Antonio Contreras

A matter of taste and who we eat with

A NEWS item about food piqued my interest. It reported that, according to TasteAtlas, a self-claimed encyclopedia of flavors and world atlas of traditional dishes, local ingredients and authentic restaurants, four Filipino dishes are ranked among the worst foods in the world. These dishes are hotsilog, kinalas, balut and Filipino spaghetti.

It is apparent that the ranking system is largely determined by perception reviews of readers, and keeps changing every day. For example, in its list dated January 24, Filipino spaghetti is ranked as the 78th worst dish, while balut is ranked 9th worst. There was no mention of kinalas and hotsilog. One day later, on January 25, Filipino spaghetti’s ranking had improved to 94th worst dish, while balut had improved to 13th worst dish. Again, kinalas and hotsilog were not on the list. But now, in its updated list, kinalas suddenly appeared as the world’s 17th worst dish, while hotsilog is now the 36th worst dish. If we believe these rankings, then the dislike for these two dishes over the short period since January 25 was intense.

TasteAtlas was already in a hot seat before when Malaysians protested its low placement of only 46th in the 50 top countries with the best cuisines in 2022, the results of which were released on June 24 of that year. In this list, the Philippines ranked 19th in the world, ahead of Thailand in 21st place and just five places behind Indonesia at 14th place. There were also protests about the high ranking of the United States at 13th. And it did not help that seven out of the top 10 countries were all from Europe, including Croatia. TasteAtlas happens to be a Croatian-based initiative founded by journalist and entrepreneur Matija Babić.

TasteAtlas was forced to defend its methodology, which by all indications is simply based on a perception survey of its readers and users, and whose results are collated regularly. Against criticisms that the ratings can easily be gamed, TasteAtlas revealed that while users are allowed to freely rate the dishes, artificial intelligence is used to establish and validate if the ratings are genuine, and that only “real” users are considered. Apparently, the system also prevents gaming of the system by people driven by nationalist sentiments who deliberately give high ratings to their native dishes, while giving low ratings to others. The system automatically eliminates any rater who gives excellent ratings to one country’s dishes from any location and poor ratings to other countries’ dishes.

But even then, this safeguard does not guarantee that the system cannot be gamed and manipulated.

The relatively dynamic rankings that could change daily, as shown in the changes in the January 24 and January 25 rankings, reveals the vulnerability of this system to the changing whim and mood of users. All it takes is for one person to have a negative experience with one particular dish to make that dish rank poorly, or as in the case of kinalas and hotsilog, be included in the list overnight. This is the disadvantage of perception surveys, more so that they come from self-selected participants or users, and not from scientifically randomized survey participants, or even from professional food experts and connoisseurs.

The best way to interpret the results is that these dishes are rated as worst only according to the opinions of those who participated in the survey or in the exercise. And thus, it should not be the basis for making a generalization. For its part, TasteAtlas should be more forthcoming in publishing not only its methodology, but also even the composition of the sample, including how many users have rated a particular dish, and their locations.

In any event, food preference is always a matter of taste. What is sumptuous and tasty for some may be unpalatable to others. It is interesting to note that found in the TasteAtlas’ list of worst dishes of the world are food many people love, from spam to cornflakes, and even fortune cookies. Cheez Whiz was even listed as the worst food in the February 2 update.

Kinalas, in particular, is a noodle soup that consists of tender meat that is extracted from the head of a pig or cow, and is served with a thick deep-brown sauce. Is a dish that originated in Naga, and I consider it one of my preferred comfort foods, particularly if it is paired with fried bananas or baduya. I make sure that I visit a kinalasan every time I am in Naga. People who rated it as one of the worst dishes are entitled to their opinions, but they cannot change what my palate craves.

The same goes for Filipino spaghetti, this sweet-tasting modification of the Italian pasta, that uses tomato or banana ketchup in addition to tomato sauce. It is standard fare for Filipino parties. It is the trademark dish of Jollibee, which is a Filipino brand that is now making its mark globally. Those who dislike this type of spaghetti can have their own opinions, but this wouldn’t matter much to the little children whose hearts flutter with joy when it is served during birthday parties.

Balut and hotsilog are popular for the ordinary Filipinos because of their affordability and availability. They have found their place in the hearts and minds of people from morning until sundown, with hotsilog being an ever-reliable breakfast fare, and balut a ubiquitous street food at night.

For ordinary Filipinos looking for something to eat, more so with family and friends, food rankings do not matter at all. We enjoy food not for itself, but for the company and the conversations. This is why we don’t value much fine dining, and our food is not elaborately presented.

Boodle fights are what signifies our attitude toward food. We partake of it as a collective. And in our culture, what matters more are the people we share our food with.

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