Bourdain Rocks the “Land of Lechon”

by arnold on February 18, 2009

I called my mom about 5 minutes before No Reservations: Philippines was going to air in California, and instead of greeting me, she said, “Are you watching No Reservations?” It wasn’t airing in Hawaii, where I was on vacation, for two more hours, but I did call her to make sure she was watching.


You know Bourdain was in the real Philippines because it said BAWAL UMIHI DITO
(translation: don’t pee here) on every wall. :)

If the Pacquiao/De la Hoya fight was the Filipino equivalent of the Super Bowl, I think this block of television devoted to the cuisine of the Philippines might have been our NBA All-Star Game. Granted, 44 minutes isn’t nearly enough time to do justice to the diverse cuisine of the Philippines, but I thought the show did a good job highlighting some of the great things about the Mother Islands. Bourdain is also a self-described history nut, and he had a lot of great questions about the cultural and historical influences on the Philippines.

I’m not going to recap the whole episode, but it was nice to see Bourdain fall in love with sisig and lechon, and then later declare that the Philippines is No. 1 on his “Hierarchy of Pork” on his Travel Channel blog.

The street food section that opened the show was good, and I was glad Bourdain got to try Pancit Palabok—even though he didn’t think it was “the greatest thing ever”—and the shout out to kalamansi in the segment was nice. Oh…I also want Ivan Man Dy’s Adobo T-shirt.


Where do I get this shirt?

Claude Tayag was Bourdain’s host during the Pampanga segment, and he was great. He started with goat four different ways, which was right up Bourdain’s alley, but a porky love connection happened when Claude introduced him to sisig, the fried pork face dish that might never have been invented were it not for the surplus of pig heads that Clark Air base used to give away in the 1970s.


Sizzing Sisig!

I was chatting with my cousin who lives in Vermont (the state, not the street in L.A.) and she got instantly homesick and hungry during the sisig segment. It must suck to be Filipino in Vermont.

Claude brought some snarkiness to the mix by touting the superiority of Pampanga (big surprise) and saying that “You cannot be Filipino unless you become Pampanga first.” Of course, when his wife corrected him, he immediately clarified that you had to know whatever region you’re from first in order to be Filipino, a sentiment Bourdain related to since he considers himself a New Yorker first and an American second.

Claude also made an observation that has frustrated me since I was a kid.

“We’ve always been bypassed by foreign writers. Even in cookbooks—you buy a Southeast Asian cookbook—we’re marginally on the sides,” he said.

Back in the day, every time I picked up an Asian or world history book or cookbook, the first thing I always did was look in the index for any references to the Philippines, and if there were a couple pages, I considered myself lucky.

Food blogger and lechon master MarketMan of MarketManila.com anchored the Cebu segment. The hand-turned, spit-roasted lechon was a sight to behold with its perfect crispy caramel-brown skin that you could tell was delectable, even on the crappy 19-inch TV at my in-laws house. If you’ve ever been to a party where lechon is being served, people are always scheming to get the first crack at that pig skin.


“Best Pig Ever.” – Anthony Bourdain, 2.16.09

MarketMan’s tour of the fish market was great, especially his explanation of the Suki system of doing business. I also loved that he said the clarity and freshness of the first pressing of fish sauce was analogous to the first pressing of olive oil. Basically, MarketMan was dropping knowledge left and right and definitely picked up the slack for Augusto, whose lack of knowledge was glaring and a bit distracting.

See, I can relate to Augusto’s Fil-Am experience almost exactly, and I had my share of identity issues when I was growing up. However, I never would have put myself up as a representative of the Philippines or its cuisine—especially on international television—and I’ve spent more time there than him. Don’t get me wrong…Augusto deserves a lot of credit for making this episode possible, but as a guide, he was ineffective. It was the exact opposite of the Korea episode where Bourdain’s assistant Nari, while American, had strong ties to Korea and the food, as well as a truly compelling family story.

The show works around this deficiency by framing the narrative around Augusto and his ongoing search for his roots, but in the end, I thought it painted young Filipino Americans as lost souls. But Augusto’s Fil-Am experience is essentially the same as thousands of American-born Filipinos, including me, and as Moonie at PinoyLife noted, the fact Bourdain even brought up this topic “made this episode more historic in the realm of Filipino identity in America.”

As Bourdain himself observed:

It occurs that however badly he wants to be a Filipino, to reconnect with his roots, however hard he’s worked to make that happen—practicing the language, reading up, cooking the food, digging up family memories—he’s still American and to some extent, still new to this part of the family. Not a stranger like me, but an outsider of sorts just the same.

Although I would have preferred that the episode focus more on the food than Augusto’s search for his culture, Augusto deserves a lot of credit for actually wanting to learn more about his culture, especially when it would have been easier for him to ignore it. Of course, Augusto’s story did set up Bourdain’s insightful take on Filipinos and identity that closed the show.

“If there’s anything smart I can say on the subject of national or ethnic identity in general, watching Filipino American Augusto with his Chinese American wife, and—I guess these days—a typical American baby, I think maybe the whole concept is getting quaint and kinda outdated. Who are we really? Increasingly…wherever our hearts are.”

Overall, I thought Bourdain and his crew did an excellent job of showcasing the Philippines without being sensationalistic or cliché, but that’s what he’s done for every other country or region he’s visited. A visit to the Philippines was long overdue, but the wait was worth it, and I hope he goes back for more.

Thanks Tony for shining a light on Philippine cuisine and for giving the Cebuano Lechon the title of “best pig ever.”

