At age five, I’m examining the greenish-greyish broth of a Filipino dish called papaitan (pronounced pa-pa-ee-tan) at a family party. The roaring laughter of the adults scattered across the different rooms on the main floor of the house rumble in the background; they’re spewing out consonants in Tagalog (the official language of the Philippines) and Ilocano (a dialect spoken by people from north-western Luzon, the country’s largest island.)
The pot is speckled with a palette ranging from light beige to ash brown. There’s furry tripe and chunks of liver – the only two recognizable ingredients – and the rest, to me, is just texture. It smells rich and tangy, and has a hint of fire. My dad notices my apprehension: “Try it once,” he advises. “And if you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it again.”
“Pait” (pah-it) is the Filipino word for bitter. The dish I tried back when I was five was papaitan kambing or papaitan made with goat. It’s a meaty, soupy comfort food that’s harmoniously bitter and delicately tart from the enzymes of the goat’s small intestines and the juice of calamansi – a citrus plant native to the Philippines that resembles a lime, only smaller and a tad sweeter. All of that laden “texture” within the broth, which I spoke of earlier, is goat meat and innards chopped up, stewed and seasoned with ginger, garlic and chilies.
Explain all of this of to a five-year-old and it’s too much to comprehend. Try first and dissect later, my dad taught me. Try to explain it to someone raised in the West and one can easily see why this underrated South East Asian cuisine has taken so long to be picked up by the mainstream.
There’s a new tribe of restaurant owners and chefs – second-generation Filipino-North Americans, for the most part – who are bringing Filipino food to the North American masses. In Toronto, Montreal, New York and Washington, restaurateurs are capturing the intricate mix of Austronesian, Indo-Malay, Chinese, Spanish and American influences and creating menus that tell the story of Filipino flavours in various forms, referencing the dishes they first tasted at home, prepared by mom or “lola” (grandmother in Tagalog).
“When my parents first arrived here, it wasn’t about promoting Filipino culture, it was about fitting in,” says Les Sabilano, owner of Lamesa, the first modern Filipino joint in Toronto, located on bustling Queen Street West. “Being part of the new generation, I feel integrated – I’m Canadian, I’m from Toronto – and now I want people to know what Filipino culture is about; I want to see our food represented out there.”
Sabilano’s sentiments are echoed by Nicole Ponseca, co-owner of New York City’s famed Maharlika and Jeepney in the East Village, establishments that popped up right when the “foodie” landscape began to embrace novelty. “We’re celebrating our fifth year in January,” she says. “Filipino children have never been raised to be entrepreneurial because our parents took a big risk in leaving their families back in the Philippines. They didn’t want us to have those same kinds of risks.”
This newfound ambition of children raised by Filipino immigrants is only part of what’s motivating the modern Filipino food movement. Also working in its favour is the drinks-plus-nibbles style of dining introduced to North America through the Spanish tapas and the Japanese izakaya trends.
“Pulutan” (poo-loo-tan) is the Filipino answer to those traditions, a late night, drink-while-you-munch session: Think fathers and uncles gathered in groups outside with beers in one hand, while dishes like sisig (pronounced see-sig, a mixture of chopped pig’s ears, snout, jowl and tongue) hit the table. The word “pulut,” which literally means, “to pick up,” calls to mind the image of Filipino men grabbing bits of food with their hands while bantering into the night. Pulutan is what Junior, a modern Filipino restaurant in Montreal’s Griffintown, does best.
David Pendon, co-owner and sommelier at Junior, says that the key is to be unapologetic about the food. And Montrealers have readily adopted Junior’s snack-sized portions of unreserved Filipino plates paired with wine, craft beer or cocktails. “If it’s full-on and it’s explained well, that’s really the key. When we put our sizzling sisig on the menu, my partners were like, ‘people won’t get this.’ And I was like, ‘Trust me, they will.’ Sisig and a bottle of rosé – it pairs beautifully.”
Leah Cohen, ex-Top Chef contestant who now spearheads South East Asian restaurant Pig and Khao in New York City’s Lower East Side, says the meals are really about elevating the dishes she was raised on.
“We take the flavours of Filipino cuisine and we put it in a prettier package,” says Cohen, whose menu highlights classics such as lumpia (loomp-ya), thin spring rolls traditionally filled with ground pork, and adobo (a-doh-boh), a classic meat marinade of soy sauce, vinegar, black peppercorns, bay leaf and garlic. “We make it a little bit more accessible to people who aren’t familiar with it.”
Patrice Cleary runs Purple Patch, one of Washington D.C.’s new Filipino-American eateries, where she makes sure to give diners a reference point if they’re unacquainted with Filipino cooking. She likens pinakbet to ratatouille, for example. Pronounced pee-nak-but, it resembles ratatouille in that both are dishes of stewed vegetables – in pinakbet’s case, typically squash, green beans, and eggplant, topped with shrimp and made savoury with bagoong (bahg-o-ong), a fermented fish paste.
We giggle a little, as we expand on the lack of handsomeness in Filipino dishes. The presentation is unabashedly no frills. “The chicken adobo is what it is. You can’t do anything to make that look prettier, and I refuse to,” Cleary insists. “These are my mom’s recipes; I can’t change them and I won’t change them.”
Between the bitterness an integral component of Ilocano gastronomy, and an ardent adherence to tradition that favours authenticity over aesthetics, the cardinal rule I learned as a child could, in fact, be a motto for anyone interested in Filipino cuisine: try first and dissect later.