Filipino Food Revisited

In my previous post Filipino Food in Oklahoma City I asked a question that had been discussed on the Chowhound web site: “Why are there so few Filipino restaurants in the United States” (and at the time there were none in Oklahoma City).

The Chowhound site I referenced asked whether Filipino food was embarrassing (in other words, Filipino people might be more interested in blending into American culture and eating other people’s foods than in opening restaurants serving their own food). The article rightly asserted that Filipino food is very good, and that there should be more Filipino restaurants in the cities that have a large Filipino ethnic population (which are most cities in the U.S.).

I recently saw a program on Create TV that I believe provides some answers. An episode of Lucky Chow focusing on “Filipino Entrepreneurs” included an interview with P.J. Quesada, founder of the Filipino Food Movement. He agreed that Filipino food has not been as popular in the United States as one would think, and suggested the following as possible reasons:

  1. Filipinos came to the U.S. already speaking English, so they were able to assimilate more easily than other ethnic groups.
  2. Filipinos did not promote their food properly. One aspect of this is that there are a number of regional food styles in the Philippines. Immigrants from one region came to the U.S. and cooked their own style of food, but were not big promoters of  other styles of Filipino food.
  3. Americans are poorly educated about Filipino food. Much of it has to do with Filipino food having Spanish terms that mean something different than in other cuisines. In general it is hard for Americans to understand what the Filipino dishes are.

The first point is actually similar to the theory postulated in the Chowhound article on Filipino restaurants. Filipino immigrants quickly became Americanized, and did not go through the kind of adjustment that other groups had to do.

One of these adjustments might be the ethnic restaurants that serve as meeting places and social gatherings for immigrant groups as much as a place where these people like the food. I am speculating about this, but I will say that the points that Mr. Quesada made sound as plausible as anything I have heard about why there are not more Filipino restaurants.

At the same time, though, some people are trying to change things. The Lucky Chow program visited two restaurants in the Bay Area that prove that Filipino food can be successful in the United States.  One in San Mateo, California called Jeepney serves traditional Filipino food, and like most similar restaurants has customers making a special effort to go there in order to enjoy this type of food.

A second restaurant in San Mateo called Attic has its mission as serving a type of Filipino fusion that would be popular with Americans. It has modernized the food and makes it with local ingredients. The local ingredients in California are different than in the Philippines, but the experience is the same since the Filipino way of cooking uses locally sourced products as much as possible.

I am especially interested in ethnic cuisine, and I think it helps to understand the food when I visit a restaurant. I definitely feel that this episode of Lucky Chow provides some good insight into Filipino food in the U.S.

I believe that the “Filipino Food Movement” is gaining momentum, and will become more and more apparent in areas other than just the San Francisco Bay Area.


Oklahoma City Filipino Food Updates:

Chibugan Filipino Cuisine opened in April 2016, and is the first of what looks like a new trend in Filipino food in the Oklahoma City area.  The address is 4728 S.E. 29th St., Del City, OK. (Open Tue-Sat and lunch on Sunday).

Filipino Fusion food truck started operating in August 2016. The truck goes to various locations in Oklahoma City and Edmond, and may add more locations later.

Filipino Food in Oklahoma City

The Chowhound web site (chowhound.com) has been the source of much of my knowledge about food and restaurants, especially since it was one of the earliest restaurant related sites to come on line.  I think one of the classic discussions of all time was a topic on the Seattle Board in 2002 entitled “Is Filipino food embarassing?” (sic).  The original poster stated that the Filipino community was the number one ethnic minority in Seattle, yet there were very few Filipino restaurants (6 to be exact, three of which had the same owner).  The theory was not that people did not like Filipino food, but simply that it was not a priority for Filipino people to open this kind of restaurant (instead they were more likely to operate a Jewish deli or a burger stand).

A similar situation seems to exist in Oklahoma City and in other cities (I think the originator of the discussion on Chowhound believed that this was something that occurred nationwide).  There was an Italian restaurant in Oklahoma City (which is now closed) run by Filipino people that I thought did a good job with the Italian food, but of course it was one of many Italian restaurants in the city.  I support anyone operating any type of restaurant they wish, but I am a little perplexed as to why there are not more Filipino restaurants around the country.

Bhing’s Cafe on N. Meridian Ave. in Oklahoma City seemed to demonstrate that customers were willing to patronize a Filipino restaurant (although I honestly do not know how many customers they had and whether this had anything to do with the restaurant closing).  Evelyn’s Asian Table took over the spot of providing the only Filipino food in the city, but it is now closed as well.  All indications are that the lack of Filipino restaurants at present is not because of a lack of interest in this type of food, but I just do not have any information about whether these restaurants were profitable or not.

A number of Filipino cooking classes have been given over the past few years at the Rockwell Campus of the Francis Tuttle Technology Center, and this shows an interest in the cuisine as well.  I do not think that any type of cooking class would help me very much, but I am including this information for the benefit of readers who have better cooking skills.

