Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — When it comes to food, Filipinos used to have two rules: if something is delicious, we spread the word, or if it's not, we keep quiet (or subtly convey criticism) until it gets better.
The rules today are less black-and-white: our obsessions with food go through lulls and peaks (think milk tea) or sometimes what we love isn't the food at all, but what it represents. Sometimes what we've always loved is suddenly out there, revered in Instagram and food blogs as the new food 'trend' — a term problematic in itself, if used in the context of a cuisine (i.e., Filipino cuisine) that has always quietly existed in fiestas, family gatherings, your mother's kitchen, and your lola's heirloom recipes, even before curious food writers and critics began weighing in.
Our food obsessions come and go, as we saw not only this year but in the past 10 years. But there is always room for new things, it seems, some of which are here to stay, perhaps for another decade or more. In this context, CNN Philippines Life noted some of the things we loved (and continue to love) about food the past decade, knowing that when it comes to food, the conversation is never really over (or definite), and trends or fads are merely the proverbial icing on the cake.
1. Your camera eats first: Instagram food photography
When Instagram launched in 2010, it did not take long for food photos to dominate the app and change food culture. There are now two additional types of people when it came to food: those who take food photos for the ‘gram, and those who say they don’t…but actually do. Perhaps constantly taking photos of your food and posting it online is “bullshit” (to quote Anthony Bourdain in 2014) and “it’s about making other people feel bad about what they’re eating.” Perhaps it’s disrespectful or sometimes annoying. But in the same vein, posting food photos on Instagram has boosted overlooked food destinations, and has inspired many to expand their palate. For some, it may even be a platform to venture into food criticism, whittled down into a simple question: “Masarap ba?”
So is the habit good or bad? All I know is that in 2013 my very first photo on Instagram involved food: two friends in Min Sok (a Korean restaurant in Makati) enjoying samgyupsal. The photo is not purely that of food — more of that would come later in my feed — but it’s symbolic of what may make #FoodPorn appealing to many: the company you keep, the thrill of trying something new, connecting with people you love eating or sharing stories with, and letting your food speak for you.
2. More than the unlimited meat: samgyeopsal
There might be a correlation between the popularity of K-pop in the Philippines and samgyeopsal, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about. We’re here to talk about Korean grilling joints hazy with smoke guaranteed to stick to your clothes for a full day, and their main attraction: pieces of pork belly you cook yourself, “more white than red, flesh nearly overrun by fat,” as described by Ligaya Mishan in 2016.
For sure, samgyeopsal is not all there is in Korean cuisine, but in our cities, the two are synonymous. While Samgyupsalamat’s launch in 2018 started the trend of K-BBQ, a lot of hole-in-the-wall joints have been quietly grilling good old Korean pork belly and other meats years ago. My personal favorite is old Joe’s Snack Grill (a late-night haunt in Poblacion), which serves perilla leaves (aside from the usual lettuce) to wrap around your meat. It’s not a buffet and meat is limited, but each individual serving is generous, side dishes are free-flowing, and when you bite into that meat dipped in soybean oil? Ah. You’re already thinking of your next visit. No wonder we love it.
3. The milk tea rush
Getting hopped up on sugar seems to be the national pastime, and our favorite sweet craving seems to be milk tea. In fact, having milk tea seems to be such an ingrained fact of life, that it’s hard to imagine a time before it — or before 2008, when the first Serenitea opened in San Juan. Today we have milk tea in various shapes and sizes: taho milk tea, milk tea topped with RCL (rock salt and cheese), brown sugar milk tea, milk tea by the liter and milk tea by the gallon (no kidding). Our craving for milk tea is so intense, that it has been cited by Grab Food drivers as one of the most popular items for delivery, ordered around the clock.
There might be nothing more to milk tea’s staying power than our collective sweet tooth and milk tea’s branding as a ‘healthier’ drink, but constant guzzlers need to watch out: some milk tea variants have been found to be unhealthier than soda. While tea in itself has health benefits, the other components of milk tea, such as non-dairy creamer, sugar, and toppings, are not, “placing it among the likes of soft drinks, energy drinks, and 3-in-1 instant coffees and teas,” according to Singapore’s Mt. Alvernia Hospital. Their advice? Limit your consumption to twice a week, choose less sugars, forego the toppings, or ask for low-fat or skimmed milk. Or ditch the trend and go back to basics: drink your oolong tea with hot water, and nothing more.
4. Food that is ours: sourcing Philippine ingredients
It’s 2019 and we’re still facing a crisis in Philippine agriculture: we have a rice shortage, farmers aren’t paid or thanked enough, and we import crops that we should produce ourselves. There’s still a gap between farm to table and there’s still so much to do to improve the lives and livelihoods of those who produce our food. Let’s make that clear.
For anyone looking to be involved in those issues, the call to grow local and eat local has been an accessible entry point to broader topics of food sovereignty and land reform. It can happen when you encounter dark chocolate laced with kalamansi, as I did in 2013 when I bought my very first Theo & Philo bar, or when a friend gets you enthusiastic about ube, as I did in 2016. Both ingredients sat nonchalantly in palengke stalls and kitchen cupboards until they were, surprisingly, hot trends. Both were entryways for learning more about food.
Along with the rediscovery of local and regional ingredients are the chefs and storytellers who proudly promote their use, and whose recipes and stories have found their way into our collective consciousness, subtly influencing our food choices. The next step is to embody what we eat: to visit the palengke more often; to help improve the life of that batwan grower or coconut farmer; to cook with them as they share their concerns as food workers; or to personally partake of their crops — ala Good Food Community’s community-shared agriculture — as you plan your next meal.
