But it’s this diversity that makes Filipino cuisine what it is: a vast, textured landscape of styles and techniques and flavors. It’s something that’s inspired not only by local culture and customs, but also by local ingredients and climates. You could spend years in the country and still discover something new to eat each time you go out. People who’ve lived here still do.
So how does Margarita Fores—one of the Philippines’ most familiar culinary personalities—address this diversity?
The answer is: she makes it even more diverse.
A Margarita Fores meal is marked by something unusual—a twist in the recipe using an unlikely technique, or a local ingredient in place of another. And so you have dishes like ravioli with calamansi cream, or Biti fish chicharon (a crispy delicacy made from the swim bladder of the local abo fish) sprinkled on fried rice or on top of a fish. These twists draw from her experiences living across the Philippines and throughout her lengthy stays outside the country. And these experiences began when she was just a child who liked to eat.
“Well, as a young girl, I was a real lover of eating,” Fores says. “I think that a real prerequisite of being a good chef is really loving to eat.”
But isn’t just her love of eating that makes Fores an exceptional chef. She’s an accomplished culinary artist with multiple distinctions in the field.
In 2016, she was named Asia’s Best Female Chef—an award that’s part of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. As a list that’s curated by culinary industry experts across Asia, this is no small honor. Because, if anything, Asian cuisine has some of the most distinctive palates in the world.
Fores was also later inducted into the Order of the Star by the Italian government for her role in promoting their cuisine, making her a knight in Italy. And throughout her career, Fores has been a restaurateur who owns and operates several popular establishments across the Philippines, aside from running her own catering company. Still, she continues to produce new ways to appreciate food by introducing new concepts.
But while she’s both an internationally renowned chef and an Italian knight, Fores got her start the way every Filipino child gets their start in cooking: by preparing the rice for the family meal.
In Negros she made rice over a wood fire, using a traditional clay pot called a kulun-kulun.
“I think that that one was the most vivid experiences that had to do with cooking food,” she says. “So being Negrense and visiting Negros as a child a lot, I kind of like imbibed the love for the food of my home province whether it was chomping on a piece of sugarcane or eating piaya or seeing them make inasal.”
Fores never lost the curiosity she had when she was a little girl, and has since gone across the world to add even more experiences that would shape her cooking as she grew older.
In Negros, she watched her nanny and the family cook wrap fresh spring rolls, make vats of kadyos (a soup with pork and pigeon peas), and prepare kilaw (a ceviche-like dish using vinegar). While living in New York in the 80s, she learned to make pasta with her mother’s cook, Marietta. And when she had the chance to work with Italian fashion house Valentino, she developed a taste for Northern Italian food. Later, she would train professionally in Florence, Milan, and Rome, pursuing the passion that she brought with her from childhood.
While she may have trained extensively in Italian cuisine, it’s her Filipino roots that inform her taste. She shares that she loved watching Martha Stewart when she was young, and dreamed of being like her. Only, with a Filipino vibe, using local dishes and ingredients.
And this is where we see her now. Her cooking is a mix of Italian and Filipino traditions. It crosses the boundary between continents, makes a taste of its own. Even in the Philippines, where there’s such a broad culinary history, Fores is adding new pages: written in her hand, imbued with her own experiences.
Her dishes are as inventive as they are flavorful: the normally sugar-laden piaya (flatbread with muscovado) is instead served as a savory dish with pâté; seafood ravioli becomes crab ravioli topped with taba ng talangka (fat from small river crabs); Mostarda di frutta (Italian candied fruits) is remade with santol, guava, and calamansi. In this way, Fores uses the diversity of Filipino cuisine and expands its horizons even further.
So, given how diverse it actually is, what does make Filipino cuisine so unique?
“Well, I think that really because, perhaps the most prominent flavor profile in our food is really sourness. And I think that that’s what makes our cuisine very different from other cuisines in the world,” she answers. “And precisely because of that sourness, we incorporate sweetness, saltiness, umami to be able to balance the sourness.”
There’s an extensive number of souring ingredients all over the country: tamarind, batwan, calamansi, nipa palm, coconut, pineapple, and the wide range of vinegars in every region. And it’s how people work with these and mix in other flavors that make Filipino cuisine unique. That, and the history of trade and influence from countries like Spain, the USA, Mexico, China, and Japan have made the cuisine richer in tradition.
In a world of social media, people have become more open to trying new cuisines from everywhere, and Filipino food has become a little more present online. But where does it stand on the global scale?
“I think that we’ve made huge steps forward to get our cuisine out there,” Fores says. “We’re a very young country and it took us a while to really feel strongly about what we call our own.”
‘But look around, I mean, everyone is now aware of what Filipino is. It’s not anymore just our adobo that’s there, or our lumpia and pancit,” she continues. “But now there’s a lot of interest in our Cordillera rice, in our vinegars globally, our coffee, our chocolate has won awards all over the world. So I’d like to think that we’re there, we’re there.”
Maybe it is, maybe it will be. But even as Fores thinks it’s there, one thing remains true: the best place to try it is here.
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