Speak to any of these Young Turks and you find yourself confronted with existential questions that are framed in the context of the Philippine’s long history with Spain, America and, through the massive diaspora of the past 30 years, the rest of the world: Who are we? What does this food mean to us? Where is our new culinary direction?
The common sentiment is that most Filipinos are walking away from commercial fast food. Among which, Joey Suarez, food journalist and consultant, applauds the nationalistic movement to celebrate food that is grown and prepared the way it was merely a generation ago.
“Until about twenty, twenty-five years ago, no Filipino would eat Filipino food in a Filipino restaurant. Why would they, when no one could cook as well as their mother or grandmother?” Suarez says. But now, the scene has changed. Drop into Hey Handsome where the gentle Nicco Santos parses South-East Asian standards while quietly fusing Filipino elements. Nasi ulam, a Malaysian classic of rice steamed with aromatic herbs – is paired with local interlopers like fried catfish and green papaya.
In his small mood-lit restaurant, Mecha Uma, one of Manila’s hottest tables, Bruce Ricketts smartly turns out Filipino-inflected Japanese cuisine: monkfish liver is paired with pickled eggplant, a favourite technique of Filipino chefs, atop a nugget of crunchy toast that has been soaked in miso, shiso and yuzu.
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All of which explains why there is so much enthusiasm, especially among loyal fans of traditional Filipino food, for the revived culinary pride that’s currently intriguing this new generation of chefs and farmers.
"Manila’s culinary renaissance has been a long time coming," says Margarita Forés, one of the Philippines’ most famous chefs who runs a tasty gastronomic empire that includes the much-lauded Grace Park and Mamou restaurants, alongside a range of food products under the Cibo range. “They say ‘Everything in God’s time”. The focus now is so strong, so singular, especially over the last two years. It’s our time.”
At Malipayon Farms, for instance, Gerardo Jimenez works a 2.3 hectares plot of land that’s thick with patches of purple yam, galangal, holy basil, red amaranth (a vitamin-rich grain), pili trees, chocolate mint, and adlai (a gluten-free grain also known as Jacob’s Tears). Meanwhile, Enzo Pinga traded in his degree in globalization studies from Gettysburg College to start Earthbeat Farms to promote indigenous crops and set up a collective to encourage young farmers to collaborate and connect with chefs around the Philippines.
Ditch the diet and book a ticket to the Philippines now.