For years Filipino cuisine has been predicted to be the next “it” food to go from ethnic eats to mainstream menus. Now, with the help of a new generation of Filipino-American chefs, this mixed-culture cuisine with a sweet and salty, almost always acidic flavor, may finally have arrived.
“People have been saying this for how long?” asked chef Dale Talde. “[Filipino food] is bright and poppy and rich and fatty and delicious. I don’t [care] if you like it or not. I’m gonna cook it.”
Talde — a Filipino-American, Top Chef alum and the man behind the Talde restaurants in Brooklyn, N.Y.; Jersey City, N.J.; and Miami Beach, Fla.; as well as the recently opened Massoni in Manhattan and Atlantic Social in Brooklyn — and others like him don’t care much about the trend toward Filipino food. For these passionate chefs, it’s all about food they grew up eating and now love to cook for others.
Talde sometimes puts a dish with a Filipino touch on his menus, like the recent adobo tamale dish at Talde Miami, a Mexican masa tamale stuffed with Filipino adobo pork (cooked in a vinegar, soy sauce and garlic). However, the cuisine of his upbringing is not typically blatantly on his menus, but the influence is still there.
“The use of vinegar, use of acidity in Filipino cuisine is everywhere in my food,” he said. “It’s a cuisine. It’s a piece of me and I’m gonna put it on a plate. I don’t need to call it Filipino.”
But when it makes sense, Talde goes all in. Like at Talde Jersey City, which serves a heavily Filipino community and where he offers once monthly kamayan feasts — kamayan means “with hands” in Tagalog, the predominant language of the Philippines. At those meals all of the menu items are dumped in the center of a banana leaf-covered table that guests then dig in and eat with their hands.
“It’s a fun way of eating,” Talde said. “It sells out every time.”
On why he’s more interested than ever in serving the food of his youth, Talde said:
“I’m in my 30s. I’m finding my flavors, my power, my point of view. Now I’m more serious about what I do. I care. Now you’re seeing that on a plate.”
Similarly, Jess DeGuzman, chef at Sunda New Asian in Chicago, is a Filipino-American who grew up in Chi-town eating adobo, pancit (spaghetti-like rice noodles fried in soy sauce and citrus) and lumpia (a meat-filled spring roll) made by his Filipino immigrant family.
“The Filipino food trend is something we’ve been doing here at Sunda for eight years,” DeGuzman said.
On Sunda’s robust Southeast Asian menu there are more than 60 dishes, about a dozen of which are Filipino, including the classic chicken adobo and pork adobo, pancit and lumpia, and of course, halo halo, the popular Filipino dessert of shaved ice and evaporated milk mixed with an array of savory and sweet ingredients. While he keeps the dishes traditional, DeGuzman does tone down the flavors a bit to appeal to local palates.
Last October DeGuzman offered a kamayan dinner, which he says was such a big hit that he plans to do another one in a few months.
“Filipino food is comfort food,” DeGuzman said. “It’s meant to be eaten with family and friends. It’s everybody shares. It’s always multiple different dishes, finger foods, a spread of many different types of food. An explosion of savoriness.”
When Filipino-American chef Andrew Bantug and his partner Joyce Lau started hosting Upper Room, pop-up dinners at Tomo in the Buckhead section of Atlanta, the meals weren’t focused on Filipino cuisine. But the monthly dinners quickly became exclusively Filipino and have now moved to twice-monthly kamayan dinners.
“I’ve always wanted to do it but never had the opportunity,” said Bantug, a 2008 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. “The pop-up gave me the opportunity to cook some food I know and love.”
Bantug’s first kamayan was held last October and featured dishes such as pancit, lumpia, a barbecued chicken called inasal, boy choy, a fried spring roll with banana and jackfruit called turon, and biko, a sweet rice dessert.
“It got huge positive reception,” Bantug said. “There are a lot of people that are waiting for a chance to come who want to try this menu.”
With the growing demand and a capacity of 60 seats per dinner, Bantug hopes to expand his kamayan dinners to every Sunday, and also to introduce diners to other aspects of Filipino cuisine, including lechon, a whole roasted suckling pig.
“The food industry is always looking or something new, something that hasn’t had the spotlight or exposure,” Bantug said. “Maybe it’s just a natural progression as Thai food and other Southeast Asian food comes out. I think it’s delicious.”
Also shining the spotlight on the long underrepresented cuisine are several new Filipino restaurants across the country. They include the recently opened Perla in Philadelphia, a modern, local and seasonal Filipino-inspired restaurant from chef Lou Boquila, a native of the Philippines. Also turning heads is the much-talked-about Bad Saint in Washington, D.C., a 24-seat, no reservations spot where Filipino-American chef Tom Cunanan cooks up authentic yet modern Filipino fare.