No cuisine embodies a multitude of global influences quite like the Philippines, and at long last, its moment is at hand.
When chef Sheldon Simeon talks about the Filipino-inspired food at his restaurant Lineage in Maui, Hawaii, he doesn’t mince words.
“These ingredients are in my DNA,” he says. “They’re the basis of my cooking, my heritage, my lineage.”
The ingredients he’s referring to are things like tart, citrusy calamansi, also called Filipino lime, or the rich purple yams known as ube. And Simeon isn’t alone: Filipino-Americans now make up the third-largest population of Asian-Americans in the U.S. and are the fastest growing demographic within that group. That growth has undoubtedly contributed to the increasing visibility of Filipino food in the U.S., and chefs like Simeon couldn’t be more thrilled.
“For the longest time you could only get great Filipino food at another Filipino family’s house,” says Mike Morales, the chef at Sunda, a pan-Asian restaurant in Chicago. “Nowadays, Filipino chefs are showcasing what they grew up on in elevated ways that are creating the demand needed for attention and vice versa.”
At Sunda, Morales and owner Billy Dec, both of whom have Filipino heritage, are using quality ingredients and visually stunning plating techniques to elevate the food they grew up eating at home. Eager to spread the love for dishes like pork adobo and chicken inasal even further, Dec recently participated in a documentary that is intended to introduce Filipino cuisine to a wider American audience.
“I tracked down my last remaining elder and learned the recipes of my ancestors to bring home, celebrate, share, and pass down for generations,” Dec says. “That would not have happened years ago, but there are no more boundaries when it comes to the pride in our culture and cuisine with Sunda and the community at large.”
Many Filipino chefs believe the emphasis on home cooking is part of what has kept Filipino cuisine out of the spotlight until recently. At Ma’am Sir in Los Angeles, general manager Paulina Cline says it’s also a matter of ingredient availability and knowledge.
“It’s strongly due to availability of product,” Cline says. Filipino cooking requires many ingredients that aren’t yet widely available across the country. “For us here in Los Angeles, we have many Filipino and Asian markets that allow us to easily access those ingredients.” Cline also notes that since California has the largest concentration of Filipino immigrants within the U.S., the momentum that the cuisine has found on the West Coast may not have reached other parts of the country.
When siblings Marlon, Cybill, and Malvin Tan opened Cebu in Chicago, they weren’t sure how the Midwestern city would respond to dishes from their birthplace. Almost immediately, though, diners were drawn to the cozy Wicker Park spot where they can enjoy cheeky options like paksiw sliders made with pulled pork lechon and ube ice cream sandwiches. “We did not expect to have this amount of attention, and it is truly gratifying to be able to represent Filipino cuisine in Chicago,” Marlon says.
As to why it’s taken so long for the food to catch on outside the Filipino community, Marlon says it’s partly due to its diversity. After all, the cuisine pulls inspiration from both East and West, making it hard to classify.
In considering the rich variety of the Philippines, Dec points to the islands’ storied past. “With over 7,000 islands and a colorful history of colonization, trade, travel, welcoming of other cultures and cooking styles, Filipino food has become one of the most diverse and ever-evolving cuisines around,” he says.
The range of reactions that guests have to his dishes is one of Simeon’s favorite things about cooking Filipino food. “On the one hand, we get the nostalgia and soul connection to the dish from guests who grew up with those flavors, and on the other, the sense of discovery from guests having their first bite of Filipino food,” he says.
At Sunda, the response has been overwhelming: After a video showcasing the special kamayan Filipino feast racked up more than 5 million hits, the dinner sold out for the next three months, leading the restaurant to add additional dates to keep up with demand.
Even dishes that might seem wholly unfamiliar to Western palates are being embraced. At Ma’am Sir, diners love the sisig, a quintessential Filipino drinking food; its particular take is made with grilled pig’s head, calamansi, and chiles and is served in a sizzling skillet. As with many Filipino dishes, sisig can be topped with an egg.
“With the growth of Filipino food in the U.S., we think people will be encouraged to become more accustomed to these nuanced flavors,” Cline says.
For Morales, the idea that the flavors of his heritage could resonate with so many people beyond the Filipino community makes him incredibly proud. “Our parents came to this country to provide a better childhood for us, ... and we are finally making something great of the opportunity,” he says. “We will do that more and more, especially now that the door has been kicked open.”