And though I may sound critical of him in this post, a big thanks to Augusto for being curious and proud enough of his culture—even if he didn’t fully understand it—to take the initiative to send in his entry and remind Tony that the Philippines was always right under his nose.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Kiko February 18, 2009 at 6:23 am

I’m yet to see this episode as Downunder follows the same sched as the asian episodes… but i can’t wait!

“Back in the day, every time I picked up an Asian or world history book or cookbook, the first thing I always did was look in the index for any references to the Philippines, and if there were a couple pages, I considered myself lucky.” – and i thought i was the only one…

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Marketman February 18, 2009 at 6:47 am

Hi Arnold, thanks for the great write up and kind words. I would really appreciate it if you could replace my name with just “Marketman” as I prefer to keep identities more or less anonymous. I had an understanding with the NR producers that my full name would not be used but they slipped and Tony was recorded saying it so I can’t do much about that now. Many thanks. And yes, thank goodness the skin of those pigs turned out nice and crisp!

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Marvin February 19, 2009 at 1:02 am

Great writeup Arnold. Ivan’s shirt is sick isn’t it? I especially like the cutouts in each of the letters of “ADOBO”.

I have to say that I enjoyed the Claude Tayag and Marketman segments most, just because they offered the most knowledge about what they were talking about. I thought they were both really refreshing in terms of representing the cuisine.

And while I did feel a bit uneasy/uncomfortable/awkward during Augusto’s segments, I do hope that his story will push other young Pinoys to search out their culture. And I’m not disagreeing with you at all. From the comments I’ve read on other sites, I think you hit the whole Augusto thing right on the nose.

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Marvin February 19, 2009 at 1:13 am

I also want to clarify that I felt uneasy/uncomfortable/awkward because I was identifying with everything AB was saying about Augusto (good and bad) and I understood how Augusto might have been feeling during that time. I’m by no means a mind reader, but I can’t honestly say that I would have reacted any differently, or any better, than Augusto did. Was he the most knowledgeable host? No. But he did a lot better than I could have.

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Arnold February 19, 2009 at 2:16 am

@Marvin: I get what your saying. My parents have always been the bridge between me and my relatives in the Philippines, so it would be weird for me to go there without them. I think those first scenes where Bourdain goes to Augusto’s family’s house in Cebu would be similar to what would happen if I went to the Philippines on my own. It’s been 17 years since I’ve been back, so I’m pretty disconnected to my relatives that live there.

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Aileen February 19, 2009 at 1:40 pm

Hi cous…thanks for the shoutout on being in suckish Vermont while watching NR. hahaha! Thanks for the insight about being a Fil-Am too. Though I’m no Fil-Am, my daughter pretty much is and with that thought this helps us a lot in making sure we inject as much culture to her as much as possible.

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Dave March 2, 2009 at 11:50 am

I always wondered who Marketman is, always read his blog. He sounded like a superhero. Now I now he is the Superhero of Filipino Lechon.

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Paul Reiter March 13, 2009 at 3:15 pm

Hey Arn, I think your Googling skills are slipping. This was the first thing that popped up when I typed “I love adobo tshirt.” Looks the same to me. I’m not sure I’d pay $23 for it though. Here’s the link.

[url=http://www.redbubble.com/people/kalyeshirts/t-shirts/1355347-3-i-love-adobo]I love Adobo tshirt[/url]

Glad to see that MarketMan was able to highlight some good Filipino cuisine.

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Arnold March 14, 2009 at 3:07 am

@Paul: To be honest, I didn’t even try Googling it! Thanks for the link!

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sheryl March 18, 2009 at 2:37 am

I haven’t seen this ep yet (they don’t air No Reservations here in NL) but my friend uploaded it for me so I have it waiting to be ripped to the iPod. I saw the clip online where he eats tapsilog and it made me want to jump on a plane to Pinas. I can’t wait to see the rest!

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Sarah March 19, 2009 at 5:27 am

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

Sarah

http://grillsblog.com

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sheryl March 29, 2009 at 9:02 am

So I finally FINALLY watched this episode last night. Great shout out to Pampanga (my mom would agree: Campampangan first!) I definitely am with you about Augusto. I would never have put myself in the position of introducing anyone to authentic food in the Philippines as a Fil-Am, especially someone so totally unfamiliar with Pinas food. I knew right away he was a problem when Bourdain asked him (about lechon), ‘How many times have you had this dish?’ and Augusto said, ‘Once or twice’. How is a brother going to be a GUIDE to the Philippines having only had lechon — you might argue the most famous Pinas food — ‘once or twice’? Pinoy PLEASE. That said, great episode, and props to the producers on No Reservations for keeping deadbeat Augusto in, at least to delve into questions of Filipino identity.

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Dennis Oboza March 30, 2009 at 8:36 pm

What is the name of the chef or cook that prepared the lechon? I think all the credit should be given to him. Furthermore, I’m thinking about opening a lechon restaurant here in the states and i think i found my chef if only someone can tell me his name and address.

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annerepublic June 10, 2009 at 6:28 pm

I’m happy with the show and very well represented. Mabuhay!
http://annerepublic.blogspot.com/2009/02/anthony-bourdain-no-reservations.html

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pat September 4, 2009 at 7:06 am

came across your blog as I was looking for Pinoy t-shirts (guess it tagged the adobo shirt of Ivan)…am a big foodie (love Market Manila and Our Awesome Planet), pinoy and just happened to relocate to Burlington VT. Whereabouts is your cousin? e-mail me please!

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