American Influence On Filipino Food - Episode Transcript

Find the transcript of my interview with Alex Orquiza below.


Welcome to Exploring Filipino Kitchens. I’m your host, Nastasha Alli.

This episode, we’re exploring the effects of American occupation on Filipino food culture. Because even though lots of people talk about Filipino food in America today - that’s not the angle I’m interested in. Instead, what I wanted to know was - how were the foods I grew up with, as a middle-class kid in 1990s Metro Manila, REALLY influenced by American culture?

And yes, this question totally matters today. Because this weekend - it’s April 2018 - Toronto’s very own Jollibee franchise is opening, and people are going nuts. Like, enough to line up overnight in a plaza on the outskirts of town, in what is still the tail end of winter in Canada. What can I say - people want their Chickenjoy! And they aren’t just nostalgic Filipinos. Some are genuinely curious to see what the fuss is all about from those super cheesy and totally delightful commercials on Youtube about people who fall in love at Jollibee.

But how, exactly, did so many Filipinos come to love this very American food? Even if most of us have no idea of the actual origins of fried chicken, it’s those same Filipinos who uprooted their lives and moved all the way to North America who, at the end of the day, will go out of their way for a couple deep-fried pieces of “chicken from home”.

And that connection that we establish and associate with certain foods totally piques my interest. Because before today’s young Filipino-Americans and Canadians started reinterpreting the fried chicken and SPAM of their childhood, I wanted to go one step further back and ask: Why did eating Western - and specifically, American food - mean so much to their parents (who grew up in the Philippines in the 50s and 60s) in the first place?

As I read more about food history, culture and how that evolved over time - I started to really “get” that food traditions don’t always have to be the things we’d normally consider “traditional.” In the Philippines, for example, lechon was an established food that many families had for Christmas - for over 300 years, during the Spanish occupation. That’s a long time for a particular food tradition to take hold, really become ingrained into society - and become loved by generations of people. But then sweet American ham and that fascination with perfectly round slices of pineapples and cherries also became the norm, much later - and that, for ME, is traditional Christmas food. I think it’s perfectly legit to call it that.

Our guest today is Rene Alexander Orquiza, a professor based in Rhode Island whose research and teaching interests focus on 20th century American history, Philippine-American history, and immigration history. Professor Orquiza has done A LOT of research in his field, and he’s got some fascinating stories to share with us today.

It’ll plant an entirely different perspective in your head (or at least it did, for me!) about the depth and breadth of American influence into the lives of everyday Filipinos, across multiple generations.

Hopefully, you’ll come out the other end with even more questions about why we eat what we eat. 

Let’s get into our interview with Professor Alex Orquiza.   

05:15 About

AO: I’m originally from the Bay Area. I grew up in San Jose, California. My mom and dad both immigrated in the early 1970s. My dad is from Nueva Ecija, my mom is from Ilocos Sur. They met here are part of the post-1965 immigration class of Filipinos; they were both physicians. I grew up in the third most populous Filipino region in the country. Statistics show the third largest number of Filipinos in the US live in the Bay Area. Though I didn’t go back to the Philippines as much as I wanted, in fact it was three times when I was a kid, my parents said that the one thing they were gonna instill in us was a full knowledge, appreciation and understanding of Filipino food. That was the most tangible way of seeing culture in their eyes.

When I graduated from college, I went to UC Berkeley, basically stayed in the Bay Area. Then I left to do work at the master’s level in the UK. There was no Filipino food there. Almost as a visceral reaction, I just had to learn how to cook Filipino food. I’d email my mom for the recipes and she’d send them. After I got back to San Francisco and worked for a bit in the food world, I started to wonder why there weren’t any Filipino restaurants in large numbers considering we were the second largest immigrant group, behind the Chinese, in greater San Francisco. Because I was a nerd and a budding historian, I figured that the answer was actually in history, and that led me to the research interests I have now - which is the Americanization of Filipino cuisine between 1898 and 1946. And the change in mentality about how Filipinos, for the better part of two or three generations, were discouraged from cooking Filipino food.

