Recently, there’s been an emergence of Filipino cuisine in Toronto’s ever-expanding food scene — Torontonians are happily going along for the ride. Since the city is home to large Asian communities, there has always been hype surrounding Asian cuisine, and now seems to be the time for Filipino food to move into the spotlight.
But the cuisine’s rise to popularity didn’t happen overnight.
Six years ago, Filipino restaurants were virtually nonexistent as Toronto’s food scene began to bloom. Many of the city’s Filipino eateries came from humble beginnings; often starting off as a grocery store, takeout place, or catering business. Due to popular demand, businesses and menus expanded, offering full-service dining experiences.
In 2012, Kanto by Tita Flips was one of the first Filipino eateries to mark a place on Toronto’s map, a harbinger of the Filipino food boom that would soon follow.
Diona Joyce, the owner of Kanto, recalled how business was hard in the beginning, since there were no other places serving Filipino cuisine. A few months after Kanto opened, Lamesa made its appearance on Queen Street.
Their mission was to represent Filipino cuisine in the downtown area, where representation was lacking despite the mix of multicultural restaurants. Les Sabilano, owner of Lamesa and LASA, also faced difficulties getting Torontonians to embrace the flavours of the Philippines.
“It’s challenging being in a restaurant scene like Toronto. There are so many great restaurants, there are many other new restaurants opening up all the time,” said Sabilano. “People have so many options, so convincing them to try something that they’re not really familiar with can be challenging.”
According to Vince Gutierrez, whose father owns Remely’s, as waves of Filipino immigrants began making their way to Toronto over the past few years, more restaurants started popping up to cater to the expanding community. Nowadays, young, ambitious restaurateurs are starting to open eateries with their own interpretation of Filipino food, which is garnering the attention of locals and foodies.
“I think it’s the newer generation that is bringing [the hype] up,” said Gerald Aquinty, co-owner of Tinuno, a cozy nook that serves traditional kamayan fare. “Nowadays, people are more open minded to new varieties of food.”
Positive social media coverage has made Filipino cuisine more known and accessible to the public, he added.
Sabilano partly attributes the growing popularity of Filipino cuisine to the curiosity of Torontonians. “They want to find out what Filipino cuisine is all about, and they hadn’t had an option before, so I think the general Toronto diners have been really welcoming,” said Sabilano.
One of the greatest merits of Filipino cuisine is its diversity, given its cultural influences from the Spanish, Chinese and Americans. Regional variations across the 7,000 plus islands that make up the Philippines makes it even more varied.
“Filipino food is often composed of contrasting flavours, so you’ll get sweet with sour, or salty with spicy,” said Sabilano. “It’s always a juxtaposition of bold flavours.”
As Filipino cuisine becomes more accepted by mainstream society, it builds more room for creativity for current and aspiring restaurateurs. Case in point: Lamesa takes Filipino food and adds a modern spin to it, transforming traditional dishes into contemporary upscale creations.
“We’re trying to change what people think about Filipino food, both from the Filipino and non-Filipino perspective,” said Sabilano.
Whether people want to stick to the traditional roots of Filipino cuisine or they want to progress it forward with innovative flavour combinations, the future for Southeast Asian cuisine seems to be looking up in Toronto, as diners eagerly await to see what comes next.
“Everybody should know what [Filipino food] is,” remarked Joyce, and we couldn’t agree more.
What do you think of the Filipino food movement in Toronto? Let us know in the comment section or tweet us at @ViewtheVibe.