Bite me: The savory comforts of Philippine food writing

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Food writer Clinton Palanca’s latest book, “The Gullet,” is about the role of food in our interpersonal and existential relationships. In this interview, Palanca talks about the making of his book, Philippine food culture, and the politics of what we eat. Photo by JL JAVIER

UPDATE (May 30, 2019): Food critic and writer Clinton Palanca was laid to rest today according to his wife, Lourdes Gordolan. He was 45 years old.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Food pays witness to histories, personal and political. In Clinton Palanca's “The Gullet: Dispatches on Philippine Food,” The Philippine Daily Inquirer’s resident food writer does more than traverse the literal plane of recipes, origins, and flavors common in food writing.

As a collection of essays on food and travel,”The Gullet” explores the role that food plays in our personal relationships and the place it holds in our collective psyche. Speaking literally, going down the gullet is a journey from the mouth to the stomach — from encounter to understanding. Reading the “The Gullet” feels like that journey; every essay takes you deeper into flavors, stories and locales. It’s an autobiography by way of backstreet eatery order slips and Michelin star degustation menus.

Over cortados served at a café in the Rockwell area (at a somewhat overhyped New York transplant to the neighborhood), CNN Philippines Life talked to Palanca about the new book (his fifth), eating in Manila, and being a food writer from a developing country. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

Food writer Clinton Palanca talks about Philippine food culture, and says "tastes are changing, but not that fast." Photo by JL JAVIER

Could you give us an overview of the work that went to putting “The Gullet” together? What went into collecting the essays and structuring them in the way that you did?

The book was written in a hurry, because Karina Bolasco was leaving Anvil and she wanted to leave a legacy of some books before she left. I had a couple of books with Anvil in the past, and she said, “Can you come up with a manuscript? But it has to be really in a hurry.” And then I said “Okay, I’ll see what I can put together.”

I realized I had been writing about this topic, Philippine food, for quite some time now for various magazines, for different publications. I said, okay, I'm going to see if I can put together something book-like. But then if it were just Philippine food, I thought, it’s going to be a bit like a dissertation, so I put little vignettes of my life. That’s why the book has a bit of personal story.

Was there a conscious decision to say “Philippine food” in the title, not “Filipino food?”

Yes. I don't think there's Filipino food yet. I don't think Filipino cuisine exists in any fully formed way yet, but there's food from the Philippines.

One of the most fascinating things in the book is how you explored food in the Filipino psyche. Particularly in the first section, you talk about how we're always looking for “authentic Filipino” food, when in fact, one of the most Filipino things to do is love what is foreign. What are the itches and quirks that you find in the way Filipinos think of food?

This applies just to the Philippine food scene, which is a very small subset of people who care about food and are willing to travel, which is actually a very small subset of people who eat in general. Just a disclaimer, it's really hard to talk about how the whole country eats.

Pinoys like the idea of Michelin-starred food, they know the names of the chefs, of Noma, of elBulli, but then I don't know if this kind of food is really very suited to Pinoys because of the way we eat.

It's about very small portions, it’s about playing with food and the ideas of food. At some point, you're gonna say, “Wait a minute. Where's my meal? Where's the rest of my food? That's very nice, but I wanna eat. I wanna have a big meal of something that's delicious.” And that's the kind of meal that we like best. At least for me, that's the kind of meal that I like best — lots of good food and then you pig out, you can get seconds, you can get more drinks, you’re feeling relaxed, you don't have to get dressed up. That's a nice meal; that's our most comfortable meal.

Which is why I still go back to the French … French three-star meals, they understand the thing about feeding people. They just raise it to a degree of refinement where it doesn't go too fast. You're not at a buffet, you're not at Vikings, you're not trying to stuff yourself. There’s pacing. It excites the imagination, but they feed you. The modern restaurants sometimes forget to do that.

Going down the gullet is a journey from the mouth to the stomach — from encounter to understanding, as may be experienced through Palanca's latest book. Photo from ANVIL PUBLISHING/WEBSITE

All in all, in terms of the scene of restaurants in Manila, where are we now?

I think we're moving so fast that some of the essays in the book which I wrote about a year or two ago are already out of date. And I had to keep updating it while the book was in production, but it was going too fast. So I said, it’s okay let it be a snapshot of a certain time, a certain point in our evolution.

