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Chef Dino Datu: My Take on Filipino Food Culture

Chef Dino Datu: My Take on Filipino Food Culture

I am looking forward to a time when, like the Italians or the French or even the British, we’d have market days every week in every town where fresh local produce is sold and bought. We’ll have venues where small farmers and small food producers are given the opportunity to make a decent living by selling directly to home cooks.


In an age when information is shared and experiences are broadcast for everyone (at least to one’s online friends/followers) to see, food has become such a large part of our lives. Unlike decades ago when good eats were just part of conversations and pictures of food were left to people’s imaginations, the food of today is often photographed and shared even before the first bite.

Why is food such a big part of our daily social lives? What used to be consumed for plain sustenance or at most as a part of celebrations has now become part of the social currency. Dining in the “it” places, the newest foreign franchise resto or just snapping pictures of your dolled-up ulam for lunch seems to take up a sizeable chunk of our social media selves. People tend to gauge others on where or what they eat. Even travel photos on social media seem to be more food than sights nowadays.

What used to be consumed for plain sustenance or at most as a part of celebrations has now become part of the social currency


One reason I find true is that food remains one of the few affordable luxuries we can occasionally indulge in. As the prices of everything go up and up, food remains one of the things that we can still afford. Imagine if you are an ordinary employee, making a decent living. Unlike in the 20th century when every working person could afford a simple home and maybe a car, today’s regular salaried adult would find it difficult to purchase one, let alone both.

So, like many 20 and 30-somethings, you find yourself unable to purchase property or other “adult” things, where do you take your hard-earned cash every 15th and 30th of the month? You head to that new restaurant you saw on someone’s feed, or go where the influencers on social media go and indulge.

 

For centuries, food and food culture have always been determined first and foremost, by geography

For a few hundred pesos or a thousand or two, you get to feel like them once or twice a month without draining your pockets dry. Food is democratic like that. Good or bad, this is what food culture is nowadays and although it hasn’t always been this way, I think the more life gets difficult, the more that food will function as a quick escape from reality.

Now that I’ve talked about how I think food is in the present and how I see it in the future, let me tell you how food was and how it ought to be. For centuries, food and food culture have always been determined first and foremost, by geography. If you settled near a river, you ate freshwater fish. If you lived near or in mountainous regions, you ate game and foraged fruits and vegetables. It was really that simple. Farming only improved the supply and consistency of food but for the most part, what you ate was dictated by where you lived.

Eventually, other factors came in. When coastal villages evolved into bustling ports, trade came and influenced how we ate. Initially, we got to sample food from other towns. Then we got to try food from other provinces as transport improved. When large trading ships came, we got to sample foreign dishes and ingredients. This gradual expansion of how people traveled and where and how far they reached changed how we ate little by little. This is why Filipino cuisine is such a varied mix of Chinese, Spanish, Mexican and Malay with some Polynesian thrown into the mix.

As an archipelago that has had foreign trade for centuries, we have developed a cuisine that is uniquely ours, similar but still very different from our Asian, even Asean neighbors.

How do I see Filipino food and what is our food culture?

As someone who works in the food industry, I get to dine and travel with food as the central theme. While we (yes, myself included) always have a tendency to look abroad for inspiration or as a way to measure ourselves against, I can now see a positive shift in how we cook and dine. Sure, there are still foreign franchises, copycat concepts and knock-off restaurants of trending food and food establishments from the US, Europe, and Asia peppering our malls. But if you look beyond the confines of the metropolis, you’ll see that traditional food is being elevated in the countryside.

You can now hear about words like heirloom, heritage and elevated traditional cuisine where only a decade ago you’d only hear lutong bahay or turo-turo style when describing Filipino cuisine. This rediscovery of traditional ingredients, the interest in how people cooked and ate fifty years, a hundred years ago is something that is happening all over the country. True, it may not be happening nearly enough and hasn’t reached the mainstream just yet, but even if you look at chefs and restaurants in Manila, you will see popular chefs and restaurants that serve updated regional Filipino fare.

These same restaurants and chefs are also the same ones who scour the provinces for ingredients. They also meet and encourage farmers and traditional food purveyors to improve their craft and goods. Eventually, this interest in local and traditional will become the trend and then become the norm and will reach the everyday Filipino.

I am looking forward to a time when, like the Italians or the French or even the British, we’d have market days every week in every town where fresh local produce is sold and bought. We’ll have venues where small farmers and small food producers are given the opportunity to make a decent living by selling directly to home cooks.

This is how it used to be. This is how it is in most of Europe. Honestly, if we weren’t so enamored with our American kuyas’ culture, we might get there a lot sooner.


Eating fresh, local and traditional shouldn’t be a trend as it is the most logical, economical and eco-friendly way of eating. It is how we SHOULD eat.


This is my take, my hope and how I see Filipino food today and hopefully in the near future. Eating fresh, local and traditional shouldn’t be a trend as it is the most logical, economical and eco-friendly way of eating. It is how we SHOULD eat. We can always try the imported, the trending and the new, but for most meals, for our day to day cooking and eating, we should cook and eat how we used to.

We should eat local.

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