NA: Wow. What a way to set up the story! As I was reviewing some of the papers and publications you’ve contributed to, how I thought of it was, it’s a way for us to understand Filipino food. I grew up in the Philippines and didn’t migrate to Canada until I was 19, so my childhood was full of hotdogs, macaroni salad and all that. But similarly, I find that one of the most effective ways of trying to better understand my relationship and connection with food is to understand what happened prior to my generation. From UC Berkeley, did you pursue a history degree from there?

08:05 Finding an area of study

AO: While I was in college, I double-majored. I was in History of American Studies, which is basically a hodgepodge of sociology, anthropology and history. I wrote my senior thesis then on immigrant entrepreneurship, post 1986, after the refugee acts that specifically targeted Southeast Asians such as Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese. From that I started to realize that there’s a very similar story about migration, the start of businesses and the commodification of identity for Southeast Asian immigrants (in the US after World War II). So even through I wasn’t specifically focused on Filipino studies in undergrad, the skills were there - and the curiosity was there. When I came back from my master’s degree in the UK, I realized the big historical question I wanted to ask had to do with the American period in the Philippines. Because there wasn’t a lot of scholarship that I found very convincing, which dealt with cultural studies in the Philippines. There was a lot of stuff on economics, on democratization and citizenship, but nothing on like the ground-level stuff, which is food. Everyone had to this push to “eat like Americans” during this time period. So I wrote my application for grad school on that project and then by my second year I was able to get funding to live in the Philippines for two years.

I got a Fulbright scholarship from the US and was based in Manila, in Quezon City, at UP (the University of the Philippines). I went to all the UP campuses, going to their research libraries, just asking them to read the old stuff from 1898-1946 that had anything to do with food. It was really fascinating looking through the college syllabi. Seeing that by the 1920s and 30s there’s a whole bunch of classes that are just on the purchase of American appliances. Nutritional sciences and home economics textbooks were from New York and Boston. The first Filipino textbook on Filipino cuisine, that actually looks at its nutritional value, doesn’t come out until after Philippine independence in 1946; it came out in 1953. It was clear to me that there was an intention to get Filipinos to eat differently.

NA: Absolutely. It really falls into that period of time where nutrition studies was also starting to become a thing in the Western world, and that obviously trickled down to the Philippines where a lot of Americans were based at the time. I’m just imagining you going through the libraries in all these places and being able to see first-hand those documents. What were some of the things that stuck with you over that period?

11:15 Old menus in libraries

AO: It came down to five different groups of sources or old documents that were telling this story. The first thing was menus. Oddly enough, the largest menu collection I found that was helpful with this, came out of the New York Public Library system. There’s a large menu collection called “The Menu Collection” which had a lot of stuff from old banquets and business transaction events, like the Manila Merchants’ Association would hold a gala. Inside those menus you’d get a list of all the industrialists who were coming for this from the US. All the “ilustrado” who have now switched their allegiances to the Americans alongside them. And because they recognized that the traditional power structure (in Philippine society) still spoke Spanish, the menu was often printed in English and Spanish - but never in Tagalog. Those were the kinds of things that stuck out to me; there was a “pitch” that targeted the upper class.

12:20 What I found in school syllabi

Then when you go into the school syllabi, you see this other pitch towards Filipino non-elites. It was inside these school grammar textbooks that everyone had to study in the fourth grade that I found a lot of stuff. Back then, everyone had to go through an American public school until the sixth grade. For three of those years they were studying nutritional sciences, home economics or agricultural science. Food was the way of either introducing Filipino commodities into the “global” trade, or getting Filipinos to start to think like Americans, about the nutritional value of what they put into their bodies.

13:10 American missionaries arrive

AO: There’s also a set of documents that were “early impressions of the Philippines.” For example, from American missionaries who arrived in the Philippines in the early 1900s. Like the Thomasites…

NA: Who, as Alex describes, because they were teachers, also ended up documenting what life was like in the Philippines in the early 1900s. And if you aren’t sure who the Thomasites are, it’s totally fine - even I didn’t know much about them, despite the fact that I spent most of my childhood living with two aunts who were high school and college educators.

