For years, we've been hearing from the food media that Filipino cuisine is the "next big thing;" that it would only be a matter of time before it "arrived." To hash that all out, we talked to a bunch of Pinoys! First, our producer, Alan Montecillo; then we patched in Sarahlynn Pablo & Natalia Roxas of the website, Filipino Kitchen. They all walked us through the history of Filipino cuisine and the meaning it holds for Filipino Americans today. And of course, we went back and forth on the question of whether or not validation from Western society matters all that much, in the end.
Links du jour
Soleil Ho Welcome to “Racist Sandwich,” the podcast about food, race, class and gender. I’m Soleil Ho.
Zahir Janmohamed And I’m Zahir Janmohamed.
Soleil Ho We met our fundraising goal this week. That’s so wild.
Zahir Janmohamed Yeah, actually we exceeded it. We raised, as of now, 109 percent of our goal. So thank you.
Soleil Ho People want them stickers.
Zahir Janmohamed Yep. Thank you so much to everyone, especially Bertony, who was our first guest, who made a very generous contribution. So thank you so much, Bertony.
Soleil Ho But really, all of you. I think more than 60 individuals donated to our fundraiser, and that’s amazing. I wish we had the Bernie Sanders-style average donation amount thing to trot out, but I’m guessing the average donation was like eight dollars, and so that all really counts a lot for us. So thank you.
Zahir Janmohamed I think it’s really wonderful to see the donations at six, seven dollars. A lot of our listeners here in Portland are our friends who donated, and it really means a lot. It allows us to expand and to continue having these podcasts centered around POC voices. So, I’ve just been really tickled by the response to this podcast. So, thank you everybody.
Soleil Ho Yeah, thanks for giving up your daily burrito change for us. That’s a big deal.
Zahir Janmohamed And speaking of Bertony, we are actually going to have our second meetup on Sunday, August 21st at 1pm at Abbey Creek Vineyard, which is about 30 minutes from downtown Portland. So check our Facebook page. We’ll post about it and we’ll do some carpools from downtown Portland or somewhere in Portland.
Soleil Ho Yeah, and of course there’s going to be a lot of awesome wine to sample and drink. So, maybe assign a DD.
Well, on this episode, we’re talking about Filipino food. We talked with Sarahlynn Pablo and Natalia Roxas, the co-founders of Filipino Kitchen in Chicago. They promote Filipino cuisine through organizing pop-ups with Filipino chefs and planning the Kultura Festival, where they showcase a lot of different vendors that are really cool.
Zahir Janmohamed When we started our podcast a few months ago, this was one of the topics that Soleil and I were really eager to do because we’re both fans of Filipino food. But then also—I can only speak for myself—that I’ve been to the Philippines. And oftentimes when I meet Filipino friends in the U.S. and I say, Wow, I love your food, or, I enjoy eating Filipino food when I’m in San Francisco, they give me this surprise like, What? You like Filipino food? And I had sort of a similar experience here in Portland when I meet Filipino friends. Because I think so many Filipinos—at least I’ve seen—have internalized this notion like the food isn’t good, it’s not as good as Thai food, it’s not as good as Vietnamese food.
Soleil Ho Yeah, the funny thing about Filipino food for me is that it’s almost like that play Waiting for Godot, where Filipino food is always on the edge of getting big. It’s always just about to hit America in a big way. And I don’t think it’s happened yet. I think everyone like Andrew Zimmern, they’re the prophets of Filipino food, and I think that’s a really interesting dynamic that we hashed out in this interview.
Zahir Janmohamed When we conceived about this episode I thought, Well, our producer Alan is Filipino. He has a much better perspective on this than me. So I thought, I’ll sit this one out. And so we thought Alan will take over for my usual hosting duties.
Alan Montecillo Hi.
Zahir Janmohamed Welcome, welcome.
Alan Montecillo Yeah, how’s it going?
Zahir Janmohamed Good, good, good. I’m getting used to having you on the microphone now. It’s kind of nice. We should do this more often.
Alan Montecillo I’m glad I can help.
Zahir Janmohamed This is a very special episode on Filipino food. Very special. We’re really excited about it.
Alan Montecillo I’m excited about it, too. You know, it’s funny that you were describing the sense of surprise that Filipino people you meet get when you say you like our food. And I remember feeling that same thing when we first met and you said, Oh, I’ve been to the Philippines. I love Filipino food. And I was like, Oh. OK.
Zahir Janmohamed Yeah, a lot of times people think I’m putting on an act.
Soleil Ho Really?
Zahir Janmohamed Yeah. I was in Manila for an Asia Society conference, and I love the food. I thought it was incredible.
Alan Montecillo What stands out to you?
Zahir Janmohamed The desserts. I love the desserts. The desserts are incredible. There’s something, I forget what it’s called. It’s like a purple color thing? I’m sorry—
Alan Montecillo Ube.
Zahir Janmohamed Oh, it’s like the best.
Alan Montecillo It’s like a sweet purple yam.
Zahir Janmohamed It’s just the best thing ever.
Soleil Ho Did you have the ice cream, like ube ice cream?
Zahir Janmohamed Oh, it’s the best.
Alan Montecillo Oh, it’s great, yeah.
Zahir Janmohamed It was so amazing. I’m always excited when Filipino friends invite me over, but they always give me this thing like, Are you sure you want me to cook Filipino food? And it’s interesting because I’m Indian American, and our food is super popular and super cool and everyone’s cooking it. So it’s a very different experience where like—
Alan Montecillo Right, nobody asks me for my family’s secret recipe.
