Reflecting on “No Reservations: Philippines” April 21, 2009Posted by Alex Sawit in Food & Drink, In My Opinion.
By Alex Sawit
21 April 2009
“So Alex,” I was asked for the umpteenth time at the wine shop, “I know you’re tired of hearing this, but what do you think of the Philippines episode?”
Here we go again.
It’s been over two months since No Reservations: Philippines aired on the Travel Channel in the U.S., but the debate rages on among Filipino fans of the show. It amazes me, though it does not surprise me, how a TV program about food of all things could spark so much divisiveness among Pinoys. On one side are people who are bitterly critical of Augusto, the Filipino-American fan handpicked by show host Anthony Bourdain to accompany him to the Philippines as a guide but who, once the camera started rolling, turned into a sheepish introvert unable to explain the culinary charms of his parents’ homeland. On the other side are those who defend Augusto as a new-born patriot, proud to have finally discovered his roots and whose love for his ancestral country puts to shame a lot of Pinoys who are grudging of their own national identity. Not surprisingly, the latter tend to like the episode a lot, while the former tend to like it a whole lot less… maybe not at all.
Since we say it’s better late than never, Cyrano friends, it’s time for me to once and for all make known my mind to you about what went wrong and what went right in that hotly debated episode.
Never mind that Bourdain’s researchers told him that Clark Airbase was a part of U.S. military history during the Spanish-American War (it wasn’t built until long after Spain turned over the Philippines to U.S. rule under the provisions of the Treaty of Paris signed on December 19, 1898). Never mind that Pampanga food authority Claude Tayag, talking to Bourdain, repeated the myth that sisig was invented by the late Aling Lucing (sisig was around long before Aling Lucing popularized her restaurant’s version on a sizzling plate in the 1970s). Never mind any of the other factual errors mentioned on the show that could be politely excused. In my opinion, No Reservations: Philippines was a good, entertaining episode.
But if I must admit to feeling disappointed, it’s because I was expecting more due to the mistaken impression I was under in the months leading to the episode premiere. Bourdain is known for constructing each episode around a strong central theme. When he arrived in the country for filming in October 2008, his interviews in local publications led me to believe that the theme for the Philippines would focus on a wonderful idea proposed by none other than Bourdain himself: That Filipino cooking, in Tony’s admiring opinion, is an astonishing fusion cuisine tradition that is already centuries old.
“You have had fusion cuisine from the beginning,” Bourdain remarked excitedly to one of his hosts, a conclusion he arrived at as a result of struggling to describe the kaleidoscope explosion of flavors he discovered here, which struck him as vaguely familiar yet seeming to defy definition by his palate even after years of traveling to most every food destination on the planet. “It’s an asset that you have a wide variety and different influences from your years of colonization,” he said, expressing delight that ours is the only cuisine in the world that is the result of both Chinese and Mexican influences. “Those (Chinese and Mexican influences) are two great cuisines.”
The Original East-West Fusion Cuisine. What an awesome concept. That’s what I thought would be the theme. I should say, that’s what I misled myself into thinking.
No matter. Cheers to Bourdain for deciding to build the theme around the story of Augusto – a story about a young Filipino-American in search of his cultural identity, which is really the age-old story about our struggle to define what it really means to be Filipino, to be a unique people whose heritage is of both Oriental spirit and Hispanic passion. That’s the right story. It should make all Pinoys take a good look inside and seek the honest answer in their own hearts. That’s what makes the Philippines Episode something special (along with the fact that Bourdain declared our lechon to be the best pig he’s ever eaten).
There’s just one more thing I should mention. I really wish the producers had recruited the flamboyant Carlos Celdran (he who pioneered the now famous walking tours of Manila) as their local fixer for the Manila segment of the episode. Celdran would have done justice to the city’s street food culture, unlike the person they wound up choosing instead. That culinary pretender ought to be called out for fooling the producers with his lousy, error-filled “foodie insights” and half-baked understanding. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing and the fellow just kept misrepresenting things to Bourdain over and over again, at times wrongly describing the regional context of the dishes or ignoring context altogether and passing off regional specialties as “typical” Filipino food. Thanks to him, Bourdain thinks that our indigenous kalamansi citrus fruit, which is ubiquitously used as a souring agent in our food, has a bitter taste (that’s because that fellow didn’t think of straining out the bitter seeds, which is what anyone with common sense is supposed to do, instead of allowing both kalamansi juice and seeds to be mixed into the palabok rice noodles that he carelessly asked Tony to eat). Worse, when Bourdain asked him to list the basic ingredients for making adobo, he completely excluded vinegar, a jaw-dropping omission because vinegar is THE ingredient without which a dish cannot truly be called adobo (sorry, but the stir-fried “adobo shrimps” he perplexingly chose for Tony to try is not a classic adobo dish). There’s more and I could go on but… ‘nuff said.
There, I’ve said my peace.