Southeast Asian cuisine: Unearthing fantastic Filipino flavours

You may be forgiven for thinking that Filipino food - often characterised by super-sweet sauces and pork with everything - is the poor relation of Southeast Asian cuisine.

But it's time to think again, as new flavours kick in and new trends come online. InsightAsia's Marjolein Winkelman checks out what's on the menu...

Philippines food

We may think we know the cuisines of SE Asia. After all, we have long been used to Chinese, Thai, Indian - and more recently, Vietnamese - restaurants springing up along our high streets faster than you can say 'takeaway'. And we love their flavours - the thousand and one spices and herbs that create the rich aromatics of the region.

So you may be surprised to hear that Filipino food is currently flavour of the month, with Bloomberg and Food Network both including it in their Food Trends for 2017. Indeed, the Bad Saint restaurant in Washington DC, which cooks up Filipino favourites such as kinilaw (Filipino ceviche) and adobong dilaw (a tangy stew of chicken, turmeric, and burnt coconut), was last year named the second best restaurant in the whole of America.

Serve it while it sizzles

So what is Filipino food, and what's to love? Maybe you don't fancy the famously alarming local specialty of balut (duck embryo, boiled and eaten in its shell), and don't worry if traditional staples such as pork belly and sausages do not appetise.

Philippines food

"Yes it's true, we do eat a lot of pork in the Philippines", says restaurant reviewer and food blogger Dennis Lim. "Our pork dishes are very creative - from top to tail, and everything in between... if its edible, we eat it!"

IA's Frances Bocobo agrees: "If there's one dish that I would eat any time of the day, it would be sisig, which is chopped pig's face and ears, sautéed in onions and chillies, and served with rice and perhaps mayonnaise and an egg on top.

"I love it when they serve it while it sizzles, it gets me really excited. Finally, mix some more chillies and calamansi (Filipino lime)."

Demanding palates

But the landscape is starting to shift. With the rise of budget airlines, more young people are travelling abroad - to Japan, Korea, Australia and beyond - and experiencing top dining and new tastes. Palates are becoming more sophisticated and more demanding.

"A few years ago it was all very sweet, salty and bitter flavours," says Dennis, "and visually a very drab brown. Now local cuisine is being blended with foreign influences and new ingredients, and it's very colourful."

Because of its history, Filipino food has always had multiple influences - Spanish, American, Japanese, Malay - but this new 'Asian fusion' is rewriting the rules. "It's actually quite confusing," says Dennis. "Restaurants have got one eye on social media. Is it Instagrammable? Let's make it more colourful. How is our profile on Facebook? Let's ensure we are following the latest food trends. Need a new promotion? Let's mix up some new food and cultural combinations."

Philippines food

I ask Dennis for some examples: "Well, Taiwanese food is currently trending. Korean food is also hugely popular right now because of K-pop music and Korean TV dramas. And now even street food is making its way into our restaurant culture."

Filipino street food has always been a big thing. Pop-up outlets offering grab and go, lo-fi snacks such as deep fried fishballs or grilled intestines of pork and chicken are everywhere, but have always had a very different vibe. This crossover shows just how much boundaries are becoming blurred as the top chefs chase the latest food fashions.

And like all fashions, food trends in the Philippines are fickle. "There was a time when milk tea from Taiwan was a hit," Frances explains. "And then it was frozen yogurt from the US, and then it was ramen, and now it's salted egg chips from Singapore! We follow US patterns too, so organic and natural products are also very popular at the moment."

So can you still enjoy authentic foods and home cooking? "Yes," says IA's Camille Ortega. "But you need to look in the right places."

She continues: "I would go to a carinderia. A carinderia (also known as turo-turo or point-point) is an eatery that you can find anywhere in the Philippines. It is different to a restaurant because the dishes are already cooked and lined in up front, so you just have to point to the dish you want, then eat and go! Here you will find good, home cooked, local foods at the cheapest price."

Fun and sophisticated food

Eating habits are changing too. Rush hour has become the fashionable time to eat - why sit in a traffic jam when you could be sharing a conversation with business colleagues and friends over a tasty dish of chopseuy (sauteed mixed vegetables) or kaldereta (braised spicy stew)?

Philippines food

"People want the good dining experience," says Dennis. "The pace of life is speeding up across SE Asia. As time becomes short and disposable incomes rise, people are spending more money on the food experience."

I ask Dennis about the latest trend in Speakeasy bars and restaurants - often tucked away in quiet corners, not always easy to find, some even needing a password! Inside, low lighting and a slow pace recalls 1920s prohibition America:

"The Speakeasy is popular because it creates a sense of privacy and security. After a busy day it's a place to unwind and be yourself. Filipinos are often quite shy and conservative, so it's a safe way to mingle in a fun and sophisticated setting. The perfect combination!"

Tradition and experimentation

New technology is never far away. Where to eat? You don't want poor food, so check out the latest reviews online using foodie apps such as Zomato, Phonebooky and LooLoo. Been somewhere nice? Take some shots of your food such as ice cream, milkshake and cake so that you can share your colourful desserts on Instagram.

"Times are changing and taste buds are changing too," says Dennis. "Young Filipinos are raised with the conservatism of their parents, and mixing it with an outward-looking desire to experience other cultures. And this mix of tradition and experimentation is exactly what we are seeing in eateries across the country. You could almost say that it is a sign that the country is growing up and finding its own feet".

Our team in the Philippines has been helping food and beverage clients understand the shifting food landscape and habits in Manila and the provinces.

If you need local insight to help you sharpen your Philippines market entry strategy, understand the customer journey and inspire your food and beverage innovation, please connect with our Manila-based research team.

Dennis Lim is a food writer for Zomato and blogs at WORLD EATS with Us.