My mother’s primary method of demonstrating her love is providing for the corporeal needs of the family. This meant that she cooked nearly every meal I had ever eaten until the day I left for college. Food became — and remains — a love language for me, which is consistent with its function in my culture. (The first thing you are asked at a Filipino party — if Tagalog is the language of choice — is, “Kumain ka ba? Have you eaten yet?”). As a result of my mother’s furious love, I knew how to cook absolutely nothing when I first moved out of the dorms. So after several months of experimenting with how long I could use coffee as a meal substitute, I turned to the internet to begin cooking love for myself.
I started with adobo, a dish that exists in one form or another in almost every region of the Philippines. It did not taste like my mother’s (which does not taste like her mother’s), but it sufficed. From there, I branched out into different recipes, none of which quite tasted the way I am accustomed to. It frustrated me that I could only achieve approximations of “the real thing.”
My struggle is a common one in the era of the diaspora. When chef Rowena Romulo opened her restaurant Romulo Café in London, she faced complaints from local Filipinos who claimed her dishes were “inauthentic” for compromising on ingredients that were not readily available in the United Kingdom. Romula notes her hatred for the word “authentic” in discussions about Filipino food because it “neglects the multiplicity inherent” in Filipino culture.
This is before we even consider the effects of globalization on the culture. What does it mean to be Filipino? What does it mean to be a Filipino abroad? What does it mean to be a Filipino not born in the Philippines?
It is because of these questions that the nuances of decolonization confuse me. While I strive to resist the white-worship dogma ingrained in me by my papaya-soap-wielding family members, I hesitate to reject everything that is foreign to “authentic” Filipino culture — a process I call brownwashing. The Philippines, after all, was a collection of more than 100 distinct ethnolinguistic groups prior to the arrival of our first colonizers, the Spanish, who were, definitionally, foreign. At that time, we had no concept of being a single, unified nation.
In short, there is no clear way to discuss a Filipino identity, especially if we operate under the assumption that culture and ethnicity are dynamic, especially in a globalized world.
The Spanish imperialists introduced — and violently enforced — this idea on the Filipinos who, again, did not think of themselves as “Filipino.” The Philippine identity — named for the Spanish King Philip II — is itself a mix of Malay, Chinese, Spanish, American and indigenous influences, among others. In short, there is no clear way to discuss a Filipino identity, especially if we operate under the assumption that culture and ethnicity are dynamic, especially in a globalized world.
Right, I was talking about food.
My frustration and ethnic identity crisis only intensified when I moved beyond adobo and attempted recipes with ingredients not familiar to the Western culinary tradition like bamboo shoots (which are absent from the shelves of Safeway), bagoong (shrimp paste for which a trek to 99 Ranch in Richmond is required), and kalamansi (a native Filipino citrus fruit that hits different from its common substitutes lemon and lime). I was constrained by the ingredients available to me.
And this is the point that I was missing all along. Food emerges and lives within a context. Food, like culture, is not neutral.
Adobo itself originated in Spain, a dish made of meat marinated in vinegar and spices. Filipinos indigenized it by adding soy sauce — a product of China. Even within the country, adobo resists definition — while I grew up with adobo as a wet dish drowning in sabaw (soup), some regions in the Philippines have dry adobo, comparable to fried chicken. The version I now most often cook (adobo sa gata) incorporates coconut milk.
I have since become more comfortable substituting “authentic” ingredients or adapting recipes according to what is available (or affordable) at Berkeley Bowl and Trader Joe’s. Precolonial Filipinos were open to change; it is how they came to create the colorful cuisine I now eat in a nation that did not exist at the time of Spanish imperialism. They were not beholden to recipes or even to specific ingredients. In some ways, it is more authentically Filipino — no quotation marks — to change a recipe to fit the constraints of a geographic location than to fixate on whether or not Heinz ketchup will produce the same flavor as Jufran banana ketchup. If indigenous Filipinos had landed in San Francisco Bay, they would have cooked with what was available to them; they would have consecrated what they could produce from the land and the sea.
If indigenous Filipinos had landed in San Francisco Bay, they would have cooked with what was available to them; they would have consecrated what they could produce from the land and the sea.
Reinventing recipes is a way of inserting myself into the centuries-old tradition of cooking Filipino food. The particular construction of the dishes can differ, but the vibes are always the same. I am Filipino, yes, but a Filipino tempest-tossed abroad, with no natal ties to my nation of origin. I am American too, by virtue of my birth. Food accounts for that because food necessarily must live within a geographic context. It cannot ignore syncretic influence.
Which brings me back to the matter of brownwashing. Evolution is resistance. I cannot purge myself of all that was once foreign to the Philippines because once something enters the Philippines, it becomes inextricably Filipino. It enters the epic narrative in which I am now playing a minor supporting role.
Spam, for instance, became a Filipino staple when it emerged as an essential source of “nutrition” during WWII. To classify Spam as strictly “American” — not to mention, a product of imperialism, capitalism and the military-industrial complex — is a narrow interpretation of what food is. Put simply, I cannot afford to brownwash myself because I cannot afford to cease my inordinately high consumption of Spam.
I still don’t know what it means to be Filipino, to be sure, but I have found a new means of engaging with that internal conflict. I am Filipino. My adobo is Filipino, as is my mother’s, as is her mother’s, as is the adobo of my friend who refuses to cook it with vinegar. This is the kind of decolonization in which I am interested, the kind that acknowledges that I am descended from multiple worlds, even if my blood insists I come only from one. I am a citizen of the diaspora, a Filipino American one, and when life gives me lemons, I make kalamansi.