Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Found In Translation?

This week I attended a forum which explored how asian cuisines become a part of the American mainstream. It was presented by the Asian/Pacific/American Insitute at NYU and co-sponsored by the James Beard Foundation. The discussions touched upon many Asian foods, but for simplicity sake it focused on Chinese, Indian and Philippine cuisines to discover how these specifically, have been "translated" into American culture and cuisine.

The forum was comprised of a panel of distinguished culinary masters and cookbook authors including:
Grace Young, an International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) award-winning cookbook author of The Breath of a Wok and The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen;
Amy Besa, owner of Cendrillon, a Philippine restaurant in New York, and an IACP award-winning co-author of Memories of Philippine Kitchens, and
Maya Kaimal, the author of Curried Favors (IACP award winner) and Savoring the Spice Coast of India, and creator of Maya Kaimal Fine Indian Foods.

Most of us have eaten some form of asian food, more popularly Chinese food. It has been around in this country for over a century but is the chinese food we eat today truly Chinese? The trend today is to find"authentic" Chinese food or rather, the dishes that chefs eat behind closed doors. And Filipino food, which some say is posed to be the next asian food to be "discovered", is the ideal cuisine to watch as it slowly becomes part of the AMerican culinary landscape.

In the 1800's chinese immigrants (mainly of Cantonese descent) were brought to the US to work on the railroad and in mines. They struggled to assimilate into American culture because they would not compromise their ancestral customs. They did what they could to earn money including cleaning and cooking for Americans. They had to learn what flavors pleased the American palette and how to cook with ingredients that were locally grown. As their numbers increased, so did their struggle to make money. By opening restaurants that offered inexpensive meals to curious Americans, they were able to make a small living. Thus Chop Suey was born. Dishes like chop suey helped introduce chinese cooking styles to this country and it was a means for the early chinese americans to sustain themselves. Though the taste of chop suey had little to do with authentic Cantonese Chinese cooking, it did offer a quick appetizing meal to the Americans. Afterwards other Chinese foods were born, like eggrolls and pork fried rice, though these were not the foods that the Chinese cooked in their own homes. Americans didn't realize that Chinese cuisine was far more sophisticated. Today, however we can enjoy more sophisticated Chinese dishes like authentic Shanghai soup dumplings, yellow fish stews and shark's fin soups at establishments that rival even the best restaurants in China. It took 2 decades but now there are Chinese restaurants in every city in the U.S.

We've also seen that Indian food has become more fashionable and sophisticated. For years Indian restaurants in the US offered limited dishes on their menus, the usual chicken curry or coconut curry dishes. We've only recently become exposed to regional Gujarat and Kerala foods, breads like Nan and Puri and various Korma's that incorporate nuts and creamy, tomato sauces. India for many decades was not a restaurant culture. Because of its cast system Indians were discouraged from consuming foods that were prepared by someone of a lower cast and therefore eating out at a restaurant meant not knowing who prepared your food. Since Indians were not accustomed to owning restaurants in their home country those who endevored to open restaurants here offered simple dishes that would satisfy the American masses. All of that is changing in India today with their growing prosperity and booming international trade. Their regional cuisines are no longer "foreign" because airlines now offer direct flights there and American businessmen, as well as other travelers are bringing Indian cooking techniques and flavors back home with them. In general politcs and trade have exposed Americans to new cuisines and flavors all over the world.

As a Filipino-American I know that Filipinos are like sponges, absorbing whatever is put in front of us from language and religion to politics and education. It is a 7000 island, diverse archipelago that was ruled by the Spanish for 350 years and by America for 50 years. Our customs reflect influences from both cultures as well as Malaysian and Chinese. Our staple foods are fish, rice and coconut because these can be locally caught and grown, respectively, though our regional cuisines represent local and "borrowed" inlfuences.

