THINK ON THESE by Henrylito D. Tacio

Nextflix’s Street Food Asia recently featured food scenes in Thailand, Japan, India, Indonesia, Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore and the Philippines.  The one in our country was filmed in the oldest city, Cebu.

When film director Erik Matti saw it, he had nothing but criticism.  He wrote that the Cebu episode “borders on poverty porn.”  According to him, “the dishes except for lechon are food that are not really a staple of Filipinos.”

In comparison, “all the other Asian countries had their classic world-renowned street food” while the ones featured in the Philippines was “bizarre” and “bad research.”

The criticism earned nothing but criticism as well from those who read Matti’s post.  “Not at all times that we need the approval of the North to tell the world what our culture can showcase,” pointed out Bryl Jan Salazar Yucaran, who is from Cebu, in his open letter to Matti.

“Is it because the foods featured do not suit your taste buds, you label them as ‘poverty porn,’ ‘bizarre,’ and ‘bad research’?” Yucaran wrote.  “Well, please be reminded that the episode was not about the street foods of the Philippines but only of Cebu.  That is why this certain episode in Netflix’s show was entitled ‘Cebu.’  The food featured (in the show) talked about our culture as Cebuanos that may not generally represent us, Filipinos.”

Jonathan Watson, an American who now settles in Davao City, made a lengthy discussion on it, too, in his social media account. “I disagree with Director Erik Matti’s remarks regarding the Cebu Philippines episode… He complains about how the show features nilarang bakasi and lumpia, which for him doesn’t best represent Philippine street food in whole.”

Every Filipino know what lumpia is.  As for nilarang bakasi, it is a sour stew made with reef eel.

In another post, Matti suggested that the show should have showcased Ilocano fried empanada.  (“(It) is much more truly Filipino,” the director wrote.  “I was really hoping that we at least have chosen something widely regarded by most Filipinos and Cebuanos too as the street food that can represent us.”

This suggestion earned an ire from Watson: “Why criticize lumpia then suggest empanada as ‘more Filipino?’  Is it because lumpia is from Chinese? Don’t forget empanada was from Spain – and not only that – but from the colonial period which was forced, as opposed to consented trading between two countries from the same hemisphere (that is, China and Philippines).  Neither are ‘truly Filipino’ if your standard is based on that which is without major influence.”

On nilarang bakasi, Watson had this to say: “Is it because nilarang bakasi is unheard of?  I’ve lived almost 10 years here in Mindanao, and am a bigtime foodie, yet have never heard of Ilocano fried empanada. And if you look at the episode title, it’s fixated on Cebu, not the Ilocos Region. Neither nilarang bakasi nor Ilocano fried empanada fit your standard of ‘quintessential Filipino street food’ if your standard is based on what’s more heard of.”

Matti again wrote: “Di ko pinapaglaban na Manila food ang i-showcase.  Ilonggo ako.  Kahit saan galling ok lang yan.  Cebu lechon is one of the best in the country.  But I don’t think it would hurt to choose a generally regarded Filipino street food to best represent our country to the rest of the world.”

So, what is truly more Filipino when it comes to food in general or street food in particular?  “In my opinion,” Watson said, “it’s what’s there by description of what already exists in local cuisine, not by what is by prescribed (and framed via film) based on aversion to foreign influenced foods (that is, lumpia, empanada, afritada, pansit, Pinoy spaghetti, etc.) or foods popular due to Manila-centric power (that is, those popular in Luzon or the National Capital Region).

Yucaran subscribed to the same idea.  “We may be under one nation but we have diverse cultures.  Every place has its own distinct culture and that is beautiful.  There is beauty in diversity when it is acknowledged and respected.”

Watson approved. “What’s truly Filipino is the beautiful diversity in food that goes beyond adobo,” he wrote.  “If you leave Filipino identity only to the cuisine known in Manila (and elsewhere due to power relations), then you marginalize other local identifies categorized under the Filipino identity as a whole.”

Watson, who’s a fan of Matti films but not his opinion on food, also made this suggestion: “We need more spotlight on what’s unheard of, because things like halo-halo, kwek-kwek, etc. are all to redundant as opposed to main dishes, snacks, and street foods that are found in places that Manila hogs the spotlight from.  This is why you’ll see me strongly endorsing Mindanaoan street foods, like pastil and palagsing, as such remains snubbed from mainstream focus.”

One word that struck Yucaran was the word “bizarre.”  He wrote: “You may find (the food featured in the show) bizarre.  But in another perspective, if you use the neutral lens in viewing a culture or even a subculture, you can see that every culture is unique.  Street foods of every place talk about the diversity of culture.  They are symbols that speak about the past, daily struggles, dreams, and aspirations of its people.”

Interaksyon, the website of TV5, gave some ideas on how the food mentioned earlier were chosen to be featured in the Netflix show. 

“The food scene in Cebu got handpicked for the Street Food Asia after the production team ran a quick Google search of the key word ‘street food,’”Interaksyon quoted food writer Jude Bacalso.

Netflix reportedly contacted her after they stumbled upon her article on bakasi.  She was asked to curate a list of Cebuano street food.  And the rest was history.