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It's All History by Jon Malek

The construction of Filipino cuisine as peasant food - part 2

by Jon G. Malek

The following is the second part of a lecture I gave at the University of Winnipeg on November 9, 2022. For the first part, please see my last column.

Selling Filipino cuisine

One observation that I have made over the years of eating at Filipino restaurants in Winnipeg is that nearly all the clientele are Filipino. In chain restaurants like Jollibee or Max’s, one is more likely to see non-Filipinos, especially those curious to try Filipino fried chicken. Asides from a few dishes, Jollibee provides a familiar fast-food menu to those born in Canada. However, local restaurants appear to cater to Filipino’s sense of nostalgia, advertising their wares as lutong bahay, or home cooking. The promise is to provide “family style” cooking at its best. These restaurants do good business with the marketing of nostalgia, whether it be for memories of the Philippines or the cooking of one’s parents and grandparents.

The nature of Filipino cuisine is that it is accessible. Its ingredients are simple, usually a selection of onion, garlic, ginger, tomato, coconut milk, soy sauce, vinegar, and fish sauce added to chicken, pork, beef, fish, or seafood. Rarely are spices other than black pepper used. As opposed to other Asian cuisines, spiciness is less common in Filipino cuisine, with only some regions having chilis. In the 1960s when the Filipino community started in Winnipeg, many of these ingredients were already common, so the early community was able to continue its culinary heritage.

Within the Filipino community, though, there appears to be an expectation that Filipino food should be peasant food. While attempts in the past decade or so have to lift Filipino food to a new level of complexity - such as fusion, innovative ingredients, new culinary techniques, and attractive plating - have had some success, especially with non-Filipino customers, there has still been pushback. Within Winnipeg, there continue to be attempts to make Filipino cuisine a finer experience, such as the pop-up Baon Manila Nights where Filipino chefs are encouraged to be innovative and creative in their creations. Lessons in Fusion explores this potential, as well, the book itself offering creative takes on traditional Filipino dishes.

A final reason is that some Filipinos in the food industry have a degree of shame towards their food and often opt to cook non-Filipino food, or at least dishes that are palatable to a western palate. In large part, this is a result of centuries of colonialism, which inculcated an embarrassment toward Filipino culture, especially in comparison to the West. For example, two popular and tasty Filipino dishes – sisig and dinuguan – can be a cause of embarrassment. Sisig is a seasoned and spicy dish that uses finely minced cuts from a pig’s face, while dinuguan is a stew with pork blood as its base. Dishes like this, and others like papaitan, which uses bile from an animal in the broth, reflect the rural roots of Filipino cuisine, not only adapting to what is locally available but being efficient in the use of animals slaughtered for food.

A heritage of smallness & colonial mentality

This brings me to the intersection of food and cultural identity, and the role that colonialism continues to play. Why is it that Filipino food, in general, is perceived as peasant food, developed and perfected in rural backyard kitchens? Some have characterized it to me as something called “crab mentality;” a phrase to describe how some will discourage or disparage others trying to achieve something. It comes from the image of crabs in a bucket who will drag down those who are trying to escape. In short, restaurants that attempt to incorporate new approaches to Filipino dishes often experience difficulty in convincing potential customers – and the most resistance comes from Filipinos themselves.

This crab mentality is frequently attributed to a colonial mentality that many have seen as plaguing Filipino culture. This idea posits that centuries of being told by Spanish friars that Filipinos were stupid and by Americans that Filipinos were too small minded to aspire to great things has left a mark making Filipinos, in general, adverse to risk.

In his essay titled A Heritage of Smallness, Philippine cultural writer Nick Joaquin equates Filipino culture to smallness. He characterized Filipino industry as the sari-sari, which are small stalls, usually attached to one’s home, where items are sold piecemeal. Here, one can buy a single cigarette; a portion of a canned soda sold in a plastic bag and straw; garlic by the clove; pomade by the finger full; or one single egg. As Joaquin put it, Filipinos “act on such a pygmy scale”. He states that this stems from the Filipino habit of thinking small and petty, which has, in turn, prevented Filipino state and society from tackling basic issues, never mind those that are complex. Joaquin laments that Filipino-led industry and enterprise lags behind the rest of the world, tying it to an aversion to large ventures. In short, his assessment presents the Filipino as peasant – not entrepreneur, not affluent, not successful.

Filipino as peasant

Joaquin’s thesis, first published in 1966, has been contested over the decades, but still resounds in many ways. He characterized the small-scale Filipino businessperson as putting so much effort for so little return, weaving in and out of uncontrolled traffic in an attempt to sell a single cigarette or candy, or a small bag of steamed peanuts. As he wrote, “The amount of effort they spend seems out of all proportion to the returns … Laboriousness just can never be the equal of labour as skill, labour as audacity, labour as enterprise.”

Fernandez shares this characterization of the quintessential Filipino as being peasant in nature. While she places younger generations of chefs as the vanguard for Filipino haute cuisine, it is the nanay, the lola, working in the technologically simplistic kitchens as being the knowledge keepers of the soul of their cuisine.

This fits into a broader representation of Filipinos as peasant or hard working middle-class. There is a feeling amongst many Filipinos that those who have not had to work hard to survive, who have not suffered, are not true Filipinos. The wealthy who live in gentrified communities in high rise towers or gated communities, immersed in their foreign diets, do not know what it means to be Filipino.

Indeed, in discussing indigenous rooted versus foreign inspired Filipino cuisine, Fernandez said the following: “Which will get the updated technology, the advertising hype and budget, and the patronage of the urban upscale (young and yuppie) market? Almost certainly the neocolonial (American) cuisine. Yet it is indigenous cuisine which will steadily supply the town and city markets, the village [early morning markets], the tables of the peasants, the poor, and the lower middle class who constitute 90 per cent of the Philippine population.”

And so why is Filipino cuisine presented as peasant food? I believe it is in large part due to how Filipinos perceive themselves and their culture. Hard working, honest, and humble. Perhaps attempts to bring the cuisine into haute culture is seen as betraying that Filipino identity (although those attempting to do so would argue that’s not the case). Perhaps it is the lingering effects of colonial mentality and the heritage of smallness to which Nick Joaquin pointed. Perhaps, it’s a mix of all these things.

Jon Malek received his PhD from Western University and currently teaches history at the University of Manitoba. He is working on a book manuscript on the history of the Winnipeg Filipino community.