CROSSCUT ASIA is an online film festival co-hosted by the Japan Foundation Asia Center and the Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF), which will be held from January 21 to February 3, 2022. As a related project, we will start a series of articles to deepen your interest in Southeast Asian food. The five-part series will focus on the food culture of five countries. The second country is the Republic of the Philippines. We were specially invited to the official residence of the Philippine Ambassador to Japan to talk with their staff member who cooks Philippine cuisine for official events of the Embassy.
The Official Residence of the Philippine Ambassador to Japan is a historic Iberian-style building that was built in 1935 by businessman Iwajiro Yasuda. It was used by the Philippine government since 1944. In 2013, the Residence was designated as the first “National Historical Landmark” outside of the Philippines. On the day of our visit, we were greeted by Embassy staff member Ricardo Tobias Arrangote. He is a professional in the field of Filipino cuisine and has been in charge of the food served at the Embassy for many years.
The Ambassador’s Official Residence is located in the educational district of Fujimi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. Artist Yoko Ono, a niece of Iwajiro Yasuda, once lived there for three years as a child.
Mr. Arrangote, fondly called “Mr. Ricky” by the Embassy personnel.
First, I would like to ask you about your career. How did you get your current job?
It all started in 1999. I was working as a cook at a famous restaurant chain in the Philippines when a diplomat recognized my cooking skills and offered me a job at the Philippine Embassy in Tokyo. Since then, I have been cooking Filipino food for the guests of the Embassy in various events for over 20 years now, while also serving as a caretaker and security guard.
I can’t think of a better person to talk about Filipino food culture here in Japan than Ricky. Please tell us how you took part in the Embassy’s many projects on food diplomacy over the years.
In various occasions, I had the opportunity to cook for the Philippine Embassy’s events. I have served food to important guests such as a member of the Japanese Imperial family, Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado; Former Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe; and, Former Philippine President Fidel Ramos. I have also cooked for a dinner party for 500 guests at the Embassy and an event for 1,000 guests at a hotel.
What is the most memorable part of those precious experiences?
There were many VIPs who came to the Embassy for dinner, including the people I just mentioned. I can still clearly remember the smiles on their faces and the compliments I received when I was introduced to them as the one who prepared the Philippine dishes.
Ricky has been vital in advancing the food diplomacy endeavors of the Philippines for many years now. His genuine smile exudes his passion for service through food. His gentle personality is truly impressive and is loved by everyone in the Embassy.
I believe that a cook who works exclusively for an embassy plays an important role in conveying the food culture of that country to other countries. What kind of menu do you serve when you invite guests?
“For celebrations and big events, we usually serve Lechon (roasted suckling pig), Pancit (noodle dish), and Lumpia (Filipino-style spring rolls). Lechon is not an everyday menu because it is expensive. It is also takes time to roast over charcoal a regular 20-30 kilo whole size pig. In the Philippines, Lechon takes center stage in all special events. It always comes with its ‘sawsawan’ or ‘Lechon sauce’. The sawsawan, similar to condiments, add flavor to the food, especially those that are fried or grilled. There are many Philippine dishes paired with sawsawan, which may be made from soy sauce and vinegar, and various other seasonings to add spiciness, sourness, and aroma. They also add color to the table.”
A whole roasted suckling pig sounds quite exciting to Japanese people. When I looked it up, I found that it is so expensive that it is equivalent to the average monthly income of people in the Philippines, and I even heard that some people save up to eat Lechon on special occasions. It seems that Lechon is such an essential part of the Filipino food culture. I would love to try Lechon if I had the chance, but what kind of days are considered “special” by Filipinos?
“First of all, there is the Fiesta, which is the Japanese equivalent of a festival, where people express their gratitude to God and pray. One of the most famous fiestas in the Philippines is the Sinulog Festival held in January every year in Cebu. Secondly, since Christianity is the dominant religion, Christmas is regarded as one of the most important events, if not the most important event every year where families gather together to celebrate the season. The Philippines has its own unique culture in which the Christmas season starts in September and lasts until December. In addition to the Fiesta and the Christmas season, birthdays are also special occasions for family and friends to gather over a special meal. For the Philippine Embassy, another important event that allows the showcase of Philippine cuisine is the celebration of the country’s national day on June 12, to commemorate the Philippines’ declaration of independence from Spanish rule.”
It is surprising that Christmas season is celebrated for four months!
With so many opportunities to show off his cooking skills, Ricky says there is one thing in particular that is important to him when it comes to serving food.
“In the Philippines, we use the word ‘linamnam’ to describe food, which means ‘flavorful’ or ‘tasteful’ in Filipino or Tagalog. Whenever I cook, I try to make sure that what I am cooking meets this criterion. I always make sure to provide only the Filipino food that looks, smells, and tastes great. That’s what I always focus on.”
Photo Source: Philippine Department of Tourism
This is a whole roasted suckling pig called Lechon. It looks very intimidating. It is marinated with a mixture of various herbs and spices, including garlic, salt, and pepper, which is sure to please the Japanese palate. The crispy skin also looks delicious.
Up to this point, I’ve asked Ricky to talk about the “special occasion” food that is served at the Embassy for guests, but I’d like to ask him about everyday food culture as well. What kind of food do Filipino people, including embassy staff, usually eat?
“If you ask anyone what the national dish of the Philippines is, they would probably say Adobo, which is also a common dish served at the Embassy. Adobo is easy to prepare and cook. It is stew which can use either chicken, pork, beef, and even fish. The unique sourness and flavor is due to the vinegar. In Spain, wine was used for stewing, but in the Philippines, a tropical country, vinegar was used instead of wine to make it last longer. This is an important element of the dish called Adobo.”
We were served Adobo on the day of our interview, and after hearing about the history of the dish, which originated in Spanish cuisine, we were able to feel the depth of Philippine food culture through the sourness and flavor of the vinegar. Perhaps this is what “linamnam” is all about. The chicken Adobo is my favorite local food in the Philippines.
If you want to try cooking Filipino food at home, including Adobo, please check out the recipe book called “KULINARYA”. Ricky also recommends this as a book to refer to.
“One more thing, let me tell you about ‘meryenda’ or ‘merienda’. ’Merienda’ is a Spanish word meaning ‘snack’, a culture left from the Spanish era. That’s why there are still many forms of these ‘snacks’ in the Philippines, and they are a part of our food culture.
Also popular in the Philippines is its desserts. One of the famous desserts in the Philippines is Halo-halo, which consist of many ingredients with milk poured over and topped with shaved/crushed ice, and ice cream. What else is there to eat? Everything!
On the other hand, examples of dishes that can be served for ‘merienda’ include rice cakes called Puto, banana spring rolls called Turron, and Kutsinta, a sweet made of rice flour, brown sugar, and lye. For special occasions such as Christmas, purple rice cakes steamed in bamboo tubes called Puto Bumbóng, and baked rice cakes called Bibingka are also popular. I used to make these dishes at the Embassy. Before the pandemic, we used to gather at the Embassy pantry and eat these together on occasion such as birthdays, etc.”
I had no idea that there were so many types of dishes in the Philippines. Ricky’s story gave us a glimpse into the history and richness of the country’s food culture. If you are interested, I highly recommend you try cooking at home.
Fortunately, almost all of the ingredients needed to make Filipino food are available in Japan. Of course, Japanese seasonings such as vinegar and soy sauce can substitute for the Philippine brand ingredients, but if you want to enjoy the real “linamnam,” please try to purchase the menu’s primary ingredients from any of the Philippine and Asian stores in Japan.
Writer: Yohsuke Watanabe（IN FOCUS）