Ulam: Main Dish Documentary

Amanda Nava Associate Editor

The documentary Ulam: Main Dish opens with clips of a Filipino family-style buffet. Chef and restaurateur Nicole Ponseca (owner of Jeepney) describes the ceremony as “whole feasts served on banana leaves. No plates. No Utensils. No problem.” The sight is hauntingly familiar: at piles of rice (of course), slow-cooked meats, pancit, fried fish, bok choy, and platanos. The colors of the dishes pop against the vibrant green banana leaves. This setting’s so familiar, so comforting but I couldn’t name it until Ponseca says, “kamayan.”

Most of my familial memories involve food. Every Saturday, we’d go to my Aunt and Uncle’s for dinner, which always ended with us kids begging for a sleepover. We knew the mornings promised corned beef hash and eggs over rice. I can recall my grandparents dragging my brother and I to their Lingayen Club events where there’d be KFC, lechon, different types of pancit, dinuguan, and puto de ube with a sprinkling of cheese. I make garlic rice and adobo for my father whenever he misses his parents. I know Filipino food.

I’ve suspected that my prevailing relationship with food was cultural, but I didn’t have the language to articulate my cultural traditions. This is because I’m a third-generation Filipino American and I wasn’t allowed to learn Pangasinan, Tagalog, or Spanish from any of my immigrant family members for fear of an accent and racial prejudice. As a group, my elders decided my generation would be as American as possible. This is a tale as old as time, and while well-meaning it’s well-established that this method of assimilation does more harm than good. 

What is wild about this documentary is that it taught me that I still have so much to learn about my own culture. Being a part of a diasporic community means nuggets of knowledge are lost between generations. For example, all my life, I thought I was eating noodles. Often, my paternal grandmother would make pancit using glass noodles. Well, it turns out glass noodles are just really long mung bean sprouts. Chef and restaurant owner Alvin Cailan (of Eggslut, Am Boy, Paperplanes, and Unit 120) casually mentions this factoid in an NYC market during the documentary. This comment made in passing rocked my world.
Perhaps this revelation is something first/second-gen kids (or for those who carefully read the food packaging) would roll their eyes at, but I was dumbstruck. My first instinct was to text my fellow mixed-Filipina college roommate who was equally stunned. Why didn’t our families just tell us? Did they think our American palates would be grossed out? How could that be possible when we’ve been eating these dishes all our lives?

Over dinner, shortly after the capitol insurrection, I asked both of my parents to list the historical events they witnessed over their lifetime. My dad was born into a military family, so he got to see a good chunk of the United States. In the middle of describing growing up in segregated Maryland and joining a gang in our Bay Area suburb to survive farm-town white supremacy, my father fondly remembered eating at a Filipino-owned Chinese restaurant in Ketchikan, Alaska. It was easy to picture younger versions of my family gathered around a lazy susan full of American Chinese lemon chicken, broccoli beef, roasted duck, pancit, and sinigang

I reminded him of this anecdote when the documentary described a Filipino-owned Chinese restaurant, Dragonfly. According to Ponseca, the restaurant served classic American Chinese food, but if you squinted, you’d be able to see a small section of Filipino dishes.

This is a pattern. Classically trained Filipino American chefs like Andre Guerro (of Oinkster, Maximiliano, & the Little Bear), Charles Olalia (of Ricebar), or the Valencia brothers (of Lasa) worked in non-Filipino restaurants for years. They cooked Italian pasta and French stewed meats, but Filipino food? According to restaurateurs and investors: not possible.

So, what’s the deal? Why are we only Filipino in secret? Why aren’t there as many Filipino restaurants as manga/anime-themed Dim Sum fusion spots?