The Thomasites were a group of around 500 teachers who were sent to the Philippines by the US government, on a ship called the USAT Thomas - hence, the name. These folks were basically the pioneers who shaped the Philippine education system into what it is today. Although formal schools had long existed in the Philippines, it was the Thomasites who made public schooling accessible to everyday Filipinos by the turn of the century. Because remember that while the University of Santo Tomas had been teaching Filipino and Spanish elite since 1600s - most Filipinos had no way or financial means to receive that kind of education. Of course, the Thomasites taught in English, setting the stage to make Filipinos the largest English-speaking population in Asia. Truthfully, they were quite progressive for their time.

15:00 The Fannie Farmer effect

AO: And because they arrived during this period - as you alluded, to the time when nutritional sciences were also taking root in the Western world - there was this push toward home economics. A lot of them were trained in places like Cornell or UC Berkeley and they all took the same classes and trained using the same textbooks….

NA:  And Alex shares, even the same cookbooks - like “The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book” written by Fannie Farmer, which became the bible for all American home economists of the time, because of the way it approached diet and nutrition alongside standardized measurements. So by the time the Thomasites, who all learned how to cook from Fannie Farmer, came to the Philippines, Alex says that we see those recipes…

AO: Made in the early 1890s, maybe 1900s, translated and then reproduced through the American cookbooks coming out of Manila, from missionary societies, Catholic charities, that sort of thing. Those exact same recipes that were made here, in New England, were being reproduced in the Philippines, as the apogee of American consumerism, or the “new” Filipino consumerism. It was stuff like that. When you see the hard evidence of like 50 years of this steady stream of stuff from the Bureau of Printing, that was run by Americans, you really see the extent to which this was planned, to reach all levels of society in the Philippines. You can see it anywhere you go in the Philippines, in any of the UP campuses, like in Baguio (though that’s obvious because it was the Americans’ “winter resort” or UP Iloilo, in the central Visayas. Other universities, too, had the same curriculum.

It was mostly the extent to which this was spreading, not just in schools, but also in menus, hotels, pitches about the Philippines in travel guides that aimed to draw investors to the Philippines, basically saying “It’s fine, you’ll find Western food here.”

17:05 A trickle down of knowledge

NA: It paints such a vivid picture of how people learned to cook from that time. In the US, for example, there’s a lot of documentation about published cookbooks, of housewives who were learning to expand their culinary skill set and vocabulary from Fannie Farmer. It was the confluence of things coming together; where printed materials were becoming easier to distribute through the school system, or through product advertisements. I imagine you came across those as well. That distribution of knowledge as it trickles down to the majority of the population was probably one of the biggest things that made an impact then.

18:15 Del Monte ads

AO: Ad men were definitely a part of this. Pitches through advertisements were huge. There was this one Del Monte ad in “Liwayway” magazine, which was basically the Philippines’ “Time” magazine, for canned peaches. It targeted a distinctly Filipino audience because it was in Tagalog. It had all the markers people knew for “pasko,” or Christmas. The ad wasn’t set in the middle of industrialized, modern Manila, but inside a “bahay kubo” - so you knew they were trying to reach not just this broad “reading” audience. They wanted to appeal to this rural mentality, sort of idolize it; an agricultural romanticism of what the Philippine countryside looked like. That’s just one of multiple companies that advertised in the Philippines.

Another large industry, and probably the earliest one to do this, was the canned milk industry. These companies were from places like Switzerland, the UK, New York City. All of them were pitching western canned milk as cleaner, safer and more nutritious, versus carabao milk or coconut milk, or any of the native sources.

NA: That’s such a deep topic to learn. I feel like I’d go down a rabbit hole pretty quickly.

19:45 “The perfect drink for new mothers”

AO: I spent the better part of three weeks trying to trace the history of San Miguel. Their advertising campaigns were fascinating as well. It’s a Filipino company founded by a world charter from the Spanish government, who were doing their own advertising, modelled on Pepsi and Coca-Cola. You see these ads from the 20s and 30s that presents someone who looks like they came straight out of casting for “The Great Gatsby,” but she’s got black hair. And the pitch wasn’t just that San Miguel beer was glamorous. It was also nutritious. The most interesting one I found that reflected that was something that described how it’s a perfect drink for new mothers because not only would you be replenished, but through breastfeeding your child after you drink beer, they would be replenished too.

