Giada De Laurentiis’s Filipino Chicken Adobo, Cultural Appropriation and the White Savior

“Turn on the Food Network right now,” Jenny texted me, “Giada’s making chicken adobo.”

FILIPINO chicken adobo?

I was puzzled when I turned on Ms. De Laurentiis’s show. I’ve watched her Everyday Italian cooking shows which focus on Italian cuisine made simple. So I was a little surprised to see Giada cooking Filipino chicken adobo on the “Big Game” episode of her new show about entertaining at home, Giada at Home.

How is chicken adobo related to the Big Game? When I think of the Big Game, I see a buffet of typical finger foods like pigs in a blanket, chips and salsa, and hot wings before and during football game between two bitter rivals on a large screen TV with a bunch of my friends. This is a very American practice. Filipino-American families bring Filipino food to a lot of other American traditions, including holidays like Thanksgiving. We serve our roasted turkey and stuffing side by side with pancit and dinuguan. But chicken adobo just doesn’t make sense at a big game party when everyone is eating finger food. How about serving lumpia, either fried or fresh? Those are Filipino finger foods that actually make sense for serving at the big game.

Were Giada and her big game partygoers eating adobo with their hands? In the episode’s commercial b-roll interlude, Giada’s husband and male friends tossed footballs around in the backyard while Giada was in the kitchen cooking (another image I take issue with). I imagined all the lovely chicken adobo sauce getting all over the football seams. That sauce should go on some rice and in someone’s mouth, not all over a football, damn it. Oh, it’s a shame to waste that Filipino chicken adobo sauce. That liquid gold. That manna.

Unless Giada provided her party guests with washing bowls? As in many cultures, Filipinos traditionally eat food with our hands – magkakamay. My lola – God rest her soul – always ate everything with her hands. She had a washing bowl next to her plate to clean her hands before and after the meal. Now that would be an authentic Filipino food experience.

Let’s talk about this recipe.  I am not a chef, I am not a food anthropologist, I am a home cook – this isn’t anything personal, Ms. De Laurentiis, if you’re reading: I’m a big fan and I love your food porn. Notwithstanding all due respect to Giada as a chef – I was a little appalled at some of her methods in the recipe. First, she used chicken stock. Why use prepared stock from a can when the dark meat, bone-in chicken (a choice I whole-heartedly agree with) has its own blood, marrow, skin and fat and cartilage to make its own broth? The stock is a timesaver, but chicken adobo is a “set it and forget it” dish that only needs sit and stew, and a stir only required every now and again. One can also use a pressure cooker if you are really hungry, or a slow cooker if you want a truly low-maintenance, however time-consuming, meal. Filipino chicken adobo is a dish that leaves one time to do other household chores, or maybe even wander into the backyard and throw around the football with the boys. Yes, I am a woman who can BOTH throw down in the kitchen AND throw a tight spiral. Don’t you forget it.

Cooks, if you’re going to go through the trouble of cooking dark meat chicken on the bones, then put those bones et al. to good use, please.

Giada used arrowroot or cornstarch to thicken up the sauce. Another time saver. But the sauce doesn’t need to be thickened. It can be sabaw – thin like broth. Other cuisines use flour or starch to thicken up the sauces. For me, though, in Filipino chicken adobo, using a thickener feels wrong. I say, cook the sauce down with the lid off for highly concentrated goodness, or leave it as a broth. Either way, the resulting sauce goes well over rice, which leads me to my number one problem with Giada’s Filipino chicken adobo.

She did not serve the adobo with rice. A thickening agent for the sauce is unnecessary because chicken adobo is supposed to be served with rice. This is Giada’s most egregious crime. It’s like having Ethiopian wat without njera, or Indian daal without naan. It just shouldn’t happen that way. While I like cornbread as much as the next person, Filipino food is made for rice. One of the original seven wonders of the world is the Ifugao Rice Terraces, after all: a major source of pre-Hispanic and indigenous Filipino cultural pride. Any Filipino household will have a container of rice and a rice cooker. A common question in a Filipino household is “Ano ba ang ulam natin?” which literally means, What are we eating today with rice? Serving the adobo without rice led many of Giada’s Filipino chicken adobo recipe commenters to ask why so much sauce was made with the dish. The sauce is there to put on the rice, to flavor it, to extend the heartiness of the meal, stretch out the flavor of the food to sustain one for a long, hot day in the tropics. But if there’s no rice, you wouldn’t know that, would you?

In her other show, Everyday Italian, Giada gives a little bit in every episode about where the ingredients and preparation styles of each dish come from regionally, and usually along with a family story. You learn a little everyday about Italian cooking so that after a while, I feel like I know a fair amount about their culture as a result. That luxury is not afforded to Filipino food. I sent the link to Giada’s recipe to my mom, several aunts and other Filipino cooks I know, to find out what they thought of it. One of my Filipina friends sent me this video in response:

Shudder. Now that… That is appropriating at its white savior-iest.

We who write and create content about cultures other than our own must do so with respect and humility. Give the proper historical and contemporary context. Don’t exoticize, fetishize. Or just don’t go there at all. Because if you do, you just end up disrespecting and not doing your job well. And at worst, you sound like a racist. These are our responsibilities, especially the bigger the platform, the larger the stage, the more numerous the audience.

I’m glad that the Filipino National Dish has found its way to Giada’s kitchen. But as one commenter said, “I can’t wait until one of the Food Network stars takes on dinuguan…” because after all food is culture. Our food reflects the Filipino people’s diverse history of struggle, resistance, colonization and of migration. Filipino culture is about resourcefulness. In Filipino cooking, we use every part of the animal down to its very blood.

