When I go to a Thai restaurant, I almost always have Tom Yum, the spicy sour soup, a beef salad, pad thai noodles… regardless where I am in the world. At a Vietnamese restaurant, I look for a comforting bowl of pho, some fresh and fried spring rolls. At a Japanese restaurant, sushi, tempura and possibly a teppanyaki dish. At Indonesian restaurants, a nasi goreng or fried rice, or if feeling flush, a rijstafel. So I guess Tony Bourdain’s point that we need to narrow our food offerings to gain international recognition is probably a point well taken. And the our food offerings have to have broad appeal, must be replicable in most major metropolitan areas around the world, and attract a broad audience from young to old, adventurous to not so adventurous. So for the past few days I have been trying to narrow down my PERSONAL view of what those iconic Filipino dishes might or should be. Here are my thoughts, and I am very much interested in your opinions on this conundrum…
1. Sinigang na Sugpo – I think a sinigang of some sort must be in the top 3. I know we have endless variations on this dish, but if I had to choose just one, I think it would be an unripe tamarind sinigang with prawns. I am a purist, but this dish CAN be well replicated abroad with sinigang mix. It is healthy, without fat, and the sourness easily tempered if so desired. It is quick to make and gorgeous to look at. Yes, I think this is my top pick.
2. Adobong Baboy – Again, we have evolved into 300 versions of this dish. But if one were to do something like this slow-cooked “confit of pork” equivalent, I think it would do well with a varied international palate. Served with some well made acharra on the side, I could see this doing very well. And it can be done anywhere they sell pork belly. And if it were up to me, a minimum of soy sauce on this one. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried a properly made slow cooked non-soy sauce version…
I was sure about the top two picks. But I struggled for several hours with the third choice. Personally, I would have picked a fantastic kinilaw or seviche of some sort. If Japanese restaurants can get decent tuna and other fish for sashimi in most major cities, then we should be able to do a decent kinilaw. But raw or almost raw and sour may be a bit less mainstream, so while I would love a kinilaw anywhere on the planet, I would put it a little further down my “top” list. Instead, I chose:
3. Sotanghon Guisado – I suspect many of you would find this a curious choice. But if you make a carefully crafted and flavored sotanghon guisado, it is heaven. Try this recipe, graciously given by the folks behind La Cocina de Tita Moning to understand what I am talking about. And the appeal of this sotanghon guisado would we wide, from kids to adults with dentures. Also, it is attractive to look at, would pair well with other Filipino dishes as well. I have served this to dozens of western guests and they have unanimously declared it delicious. Don’t forget the kalamansi.
Now, if only we could pick 5 or 7 dishes as the ones to promote intensively before we presented a wider spectrum of dishes…
4. Lechon Kawali – Fat and flavor and crunch. Served with a liver sauce on the side.
5. Inasal na Manok – Done properly, this is delicious, familiar yet new at the same time. Replicable anywhere you can grill. Achuete powder can be used to color and for authenticity. Use lots of herbs.
While I love vegetables, and am smitten by a fabulous pinakbet, I don’t think this would have as wide appeal as other pinoy vegetable dishes, and bagoong, though bottled, is not as readily available elsewhere on the planet. Also, that bitter gourd thing is not as thrilling as it might be to many of us. I love pinakbet, I love pako salad, I love laing, but if I had to put a veggie dish on an international menu, I might go with
6. Sitaw at kalabasa sa gata – Kabocha squash and long beans in coconut milk. The creaminess and richness of the coconut milk presents a different aspect of filipino cuisine, and it can border on the sweeter side. So a salty adobo, a sour sinigang, a noodle dish, a crisp fried pork and a grilled tasty chicken… yes, a coconut cream vegetable dish. But a part of me was routing for a roasted eggplant and tomato salad. Not unfamiliar to many western palates, and the acidity of the dressing would make it the perfect complement to fried and grilled meat or fish.
7. Kinilaw – Sorry, I just had to get this in there. I love it. And if it is properly done, it is brilliant.
So let me stop there. And no, I couldn’t include lechon because it just isn’t practical to believe we could do lechon well around the world. Lumpia sariwa would be too difficult to do without fresh ubod. Bangus is not readily available in most supermarkets globally. Sisig needs lots of pig heads. Arrgh, and I haven’t even done dessert or kakanins. So those are my first 7 dishes that I would focus on if trying to introduce a foreign and unfamiliar palate to Filipino food. And I would explain the concept of developing one’s own sawsawan as part of the meal.
But now I want to know what you guys would select as the top 3 or the top 5 dishes. Please think about this and leave a comment and number it 1/2/3/4/5 so I can do some tallies of the answers. Remember, they aren’t necessarily your personal 3 to 5 favorite dishes or what YOU would order in pinoy restaurants… but rather, dishes that would well represent our cuisine and which would be accessible and replicable around the world. Many thanks for your thoughts on this!