NA: Just imagine trying to pitch that today! I love old ads. They’re like a time capsule. With your love of research and interest in understanding the extent to which this all affected how Filipinos eat today - how did locals react to your work?

21:40 Hotdogs, ketchup and coca-cola

AO: The first thing I noticed was that anytime I said I was studying the history of Filipino food, people always assumed I was talking about something between 1521 to 1896. They expect it’s about the Spanish period and the Hispanization of Filipino cuisine. So when I tell them I’m researching American food, they’re like, “Oh, so hotdogs, ketchup and Coca-Cola?” And I’d have to tell them, “Well, partly.” It’s a fun way of describing it. But then I’d tell them the other ideas I was engaging with.

Then the full-on critical social history of the 1970s, that came out of the UP, would come up as a topic. Which was wonderful, because Americans don’t learn that at all. If you asked an average American about the Philippines, they might tell you something like “my grandfather served in the war there.” They don’t realize the Philippines was actually an American colony for 1898-1946. That’s been really invigorating because it’s a huge hole in my own knowledge, despite the fact that I grew up in the United States and I had Fil-Am parents. It’s something I bring into my own work now that I’m teaching as a professor. This is an untold story in American history, and the easiest way to tell it is through food. Everyone’s affected by food; not just people who already know that English is a common language, or people interested in the history of the “ilustrados” and how they collaborated with Americans to build the political structure of the Philippines.

23:25 Giving context to our food culture

NA: Absolutely. Talking about food allows you to reach such a wider audience. We’ve got food blogs and social media to expand that group of people interested in this. Food’s an accessible topic. One interesting approach I’ve found is how food studies really allows you to give context to what’s happening in a particular place and time - socially, economically and culturally. You can derive all this information from the foods prepared and served during that period.

24:50 Why is American influence so important?

NA: In the Philippines, you can see just how widespread it was. Those ideas about nutrition and cleanliness especially. I found these scanned PDF documents online of stuff that was published by the Bureau of Plant Industry in Manila from 1902. I was like, “It’s great that this is publicly accessible, but where’s the other stuff?” I wanted to find out more. Because if I’m talking to someone and explaining why they should care about this stuff - like, why this recent history affects how Filipinos eat now - the answers change. Based on the generation you’re in, “Filipino food” means something different.

26:00 “That colonial mentality”

AO: You can ask something like “How is this history applicable to present day?” and there are a couple different ways to address this. The first is through mentality. If our parents and grandparents were of a generation that was told that the most effective way to eat and cook wasn’t necessarily stuff from their home province, then that automatically shifts the way people think. It would make you go, “Oh, so not only is our food ‘not good enough’ but maybe the everyday ways of life, our etiquette and behaviours, or the ways that we clean and organize an kitchen aren’t good enough.” Like maybe we should be shifting to this “better” way of thinking - which is the definition of a colonial mentality. It’s the expression of a colonial mentality from the bottom up, from everyday life.

27:00 Another missing piece

AO: The other thing which I think is important to connect the past with the present is the awareness of just how thorough this was. It’s missing from the telling of the American period in the Philippines. We know about the push to create schools that were an expansion to the schools established by the Spanish. But we don’t know exactly what classes they were teaching. Were they different? The curriculum taught then was based on something created in the US, as opposed to something that was thought of specifically for the Philippines. For the first 20 years of Philippine independence, until the 1960s, we didn’t really have a Filipino curriculum. So there was a period of time where misinformation spread, and that stuff became “standard” ways of thinking.

28:05 “Filipino food was from five provinces”

The third thing, and this is one that really hit me after living in the Philippines, was that what’s considered Filipino food outside the Philippines is basically stuff that’s from the northern part of the country. Like if you’re from Luzon, and you had means, after the 1960s, you immigrated. Not as many people immigrated from the south, and there were certainly not many who immigrated from Mindanao. So if we’re discussing the definition of “Filipino cuisine,” it’s helpful to remember that the Filipino cuisine which largely spread throughout the world (with its migrants) come from basically five provinces.

