ULAM: Main Dish (USA, 2017) [AAIFF 2018]

Arguably, nothing unites folk more than food: transcending a means to survive, food has become one of those cultural practices defining us as on a national level; our cuisines root themselves in memory and trigger the emotions we associate with home, with our youth. The true champions of food are not simply those who can pull off a sensational dish, but those who respect the meals their mothers made them. In Alexandra Cuerdo’s sumptuous documentary, it is argued the greatest authenticity comes from those memories, from upbringing, and from the personal connections we all have with food. Serving up the myriad of delectable delights the Philippines has to offer, ULAM: Main Dish’s chefs and restauranteurs elevate their heritage for all of America to taste.

Constructed as an underdog tale of misrepresented cuisine, ULAM focuses on the pioneering proprietors of twenty-first century Filipino cooking in the USA. It weaves a seemingly universal narrative of insurmountable odds being overcome to firmly establish the food from their homes – and their homeland – and winning the hearts and stomachs not just of Americans but of their fellow Filipinos. With its focus on a small handful of restauranteurs, notably Nicole Ponseca (Maharlika and Jeepney) and Alvin Cailan (Eggslut among others), a microcosm of food bursting through the concrete cities of New York and L.A. take the country by storm with award-winning restaurants, becoming the talking point of food enthusiasts everywhere in the Western World. Centre stage is claimed by the food itself, representing the vastness of Filipino culture as told by those who live and breathe it, bringing it to life with vibrant passion.

As much a celebration of food as it is culture, these mostly second-generation Filipino-Americans share one goal: to promote and amplify the identity of their homeland and upbringing. The likes of Presidents Duterte and Marcos, as well as Manny Pacquiao, have done very little to portray their cultural identity in a positive light. With few outstanding role-models, their heritage has been largely forgotten in America to the point Ponseca and Cailan were viewed as any other nationality than Filipino; their invisibility reflected in the disappearance of cafes and restaurants in New York before the turn of the millennium. Listening to these two and the other chefs talk about their heritage with pride and fervour speaks volumes – if these are the voices sounding the call urging their community to be proud of who they are then their future can only get brighter.

This clarion call is matched only by their unifying love of food from the seven-thousand-plus islands which make up the Philippines. It is a cuisine consisting of sour and fermented ingredients, executed differently in each region, but eaten by all classes. Seen as an indentured servant’s job in their home country, we are told their desires to enter this occupation were frowned upon; just one of a long line of barriers to entry to into the restaurant business including lack of experience. Hearing their struggles of hard work and perseverance is inspirational especially in overcoming their biggest obstacle: appealing to other Filipinos. Their strong connection to the most authentic aspect of the cuisine, rooted in those fond memories, almost doomed the culinary experience from the beginning; their successes in doing right by their food make their victories all the more deserving.

Although the narrative of ULAM is dedicated to the successes of Cuerdo’s subjects, ultimately the food steals the show. With gorgeous cinematography by John Floresca these dishes pop from out the screen into our mouths. We can smell them as they are cooked, and we can taste them as they are brought to the table. They fill the visual side of things with the same love and passion their creators exude; hearing what food means to them is pure poetry, their faces light up with excitement. This is what they live for, the years of misrepresentation coming to an end after their years of toiling as dishwashers or moonlighting as advertisers finally pay off. Like their origins, these creators do not stand in situ: they adapt with their surroundings (the menu of LASA shows this prominently) and welcome their American backyard into their successes, learning to navigate and network with local sources of their ingredients to make their venture a sustainable one. It is invigorating hearing their passions drive them forward and ought to inspire not just Filipinos but everyone to pursue their dreams.

Despite the unnecessary distraction of the deliberately rousing music, which is too high in the mix, Cuerdo’s first feature successfully enables the voices of those vying for their communities to be proud of their identities to be heard loud and clear. Lively and rich, ULAM delivers a resplendent entrée of culture fermented in vivid authenticity, a loving tribute to those who have toiled like no other to leave their mark and pave the future of Filipino representation across the globe. Indeed, this future tastes delicious.

ULAM: Main Dish is showing on August 4 at the Asian American Independent Film Festival 2018.