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What is Filipino café food, anyway?

What is Filipino café food, anyway?

  • Yes, the carbonara is made with all purpose cream and bacon, and no, the kani salad isn’t actually Japanese. But that’s not what matters

Cafés are a big thing in the Philippines. And not just the ones that serve handcrafted brews made with beans from far-away locales. We’re talking about the homey, cozy cafés. The ones with kitschy interiors that titas hang out at for their weekly merienda and prayer meetings (a.k.a. chika sessions). 

These types of cafés serve coffee, pastries, and hearty meals like pastas, rice meals, and all sorts of dishes from around the world that don’t necessarily fit one genre of food. You can find (almost) everything from beef tapa to chicken coq au vin on their menus. 

Ensaymada or cheese rolls with a side hot coffee or tea (often both literally and figuratively), are the go-to merienda for people who frequent these establishments. Photo by Christian Dala on Unsplash

It’s a little difficult to pinpoint what exact cuisine these café menus fall under—continental would probably be the closest fit. I’ve suggested similar style cafés to friends for meals, and when they asked what cuisine is it, the only answer I can come up with is “You know, café food,” and they’d immediately understand. 

So what cuisine does Filipino café food actually fall into? 

And what does it mean to us?

What’s in a menu?

There’s usually a single overarching theme, like most commonly Filipino or Italian. Yet none of them can be described as solely either of those things. The (often kilometric) menu reads more like a trip around the world in many cases. 

There are distinctly Filipino dishes like silogs and cured meats like tapa and longganisa, but then there are things that come from left field like Thai chicken or bolognese. 

Aside from specialities like longganisa, these cafés would also serve something distinctly different—like tacos and all sorts of pastas. Photo by Ivan Torres on Unsplash

Even when things are advertised as cuisine from another country, there’s still a distinct Filipinization that occurs in the kitchen that shows itself when the dish meets your palate. No matter how the dish is described, it still tastes familiar. It could be thanks to the seasoning, ingredients, or the methods—but there’s a savoriness of home to it. 

All things considered, the best overarching way to describe the cuisine is simply “comfort food.” But more specifically, Filipino comfort food. 

A history of meals

“The café category in the Philippines is completely different from anywhere else around the world,” explained restaurant consultant Cyrus Cruz.

Cruz is the founder of Food Agency PH, a restaurant and hotel marketing consultancy firm that’s been in the business for over 20 years. He’s helped launch multiple concepts such as Sentro 1771, as well as Filipino cafés. 

“Inspired entrepreneurs who were also skilled bakers evolved their concept into a more contemporary form of all-day dining ‘fusion’ cuisine while showcasing their bakery program, which is categorized as cafés,” he said. 

Cruz mentions early ventures that shaped these types of establishments are the likes of Pancake House, Café Via Mare in the ’80s, French Baker, and even Starbucks. These are the still-standing precursors to the restaurants we now know and love as the Filipino-style café. 

He continued by saying that when opening this type of café-slash-restaurant, the menus have to be fully stacked—which explains why they’re several pages long. This is a red flag for some foodies. Their reasoning being a lack of focus and specialization, but there’s a good reason for this. 

“I think it has to do with how our meals are structured: breakfast, morning merienda, lunch, afternoon merienda, dinner, and then a late-night snack.” 

In response to these eating habits, cafés of this sort have to cater to the needs of diners by creating comprehensive menus that cater to every meal (and snack) of the day. For diners, these places are a reliable one-stop shop for all of their cravings at every point of the day. 

Authentically Filipinized cuisine

Filipino comfort food isn’t a cuisine, per se. It’s more of a collection of memories and experiences on a plate. 

In the early days of travel, very few people could afford to go around the world. The people privileged enough to travel would then come back home and do the best they could with what they had to recreate the dishes they tried abroad. This meant that the access we had to “authentic” cuisine from elsewhere was also limited. 

“Filipino families who traveled in the ’80s and ’90s were sure to be exposed to western flavors and had to make do with what we had here in the Philippines to recreate their favorite, new-found comfort food,” said Cruz. 

Keep in mind, this was the time before you could order guanciale or Parmigiano Reggiano at the click of a button. This was also before you could easily look up a recipe on the internet. 

For the fortunate families who could afford to go to Italy during this time, coming home to recreate the carbonara that blew their minds likely meant using all-purpose cream and bacon. The same process of making do applies to every other Filipinized foreign dish you can find on café menus all over the country. 

No, it’s not authentic. But in the search for a taste of those memories, something new came along. It was likely in all of these substitutions and recreations that Filipino café food was born. 

To the people that created it (the generation of our grandparents), it was a testament to memories and the places traveled to. But to the people it was introduced to (our parents), it was a portal into a new world. 

And to us, the generation who grew up with it, it serves as a nostalgic, reliable cuisine we can always find when we’re feeling up to it (or if we don’t want to think too hard about what we want to eat). 

A seat for everyone at the table

Something else that makes these cafés special is how its main clientele are families. Peak hours for these places are usually weekend brunch and dinners, because that’s when families have a meal together after church. 

The variety of flavors and dishes also make it an easy choice, because families are catering to people from all age groups. There has to be something for the senior grandparents with dietary restrictions, the picky, moody teens that only eat two things or nothing at all, and the little kids who need dessert or else all hell breaks loose. 

Aside from weekend meals, families also tend to gravitate towards these places to celebrate big events. Birthdays, graduations, and baptisms are often held at these cafés because of their reliability in terms of food and service. There are also several branches to choose from which makes it accessible. 

Memories are made here every day—all in the presence of food that brings comfort and warmth. 

Food for the soul

The Filipino café is an integral part of our culture. It’s something that’s uniquely Filipino and counts as a shared cultural memory. No matter where you are in the Philippines, there’s a cafe just like the one described here not too far away. 

These cafés don’t just serve food, they nourish our hearts and memories by being a constant companion. It’s a reliable place that’ll serve food—just the way you like it—and meet every expectation every time. 

It’s a safe bet, and there’s always comfort in safety.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a big name café with several branches, or a hometown favorite—these cafés have a place in everyone’s hearts. There’s a salad you can’t get enough of, a dip you crave, or a cake you can turn to on your best and worst days. 

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