Also, the realization that you could be proud of regional cuisine in the Philippines doesn’t happen during the American period at all. There was a mentality (in place) that precluded that from happening. In the US, there’s mid-western cooking and southern cooking. Those cuisines were embraced in the definition of American regional cuisine during the 20s and 30s. But that same idea, of embracing these “regional” cuisines from different provinces in the Philippines (beyond where Americans were stationed), it wasn’t happening.

29:20 On regionality

NA: I’ve had the pleasure of talking to Amy Besa for the podcast and she shared something that stuck with me, from a conversation she had with Sidney Mintz (who wrote this amazing book called “Sweetness and Power”). They talked about “regionality” and how, according to Mintz, national cuisines are basically a western construct. In places like Southeast Asia or the Caribbean, for example, there are so many regions that historically haven’t been bound together by national borders. The notion of a country’s cuisine - like Filipino cuisine - being a single thing that can easily be summarized under this one “national” umbrella doesn’t make sense, since those geographical boundaries haven’t always existed.

Understanding that early Filipino migrants to the US were basically from northern Luzon, did you ever see something like that played out during your time in the Philippines? Did you get an opportunity to travel to Mindanao?

30:45 A visit to Marawi State University

AO: I was lucky enough to be a guest at Marawi State University. I met some people in Manila from the Fulbright office who were professors there. I told them that I’d only been to Cagayan de Oro and they’re like, “You haven’t been far south enough.” So they met me in Cagayan de Oro and we drove all the way in there. I’ve never seen Filipino food like that - because there was never a large group of people from this region who have immigrated to the US or other countries. It’s got so much turmeric and galangal. It’s closer to Indonesian cuisine than “Filipino” as most people know it.

NA: I can only imagine the breadth and depth of flavours in that region’s foods - that punchy, layered, complex harmony of flavours that many people enjoy and often eat to this day.

AO: Another thing that’s important to studying the history of our food - not just during the American period - is that it contextualizes the changes that have happened within the Philippines as overseas foreign workers (OFWs) started coming back and bringing the foods they enjoyed abroad, back to their home country. The OFW population who lived in Dubai, the UAE, Canada and elsewhere, add to this larger matrix of what Filipino cuisine has become. Not only in the recent 20th century, but going back to the first interactions of Filipinos with the Chinese, for instance, in the 10th century.

NA: One other topic I’d like to explore are Filipino restaurants. Not the ones in North America, but how restaurants in the Philippines have evolved over time. Traditionally, the Philippines has a very home-based cuisine. The general communal gathering of people tends to be during fiestas, or birthdays, weddings, things like that. The idea of going to a restaurant to sit down for a meal - and pay - I imagine also became more popular during the American period. In your research, was there something about restaurants that stuck out? Were there menus from places like the Aristocrat or The Manila Hotel?

33:55 The restaurant reviewer

AO: There’s a lot of examples of this but the one that stands out is a restaurant review that came out from a magazine based in Manila. This restaurant reviewer himself was a “pensionado” who had lived in Wisconsin, earned a master’s degree in economics, then came back to the Philippines. He reviewed this Filipino restaurant, denigrating and marking it down because it didn’t live up to the expectations he formed of “restaurants” from his time in Wisconsin. So it was almost like he was giddy and ready to show off that he’d seen a “western” way of restaurant presentation, critiquing even people from the town he was from. It was almost like he was rubbing it in their faces. I was upset! You can’t fault people for not knowing these things. A textbook doesn’t convey the same experience as going to a place. He was lucky enough because he was from the right family, to have those experiences of what fine dining in Milwaukee was like. There’s other examples of this, where things like the transportation of western culinary techniques, the layout of a restaurant, and how dining spaces were designed became the “standard” of Filipino restaurants. The Manila Hotel, for example, was designed by American architects and staffed with American cooks at the beginning. Nowhere in the space or on their menu would you find a Filipino marker - except for the use of mangoes.

NA: So this isn’t news, but now we’ve got proof that back then, and up until today, restaurant reviews have a trickle down effect on food culture in a region develops. And then, there’s travel guides.

35:50 Travel guides

AO: I found this travel guide by Thomas Cook, from the publisher of the Cook Guides which you’ll still find today. They’d list the restaurants that were available to eat in, primarily in Manila and Baguio. Among the restaurants they listed, one of ten would be a traditional Filipino restaurant, and the others would be western or maybe a Chinese restaurant. It’s a pattern that’s not only in cookbooks, but also in menus from restaurants.

