How Entertainment Media Has Missed the Mark with Filipino Food: A Rant
Food tells a story. In the Philippines, this story is one that is rich, violent, and drenched in years of colonization and migration. Soy and fish sauce were introduced to the region by Chinese migrants; 400 years of Spanish rule popularized stews and essential ingredients like tomatoes, garlic and onions; The prevalence of canned food like SPAM has its roots in the US military occupation. Filipino food, culture and its people are inextricably linked, with home cooked meals having served as both a source of comfort for me as well as a constant reminder of a painful past. In the United States, Filipino food has yet to take off. This is in part fueled by the fact that depictions of Filipino food in the media are few and far between; when present, they are oftentimes are simply inaccurate. Entertainment media in particular has become a powerful force through which the exoticization of Filipino culture, people and food are expressed. The lack of Filipino food in everyday American culture means that peoples’ knowledge of Filipino food is oftentimes derived solely from media outlets, raising the stakes for producers in creating quality content. Harkening back to the St. Louis World Fair when Filipino villagers were used in live exhibitions and a fascination with the “dog-eating” Igorot tribe prevailed, Filipino food in the media today is saturated in an obsession with Filipino peculiarity. With long-form travel shows such as Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods to short-form videos on YouTube in mind, I think that the production and consumption of content that promotes Filipino food as otherworldly directly affects the lives of Filipinos today, promoting a harmful culture of exoticization and othering.
Andrew Zimmern’s feature of the Philippines on Bizarre Foods (2006-2018) still stands as one of the most well-known and crudest portrayals of Filipino food in entertainment media. The title itself automatically deems the food as unnatural, and much like Anthony Bourdain’s travel “Parts Unknown,” it also assumes a Western audience. Insensitivities are sprinkled throughout the show, with one of the most concerning being Zimmern’s desperation to encounter “true” Filipino food, which at times feels almost delusional. Sporting a loud pink button-down with board shorts while strutting down a marketplaces in Manila, he narrates: “With all of these influences, indigenous Filipino foods are quickly becoming a thing of the past. And that’s what intrigues me. I want to visit the people and the places working to preserve the local food culture and taste some of the more unusual native treats that I have heard so much about.” With a stereotypical drum and flute soundtrack floating in the background, his romanticization with the “indigenous” is made clear throughout, particularly when he asks a restaurant owner about Filipino food with fish paste: “And that’s a traditional Tagalog ingredient, as are these foods are a traditional Tagalog. Is that sort of cuisine being lost to the modern world?” The last sentence drips with a sense of hope that the food was indeed “lost to the modern world,” as if that would make it appealing. These sentiments crystallize both his misunderstanding of the interaction of colonization and migration in this context, as well as his fascination with indigeneity. He continuously tries to portray Philippine culture in this light, while failing to realize that “these influences” are the building blocks for the flavor palette of Filipino cuisine. And yet, despite his apparent fascination with tasting the food, he ridicules much of the dishes that he tries. With regards to classic Filipino ice cream flavors (ube, also known as purple yam, and keso or cheese) served on a bun, he spends more time making a spectacle of the food than informing the audience on what they are seeing: “Hold on, hold on. Ice cream in a bun, this freaks me out! I’m still trying to get my head around the bun concept, when the flavors I’m about to try are purple yam, cheese, a popular combo here, it turns out!” He goes on to hand an ice cream to a local saying, “It’s just not right [...] Here you try this. You like this? It’s cheese ice cream, it’s unusual. You don’t see this everywhere.” He then holds the bun up to the camera and says, “I love the Philippines.”
In short-form video on platforms like YouTube, content related to Filipino food lacks many of the glaring appropriations found in travel shows like Bizarre Foods, but remains troublesome in that they seem to be created purely for cheap entertainment as opposed to genuine appreciation of Filipino culture. When “Filipino food” is typed into the search bar of YouTube, you'll find yourself scrolling through a list of Buzzfeed-esque videos (ie: “Americans try Filipino Junk Food,” “Teens Test Filipino Food” and “Irish people test Filipino Food”). In the video, “Filipino Food or Not?” a group of individuals with little knowledge of the cuisine taste an assortment of foods and attempt to guess the foods’ origin. The video cuts between the participants’ immediate reactions, which are naturally, observational: “Whoa, that has a weird smell,” “It looks like a banana that was stepped on and scraped off the bottom of a shoe". This video follows a formula that includes upbeat music, silly observations and a brief length of around three minutes, consistent elements to have in this genre. Though not directly hurtful, these videos lack substance. Companies like Buzzfeed continuously commodify Filipino food for entertainment alone, allowing the nuances of Filipino culture and people to remain misunderstood.
And of course, I feel almost an obligation to talk about the much-gawked-over balut: fertilized egg embryo sold in street markets around the Philippines. Something about the mix of Southeast asian novelty combined with "yuck" factor would make you hard pressed to find a feature on Filipino food that doesn't have people reacting to this "weird" or "disgusting" dish. A quick Google search yield articles like: "Balut, the terrifying hard-boiled duck fetus that's also a tasty aphrodisiac" or "Balut Eggs Are a Weird Delicacy You Have To See To Believe." In addition to troublesome exaggerations of balut's peculiarity, the hyper focus on this singular dish only contributes to the incomplete and inaccurate portrayals of Filipino food in the media.
Ordering Chinese takeout for dinner, stopping by a ramen shop on the way home, and even picking up a banh mi sandwich for lunch are finally becoming normalized. Filipino food, however, has not entered this type of casual discourse. Racialized meanings flow between food, people and history; increasing and improving representation of Filipino food in the media not only reflects, but affects the lives of Filipinos. Filipino culinary representation in the media has gained traction in recent years, but there is still a long way to go. Last year, a visually stunning and thoughtful documentary titled Ulam was released. New chefs have been creating pop-ups in big cities like DC, Boston, New York and Chicago. With Filipino food finally on the rise, it is now more than ever that both producers and viewers not only have a heightened awareness of these complex histories of exoticization and oppression, but actively choose to support local restaurants in order to give Filipino food the long-overdue appreciation and respect it deserves.