Dear Editors of Bon Appetit,
By now, you’ve probably seen the brewing anger from the Filipino American community about your recipe “Ode to Halo Halo.” Knowing my friends involved in the propagation of Filipino food in the United States, I would expect an angry letter or blog post in the coming days as well. Let me assure you that this isn’t an angry letter, although I may be tempted to post this on my blog. What this letter is, then, is my humble attempt at letting you know where the anger that you are and will experience is coming from.
Many of your comments of anger will decry that your “Ode to Halo Halo” is made with ingredients that cannot be found in a “traditional” recipe of Halo Halo; that your version looks and tastes nothing like a “true” Halo Halo, or worse “defiles” it. Don’t let that confuse you; substitution is not the problem. Your attempts at recreating the Halo Halo is not the problem. Most recall the Halo Halo as the classic Digman’s version from the province of Cavite, which boasts of a dozen ingredients, but in the province of Pampanga alone, the 2 most famous versions of Halo Halo each feature just 3 ingredients apart from the shaved ice and milk.
Filipino dishes are all named for techniques/processes. “Adobo” “Inihaw” “Sinigang” “Pinakbet” “Lechon” are all famous Filipino dishes, but each of those names connote the technique used, not the ingredients. This means that as famous as the dishes I mentioned above are, they can and are open for ingredient substitution. Filipino food has always been about cooking with local ingredients, using what is native and available. Your choice of using blueberries and blackberries, for example, would be totally acceptable when in America and berries are in season. I once asked to substitute my ube ice cream with vanilla, so I have no issues with that either.
So what then could be the problem with your “Ode to Halo Halo” and why are you being accused of “appropriating” or “columbusing” our food?
This “Ode to Halo Halo” rings false as a tribute because of this line in the ingredients column — “Toasted unsweetened coconut flakes, gummi bears, and/or popcorn (for serving).” It suggests a rather flippant substitution, where ingredients can be interchanged as “and/or” when there is nothing remotely similar about gummy bears and popcorn. Furthermore, neither gummy bears nor popcorn are remotely seasonal, local or Fiipino. Lastly, neither the taste nor the texture of these ingredients would serve to remind anyone about the Halo Halo at all.
We, Filipinos, are an emotional people. We feel and love extremely, in all facets of our lives, especially our food. As varied as our recipes of Halo Halo are, every single good one was carefully thought out. As hardworking as Chris Morocco is in your test kitchens, his version does not inspire memories of the Halo Halo that you get in the Philippines. It does not feel thought out or respectful of our culture, one we have struggled for decades to be celebrated and recognized. It has hurt the community.
The challenge of reinventing recipes or as in your words, making “An Ode” to something is creating a dish that invokes the memory of the dish being recreated. Yours does not and that is where the problem lies.