5. ‘Hipster’ trends, food hybrids
Reacting to the cronut fad, the Associated Press in 2013 ran this headline: “Americans are going crazy for hipster foods.” The article defined hipster foods in terms of the ramen burger, the McRib, the KFC Double Down, and Wendy’s pretzel cheeseburger, to name a few — in short, food items that were exciting not because they were strictly delicious, but because they were limited, were a combination of two or more things, and you just had to try them.
But are food hybrids hipster because they are hybrid? Not so. But it seemed that way, at least for a while (and if you believe AP). Everyone wanted a piece of the cronut in 2013. Afterward came the trail of other food hybrids: brookies (brownies and cookies), brouffles (brownies and truffles), crotap (croissant and otap), ice cream cake (more ice cream than cake), cruffin (croissant and muffin)…the list goes on.
If you’re looking for food hybrids in our ulam, then there’s this list that includes pakdobo (paksiw and adobo) and bulalong monggo. I contribute to this list the bulalomi (bulalo with lomi noodles), bacontido (bacon in embutido form) and especially ispabok (spaghetti and palabok), which I grew up eating in my mother’s hometown of Orani, Bataan, as prepared by ima, her aunt. It brings up treasured food memories, it’s exciting, it’s delicious, and it’s a good conversation starter on the limitless possibilities of food.
6. The circumnavigation of Filipino food
It’s one thing for the late Anthony Bourdain to travel here and declare his love for lechon; it’s another when our own chefs go out there to tell stories about our food and ingredients. It seems the decade has seen the growth of more nuanced awareness about Filipino cuisine, largely by way of chefs and restaurateurs travelling more to tell the story of Philippine food in their own words.
For example, in 2012 (and years after), chef Margarita Forés and other Filipino entrepreneurs showcased Filipino slow food for Salone del Gusto Internazionale Terra Madre, an annual gathering in Turin, Italy for advocates of the slow food movement. In 2017, pioneers Amy Besa and Myrna Segismundo went on a culinary food tour to Europe and North America to reintroduce FIlipino flavors to the world, with a goal to make our food more inclusive (as opposed to being just a ‘trend’). Just a few months ago, chef JP Anglo went to Gastronomika San Sebastián in Spain to share our food culture, featuring the coconut.
The decade also saw acclaim upon Filipino restaurants Bad Saint (tagged by the New York Times as ‘Filipino food worth the wait’) helmed by Tom Cunanan, Genevieve Villamora, and Nick Pimentel; Maharlika and Jeepney Gastropub by Nicole Ponseca and Miguel Trinidad; LASA by Chad and Chase Valencia; and Irenia by Ryan Garlitos, among many others. Of note is the longstanding Purple Yam by Romy Dorotan and Amy Besa, who have been quietly serving Filipino fare in NYC (if you include Cendrillon) for more than a decade.
7. A new way of eating in: food delivery apps
Back in 2010, the food delivery business was just beginning to take shape, with providers such as Delivery 21 and and City Delivery 87878 offering delivery to a limited set of restaurants (the alternative was fast food delivery). What changed the food delivery business — as with many others — was the online shift. FoodPanda, Honestbee, GrabFood, and may other delivery services now offer extensive and expanding menus from hundreds or restaurants (including hole-in-the-wall joints), practically rendering the concept of delayed gratification obsolete.
Online delivery is the best option for a metropolis rendered immobile by traffic and for a young demographic putting in more hours at work, even when at home. It works because it puts our whims first: cravings are immediately answered, delivery riders are monitored in real-time, and the choices are vast and varied. The catch: delivery riders are often put in a precarious position when clients cancel orders. More precarious is their status as independent contractors (they are not employees). While having food seamlessly delivered to your doorstep is a marvel, it pays to begin examining how this system works, its potential for exploitation, and how it may be improved.
8. What’s for brunch?
Let’s face it: brunch is what you have if you woke up too late or if you move too slow for breakfast. It’s the afternoon merienda moved up a few hours, food essentially made as conversation starter than sustenance. Just think of all the terms we now associate with brunch: gluten-free, craft coffee, whole wheat pancakes, salads, avocados — these are food items we’ve known for a long time, remade and repackaged in bright and airy open gardens or glass-encased cafes where ambience is a more decisive factor than taste.
The past few years thus saw brunch places pop up to cater to this need for ambient places ideal for leisurely work or conversation, offering mid-morning fare if at more expensive prices than usual. If anything, the growing clientele of brunch-goers is an indicator of a some telling things about our restaurant culture: the spending power of young professionals, the power of marketing to reinvent old favorites; and the magic of building a beautiful space that in itself is the destination.
9. Room for dessert: doughnuts, cookies
Aside from hybrid desserts, donuts and cookies figured in the spotlight in many other ways this decade. Remember how we lined up for Krispy Kreme’s honey-glazed or J.CO’s alcapone? Or how we made a fuss about all the best cookies in town, from Mo’s chocolate chip cookies to Scout Honor’s dark chocolate potato chip to cookie shots from Cookie Bar Manila?
Even celebrities have dipped in our collective love for cookies, as with Liz Uy’s Mood Bake. As for doughnuts, it seems to be the preferred canvas for innovation by pastry chefs this decade, if the gold-ube donuts from the Manila Social Club, Chef Miko Aspiras’ Poison Doughnuts, and Baker on East’s inspired homemade donuts are any indication. There’s also something to be said by the staying power of our usual doughnut haunts, such as Dunkin Donuts and Mister Donut, both of which have managed to stay relevant despite competition.