Filipino food is hard to define. There are some common elements: vinegar, sour, fermentation, and stewed meats. These cooking techniques stem from necessity because of the climate’s tropical weather. One of the chefs and restaurateurs, Amy Besa (of Purple Yam), dedicates her life to honoring, exploring, and celebrating the flavors of her home country. She describes her travels all over the Philippines, tasting countless dishes. What she learned is that there are 3 dishes that can be found in almost any Filipino community: adobo, sinigang, and kinilaw. Everything else is subject to change depending on where you are from in the Philippines and what ingredients are accessible to you. It’s the most beautiful and difficult part of being Filipino.
Beyond that, it is difficult to pinpoint our cuisine. We are a colonized people whose previously Chinese Malaysian influenced cuisine has been altered by our most recent occupations. The Spanish introduced dishes like leche flan. Then eventually, Americans made us dependent on processed packages for flavor. 

Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan (of Purple Yam) were repeatedly “advised not to do Filipino food. No one is going to come if you say Filipino.” Others, like Ponseca, were told directly that “white people aren’t interested” and “Filipinos won’t pay.” 

Why can’t we support each other? Why can’t we invest in each other?

The documentary posits a theory for this: crab mentality. The collective of chefs featured in the documentary defines crab mentality as hiding or being shameful of one’s success. Each chef describes their own experience of Lolas describing their food as “bland” or “not authentic” because this is not how they cook at home. Like Johneric Concordia (of The Park’s Finest) said, “Filipino food equals memories.” So, when the chef doesn’t put chili flakes in the adobo or if the garlic rice is too moist, we become hypercritical of the dish when it doesn’t meet our expectations. Those suffering from crab mentality drag down restaurants with poor reviews because they have a rigid idea of how Filipino food should taste. They believe it should taste like home.

Psychologist Kevin L. Nadal, Ph.D., dives deeper into the phenomenon by stating this is “the desire to outdo, outshine, or surpass another (often of one’s same ethnic group) at the other’s expense.” This mentality encourages one to bring others down in an attempt for individual authority and success. While this seems contradictory in a collectivist culture, this constant need to exert authority and police a culture prevents any Filipino American from succeeding.

However, the truth is there is no monolithic Filipino identity or culture, especially in the Philippines. There are the Pangasinan, Visayan, Tagalog, Ilocano, Igorot, and so many other ethnic and cultural groups that exist within the Filipino experience. As a Filipino American community, we need to get over the idea that we have the right to police what being Filipino means. No single person can define a country containing thousands of islands, with hundreds of dialects, containing millions of people with so many different historical/ethnic backgrounds whose skin color exists on the entire color spectrum. Despite being interviewed at different times, each of the chefs echo this statement in the documentary. 

We, Filipino Americans, will finally be able to thrive when we can finally acknowledge we are a diverse, collective community. It is of the utmost importance that we learn to celebrate, explore, and appreciate our differences. 

It’s time to get over the crab mentality. Not only is it petty, but it’s also counterproductive. Because guess what? This documentary is made by a Filipino American production company, by a Filipina director/writer/producer, and with a Filipino executive producer to uplift Filipino chefs and restaurateurs. If we don’t lift each other up no one else will.

We must follow Cailan’s lead and make space for us. Cailan works with congressmen to try and get Filipino chefs VISAs so they can work in the United States. He also tries to legitimize all chefs and their visions through Unit 120, a creative collective that supports, trains, and pairs restaurateurs and chefs. The truth is we are all better working together than perpetuating an us-versus-them narrative.

What is clear is that a sense of bayanihan (community) is a shared trait of Filipino culture regardless of any of the variables in our identities. Our community is so diverse, but we still have a shared Filipino identity. We have a word for this: kapwa. While the literal definition of isn’t tied to Filipino identity and can be broadly used, as a Filipnx American, I use kapwa to describe something undeniably and sometimes unexplainably Filipino. It is kapwa that caused me to text, call, and DM my Filipino friends when I heard about Ulam: Main Dish from the podcast This Filipino American Life when the director Alexandra Cuedero was a featured guest. Within my bayanihan we shared memories of splitting fluffy mamon cakes, sneaking bites of meat while deshelling crab, or calling something Filipino food because there was a fried egg on top. As a community, we need to take a page out of Ulam’s book and come together to celebrate the rich complexities and Filipino culture, otherwise, we risk forgetting how to cook pancit palabok and stuck with spaghetti (without the banana ketchup).

Associate Editor

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