Ok I know, the title may be a little harsh. But it’s the truth: Filipinos can really, really eat a lot! It’s always a shock to my non-Filipino friends when they see how much I can eat at a restaurant or party—especially considering my small stature. My sister and I are consistently the last ones eating at the table and always still have room for dessert—a special skill we’ve crowned as The Last Ones Standing. We can continue to eat new dishes or snacks even when we aren’t hungry or had just eaten a meal—a feat that only those with the strongest stomachs can achieve. At my work, every time a new dessert is being sampled by the staff, they automatically give me a plate because they know I will always want to try it and will always enjoy it. One of my co-workers has actually asked me, “How come it seems like Asians can eat more than most people?” Truly, this skill is one of the greatest gifts of being Filipino!
But unlike Takeru Kobayashi and other food competitors who developed an entire science around eating massive quantities of food, I believe that the reason Filipinos can eat so much is simply because our culture is centered around food. In our culture, food doesn’t have much to do with health or nutrition—its purpose is to bring people together and show hospitality towards guests and loved ones. Throughout childhood, food was the epicenter and excitement of our days. Breakfast was eaten together every morning before school with my siblings and whichever parent was home (our parents worked opposite schedules growing up); after school snacks—or merienda—was synonymous with homework; dinners were always home-cooked Filipino dishes with heaping amounts of rice and eaten together at the table; Friday night hang outs with my aunts and cousins were at fast food restaurants or mall food courts; Saturdays were big parties with at least a dozen dishes and desserts; and Sunday meals after church were enjoyed as a family at home or at restaurants. It really is no wonder why my siblings, cousins, and I were all overweight as kids!
Food is also how Filipinos show affection and care towards each other. Even just a small gathering or quick get-together is accompanied with three or four home-cooked dishes, sliced fruit, frozen chicken wings quickly cooked in the oven, chips and snacks from the pantry, Costco cream puffs and ice cream sandwiches grabbed from the freezer, and lots and lots of coffee. I’m always surprised at how quickly my mom and aunts can whip together enough food on a weekday evening when five, ten or fifteen relatives unexpectedly drop by on their way home from work. Moreover, when we were kids, my mom would always ask our friends—right as they walked in the door and no matter what time it was—if they’ve eaten yet, or if they would like something to eat. “No, thank you” or “I’m not hungry” was usually an unacceptable answer, as she’d still warm up Hot Pockets or frozen raviolis and leave them out on the counter just in case we did get hungry. And now, when my friends come over to my house the first thing I ask them is, “Are you hungry?” And just like my mom, I find myself rummaging through my fridge and pantry trying to find something they can at least nibble on. It is always a goal to ensure that my friends have eaten plenty by the time they leave. This obsessive need to feed others is how Filipinos express care and love.
With this strong foundation in food, it’s no surprise that we have a profound love for cooking, Culinary Arts, and the restaurant industry. In my perspective, food is so much more than eating to alleviate hunger. It tells the story of earth’s living things, geographical climates, and seasonal patterns. It’s a creative outlet, an expression of joy, a way to form close bonds with others, and is an essential tool for learning about other cultures’ lifestyles and traditions. I love bringing my non-Filipino friends to a Filipino restaurant and describing the various dishes and memories associated with the dish; or when friends take me to a restaurant of their culture and share stories with me. Food truly breaks barriers and creates conversation that otherwise wouldn't be shared. I built a passion for food over a decade-long journey of enjoying every meal that was prepared for me, every new dish I attempted to cook, every party I attended, and every new restaurant I tried. In the similar way that a young boy or girl builds a treehouse with his parents and wants to become an architect, my background in being a Filipino Fat Ass forged a career in food and hospitality. Unfortunately, even though our love of food continues, there is, of course, a negative side to the colossal appetites that Filipinos carry.
As I mentioned earlier, we were overweight as kids. And when I say were overweight, I mean we were OVERWEIGHT. However, once we hit our teens, we realized that we needed to make a drastic change if we wanted to live healthier lives. Filipino cuisine uses an abundance of pork and animal fats and is very high in sodium. Furthermore, there is not enough fresh, nutritious fruits or vegetables in everyday cooking, and the average amount of white rice that Filipinos eat during the day is very unhealthy. This diet has caused many Filipinos to obtain fat-and-salt-based health problems such as type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. Through this realization, the younger generation has decided to take control of our cuisine and health for the better.
Over the years, we learned how to eat healthy, what foods to avoid, and how to manage portion control. We also learned the importance of staying active, doing sports, and exercising regularly. The arduous process of changing our food lifestyle was a rough transition. We got so obsessed that at one point we would use a napkin to remove the grease from pizza and french fries, stopped eating lunch at school, kept food journals, only ever drank water, and even forced our dad to eat less rice by hiding the rice cooker after giving him a small portion. It was a surprising change of heart, but one we needed to take so we don’t end up with the same health problems in the future.
Today, we’ve learned the art of moderation: eating healthy most of the week and allowing a cheat day (or two) on the weekends—which is when we uphold the title of Last Ones Standing at social functions, and spurge on multiple rounds of food when visiting home. An important change of lifestyle from childhood is finding ways to making Filipino dishes healthier. How can we introduce less animal fat, more vegetables and legumes, better varieties in cooking techniques, and more sustainable ingredients to traditional dishes? This is a fun, everyday challenge that is catching on (1) amongst Filipinos who still want to eat great food but live a healthier life.
The Filipino Fat Ass will always be a part of us. We will always see food as an essential expression of love, hospitality, and care—and because of that, we will gorge on copious amounts of love-filled dishes when we can. However, understanding the invaluable aspect of food as a nutritional tool for energy, health, and well being has become equally as important. Truly, you can have the best of both worlds.