Ulam: Filipino food finds its identity

Community News & Features Nov 23, 2018 at 5:36 pm
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Photo courtesy of Kidlat Entertainment.

By Irish Mae Silvestre
The Philippine Reporter

The fact that Filipino cuisine has always been on the periphery of the mainstream food scene is a reflection of our culture itself: immigrants adept at assimilating in their adopted country yet forever caught between two worlds.

The documentary ‘Ulam: Main Dish’ explores this yearning for an identity through the eyes of Filipino-American chefs fighting for recognition. And it’s a struggle that expresses itself with honesty and eloquence through food.

Screened at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on November 12, viewers were treated to a multi-sensory experience that’s far better than any 3-D or D-box experience. Chefs at Lamesa provided the evening’s menu: roasted eggplants with shrimp chips, adobo and rice served in Chinese takeout boxes, and champorado in the form of a chocolate bar, featuring ube, white chocolate and puffed rice.

Chicken Adobo by Andre Guerrero

Chicken Adobo by Andre Guerrero (Photo courtesy of Kidlat Entertainment)

Directed and produced by Alexandra Cuerdo, ‘Ulam’ follows chefs along the bright streets of Los Angeles to New York’s cramped bodegas. There’s Amy Besa who had only planned to leave the Philippines for a year. However, Martial Law forced her to stay in the U.S., where she and husband, Chef Romy Dorotan, opened Purple Yam. For Alvin Cailan it was “a really shitty” $15 breakfast sandwich that broke the camel’s back and led him to create his food truck, Eggslut. For Nicole Ponseca of Maharlika and Jeepney, it was the disappointing lack of representation that pushed her to put Filipino food on the map.

Also featured are the Valencia brothers, Chad and Chase, of LASA; Johneric and Christine Araquel-Concordia of The Park’s Finest; Andre Guerrero of The Oinkster, Maximiliano, and The Little Bear; and Charles Olalia of Rice Bar.

“Ten pounds later, it was a delicious movie to make,” said Cuerdo about filming over three years. “It was a progression for even the chefs to find their way into making their own Filipino food and it was inspiring to watch.”

An Ube Tamale by Romy Dorotan

An Ube Tamale by Romy Dorotan (Photo courtesy of Kidlat Entertainment)

She added that the documentary shows a side of the cuisine that’s extremely misunderstood. “A lot of it is because it’s been hugely seen as ‘other’ and super weird and super crazy, partially because of [the balut] in Fear Factor, partially because of how it’s been presented in mainstream media and I haven’t really seen images of Filipino food otherwise,” she said during the movie’s panel discussion.

‘Ulam’ tackles these misrepresentations by presenting the elegance and complexities of the cuisine. And in the vein of Netflix’s ‘Chef’s Table,’ it’s not just a celebration of the food but the people and the stories behind them.
“Filipinos are very unique,” says Besa. “When they borrow, they don’t just borrow; Filipinos take what they want and, when they come up with it, it’s their own.” Indeed, when Chef Dorotan unwraps the ube tamale’s banana leaves, he reveals a purple, multilayered visual treat that embodies a fusion of cultures.

At Jeepney in Manhattan, Ponseca insists on celebrating balut,- which is presented on a mini pedestal. Each time a customer orders balut, the staff shouts ‘balut!’ just like Filipino street vendors. The message is clear: this is ours and we’re not ashamed of it. Meanwhile, Olalia of Rice Bar turns the typical meal on its head, with the variety of rice dictating the rest of the menu. “Usually, rice is the filling,” he says. “But here, rice is the star.”

Spicy vinegar  (sukang maanghang)

Spicy vinegar (sukang maanghang) (Photo courtesy of Kidlat Entertainment)

Behind the scenes, you can almost smell the sizzling chicken inasal being pulled out of the oven and the banana leaves being heated over an open flame. Amidst the stainless steel surfaces, eager young chefs await instructions from chefs who have become celebrities in their own right.

“As a supporter of Filipino food, why not now be proud? Let’s be proud of who we are and what we’ve done,” says Cailan. “We’re no longer just cucineros, we’re chefs. We’re restaurateurs.”

And mainstream recognition is trickling in. This year, The New York Times published a feature titled ‘Filipino Food Finds a Place in the American Mainstream’, while in 2017, the late Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold claimed that “this is the Filipino food moment.”

All the elements are certainly present, like a carefully laid out mise en place.

“We’re in the middle of the bridge to cross over, we’re there,” says Cailan. “Will the bridge fall is the question.”

Behind the scenes with producer Rey Cuerdo (left) and director Alexandra Cuerdo (right) at Los Angeles Magazine’s 10 Best Restaurants of 2017 event, from ULAM: Main Dish.

Behind the scenes with producer Rey Cuerdo (left) and director Alexandra Cuerdo (right) at Los Angeles Magazine’s 10 Best Restaurants of 2017 event, from ULAM: Main Dish. (Photo courtesy of Kidlat Entertainment)

John Floresca, producer and cinematographer  of ULAM: Main Dish.

John Floresca, producer and cinematographer of ULAM: Main Dish. (Photo courtesy of Kidlat Entertainment)

Chefs at LASA, from ULAM: Main Dish.  Photo courtesy of Wyatt Conlon

Chefs at LASA, from ULAM: Main Dish.
(Photo courtesy of Wyatt Conlon)

Diners enjoy an eat with your hands, kamayan-style feast at Jeepney

Diners enjoy an eat with your hands, kamayan-style feast at Jeepney. (Photo courtesy of Kidlat Entertainment)

Diners share a  Filipino dessert, halo-halo

Diners share a Filipino dessert, halo-halo. (Photo courtesy of Kidlat Entertainment)