NA: One particular example that Alex comes back to, are the menus he came across from the restaurant at the Manila Hotel. It had, he says…

AO: A dinner that featured a bunch of stuff from classical French cuisine - and then a mango frappe, just to remind you that you were in the Philippines.

37:00 Dinner and a show

NA: Another thing he learned from the restaurant menus - which really, were printed copies of that evening’s “programme of events” - was how dinner at the hotel really meant “dinner and a show”. Remember this was the 1920s - and these Americans who travelled all the way to Manila, they pretty much expected some type of entertainment along with their meals, because journeying to the Philippines was still this exotic thing that some Americans could afford to do. Often, this involved Filipino folk singers hired by the Manila Hotel to perform things like the “kundiman,” a genre of traditional Tagalog love songs - but only once every night. So along with Western food served at the buffet, guests were serenaded with music meant to “set the mood” - but from a different tropical paradise.

AO: They imported a bunch of hula singers and dancers from Hawaii - and essentially placed Hawaii on a higher scale in the hierarchy of places that Americans controlled in the Pacific. Nevermind where they actually were; Hawaii was perceived as “better” than the Philippines, at that particular time period. You could see that through the way they performed the music in restaurants in Manila. That stuff really strikes me because then it wasn’t just about food, but the culture surrounding the etiquette, the ambiance and accoutrements to eating or dining out. They’re trying to remind you that you’re not in Manila, that you could be in Honolulu instead of Manila.

NA: Finally, one other thing Alex found a lot of were these travel memoirs, like some that were written by the Thomasites - and some pretty influential people from the American period.

39:40 The worldview of Mrs. Taft

AO: There was this genre of travel memoirs that became popular at the turn of the century, essentially written by ’the well-to-do American’ who was making his or her way from San Francisco to Yokohama. The Philippines was like stop numbers 5 and 7 on this early version of a Pacific cruise. They’d talk about Hawaii, Australia, Japan, Hong Kong and the Philippines. Manila was always compared to Honolulu, just because it was the travellers’ last destination before arriving in Manila.

This came out in lots of different ways; not just from memoirs of schoolteachers, or rich Americans, but also from the wife of the governor general of the Philippines at the time. Helen Huron Taft - who was the wife of Governor William Howard Taft - wrote this like 300 pages book on what it was like to live in the Philippines for five years. Maybe about 15% of it is dedicated to the foods she encountered. They’re not comfortable accounts to read, because she’s telling us this through the lens of someone who believes in the racial hierarchy where Filipinos were below Americans, during that super racist time. Because of this, the descriptions she has of eating outside the “western bubble” of Manila make for really uncomfortable reading. She says things like Filipinos just aren’t civilized enough to understand that they’re not eating correctly, or that people outside of Manila were just mimicking - apparently we were good mimickers, she uses the word “mimic” a lot - because Filipinos just mimicked what they saw from the Spanish elites in Manila. But they could never do anything as well in the countryside.

NA: As a historian, when you see these types of resources, I imagine it’s like they’re presenting this value to you. As “skewed” as they may be, in the way they’re written…it’s almost like you have to put these glasses on to interpret what they’re saying from a more objective standpoint. How would you describe the value that these articles and resources provide?

AO: I wouldn’t say that they’re exceptional, or even representative of the large number of people who came to the Philippines during that time. William Howard Taft famously said that he only wanted guys from Yale and Harvard to administer the Philippines. He and his wife are of that class - this northeastern group of Americans who brought in people they knew to basically run the country. You can see this line of thinking in the memoirs left behind by people he recruited, including teachers who ended up teaching in schools outside of Manila.

One of the first pieces of evidence I found was a memoir of this guy who went to Stanford University, but then ended up as a teacher I believe in Cagayan. His writing was full of things like ‘these people can’t learn anything,’ or ‘this is so challenging because they just mimic everything they see, they have no original thought.’ He actually makes a list of Filipino traits versus western traits. This was the first wave of people who were coming in to teach Filipinos. And even if there was a switch - even if that switch happened after the Monroe commission of 1925, something that dictated how the Philippine educational system was carried out - for the better part of one generation, the policy makers who were shaping how people think and perceived themselves - the people who were writing these textbooks - were writing about Philippine society in general through this handed-down lens.

