Food & Drink

Exploring the evolution of Filipino cuisine in Japan

by Dana Macalanda

Special To The Japan Times

With enough hunger, patience, and determination, it’s possible to track down just about any kind of food in and around Tokyo.

While lovers of Korean barbecue have the area of Shin-Okubo, and devotees of Chinese food flock to Yokohama, the Filipino community, the nation’s third-largest non-Japanese demographic, has no such discernible center.

Though it may be diffuse, Filipino cuisine is on the upswing and Philippine chefs are on the rise.

Margarita Fores was named Asia’s best female chef by the 2016 Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, and inside Japan, Clair Ocampo and Justin De Jesus — both from Saitama Prefecture — placed first and second, respectively, in the eighth annual Soy Sauce Recipe & Story Contest with their Philippine-inspired recipes.

Filipino food itself has formed over centuries of Spanish rule and was shaped by trade with Mexico and Southeast Asian countries and several decades of U.S. occupation, all fused together by indigenous ingredients. The stories of the Tokyo restaurants that prepare it are likewise ones of perseverance, adaptation and evolution.

“I ask (customers), ‘What do you want to eat?’ You want to eat meat, or fish, or vegetables? Then I will recommend. If you want to eat meat, I will recommend adobo. Adobo is the No. 1 food in the Philippines, isn’t it?” asks Mayumi Takeuchi, owner of Ate in Nishi-Ogikubo.

Takeuchi proudly swears by her grandmother’s adobo recipe, which she learned while growing up at Zeny, her family’s restaurant in Imus, Cavite, a western province of the Philippines. The de facto national dish, adobo can be prepared with chicken or pork and involves braising the meat in a marinade that can include vinegar, soy sauce, bay leaves and peppercorn. The dish is traditionally served over rice, but Takeuchi opts for Japanese-style plating with everything separate.

Despite the early inspiration of her family’s cooking, Takeuchi didn’t decide to open her own restaurant until decades later in 2007, when she was 45 years old and happily married in Japan. Ate (pronounced “ah-teh”) means “older sister,” and the name speaks to Takeuchi’s friendly connections with the younger Filipina women who visit the restaurant.

Takeuchi had hoped for a quiet space where people could savor their meals, but her first four years were spent in a basement-level eatery surrounded by izakaya bars before she could afford to move to the current location. This made it difficult to distance herself from the sometimes negative image of Philippine bars as being heavy on alcohol and light on quality food.

Many Philippine restaurants struggle to introduce people to food that may taste simultaneously familiar and foreign. It isn’t always easy. In the beginning, non-Filipino patrons were often confused and occasionally hostile when ordering, Takeuchi recalls. But now, with a gleaming kitchen and an airy second floor eating space that is infused with a homey atmosphere, she’s much more hopeful and willing to adapt.

“I adjust to the person,” she says. “If you want spicy, I make it spicy. You don’t want spicy, I make it natural… Once you cook you can adjust. But the ingredients are the same.”

Across town in an unobtrusive Ueno alley, Shinsuke Goto and his staff are having a tough time attracting Filipino customers to Pangaea, a restaurant he owns that takes its name from Earth’s prehistoric supercontinent.

At least one other Philippine restaurant and a multitude of similarly themed bars and clubs have saturated the area, making it difficult to tell which is focused on dinner and which on drinks.

And while Pangaea’s menu boasts an impressive variety of alcohol, Goto says many of his Japanese customers are either curious about the food or miss it after business trips to the Philippines.

“Especially for the Japanese or other foreigners, we always recommend the kaldereta,” says staff member Joy David. “Kaldereta is like a beef stew, so a little bit spicy and made of tomato sauce.”

Goto hopes to elevate the standing of Filipino food in the public’s eye, so that it stands equal to that of Chinese or Thai food. “The feeling is that in Japan there are many Thai, Korean, Chinese and a lot of Filipino people, but the amount of Philippine food is extremely small.”

The restaurants may be few, but the parties are mighty. At New Nanay’s in Roppongi, owner Cecile Aoki laughs as she recounts stories of fitting 50 or even 150 celebrants in and around her restaurant for birthday and Halloween parties.

“(The best thing is) meeting different kinds of people,” Aoki says. “Some of my customers became my friends and one thing about my restaurant is that you can meet all levels of Filipinos.”

What started out as a 12-sq. meter spot with a single counter eventually expanded into a roomier space known for its sizzling sisig (a cousin of fajitas), where meat or fish is accented by a touch of sourness and spice, bound together by a sunny-side up egg. New Nanay’s (the Tagalog word for “mother”) is the response of Cecile and her husband Sakae “Steve” to the oft-heard complaint about a lack of Filipino food in Japan.

Aoki originally owned a translation and consultation business with help from Sakae, but they opted to open a restaurant next door in 2004. Since then, Aoki has enjoyed seeing a small community of Filipino businesses grow in the building complex and noticed an upswing in Japanese visitors over the past five years. She attributes this to the increased popularity of studying English in the Philippines and people getting hooked on the food.

“Philippine food is not popular in Japan,” Sakae chimes in, with a playful air of defiance. “Yet,” he adds.