(ASIAN 258) Lumpia and Filipino Food: Layered Yumminess
Updated: Mar 20
A few years ago, Filipino food became trendy on the East Coast. A restaurant called F.O.B. opened in Brooklyn, the hipster capital of the world. F.O.B. offered Americans their first taste of Filipino food – and in a cheeky setting, to boot. Some predicted that Filipino food was poised to become the next big thing. So the New York Times ran an article, “Filipino Food Finds a Place in the American Mainstream.”
Despite the glowing reviews, Filipino food remains obscure to most Americans. Let’s face it: You’re probably asking yourself now: What’s Filipino food like?
Surprisingly enough, this turns out to be a tough question. It’s also a question that goes to the heart of this class.
There are two ways of answering the question.
One is to think about what makes Filipino food different – or distinct from Chinese, Thai, or Malay. Is it a seasoning, a dish, or perhaps a texture?
The other is to do the opposite, to focus on overlapping elements: ingredients, dishes, and techniques that span places. You look at the connections to the Muslim and Malay world, to coastal China, and the Spanish and American empires.
The New York Times reporter, Ligaya Mishan, chose the first. She opens her account with an anecdote about José Rizal (1861-1896), the great patriot executed by the Spanish. Before he became a revolutionary martyr, Rizal was just a medical student in Spain. In an attempt to keep a taste of home with him, he brought a jar of bagoong, preserved seafood paste. But it was all for naught. The jar broke during his journey, and the scent overwhelmed the non-Filipino passengers on the boat.
This leads Mishan to reflect on what makes Filipino food unlike anything else in the world. She contemplates the pungent fishiness of the bagoong. She muses about the soul-piercing sourness that pervades sinigang, a sour soup, the dipping sauces for lumpia, and palm vinegar. For Mishan, the saltiness and sourness define Filipino cuisine.
While I admire Mishan’s storytelling, I can't help but think she's on a fool's errand. She’s looking for something that does not exist -- the essence of Filipino cooking.
So why shouldn’t she look for an essence?
For a start, the Philippines isn’t really a single place, but rather a collection of seven thousand islands. The 100 million people who call themselves Filipinos are also a diverse bunch. They speak a wide array of tongues, live and work in different places around the world, and follow dissimilar faiths. Yes, more than 90 percent of Filipinos are some kind of “Christian” (as if Pentecostals and Catholics were identical). But there’s also a sizable Muslim minority in the south, with their own foodways. If you have been following the news, there was, until recently, also an insurgency movement.
The foodways of the Philippines add to this complex picture. A glance at the dishes that Mishan names in her article reveals a grab bag of culinary influences: native, Chinese, Spanish, South Asian, Japanese, even American. Think of the leche flans and bread rolls. At this point, you should be having flashbacks of Goa, another long-time Iberian colony. Then picture banana ketchup. Yes, it’s sweet and closer to American ketchup than to the fishy stuff. But how do you think it got there? We occupied the Philippines for almost five decades (1898–1946).
But let’s rewind and go back to the lumpia, which Mishan mentions only in passing. She calls it the “cousin” of the spring roll and overlooks the clues it offers.
In a nutshell, lumpia is a Southeast Asian spring roll. Its name is a loan word, borrowed from the southern Chinese dialect in Xiamen. We have already done a virtual tour of Xiamen. It’s the coastal city in Fujian formerly known as Amoy. Remember the fishy ketchup?
If I were a betting woman, I’d guess that Rizal ate far more than bagoong. Like many Filipinos, he probably also consumed lumpia. He had Chinese ancestors on both sides of his family.
Immigrants from Fujian brought lumpia to the Philippines. By the time that Rizal faced the firing squad, Chinese had been in the Philippines for centuries. Some say they began coming in the ninth century. Others insist it was the eleventh century. But one thing is clear. Beginning in the seventeenth century, Southern Fujian supplied a steady stream of immigrants to the Philippines.
The Chinese community in the archipelago was large. At one point, Chinese immigrants and their descendants outnumbered the Spanish by a significant factor. Relations with the Spanish -- and the natives -- could be tense. Other times, they could also be amicable. Many of these immigrants started families with native women. Scholars estimate that 15-25 percent of the population has some Chinese blood.
Lumpia was not the only food that made its way from coastal China to the Philippines. Southern Chinese also brought fried wheat noodles, tofu, filled buns, dumplings, wontons, and even bird’s nest. They also taught the natives to carve up the pig in special ways. The Tagalog words for the different cuts of pork derive from Chinese.
Obviously, lumpia did not stay the same after reaching the Philippines. Like most foods with legs, lumpia morphed and multiplied. Like stir-fried rice noodles, it too was subject to the forces of local adaptation.
Take Lumpia Ubod, a fresh spring roll. The recipe features ubod, or the heart of palm. This is naturally an ingredient abundant in the Philippines.
Or ponder turon. Ignore the Spanish name. It’s another variant of the spring roll, but sweet. Saba bananas are plentiful in the Philippines and find their way into the ketchup. You make it by dredging sugar on the bananas or sometimes jackfruit. Roll the sweetened fruit pieces into a spring roll wrapper and deep fry.
Another version of lumpia is still more intriguing (check the notes to the recipe). Take coarsely pounded peanuts, wansoy leaves, bihon noodles, and dried nori. Chop to make the filling.
In case you’re wondering, wansoy is a loan word from Chinese. It’s the Chinese word for coriander (yansui 芫荽). Bihon are rice or starch vermicelli, also originally from the Middle Kingdom. The peanuts? Well, you should be thinking of the Columbian Exchange.
Then there’s the nori. That’s probably Japanese influence, but when exactly? The Japanese occupied the Philippines during the Second World War. But this was not the first, or last, time that Japanese cooking turned up on the archipelago. Japanese came to the Philippines before the 1940s. Halo halo is one clear case of borrowing. If you’re curious, Anthony Bourdain did an episode on it.
So why did Mishan downplay external influences in her article? I suspect that this is not a simple case of ignorance. It has to do with the way people look at Chinese cooking in the Philippines. As Doreen Fernandez points out, these elements have been around so long they are no longer “foreign.” In this regard, they are a bit like hamburgers. When was the last time you thought “German” when you grabbed a Blimpy burger?
Lumpia confounds the search for a Filipino essence. Then again, most food systems are composites, too. Next time you eat, I dare you to inspect your instant ramen or frozen samosa, or the ketchup. Is there really any food that hails from one place? Take a bite and you’ll find a bit of lumpia in all of it.