There’s still a lot of new and interesting restaurants opening. There's still a lot of talk about food; interest about food is the same. But then I don't see the number of people who are interested in food increasing in the same way it used to. I don't know if it's just because of saturation. But then restaurants can't go on opening like that, because if restaurants open at a certain rate, you have to have a number of people sitting in there to increase that certain rate. If not, some of the older ones have to close.

So from an industry standpoint, I think it’s interesting to see, at the very least. I want to see if there are going to be enough warm bodies to fill the restaurants. So, yeah, that’s my worry. It's the same people who go to every new restaurant and I'm not seeing a growth.

From a culinary standpoint, is the restaurant scene in Manila changing in a way? Are Filipino tastes evolving?

I have a couple of friends who opened a café, Tilde. That will be an interesting experiment, because they make their own cheese, they make their own bacon, corned beef, and then they make their own sourdough. And I’ve always said that this sourdough is going to be a hard sell in the Philippines, because people don't like crusty bread. They like their bread soft and white and —

Gardenia, basically.

Yeah. And a number of people who like crusty bread will settle on a favorite and then they’ll get their crusty bread there, but even they won't buy it everyday. Remember Eric Kayser when it opened, it was all the sourdough loaves and everything. And then now it's mostly pastries.

I think we like to think that we’re sophisticated and there will always be an initial inrush of people who go, “Yes! That’s amazing! It's great that we have sourdough bread.” But then an equilibrium will be reached and, “Oh, okay we don't want it everyday.” So the tastes are changing, but not that fast.

...that's the kind of meal that I like best — lots of good food and then you pig out, you can get seconds, you can get more drinks, you’re feeling relaxed, you don't have to get dressed up. That's a nice meal; that's our most comfortable meal.

One of the essays in the books is “London Diaries,” where you talk about your time living in London. And, in the other essays, you seem to keep calling back to London. What is London to you?

I actually had a long discussion whether or not to put that part in the book because I didn't want people to think that the book was about London. But it’s the longest time I've spent living away from the Philippines on a continuous basis. And so a lot of the things I took for granted while living here, I was able to see from far away.

It was also the place where I met my wife, where we started a family, so it’s precious for me in that sense.

How did it make you see Manila differently?

Well it made me appreciate it a lot more, for one. It made me appreciate how much closer we are to our food. You know, the British might have their farm-to-table movements and all these trendy things but they're not really a "foodie people" and the Pinoys are.

Even if “foodie” for Pinoys is a good hotel buffet, they're serious about it. Even for the people for whom the ultimate dinner is going to Harbor View, which I love by the way, they take it very seriously. In London, food is very tied up with class, which I don't find to be the case here. I find that people across all classes are serious about their food, which I like very much.

Another essay is an interview with Pico Iyer, and you discuss how travel writing usually begins from a Western perspective, looking out at the rest of the world. As a Filipino travel writer, are you conscious about that? That you’re providing an alternative perspective to food and travel writing?

Yeah, which actually dovetails with your previous question because I was made to feel more aware of it when I was living abroad. Because in the Philippines we tend to think that we're the same as the people who are living in the States, living in London, and we think “Okay they probably think like us because we think like them.”

But then I realized that we were always going to be a minority perspective. But then you realize, “Wait, I have something important to say to this conversation that they have not heard before.”

A Londoner can write about London all he likes and it'll be just one among 10 million voices. But then if I write about London, it's an original voice. After talking to Pico Iyer, and after living abroad, it's something I felt had to be done more and more, for people like us, writers who are not from the First World, to write about the First World from our perspective.

"Even if 'foodie' for Pinoys is a good hotel buffet, they're serious about it," says Palanca. "In London, food is very tied up with class, which I don't find to be the case here. I find that people across all classes are serious about their food, which I like very much." Photo by JL JAVIER

By the end of the book, you used food as a device to explore all these stories — stories of life and death, individual people and places and, really, the story of your life. What are the insights or questions you want people to come out with after reading “The Gullet?”

One of them is political. I want them to realize that food is something that can be taken seriously. It's always buried in the lifestyle section. The politics of it is that it's not just a burgis pursuit, that it’s not irrelevant — not just because it addresses important issues of sustainability and national identities but because it addresses life and death, more existential things.

The other is I want to provoke other people into writing about food. I would hate being the only voice. Because I'm always very happy when there are other reviewers reviewing the same restaurant, or other people are discussing the same thing because I need contrary viewpoints. It’s fun. It’s like politics — you don't want just one voice; you need a discourse.