So how does a Filipino restaurateur introduce our regional cuisines to America when the main flavors in Filipino cooking are sour and salty-two things that are not generally appealing to Americans? For example, our regional cuisines include dishes like: Sinigang- a pork dish which uses patis (salted fish sauce) and tamarind paste; Adobo-a vinegar based pork and chicken dish; Kare Kare- a beef (more tradionally beef tripe) dish which is served with a condiment called bagoong, an anchovie paste. Though rice dishes, noodle dishes and eggroll does exist in our cuisine, it is almost redundant to offer these because the Chinese practically own these dishes. How do we create curiosity in Amercians with courses that are distinct from the other asian foods already around? Thai food has its peanut sauces, Vietnamese food has it's French influences with basil, Koreans have kim chi and Japanese have sushi and sashimi. If an American has never tasted Filipino food in the first place, what would make them decide to go to a filipino restaurant? Unfortunately most Americans were not curious enough to choose Filipino over Japanese food. So the Philippine culinary dilemma remained for some time.

For as long as I've lived in New York City, I've only known of 3 filipino restaurants; Cendrillon (filipino for Cinderella), Elvee's "turo turo" (meaning "point point" to buffet dishes from behind a glass partition), and lastly Kuma Inn (a play on the word Kumain- meaning "to eat"). There are so few because there hasn't been much of an American demand. Likewise, for years even filipinos have not gone looking for "home-style" restaurants because they would rationalized, " Why should I pay for that? I can make it better", or "my mom/grandma/auntie can make it better."

Elvee's and Kuma Inn have succeeded in providing more tradional and "authentic" filipino courses to both their own and to non- flipinos. The courses at both places are good. However, the down side is that, because filipino fares like this are not in high demand, they will remain small, low priced establishments. While there's nothing wrong with that and I wouldn't trade the filipino food I grew up on for any other cuisine, it is still a dream for filipinos to find finer spots to eat. It is also a dream for Filipino restaurateurs to open more sophisticated and fashionable establishments that will have a stronger customer draw. Restaurants where they can proudly feature their regional dishes to a broader audience in style, serving foods to modern day, cosmopolitan Filipinos while also attracting hip, curious Americans. Fortunately, in the last 10 years the younger generations of Fil-Ams have begun seeking restaurants that serve the cuisine they grew up on, the flavors that they miss and they are more prone to bring with them their American friends, co-workers and significant others. Filipinos are considered to be the second fastest growing Asian population in the U.S. The doors have begun to open.

So as the Chinese and Indians did before, Philippine restaurateurs, like Amy Besa (owner of Cendrillon) have to find creative ways of serving their cultural foods while at the same attracting more Americans. Amy and her husband Romy Dorotan (head chef at Cendrillon) are attempting to do this. There are some Filipinos who feel that the flavoers at Cendrillon are not "authentic" filipino. But there are 2 factors which are the catalists behind these results. Firstly many of the Filipino foods we filipinos are used to are, in fact generational. Recipes that our families used have evolved from their original form, taking and borrowing ingredients from the other cultures we have come in contact with. Since the Philippines was a U.S. colony for 50 years, the Philippines has seen a massive influx of American food products which have become part of daily filipino cooking. Amy herself admits that her great- grandmother's recipe for a pork dish may not be the same as someone else's grandmother's recipe. Secondly, let's face it, every culture that has immigrated here has had to assimilate in some way. As Asian-Americans we attended American schools, listened to American music, ate popular foods and played American sports. It is an important part of adapting to new environments.

So a refreshing feature about Cendrillon is that they always try to incorporate filipino ingredients with ingredients that are locally available, and the recipes are never quite the same. Their menu changes seasonally to make use of new ingredients that are both locally grown and also brought in from remote locations. This past week they flew in Maine Lobsters, Oysters, Clams and Fish from the renowned Brown Trading Company of Portland and invited guest chef Kathy Gunst to cook with them. Courses included Maine Oyster Ceviche, Filipino Clam Soup and Coffee Roasted Hake with Autumn Vegetables. A One night only event entitled, "New England meets the Philippines." Another item on their menu is called "Grace Rice". This combines suman (a steamed, sticky rice, usually served as a sweet dessert) with pork, baby shrimp, cilantro and basil, served as a side dish. They offer rare Chinese teas, they've also created desserts that were featured on Martha Stewart Living.

I am proud of Cendrillon's efforts to reach out to a wider group of people, showing that Filipinos are adaptable and open-minded. But I'm also proud of the smaller venues like Kuma Inn and Elvee's for keeping true to traditional flavors and serving them in an easy, comfortable manner. Mostly, I look forward to seeing and supporting newer restaurants.