There happens to be a Filipino dinner that will be served this weekend in Midwest City, called the “Spring Taste of Philippines,” sponsored by the Philippine-American Civic Organization.  Details are in the Oklahoma Gazette, Mar. 2, 2016 issue (and I think also on their web site).  The summary is:

Filipino dinner from 6:00 to 7:30 pm, Sat. Mar. 12
Location: Nick Harroz Community Center, 200 N. Midwest Blvd., Midwest City, OK
Menu: Chicken afritada, pancit noodles, cassava cake

There will also be a bake sale and arts and crafts from 1-5 pm.

Except for these items I think a better title for the article would be “The Lack of Filipino Food in Oklahoma City.”  I hope this will not always be the case, though.

Update Apr. 23, 2016: There is good news to report.  Chibugan Filipino Restaurant at 4728 S.E. 29th St. in Del City is slated to open today, giving people a new place to try Filipino food.   This restaurant has been eagerly anticipated by many people who have missed this type of cuisine in Oklahoma City for several years since the closing of Bhing’s and Evelyn’s.

Also a note about the “Taste of the Philippines” dinners–for the past few years these have been scheduled twice a year (in the spring and fall), and have been at various locations throughout the Oklahoma City metropolitan area.

Smithsonian Article on Oklahoma City’s Little Saigon

The March 2016 issue of the Smithsonian Magazine has a very interesting article on Oklahoma City’s Vietnamese community, with an emphasis on the Vietnamese food served in Oklahoma City’s “Little Saigon.”  The area around Classen Boulevard between N.W. 23rd Street and N.W. 34th is officially called the Asian District, but the Smithsonian article correctly points out how the Vietnamese refugee community was instrumental in founding it and turning it into the attraction it has become today.

One idea set forth in the article is that the Asian people have a food culture.  A quote in the article by the owner of Super Cao Nguyen Market is illustrative of this point:

We’re all big foodies.  We eat, sleep, dream food.  When some customer comes to us with an idea for some product we should carry, the first thought that pops into our head is, “That sounds delicious.”

In other words, the people behind the good Asian restaurants and supermarkets work hard to make it that way, and this comes from a very strong attention to food that may even range to an obsession with it.

Another very interesting point in the article is how Vietnamese chefs are at the forefront of innovation in developing Asian fusion cuisine and constantly trying to re-invent what Vietnamese cuisine itself should mean, at least as it exists in America.  I had already seen the fusion aspect of it in restaurants like Monsoon in Seattle, and now it is taking hold in Oklahoma City in restaurants such as Guernsey Park.  Chef Vuong Nguyen of Guernsey Park has now moved on to open Bonjour, a restaurant that is not Vietnamese but which obviously has a Vietnamese influence along with the French fusion typically found in it.

I like the direction Vietnamese cuisine is taking, because rather than trying to Americanize the food they are keeping the authentic cuisine and adding fusion concepts to it.  This is in contrast to Chinese food, which was so Americanized when most of us were growing up that I have a hard time every trying to describe to people what authentic Chinese cuisine is supposed to be.  I think Chinese restaurants are now following the Vietnamese pattern though–you can get the authentic version, the Americanized version (there is a little bit of Americanization in some Vietnamese food also), or the fusion version (I have not seen much of this in Chinese food but I know it exists).

I have tried to develop some ideas from the article that I think are important to what I am doing on this blog.  People may or may not want to get a copy of the Smithsonian magazine for the article, but I think it is a good read and worthwhile if you can find the March issue.

One subject mentioned in the article is that some chefs from Oklahoma City are thinking about moving to other cities, and maybe even doing a stint in Vietnam to learn some of the finer points of Vietnamese cuisine.  If (and more probably when) this happens, some cities will likely see major upgrades in the variety and quality of the Vietnamese cuisine being served.

Chinese New Year Dinner–The Meaning Behind the Menu

The Chinese New Year is a time for family to come together and have a time of celebration.  This seems to be the one time on the Chinese calendar when business shuts down and extended families are not only provided the opportunity to all be together, but there is a strong social expectation that they will do so.

Chinese New Year dinner

Dinner is set for Chinese New Year

The New Year usually extends for several days, although it seems that business gets back to normal pretty quickly.  Family get-togethers in the evenings are common during this week, particularly because some people travel great distances to be with their family and they want to take advantage of the opportunity.

The standard protocol is for young families to spend the first day of New Year with the husband’s parents or family, and to spend the second day with the wife’s family.  Thus it is standard for there to be at least two New Year’s meals, but at times there are more (if they are able to extend the visits).  This is first and foremost a family holiday, but at times friends and visitors come in also (this is mainly how I have been able to experience traditional New Year meals and have come up with an idea of what it all means).

Even if a family cannot normally afford good food, they make a special effort to enjoy the best at New Year.  Thus the “traditional” New Year meal consists of the best that Chinese food has to offer (within reason, of course).  I sometimes think Chinese “banquet food” is too much and I would rather just eat the everyday stuff, but when it comes to the New Year’s meal I really do think this is some of the best Chinese food I can experience.

