The Rise of Filipino Food: Sour is the New Sweet

By Isobel van Hagen and Michelle Inez Simon

Filipino chef Romy Dorotan, who immigrated from the Philippines in the 1970s, cooking in his restaurant. (Photo by: Michelle Simon)

For over a century Filipinos have been immigrating into the U.S. But it’s only now that their food is finally making a mark in New York City.

Celebrity chefs have been watching this trend from the start. Five years ago, Andrew Zimmern predicted that Filipino food was “the next big thing.” This past June, Anthony Bourdain called Filipino food “ascendant” and “underrated,” and said that the popular street food Sisig (stir-fried pork) will “win the hearts and minds of the world.”

Purple yam ice-cream at Soft Swerve in Chinatown (Photo by: @softswervenyc)

Another increasingly popular feature of Filipino cuisine is purple yam, or ‘ube’. It is often used to make ice cream and the vibrant violet color of the yam has caught Instagram’s attention. Shops like Soft Swerve in Chinatown and Ube Kitchen in Brooklyn are capitalizing on this trend.

If you search “Filipino food” on Yelp or Foursquare, up to a hundred restaurants and cafes will appear across the five boroughs.

Romy Dorotan and Amy Besa, a husband and wife duo, came from the Philippines in the 1970s for graduate school before breaking into the restaurant industry. In 2008 they opened Purple Yam in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, where they serve authentic and modern Filipino cuisine.

A few of their most popular dishes are Chicken Adobo (chicken braised in vinegar, garlic and oil), Bacalau with La-Ing (salted cod served with okra leaves in coconut milk) and of course, home-made purple yam ice-cream.

Chef Romy takes us grocery shopping and shows us around Purple Yam. (Video by: Isobel van Hagen)

Dorotan, Purple Yam’s head chef, stays true to traditional Filipino cooking, but likes to get creative. “What I do is make [the food] as close to what I grew up with or what I know Filipino food is, and then try my best, and … combine [typical ingredients] with something different,” said Dorotan. “How do you marry things that are here and there?”

Romy Dorotan talks about important aspects of Filipino food. (Photo by: Michelle Simon)

Dorotan’s signature dish is called Nori Tacos, which are baked seaweed shells, filled with rice, chicken adobo and fresh vegetables. The Mexican and Korean influences are evident, but he does not stray from the quintessential Filipino tastes.

Filipino food has many multicultural characteristics. It has distinct Spanish influences from the country’s colonial past, and has adopted parts of Chinese, Japanese and other Southeast Asian cuisines. This, coupled with an affinity for vinegar and sourness is what makes Filipino food unique and appealing.

So, why has this trend only hit the mainstream now? Nicole Ponseca, chef and owner of Filipino restaurants Maharlika and Jeepney in Manhattan, gives three possible reasons why. “A lack of support for Filipinos becoming entrepreneurs, the restaurant industry being extremely risky, and… hiya, which means shame,” Ponseca said.

Michelle Simon interviews Amy Besa, co-owner of Purple Yam, and Nicole Ponseca, chef and owner of Maharlika.

Some Fil-Ams in the food business were uncertain about how eccentric Filipino dishes would be perceived in the U.S. “I think Filipinos in America maybe underrated their own food,” said Bourdain in his CNN interview.

When food becomes mainstream in America, there is a tendency for restaurants to over-sweeten dishes, according to Dorotan. “Sometimes, restaurants avoid [traditional] dishes because to them, me included, you are scared to put up dishes that are sour or not sweet,” Dorotan said. “You might think that your customers will not like it. And that’s one danger.”

Homemade fermented vinegar with chili peppers at Purple Yam (Photo by: Michelle Simon) | Dry okra leaves being prepared for La-Ing (Photo by: Isobel van Hagen)

But the American palate has matured over the last few years, and there’s “no need to make it bland and boring.” He and his wife, Amy, plan to conduct a Filipino food tour this fall. They will travel to five different cities (New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle, and Toronto), hosting workshops and teaching chefs how to use farm-to-table ingredients. They aim to inspire authentic Filipino cooking, and unify the Fil-Am chef community across the U.S. And of course, they’ll be traveling with lots of vinegar.