In a span of over three centuries, the Filipino diet came to feature meat more heavily. Gilbuena says, “Going toward the plant-forward dishes [is] a way of decolonizing the cuisine and saying, let’s go back to our roots of eating literally what was growing in our backyard or in our farms.”
While vegan Filipino food can honor pre-colonial culture and culinary traditions, the use of new plant-based “meat” products is also an example of the adaptation that’s at the heart of Filipino food as a whole. The layered flavors that Gilbuena thinks exemplify the cuisine are the result of a mix of foreign influences, born out of international trade and the Spanish occupation of the Philippines. Native cooks adopted and borrowed elements from Malay, Spanish, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, and other cuisines and adjusted them to cater to local tastes and available ingredients.
Filipino food historian Doreen Fernandez called this process “indigenization.” She wrote in her 1988 study “Culture Ingested” that the process starts with a foreign element but “ends with a dish that can truly be called part of Philippine cuisine.” Take the cooking method of gisa, or sautéeing, she wrote. Indigenous people cooked by sour-stewing, boiling, steaming, roasting, and serving food fresh or raw. Gisa, meanwhile, was learned from the Spanish, who sauté food in olive oil with onions or garlic, and also the Chinese, who stir-fried their noodles, vegetables, and proteins.
But Filipinos made sautéeing their own. As Fernandez wrote, the garlic needs to be fragrant and golden brown before adding in the onions, which must then be turned soft and transparent before adding in sliced tomatoes. It doesn’t matter what else one adds after that as long as the garlic, onions, and tomatoes are all used and cooked in this order. “This preliminary process can Filipinize anything—cauliflower, leftover fish, scrambled eggs, noodles, paella, and even canned mackerel from Japan,” Fernandez wrote.
I think this idea of making things our own applies not just to gisa but other Filipino cooking techniques. Whether you choose to make jackfruit adobo, mushroom sisig, or Beyond Meat lumpia, it can still retain the soul of Filipino cuisine. In this way, vegan Filipino food can be thought of not as the veganization of Filipino food but rather the Filipinization of vegan food.
The challenge for chefs lies in finding ways to capture the same flavors to keep the sentiment and nostalgia attached to the original dishes. Pugao admits, “You can’t mimic everything.” In 21 years of plant-based cooking, he’s never quite nailed a vegan alternative for dinuguan, pork offal stewed in a thick, dark, savory gravy made of pig’s blood, garlic, chile, and vinegar.