Can Manila become a great food city?
When it comes to food, Manila doesn’t hold a candle to Osaka, Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City, but four experts weigh in on the Philippine capital’s potential
The food industry in the country is growing, that’s for sure. So many restaurants have opened in the last few years and they are no longer limited to foreign franchises.
Filipino food is also gaining ground in countries like the US, starting from small food trucks to full-blown restaurants run mostly by second-generation immigrants giving Pinoys abroad a taste of home. There have been features too, with Anthony Bourdain leading the way. The question lies in Manila’s ability to become big enough to eventually turn itself into a food city like Tokyo or San Francisco. We ask three food experts to talk about this possibility—however far off—and what is needed to attain that status.
Roy Murakami is one of the partners of Bar Mathilde. In his previous life, he was a bar patron and full-time reviewer for Yelp. He starts off by defining what a food city is not: suburban strip mall wastelands, trend chasers, the spirit of unadventurous eating, the rich eating rich, the overly curated experience of social media and the internet, copycat entrepreneurship, and the exchange of money for a concept that no one understands but pretentiously pretend to understand and the perpetuation of that pretense, eating to just “check it oﬀ the list.”
“A food city is a lot of things,” he says, “It’s more than the proliferation of food, ingredients, culture, technique, and information. It’s something like a two-way street. In food cities, I see an intersection of cultures and at the same time the refinement of culture.”
Sharwin Tee, known for his pop-ups and food shows, names Penang and Pampanga as examples. “They both have something I want all food cities to be. Both places not only made food a central part of the city’s culture and tourism, but they also championed food that was local. In both places, the dominant food enjoyed by tourists and locals alike were local, homegrown brands, and with chefs and cooks who grew up or had family connections there.”
Another angle to consider is how sustainable a food city is. Book author and food historian Ige Ramos believes that a food city should look into its socio-economic impact and its implications on the environment.
“It should be close to its ingredients. Singapore is considered a food city, but their ingredients are imported—because of their size, they don’t have a farm and they don’t have a big market. This raises their carbon footprint. This is fine for them because their income level is high and they can afford to do that and have all sorts of restaurants with. Ideally though, we should look at places like Turino in Italy where the ingredients are fresh and accessible, where they can actually trace where the ingredients come from.”
Ramos says it is idealistic, even utopian, but it can be done, especially in our country. “Here we have places like Iloilo, Bacolod, Cavite, and Pampanga where the ingredients for their cuisine can come from a 10- to 15-kilometer radius. They make use of what they have.” He also puts waste disposal into account where big cities like Paris and New York have so much wastage.
IT’S ABOUT THE WHOLE EXPERIENCE
Murakami analyzes how food cities grow. “Food cities are never homogenous and uniform. There are trends, there are staples, there are hidden gems, there are locals-only spots, and there are definitely some really bad eateries. It’s up to an educated food person to understand each of these and appreciate them for what they are. With technology, everything is hyped. But understanding that is important. That’s part of the world growing up. There’s information, opinion, and hype. Then there’s context, which a lot of people somehow miss.”
Of course, he says, there is always hype and trends, especially with all of the money that came into the Bay Area with the tech booms. “With money, food suddenly became more accessible to people who considered themselves foodies. More often than not, people are just food tourists, or those who pretend to care about food but actually just want to be recognized for participating in food.”
Murakami recounts one of his favorite food experiences is a ritual of sitting in his old neighborhood taqueria in San Francisco “with a plateful of tacos al pastor under a pile of onion and cilantro, a cold Modelo at the ready, the workers working the line, nobody taking selfies or flashed-out pics of their food.”
“Food cities are never homogenous and uniform. There are trends, there are staples, there are hidden gems, there are locals-only spots, and there are definitely some really bad eateries. It’s up to an educated food person to understand each of these and appreciate them for what they are. With technology, everything is hyped. But understanding that is important. That’s part of the world growing up. There’s information, opinion, and hype. Then there’s context, which a lot of people somehow miss,” says Roy Murakami.
MANILA ON THE FOOD MAP
All experts agree though that Manila has the potential to become a food city. But there are many challenges along the way. Tee names the first: “As a tourist, when you come to Metro Manila, the number of cities—plus the heavy traffic—combine to make a food crawl that could encompass the whole Metro Manila impossible. Contrast that with Penang or Pampanga where a lot of the must-visit food places are minutes away from each other.”
The other problem is identity. Mikel Zaguirre of Locavore says, “To become a food city, the first step is knowing what you have, the second is promoting it. I am envious of Bacolod and Iloilo. They promote their food ng buong-buo. They would go, ‘Masarap ang inasal namin!’ and proclaim the same of their other food items like the managat. The Kapampangans say the same about their sisig. With Manilenos, you don’t hear these things. But with many homegrown restaurants coming out, we will get there eventually.”
“What we have is there are so many restaurants, a huge portion of them foreign or foreign concept chains, which clouds the identity of Metro Manila,” echoes Tee. “Even given a month, a foodie that eats three to four meals a day wouldn’t make a dent in trying to identify some of Metro Manila’s best. A visitor comes to Metro Manila to try something, but they want to choose something distinctly Manila, but what is it? The most popular places now are maybe ramen joints, Japanese restaurants, American steakhouses and pizza joints. They wouldn’t know where to start.”
Tee advocates finding that identity and promoting it. “The tourism office working with historians and local restaurateurs and chefs would be key. These groups could both establish the city’s food identity and then create a way to showcase that identity for tourists. A semi-regular food event, organized food crawls or tours can quickly build it into a legit food city. I think what’s best for each city in Metro Manila would be to establish their own identities. Malabon, for example, is doing a great job by creating a tricycle food tour to showcase a lot of local homegrown concepts.”
Murakami, who has made Manila his home, says it has bright prospects. “People here love to eat and people respect food. People genuinely appreciate food, which I think is key. There’s a population density and there’s money. There’s also a large potential for delivery, if the ordering innovation is there.”
WORK TO BE DONE
Experts say to make the industry grow further, there needs to be synergy between the food creators and the dining public.
“We need to patronize our local ingredients. Develop the sources of ingredients, develop local farmers and give them subsidies so they can plant more. The problem is the cost, many of our restaurants buy imported ingredients down to the onions because they are cheaper. If more restaurants and even households choose to buy local, they can help bring the costs down,” sums up Ramos, cautioning that if nobody is buying from the markets, farmers will stop planting heirloom produce.
“To become a food city, the first step is knowing what you have, the second is promoting it. I am envious of Bacolod and Iloilo. They promote their food ng buong-buo. They would go, ‘Masarap ang inasal namin!’ and proclaim the same of their other food items like the managat. The Kapampangans say the same about their sisig. With Manilenos, you don’t hear these things. But with many homegrown restaurants coming out, we will get there eventually,” says Mikel Zaguirre.
He adds that people should look into manufacturing too. “Rather than importing toyo or patis, we should develop these industries. The coconut milk in our groceries are made in Thailand. If we can develop our own, we can actually export our laing, if we dry the gabi leaves properly in a very clean and sustainable manner, we could can our gata and dry our sili.”
On the side of the dining public, Murakami recommends removing restaurants from what he calls the “four-star purgatory,” where customers are hesitant to give honest feedback. “Ratings give an important touchpoint for honest feedback, but too often we receive and accept tepid praise or general non-feedback. This is a conversation within the industry that can drive all of us to higher standards, so long as we’re committed to higher standards and our customers recognize and demand higher standards. We, in turn, demand higher quality from our suppliers and so on.”