44:30 “My parents make more sense now”

AO: In the way we read and critique those texts today, it’s important to understand that the reinterpretation of western history, even here in North America, is a push-button issue. We don’t fully grasp the negative extent these kinds of texts had on Filipino readership in the 1900s. It affected the writing of Filipino history (in the Philippines, by Filipino authors) until the 1970s. “The History Of The Filipino People” by Teodoro Agoncillo, for example, faced a big backlash with its publication in the 70s. But he was only following the tradition established by American historical writers before him - the same people who wrote about Filipino people in such detrimental ways.

When I realized what the implications of this were - of getting people to stop eating mangoes and start eating canned peaches - it really started to fuck with my head. It was like “holy crap - my grandparents and parents make so much more sense now.”

NA: Going back to a North American context - if we look at chefs today who are becoming a lot more comfortable with techniques used in traditional Filipino cooking, who look to traditional food preservation and production with ingredients used by Filipinos prior to the modernization of the country’s food systems - it feels like that generation’s really keen on making change. You can kinda see that with people who keep trying to reinterpret SPAM - they want to pay tribute to the stuff they were served at home growing up, by their parents who grew up during the American period. As a closing thought, what do you think about this cyclical nature of our foodways? What illustrates that for you?

46:05 Regional cuisines are the future

AO: I’m gonna borrow from Amy Besa on this. Her response to this question is the best I’ve heard. We know we live with this culinary tradition and mentality of eating, especially in North America, which favours French classical cuisine. There’s no reason why, as Filipinos, we can’t hold our cuisine up to the same high standards, and introduce people to this cuisine that we know and love - something we like to consider a great secret in the culinary world. Filipino food is awesome! I’m really heartened that people in their 20s and 30s are showing the dining public what’s possible - even if it’s just through this fraction of their experiences. The Philippines is so huge, and Filipinos are so spread out across the world, that we can preach loudly about Filipino cuisine now in new ways. We could maybe even surpass how, in the 1960s, practically every region of France was represented in French restaurants across the US, and singular French regions were profiled in entire issues of food magazines.

I honestly believe that can’t happen for other Southeast Asian cuisines. Thailand, for example, has been gotten a lot of press for their regional foods - considering the size of the actual migrant Thai population across the world. If you really wanted to do a thematic restaurant on regional cuisines of the Philippines, there’s a market that wouldn’t be stepping on each others’ toes. That’s one of the ways our cuisine can grow. Just think about how many Italian restaurants feature cuisine from Umbria or Palermo. We could be doing the same with Filipino regional cuisines.

48:40 Building a collective 

NA: I’ve talked about this before, but honestly, I can’t wait for this! That’s where the role of media and well researched content allows us to study from the ground up, today, how “bahaniyan” comes in. I’ve long dreamt of something that would connect on-the-ground researchers in the Philippines - a “new school” of people with a deep interest in preserving food traditions - with people in the rest of the world. They’d have the ability to connect us with the knowledge they work hard to cull and preserve. There’s so much power in that and I really want to make that happen.

50:00 Tying narratives together

NA: I find it so interesting to examine food from all these perspectives. Food in itself is a big umbrella, but if you focus on a particular part of it, it’s helps build the story out.

AO: It’s important to get these stories collated and curated so that it’s a resource. It’s not just because Filipino food is becoming popular in the US now; it’ll be popular for a long time. To actually nail down and document the conversations at this point in time, doesn’t just give us a window to the past, but a reference point moving forward.


NA: What a conversation. My sincerest thanks to Professor Rene Alexander Orquiza, for chatting with us about the American influence on Filipino food. If you’d like to hear more of these types of interviews, don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast. You can find Exploring Filipino Kitchens on Apple Podcasts and wherever you download your podcasts from. And if there’s a particular topic you’d like to learn more about - send me a message on Facebook!

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This is a transcript of “Episode 12: American Influence On Filipino Food With Alex Orquiza” (Click the episode link for the audio!)