The consumption of foreign cuisine brings with it a certain mindset, one that is thought of as adventurous, well-traveled, and intellectual. After all, why else would you try something strange, weird-looking, different-tasting? The main reasons for eating an international dish is simply because it is delicious, and it is ubiquitous. You have your pizzas, your pastas, your burgers, your fries; dishes that have become so every day we almost think of them as local–definitely, we think of them as comfort food.
The main reasons for eating an international dish is simply because it is delicious, and it is ubiquitous. You have your pizzas, your pastas, your burgers, your fries; dishes that have become so everyday we almost think of them as local–definitely, we think of them as comfort food.
Another reason people seek out international cuisine is because it is hip, and sometimes, hard to come by. You have your foie gras, your truffles, your wagyu–ingredients that started out as exotic ‘it’ food that, over time, have become common in some circles as well. But there is another reason, and this is my favorite, why people go out of their way to munch on the unfamiliar, and that is simply because it is fun.
Food, much like the internet, has become the final frontier for a large part of the civilized world. With very little left to explore and discover, what you eat–and often by extension, photograph–has become the easiest way to express yourself. You are judged by what can be seen on your plate. And depending on the company you keep, eating something unfamiliar can be either cause for derision or admiration. And this doesn’t just apply to dishes or cuisines–they encompass mindsets as well. For example, I was a pescetarian in the 90s for ethical reasons, a concept alien to most of the Philippines back then. When I told people I didn’t eat land-dwelling animals, I either got chicken, or a sermon about my life choices. I wasn’t even one of those preachy–tarians who went around telling people how their non meat-based diet is best for everyone. Most of the time, I didn’t mention it until necessary or when asked; I didn’t think it was anyone’s business.
But my penchant for putting strange edibles in my mouth wasn’t always met with suspicion. My mother had a group of friends who were highly amused at the fact that I was obsessed with tea and cheese. Of course, now everyone is obsessed with the and cheese, but these were the 80s and 90s, when tea was thought of as something only old people drank and cheese was something stinky. Since I was the only person, young or old, they knew that liked the weird stuff, they’d bring me tea or cheese when they traveled. I remember my mom coming home with the entire, untouched cheese plate from a friend’s daughter’s debut, which was held in a swanky hotel. In a way, I’m quite sad that more people like them today, only because that means that means there’s less for me.
There is a prevailing mindset that states that international food is better than local food because international food is the kind you get at restaurants, while local food is the kind you cook at home. But think of it like this: what we think of as ‘restaurant food’ is the ‘home cooking’ of that country. The first time this hit me was when, watching a friend’s French then-boyfriend make crepes, and I asked how he learned to cook something I had only seen served in fancy restaurants, he gave me a puzzled look and said, “My grandmother taught me.”
The same with street food. Here, pad Thai is served exclusively in restaurants. In Thailand, you can find it everywhere: it is both street food and hotel food. The best pad Thai I have ever tasted, I bought off a street vendor in Bangkok for 10 Baht.
The flavors will never be the same, of course. Aside from the difference in ingredients, there is also the difference in air, in water, and in the cook’s personal experience. Nowadays, the quest seems to be for authenticity, for a dish to be as close to the original as possible. But even if you get all the ingredients flown in (not recommended, for environmental reasons) and get a Chef from that country to prepare it, it will still be just a little bit different.
The tables turn when we go overseas. Filipino food, especially now, is a delicacy, something to be celebrated, especially if you’re a Pinoy who misses the cuisine of the homeland, or even if you’re an avid eater curious about what foreign food publications have been calling ‘the next big thing.’
The first time I ate in a Filipino restaurant overseas was in Toronto. It was a small, Filipino family-run enterprise that served the hits: adobo, torta, lechon. The food looked the same as back home, and the cooks knew what they were doing; they had grown up with this kind of food after all, but everything tasted… off. It wasn’t that we could get better food at home–that’s too unfair and simplistic an explanation, and a lazy one to boot. It could have been the ingredients–the nutrients that the vegetables sucked in when they were grown, the feed that the pork and chicken ate when they were raised. Or it could have been the air or the water or even the way Canada smelled–crisp, clean, almost pure, especially compared with the glorious olfactory confusion that is the Philippines. One would think that Canada’s cleaner air and water would automatically make for better tasting food, but instead, it made it different.
Filipinos like to joke that dirt adds flavor (it’s the biggest excuse for eating street food, despite sanitary concerns; for some reason, we are incapable of just saying that it tastes good). but what if there is some truth in this? What if the microbes found in a country’s air, water, and people–and not just germs per se, but the psychological attitudes that make up a race as well–contribute to the way its cuisine tastes? A dish made in Manila tastes a little bit different when eaten in Chicago, and not just because it spent a lot of time on the plane.
Food is considered foreign depending on where you are. And in the end, almost every dish can be considered home cooking, even the recipes developed for kings and queens. A palace is, after all, also a home, albeit a bigger one than most of us are used to.
This essay first appeared in Sans Rival, Rustan’s Supermarket’s in-house magazine.