Throw a stone in any mall and you’re bound to hit an international food chain that has gained steady local clientele. We’re looking at casual dining restaurants like Friday’s, quick snack spots like J.Co, milk tea joints like Cha Time, and their ilk. But step out onto the streets of Manila and you may notice the budding revolution of our very own local food scene. New classics like El Chupacabra, Your Local, and Sweet Ecstasy show us what local concepts have to offer, and imply that the hey-day of local restauranteurs and chefs is now. Or, if we’re not careful, yesterday.
The Philippines has long had a penchant for international cuisine: birthdays spent in Chinese restaurants, gimmicks at Italian pizzerias, and anniversaries in French bistros. Manila’s food scene was a melting pot of cultures that seemed to exclude our own; 10 years ago, it would be hard for you to find Filipino cuisine in any given location unless it was in the corner carinderia or someone’s home, with restaurants like Abe, Mesa, and Kanin Club more novelty than staple. Today, we are seeing a fusing of these two kinds of restaurants, as Filipinos take advantage of techniques and recipes from foreign influences, toss them together with local ingredients, and create something we have neither seen nor tasted before. Call it our own gastronomic renaissance, or call it something less corny, but the Philippines is in the midst of creating its own identity beyond the “sticky, fried and brown” Filipino food stereotype.
The battlecry that has echoed throughout the food scene is “Support local!” And with the pride that Filipinos take in calling something their own, Filipinos have responded to that battlecry with gusto. Tamarind, ube, and salted egg are no longer novelty nostalgic snacks but have become the stars of the plate. Homegrown concepts, ingredients, and chefs are lauded for their unique ability to take the familiar and transform it into something new and exciting.
But this new culture that small restauranteurs are trying to build is threatened by a larger-than-life culture that has long persisted. We are referring to America’s actual greatest legacy in the Philippines: mall culture. When the government has to regulate mall sales in order to stifle daily carmaggedon, you know your country really does “lovEMall.” Filipinos know that we have inspiring local restaurants beyond the borders of these four walls that they are itching to try, but could they bring them a little closer? Because the aircon feels so nice before our long commute home.
Unfortunately (whether that misfortune falls upon the restauranteurs or the mall-goers is up to you), independent, small food businesses cannot normally afford the prohibitive mall rental rates, and become excluded from the mainstream. And by prohibitive, we mean rentals that can cost up to ten times the rate you would get outside the mall, plus giving the mall a portion of your profits, and paying a deposit that is equivalent to a downpayment on a Corolla Altis. Not to mention the restaurant owners who decisively wish to stay out of malls out of choice, in preference for supporting small local businesses, being a part of the community, and trying to create something personal, even special, that we can call our neighborhood spot.
Whether these independent restaurants are out of malls by monetary limits or choice, it is upon their shoulders that we hope to finally create a food culture we can call our own. Can we adventure beyond the comforts of the mall and into the site where revolutions oft begin: our own city streets?
The streets where you can hear the distant sounds of karaoke; where the smog only adds to the taste of your burger; where you bang your elbow into the person seated at the neighboring table, and lift your San Mig with a smile to say Sorry, friend. Have a good one. And yes, the streets where, when it rains, you find yourself holing up for a little while longer with old friends, maybe new ones, and a couple more beers than you originally intended. I urge you to step out of the mall bubbles that make the saying “Parang hindi nasa Pilipinas dito” seem like a good thing, and get to know your local neighborhood spots, whether that is in BF, Maginhawa, Burgos, Kapitolyo, or wherever your budding local chefs lay out their knives.