Why is American Junk Food so Popular in the Philippines?January 15, 2015
As a “food writer”, I am meant to have a sophisticated palate. I am supposed to know the difference between gelato and ice cream, abhor truffle flavor if it comes from cheap oil rather than shaved fresh from Umbria, and have a checklist of places around the world I’ve eaten in/need to eat in. But, in this tireless world of restaurant critics and uppity eaters, I maintain an undignified secret: I love the old greasy spoon. When I’m meant to be writing about Michelin stars, I think about my chicken nuggets. While I edit a piece about the culinary trends of 2015, I’m wondering when root beer floats will make their big comeback. I, like everyone else, just want a little bit of junk sometimes. And when I mean junk, I mean the American kind.
I think my secret love of processed foods comes from way back. Mcdonald’s or Jollibee was where people spent their birthdays, and I sure as heck ate potato chips for an after school snack. Everyone’s had a little bit of this culture mixed into their childhood, and it seems as if it runs through our blood. Years later on, we’ve still got American fast food chains everywhere, and have even more coming in. We’re fixated on it, and even some of our homegrown concepts are made with this in mind. While we have plenty of restaurants and cuisines that share the spotlight, the greasy side of American comfort food still seems to win over our hearts every time. So it got me thinking—why is it that we’re so attached to this stuff?
History and Influence
Philippine culture is influenced by so many others, such as Malay, Spanish, Chinese, and American. Each have their own stories, and the history of American influence on our cuisine is a much more recent one, which has everything to do with their occupation of our islands. Along with the Joes came canned goods, a necessity during time of war. They introduced us to food of convenience, which was important during that era: pressure cooking, freezing, pre-cooking, canning. It was cultural imperialism and soft power at work; soon we were hooked on the ideal ways of the West. We fell in love with Mickey Mouse, with Hollywood, and everything else Uncle Sam had to offer—burgers and fries included.
Flavors and Assimilation
American junk food was and is a novelty; the high fat and salt content made it a special treat that kids looked forward to. Our palates are used to a lot of salty, sour, sweet, all intense flavors that allowed us to embrace whatever sodium or sugar-laden food was popular then. We loved it so much, that we even started adopting and adapting beloved dishes into the Filipino culinary repertoire, turning them into staples: for example, American spaghetti turned into a Filipino one, with a sweeter sauce and chopped-up hotdogs, fried chicken and hamburgers are so ubiquitous that they’ve even become common and standard street food, and corned beef with rice is almost as beloved as our cured tapa. Heck, some of our most popular fast food chains offer mainly Western-inspired menus.
Imports and Chains
Chains were big then and remain influential for many reasons. The flavors we are now accustomed to ensure that we keep coming back to the same counters, and the fact that these logos symbolize treats “from abroad”. Popularity stems from nostalgia, and American food has become so familiar to us, that it might even be the comfort food we first think of, or what we cook at home. That stubborn phrase colonial mentality has a lot to do with it too; we love whatever is new and foreign, and would give whatever money we had to something everyone else was talking about. KFC, Mcdonald’s, Burger King all enjoy crowds and hordes of people, and you can just imagine what will happen when places like Pink’s or Halal Guys open their doors here.
Whatever reason we had for loving this junk in the first place hardly matters; we’re in too deep and we just can’t tear away from our beloved burger buns and our super-saturated fats. Do you think we’ll ever have a love affair with another cuisine that runs as deep as this? I think not.
What are your favorite American concepts available in the Philippines? Why do you think American cuisine is so popular here? Let us know below!