The table itself is very impressive for this meal.  Traditionally the family sits at a round table with a lazy Susan in the middle.  The food is served “family style” where all diners helps themselves.  I think there is always enough food so that everyone can eat all they want and there will be leftovers (sometimes these are used the next day for the second meal).  Beer or alcohol is traditionally served, because the object of the meal is to talk and have a good time.  The server can enjoy the food along with everyone else because everything is on the lazy Susan and there is no need to be constantly serving the guests.

The traditional dishes served all have a specific significance, and are meant to bring good luck throughout the year.  I have noticed that there are multiple dishes that bring money, good health, or good luck, so families have some choice about which dishes they want to serve.

Fa cai soup is eaten to make money during the New Year

Fa cai soup symbolizes making money

The photos in this article are for a Cantonese style New Year dinner, and although there is some variety from meal to meal, there are also some common elements.  One dish that seems to be essential is a soup called fa cai tang (fa cai is called “fat choy” in Cantonese).  The fa cai is black moss (literally “hair vegetable” in Chinese).  In Cantonese “fat choy” sounds very much like the words for “make money” or “multiply money” in the greeting used for New Year “wishing you prosperity.”  I won’t try to claim that I am a Chinese linguist, but this is what ties this vegetable to the New Year celebration.

The soup also contains dates (sweet plum), tofu skins, water chestnuts, and pork.  It also sometimes contains dried seafood (but not in this particular soup).  The front leg of the pig is used specifically because it is called the “hand” in Chinese.  The hand is used to reach out and take things (usually money, but it can also mean finding a marriage partner).

The dates are also symbolic of having children (as are peanuts).

I have also seen at times that the family lets the head of the household or the main breadwinner partake of the soup first (the good luck for making money is apparently enhanced for the person who eats the soup first).  I think this only works the first day of New Year, though, and after that anybody can eat the soup any time they wish (and I think this soup is delicious).

Steamed whole fish symbolizes being able to save the money you make and not having periods of want during the year

Steamed whole fish symbolizes being able to save the money you make and not having periods of want during the year

Steamed fish is important because if you make money, you want to be able to keep it.  The word “fish” sounds like the word for “abundance,” and the whole fish is supposed to represent a prosperous year from beginning to end (you can save the extra money when you have it and use it when you need it).

Sesame oil chicken at New Year is for a "good life"

Sesame oil chicken at New Year is for a “good life”

Sesame oil chicken is not only delicious but it is part of the New Year’s “good luck” theme.  I have been told that the Chinese words for “chicken” and “world” sound very similar, so eating the chicken symbolizes having a good life (something like having a world of possibilities).  I think maybe people eat this because it is so good, and the symbolism of it is a bonus.

Sweet and sour means you will attain your goals without difficulty

Sweet and sour means you will attain your goals without difficulty

The bowl of sweet and sour has a different taste than the sweet and sour sauce found in most restaurants, and has a more complex flavor than just the sweet component.  At New Year, though, it is eaten mainly for its symbolism (also, though, I think it makes the meal a little more enjoyable).  The meaning of it is that anything you do this year will be easy, and you will not face difficulties in accomplishing it.  I do not know, though, if this is because of the name of the dish or the ingredients in it.

Lettuce is for getting more money

This cooked lettuce (sang cai) is for getting more money

Lettuce means having good luck and getting more money (probably because of its green color, but I am not sure about this).

Roast duck for Chinese New Year

Roast duck for New Year symbolizes happiness

Who wouldn’t be happy eating this delicious dish?  The problem with roast duck is that it is probably the hardest to cook out of all the ones served at this meal.  I was told that this one came from Golden Phoenix in Oklahoma City.

Tofu and shrimp as a Chinese New Year dish

Tofu and shrimp with a number of other ingredients

I was not clear about the meaning of this dish except that shrimp represents vigorous health and being active.

Taro pork

Taro pork

This pork and taro dish is something they like–it does not have a special significance for New Year (they probably have everything covered by all the other dishes that were served).

Some New Year snacks

Chinese New Year snacks

I believe that normally there is not a formal dessert with Chinese New Year.  Instead, snacks, candy, and treats are usually available for munching.  Here are three that I took home.

For any Chinese family the most important aspect of New Year is for the family to get together if possible.  The families living in the United States do not always find it possible, especially since work schedules do not usually let employees off for Chinese New Year as they do in China and other Asian countries.  I think these families keep tradition as much as they can, but the important thing is always for families to get together when they can and to enjoy themselves when they do.

At times I have ordered a Chinese New Year meal at a restaurant to eat with my family and friends, and I think this is a good tradition as well.  I have found many restaurants to be all too willing to provide the food if they have customers who want to order it.  I mainly enjoy the food and the fellowship, but it is good to know something about the traditions behind it as well.