This is not just about some good tasting chicken.


19 thoughts on “Giada De Laurentiis’s Filipino Chicken Adobo, Cultural Appropriation and the White Savior

  1. I love your blog! I watch her too but not always. Let’s teach her how to cook proper Adobo, the Filipino way 🙂 Have you ever tasted Pancit Buko? It’s a yummy dish, another experiment in the kitchen. I hope you’ll find time to visit my blog too. Thanks!

    • Hi Arlene! Salamat po! Yes, let’s teach her. After all, she’s taught me a lot about cooking over the years. Pancit buko, yes I believe I have tried that. I will make a point to stop at your blog, too. Happy writing, reading & eating!

  2. With all due respect to you and your culture, I think you are taking this way too seriously. Immigrant cultures have always brought their food to the United States and it has been adapted and loved by many people here. The key word here being adapted, or changed a bit to suit different tastes. I think Giada was using her adaption of Chicken Adobo as a substitute for chicken wings at her game day party. Americans have loved and served chicken wings with many different types of sauces, adapted from all over the world, at game day gatherings for decades. Using chicken legs instead of wings, provides more meat per serving and is a better alternative for children since they love drumsticks. Please give Giada, and the rest of us, a break for not being food purists.

    • Thanks for reading and for your comment, Dia. The voice of dissent is always an important one.

      Yes, I do take my culture seriously. I’m taking that as a compliment!

      Here’s why I wrote this blog post at all: Filipino cuisine isn’t widely known in American mainstream culture. And I wanted this blog to say that what this major media and culinary figure, Giada, presented is just her version, one interpretation, of Filipino Chicken Adobo… And then I wanted to show another way – my family’s version, the version I grew up with. It’s a line of reasoning Giada often takes when she presents Italian recipes. I’m just doing the same thing.

      As for being a “purist,” perhaps I am. But in an American food culture where Trader Joe’s frozen Butter Chicken and Basmati Rice, Panda Express Kung Pao Chicken, the Olive Garden franchise exist alongside the immigrant and generations after family-run establishments and everything inbetween isn’t there room for all of us, and enough civility to point out the differences and similarities?

  3. Sarahlynn, great commentary. I chuckled a bit. But I have to say, I’d probably sound like that guy if I was going to read directions off in tagalog.

    • Glad I could make you smile. I know I sound like an American trying to speak Tagalog — if even I can find the words — and practice is the only way we get better at anything,… but I’m not putting up YouTube videos speaking Tagalog either. 🙂

  4. Come on. Please don’t make a big deal out of this. You don’t hear Americans complaining when we eat Fried Chicken or Steak with rice. Imagine what Giada would think if she heard about the infamous “Sweet Filipino Spaghetti with ketchup and hotdogs!” Food is like language, it’s meant to evolve. Instead of criticizing Giada for putting her own spin on Chicken Adobo, we should just appreciate the fact that she likes our beloved dish so much that she decided to feature it on her TV show.

    While we’re at it, if you’re so concerned about maintaining the sanctity of Filipino culture, why don’t you try to exert some effort into learning Tagalog? That’s what I don’t get about Filipino-Americans. Why are you guys so embarrassed to speak Filipino? Who cares if you speak it with an American twang? You don’t see Mexican-Americans or Vietnamese-Americans squirming with embarrassment when they are made to speak their respective native languages.

    • Sorry about the delay in responding, Robby.

      You’re right about the evolution bit. Food and culture with time changes. When, how and why Filipino culture changes interests me. I believe there is something sacred about Filipino culture — even sweet spaghetti with hot dogs! As it is my culture, I feel I have the right to say something (as I think any Filipino has).

      It’s true chef Giada has paid some homage to the national dish on a big stage, and that’s cool on one level, but it’s a slippery slope from showcasing a dish with respect on one end to fetishizing the ‘next hot culinary trend.’ Where Giada fell on that slope with adobo is debatable. Chicken adobo served without rice, I think that’s pointless. I had to call that out.

      Those are a lot of assumptions about me in your second paragraph: that I can’t speak Tagalog or that I feel embarrassed about speaking or that I haven’t put any effort into it, all because I’m Filipino American. I have nothing to prove, but for argument’s sake, let me break those down stereotypes using myself as one example. I speak Tagalog. My Tagalog abilities are nowhere close to flawless but they are workable … at hindi ako nahihiya sa aking Taglish o sa carabao Tagalog ko. Hindi perfect pero pwede akong nag-usap kami at ng mga kamaganak ko sa Pilipinas at mga Pinoy kikilala ko sa mundo. (That’s and I’m not ashamed of my Tag-lish or carabao — or muddled — Tagalog. It’s not perfect but I can speak with my family in the Philippines and other Pinoys I know around the world.) I studied Tagalog in college, here in the States and back home with more Filipino Americans. My parents spoke Tagalog and Ilokano with each other and other Filipinos but did not teach me because they wanted me to speak English very well and many people in 1970s America were (and still are) racist. I totally understand their decision. English is my first language and most of my audience speaks English, so that’s why I choose to write in English on this blog and give translations of Tagalog when it’s used.

      In my opinion it doesn’t make someone less Filipino because they don’t speak Tagalog. People have a hard enough time with learning a language without pressured familial expectations and suppositions of belongingness. So, thanks for giving me an idea for another blog post, Robby!

  5. Awesome blog Sarah! Well written, quirky and great key points to start conversations with 🙂

    Robby — How do you know that she doesn’t speak Tagalog? Or any dialect? Just because she writes in English peppered with some Tagalog phrases doesn’t mean that she doesn’t speak or write it. Do not be presumptuous.

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