a healthy plate and a cold San Mig, though he probably could have used a few. Mini fiestas were happening all over the world thanks to a common sense of pride in Philippine culture. What I find most fascinating are the nuances between different pancit preparations, the varying kinilaw creations, the ingredient choices made when rolling up cigarillos of lumpia. Does your chicken adobo have more vinegar than mine? (Doubtful, I put that shit on everything). If you live in a place with no access to kalamansi, how do you compensate for it in recipes? Do you use concentrate? Frozen juice? Lemons or limes? Is your daing na bangus fresh or frozen? How sweet is your spaghetti?
That night a guest, who was unfamiliar with Filipino cuisine, asked if the food I made was authentic. Without getting into a passionate tirade about food and authenticity, I quickly explained that some of my dishes were traditional preparations, and others were not. It’s a commonly asked question, and I understood the point of it. She wanted to know whether she could identify Filipino food based on what Keith and I prepared. After all, I was serving as a self-appointed ambassador of Philippine cuisine to members of the group with limited experience. There were other Fil-Ams at the party, who helped validate the “authenticity” of my food, but I’m sure what they ate that night tasted slightly different from the dishes of which they are familiar.
Was the food that I prepared authentic Filipino food? Yes, but only authentic to me, and no one else. I’m a Bostonian who was born and raised in Jersey City, an area with a large Fil-Am population. My ideas of Philippine cuisine were shaped by my father’s boisterous side of the family. He and his siblings were raised in Batangas, a province in the Philippines with its own specialty dishes, like bulalo (love it), lomi (into it), salty fishes like deep-fried tawilis or sinigang na tulingan (give it to me), and goto (I’ll pass). Did I eat some of these dishes growing up? Definitely. Are they the same dishes my father ate back in the Philippines? Of course not. I didn’t eat fresh tulingan. That shit was imported from Asia, frozen, made its way to the US after traveling weeks on the water in a freight container, eventually making its way to my dad’s grocery store. It was still delicious. Is my experience with tulingan less authentic than my father’s, whose mother probably walked over to a market, picked one out caught that day, and walked back home? No, it doesn’t, because what does it matter? Yes, there are traditional and common preparations for certain dishes. That’s an aspect of cuisine, after all. But traditions change, and I’m not talking about creating “fusion food.” Food traditions change organically, based on many factors like environmental influences and available resources. Change is the story of Filipino food culture. Change is the story of all cuisine.
Climbing down from my ivory tower back down to Boston, I’ve come to realize how much I appreciated the guest’s question on authenticity. I’m part of a generation of Fil-Ams excited to bring Filipino food to mainstream America, and she was welcoming it. Some Fil-Ams choose to celebrate tradition and cook their parents’ food. You gotta preserve your staples. But some choose to celebrate their locale by taking their own spin on traditional flavors. A few months ago, a friend and I enjoyed a pop-up brunch hosted by Filipino-Kitchen. The menu had nothing my grandmother ate, but everything amazing. Longanisa scotch egg? Hell yeah. Kalamansi mimosa? Fillerup. I firmly believe these are the folks who will bring Filipino cuisine to American food culture, not because they’re trying to cater to the American palate, whatever that means, but because what they’re cooking up is relevant and delicious.
When I cook Filipino food for my friends and family, I celebrate traditions passed down to me, but I also celebrate change that I bring forth through my own personal experiences. It’s possible to celebrate both.