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Filipino Food Finds a Place in the American Mainstream

Filipino Food Finds a Place in the American Mainstream

By LIGAYA MISHANMARCH 12, 2018

In 1883, José Rizal, the future hero and martyr of the Philippine Revolution, was a homesick medical student abroad in Madrid. His longing for bagoong, a paste of seafood salted and left to ferment until it exudes a fathomless funk, grew so great that his worried family in Manila dispatched a jar. But it broke on the ship, releasing its pungent scent and, reportedly, terrifying the passengers.

Today, bagoong and other Filipino foods are finally entering the American mainstream, more than a century after the United States Navy sailed into Manila Bay, sank the Spanish Armada and took control of the archipelago, a restive colony of around 7,100 islands and 180 languages. Americans of Filipino heritage now make up one in five of all Asian-Americans, second only to Chinese in number, and the largest percentage of immigrants serving in the United States military were born in the Philippines.

Other Asian cuisines have been part of the American landscape for decades. But only in recent years have Filipino dishes started gaining recognition outside immigrant communities, at restaurants like Maharlika in New York; Bad Saint in Washington, D.C.; and Lasa in Los Angeles.

The flavors of Filipino cooking, like Rizal’s broken jar of bagoong, still have the power to startle those unfamiliar with them.

Although Filipino food draws on early encounters with Malay, Chinese and Arab traders as well as centuries of Spanish occupation, its profile is distinct: salty and sour above all, with less of the mitigating sweetness and chile-stoked fire found in the cooking of its Southeast Asian neighbors.

Bagoong — ranging from muddy brown to plumeria pink in color, commonly made of tiny krill, anchovies or bonnetmouths — brings to soups and stews a depth of flavor that evokes cheese interred in caves and aged steak, with an extra dimension of ocean floor.

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