Why Over-Modifying Traditional Foods Can Dishonor Cultural Identity
Bon Appétit infuriated many in the Asian American community in September for its admittedly "wrong" and epic-fail tutorial video on pho, the Vietnamese noodle soup. The magazine touted pho as "the new ramen," which is, of course, Japanese, and featured a young white chef as the guru on how to eat pho.
A month later, the magazine that prides itself as "where food and culture meets" did it again with its "Ode to Halo-Halo," a Filipino iconic refresher of shaved ice and tropical fruits. Bon Appétit published the article in August 2016. But the recipe went viral in October, which is Filipino American History Month.
The homage recipe includes mashed blueberries and blackberries, lime juice, coconut milk, gummy bears and popcorn (popcorn?!?). First, halo-halo is not a smoothie. And it's a mix that, frankly, feels sacrilegious.
The comments section, which Bon Appétit has since deleted, blew up with vitriol from an otherwise polite and fun-loving people (Well, not counting the current situation of killings in the Philippines under its new president, of course.) Readers who took to Twitter called it a "desecration," "disgusting" and a "Christopher Columbus recipe." On Facebook, Filipinos posted angry comments about recipe maker (Chris Morocco) and photographer (Alex Lau), much like those directed toward the chef in pho-gate.
I've eaten Filipino food all my life, and have heard many predictions that Filipino food would be the next big thing. But somehow, the smell of bagoong (shrimp paste), patis (fish sauce), fried tuyo (dried fish) or the fear factor of balut (duck embryo) always kept our dishes under the lids.
Well, Filipino cuisine's time has finally arrived. The interest exists no longer just on the West coast or in Queens, where there are big Filipino populations, but is now also thriving on the East coast, with a growing fan base in Europe. Now, it's okay — even cool — to go out for Filipino food, thanks in part to Bon Appétit, which in August 2016 rated the Washington D.C. restaurant Bad Saint as the number two eatery in the country.
And therein lies the irony.
Several articles have been written about why the halo-halo tribute is so wrong on so many levels.
This is my ode to halo halo.
The hot and humid summer in the Philippines, the tropical country where I was born, deserves a cooling savior. We pray for shade, showers and air-conditioner. But with or without those blessings, Filipinos find salvation in the manna called halo-halo (HAH-loh HAH-loh).
This native merienda, or snack, consists of shaved ice and a combination of beans, fruit preserves, evaporated milk and sometimes ice-cream, flan and ubeng halaya (purple yam jam). Piled together, these fillings can resemble a colorful, tropical fruit-tossed salad on snow.
Imagine red and black monggo (mung beans) at the bottom; yellow from cooked saging na saba (indigenous bananas), langka (jackfruit) or garbanzos; white from evaporated milk, nata de coco, (coconut jelly), macapuno (young coconut) and kaong (palm fruit); and orange from kamote (yams). Add in the translucent and chewy goodness of sago (tapioca pearls) and gulaman (like jello made with natural agar-agar). The crunch comes from pinipig (pounded and toasted glutinous rice).
Halo in Tagalog means mix – which is what you do when consuming this treat, whirling it together until it becomes one glass of beautiful purple.
While Filipinos consider halo-halo to be quintessentially Filipino, this tropical cooler harkens back to our colonial past. The Japanese, who came to the Philippines before World War II and whose royalty have enjoyed ice since the 10th century, brought us the first version of halo-halo, called mongo-ya -- plain beans served over ice. In 1902, after the Spanish-American War made the Philippines a territory of the United States, the Americans built the Insular Ice Plant in Manila.
Halo-halo evokes fond memories of living in the Philippines for millions of Filipinos scattered all over the world. I think of Leveriza, the street of my childhood, where my barkada (tight group of friends) got our halo-halo treat from the corner carinderia (like a food truck but in the cook's house). I think of our neighbor, Lola Lucing, a friend's grandmother, who sold halo-halo for two pesos. She set up a small table in front of her house with small plastic containers and bowls of the ingredients. We pointed to the ones we wanted in our little glasses.
I can understand Bon Appétit's desire to jazz up an old recipe and maybe even why it chose to use certain ingredients. The dark berries, when mixed with the ice, can probably create a hue similar to that of the traditional purple yam. The gooey texture of gummy bears can resemble the softness of coconut jelly and tapioca pearls.The popcorn, possibly the oddest inclusion, could be a nod to another Filipino ice snack, mais con hielo (corn with ice). But popcorn doesn't taste good stale or wet. Lime juice is a mystery because we don't put citrus in halo-halo at all. And coconut milk...well, it's a cool thing now that we use in a lot of our food — except naturally in halo-halo.
Like any cultural dish on western stage, Filipino food's popularity has made it subject to different interpretations. No problem there except when the modification resembles nothing in taste and texture like the original. And it's not that authenticity has not been a topic of serious discussion about ethnic food in the western world.
I love tradition, but as a chef and an artist, I respect evolution — a twist or tweak here and there. I do it myself for healthier versions — oatmeal for rice in champorado (chocolate breakfast porridge), ground turkey instead of pork and hotdog for embutido (rolled meatloaf) and edamame for the peas in my paella.
When a tweak successfully brings forth the chef's culinary vision without sacrificing the taste, I will sing a love song of praises. But sadly, Bon Appétit's recent efforts to engage diverse readers by modernizing dishes from other cultures has resulted in social media disaster. And yet, I've seen no apology for this halo-halo debacle.
Still, something positive might emerge. For sure, millions more in this generation of foodies are beginning to embrace Filipino food and culture. And if nothing else, maybe this fiasco will teach those who want to recreate or modify tradition to cook carefully and respectfully.
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