STREET FOOD. Netflix's Cebu episode on Filipino street food highlights a few of Cebu's staple street dishes. Screenshot from Netflix

STREET FOOD. Netflix’s Cebu episode on Filipino street food highlights a few of Cebu’s staple street dishes. Screenshot from Netflix

“Can we get away with not shooting any lechon?”

It’s 2015, and we’re just a scant two weeks away from our planned trip to Cebu, where we will shoot a Let’s Do Lunch episode that highlights the Queen City’s food. I sit in on a round table discussion with the producer, writer, and camera operators as we discuss our plans.

Mindful that countless local and international shows have made Cebu a topic, I wanted to make sure we did this one right. We could not afford to make Cebu out as a caricature. I didn’t want to oversimplify Cebu as the region of a thousand lechons (roast pig) and nothing else, hence my question: Is it possible to shoot a food show without the requisite food porn that is a whole crisp-skinned pig roasted over open flame?

I simply couldn’t do that to a province that had been so welcoming of me every time I went there. I knew that in order to do this right, I needed to call my friend Jude Bacalso. We shared our plans and concerns with Jude and she says she would take care of everything.

Just days after it dropped on Netflix, the Cebu episode of Street Food (which counted Jude as one of their resource persons) has drawn strong reactions from the Filipino community, and not all of it are positive.

Disappointments were raised with doubts on how dishes like Tuslob Buwa (brain gravy with rice), Linarang na Bakasi (fish stew with reef eels) or Lumpiang Prito (fried spring rolls) could be representative of our cuisine, perhaps indicating they may not be delicious enough to entice people to be interested in Filipino cuisine.

Suggestions of other more “popular” dishes that should have been featured have been thrown around.

Meanwhile, others have expressed disappointment at how the episode seemed more concerned about telling a story of poverty than showing more food porn. When I finally found time to catch the episode, I find myself disagreeing.

It’s here where I realize how far we have to go to truly understand Filipino food.

‘It’s like a fondue’

Jude laughs as we watch the lady stir in pig’s brains into a pork broth. She then fortifies the umami flavor with some soy sauce, stirs it one more time, and we wait for it to bubble. Jude explains that Tuslob Buwa translates literally to “dip in bubbles” as we grab some puso (sticky rice cooked in coconut leaves). The moment the brain gravy starts bubbling, I dip a chunk or rice into the murky brown liquid and pop it in my mouth. It is one of the best things I have ever tasted.

The choice of what to feature whenever doing a food show in the Philippines is always fraught with problems. Filipino food is tremendously regional and local, making the cuisine inconveniently (or fortunately, depending on your view point), difficult to catalogue. The disappointment over which dishes are featured or what aren’t on television is understandable but also myopic.

The Filipino people, and by extension, our cuisine, is not a monolith. A large number of Filipino dishes are born of circumstance; we use whatever ingredients we can find at the time of cooking, making dishes of each region markedly different from another. If one is looking for a “quintessential Filipino street food” that can “represent” our food to the world, one could do no better than the Tuslob Buwa; or the linarang/nilarang, for that matter.

Both dishes show our resourcefulness and our ability to make culinary magic with the humblest of ingredients. To use the cheapest part of the pig or the fish that are hardest to sell, Cebuanos found a way to feed multiple mouths despite their difficult financial circumstances. While some see these dishes as “exotic” or “esoteric,” what I see are dishes that truly embody the Filipino spirit.

Is there any better dish to show the world than those that show one of our most enviable traits?

‘I’m still alive!’

I play up my fear in front the camera as I slurp on a linarang/nilarang (fish stew) made with porcupine fish. In a minor bit of miscommunication, we initially thought the fish we were cooking was the poisonous puffer fish. They assured me that the porcupine fish only looks like the puffer fish but it isn’t poisonous. Nevertheless, there was a small part of me deathly afraid as I ate a spoonful of the nilarang. Soon, though, I find myself taking a second spoonful and third. The hints of ginger and tomato peppered the broth with a tartness that played well with the tender fish meat.

Soon, we wrap up shooting my spiels and we invite the rest of the residents of Pasil to join us and enjoy both the nilarang and the tuslob buwa. I watch with satisfaction as families sit together, laughing and sharing stories while dipping rice into brain gravy and slurping the porcupine fish stew.

These two dishes that I had never heard about, let alone tasted just an hour ago, were key players in building relationships in the community of Pasil. The camera operators spring into action to catch the beautiful scene in front of us.

Months ago, when we shot our first travel episode, we realized that shooting food porn was only a small part of our work. A larger part of our work is to tell the stories brought on by said food.

The Cebu episode of Street Food puts the spotlight on Mang Entoy Escabas, who does describe himself, in his endearing, self deprecating way, as poor, but I don’t see the story as “poor porn.” Entoy himself has declared that all he needs is 200 pesos for his medicine and his candy but don’t let that fool you. He is a proud son of a fisherman, a visionary and an entrepreneur.

His singular decision to cook the reef eels into a stew when no market would sell the eels was a massively smart one that provided financial stability for his family, improve the lives of his town and create his signature dish, one that I would claim deserves its place in the same hall of fame wall as Aling Lucing’s sisig. His is a story of an innovative chef who cooks seasonally and locally, engaging the local community, improving its economy.

His story, is not only a beautiful one; it is a necessary one to tell. As we urge people to not judge people or news stories without context, we should do the same with food as well.

People are defined by their food, and I cannot find a better story to define the Filipino than his story of hard work, triumph, resiliency, heart break, family and love.

I’ve done hundreds of hours of television on Filipino food, been cooking and studying Filipino food for over 15 years and I can tell you with absolute certainty that I don’t even understand a tenth of what Filipino cuisine really is. How can one 32-minute episode cover everything that will make every single Filipino happy?

Perhaps the best way to understand Filipino food is to have more 32-minute episodes, to continue to hear stories like Mang Entoy’s, unique stories of Filipinos from each of our over 7000 islands. –