Food as a Gateway to Culture and ULAM: Main Dish
When we were still living in the Philippines, everytime we went to a new town, the first thing my husband Jojo Lucila would visit was the food market. He claims that you learn a lot about the people’s lifestyle based on the kinds of food sold in the market.
Now there is more to discover, as we live in a society that prides itself of embracing and celebrating cultural diversity. There are festivals, events and community activities that allow us to engage in different cultures without having to travel to another country. There are many other ways to immerse in a culture - learning the language, folk dances, songs, literature. But the easiest to enjoy and digest (so to speak) is food.
Food brings people together. Shows like Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown”, Eddie Huang’s “Huang’s World” and David Chang’s “Ugly Delicious” have focused on showcasing cultures through food. When one partakes of a dish, one learns about the topography of the region by the ingredients and its spices. The way it is prepared, presented and eaten speaks volumes about the traditions. Our food has sentimental value, usually passed down through generations, and connected to life moments, i.e. celebrations, or as comfort food to cheer us up.
In the documentary ULAM: Main Dish, Filipino-American director Alexandra Cuerdo focuses on the ascent of Filipino cuisine in American tables by following the journey of award-winning chefs. These chefs and restaurateurs share their stories of breaking prejudices, being authentic, using food as a vehicle to communicate and present ourselves, and validating our culture. They come from different walks of life, i.e. from Michelin-starred line cooks to high school dropouts, successful restaurateurs to first time shop owners - but all highly acclaimed by critics. They share their histories, their sacrifices and what it takes to run a successful restaurant in two of the most competitive markets in the world: New York and Los Angeles. The film also talks about the experiences of first and second-generation Filipino Americans, and the struggle to have Filipino food and identity be recognized in the larger American society and even their own Filipino community. There are also philosophical conversations on the Filipinos’ history, crab mentality, the effects of colonialism, and the need for support from the Filipino community.
The narrative for our food is a narrative of our history. In the words of the film’s creators, “It's like saying, this is me on a plate. We can say, we both enjoy this, this is some version of what we both grew up with, it's some version of ourselves — even more so when we're connecting with a non-Filipino. I can say: This is a version of me, this is a version of my history, what I grew up with, and you should try it. If you don't like it, that's OK. I have twenty other dishes for you to try… Filipino food and its ability to succeed is also a window into our future — and we must discuss what divides us, to find what unites us. If we are to celebrate Filipino food, and be respected as a people, we must dig deep into what makes us, and examine the future we want to create.”
These are timely messages for us. There is a global surge on advancing the Filipino and the culture. For Filipino Albertans and Canadians, it is a crucial next step soon after the provincial and federal proclamations of Philippine Heritage Month. It is a call for unity, of collaboration and bayanihan spirit, and of collective, not just individual, pride.
As part of the Philippine Heritage Month celebrations, the Philippine Arts Council is presenting the screening of the much acclaimed documentary ULAM: Main Dish on June 19, 2019, 7 pm at the Myer Horowitz Theatre. A panel discussion will follow the screening. Tickets are $15 + s/c through Ticketfly, or at selected Filipino businesses. For more information, go to philippineartscouncil.com.
This is a not-to-be missed opportunity in showcasing the Filipino culture and at the same time reflecting on who we are. The film has been featured in the international film festival circuits since its premiere and has even screened in the same theatre as the Oscar winning film “Roma”. It is the film that propelled the late Jonathan Gold, food and music critic, to convince the LA Times to book the whole LA Grand Central Market to do Filipino food pop-ups, for the LA Times Food Bowl. Jonathan Gold was a strong and early supporter of the film ULAM: Main Dish.
To quote a review on ULAM: Main Dish in the Vancouver Asian Film Festival 2018, “In the end, Ulam is a noteworthy film, mainly for shining a spotlight on a community and food that for so long has flown under the radar. According to an interview with the director, Cuerdo has been getting inquiries from teachers wanting to use the film to teach since there has been so little representation of Filipino-Americans in the media. This film will certainly provide a crash course on Filipino food for the uninitiated, fill the Filipino-Canadian community with a sense of pride at what their fellow Filipinos have accomplished and hopefully encourage more visits to local Filipino restaurants.”
* This article was published in the May 2019 issue of the Alberta Filipino Journal.