Zahir Janmohamed No, seriously. I mean, you get Indian food served at Heathrow Airport, where Filipino food is like it has to be served in a taco for people to like it, you know?
Alan Montecillo There’s like three and a half million of us in America, but how many restaurants have you seen?
Soleil Ho Right. And I think… Here’s an interesting wrinkle, though. So, it’s invisible, right? But there are benefits to being invisible, I think—
Alan Montecillo Definitely.
Soleil Ho Right? You see hypervisibility of Chinese food and the kinds of stereotypes we have about Chinese food and the kinds of expectations Americans have of Chinese food. And we have the hypervisibility of Indian food and places that are interpretations of Indian food that are not very faithful and also just very shallow, so.
Zahir Janmohamed We’re looking at two kale samosas.
Soleil Ho So, is that what the Filipino community wants, President Alan?
Alan Montecillo Oh man. It’s funny that on this show we’ve talked a lot about what it’s like for people to see white folks open restaurants serving the food that they ate as a kid and were made fun of. A lot of this happens, I think, with Indian food and Thai food. I haven’t had that experience because I haven’t seen that happen yet because Filipino food isn’t cool. So, the conversation with Natalia and Sarahlynn was really interesting. Soleil and I talked to them over Skype, so audio quality is better than phone, but just as a heads up… And yeah, I hope you enjoy it.
Sarahlynn Pablo OK, she’s nudging me. I’m Sarahlynn Pablo. I’m co-founder of Filipino Kitchen. I’m a food writer based here in Chicago.
Natalia Roxas Well, I’m Natalia Roxas, co-founder of Filipino Kitchen. And outside of doing pop-ups and festivals, we’ve been doing speaking engagements, workshops and cooking demos.
When people ask me, What is Filipino food? I essentially always answer with, It’s history on a plate. There’s always a story behind each ingredient, behind each technique. So we want to definitely tell that story as well as like, since we’re centered around about rice, there’s so many things that we can go talk about it. We didn’t even know that there’s certain rituals, like up in the mountain province, that is centric to rice. I mean, hello, there is a rice god called the Bulul.
Alan Montecillo When people ask me what Filipino food is, I’m kind of at a loss even though I grew up with it. I don’t really know what to say. And you said just now that you say, It’s history on a plate. How did you arrive at that being the answer that you decide to tell people when you get asked that question?
Natalia Roxas We have been trading partners for way before the Spaniards, or the Mexicans—it was not the Spaniards that arrived, it was the Mexicans who arrived—
Sarahlynn Pablo Well, New Spain.
Natalia Roxas Yeah.
Sarahlynn Pablo What we now know as Mexico.
Natalia Roxas —Yes, in the Philippines. So, since the early 1300s we’ve been trading partners with China, so that’s why we get soy sauce, noodles and a lot of Chinese-inspired dishes, like pancit, that is within our own culture. We have been trading partners with India, and that’s why in the southern part of the Philippines, turmeric and curry is heavily used. Just because of our geography with Malay, with the Malaysians, we’ve also been trading partners in the early 11th, 12th century. So, the Philippines has been such a hub with all these different tradings, and that is what influenced our food. So it doesn’t mean, when people would say, Oh, Filipinos are copycats. Filipinos are great at fusion. I’m like, It’s not necessarily that way.
Soleil Ho I find that I don’t know enough—I’m a Vietnamese American—and it was just not a part of the history that I was taught. And I love that, “history on a plate.” That’s a really smart sort of phrase. So, relating to that line of thought, who’s your audience? Who are you educating and who do you want to reach the most?
Sarahlynn Pablo I would definitely say we want to reach Filipinos and Filipino Americans the most. Obviously, I would say they’re our biggest fans, but they’re also the biggest critics, too, of Filipino food: Oh, that’s not adobo; Oh, I can make that better, that kare kare. We hear things like that a lot, but it’s part of being a community in diaspora. Even just within the United States, there’s so many different histories of Filipino Americans that you have, so many different kinds of iterations of these things as well as, of course, down to the regional. And for each family, they’ve got all different recipes. So, just to kind of say, Hey, let’s not say yours is inauthentic, and mine is the real thing. Let’s just kind of dial that back and say this is kind of the breadth of the Filipino-American experience and Filipinos in diaspora. Because, of course, there’s a lot of different Filipinos all over the world, as well.
And even though sometimes people go, “Well, Filipino food is all meat.” No, it’s really not all meat. “Oh, it’s all pork.” Then you have Muslim Filipinos, of course. So, it’s a lot of different things. And part of our mission is to basically just have those conversations. And of course we want to educate people on the context of Filipino food, as Natalia mentioned, with the history. That’s not, obviously—as you were just mentioning, Soleil—not a history that we get in school. So, part of it is just retelling our history. Like, OK, well, why do we use vinegar so much? Well, it’s the tropics. Geography. We need to preserve, and so this is why we use vinegar a lot in our food. So it’s things like that.
Mostly for Filipinos, Filipino Americans and other people who are just generally interested in food and cuisine and really understanding the context. Like, “Oh it’s just like Spanish food.” No, actually, no it’s not. Like, even it might have a Spanish name like “adobo…”
Natalia Roxas Like “chado,” “caldereta,” there’s a lot of Filipino dishes that are named after Spanish-naming dishes and differently prepared.
Soleil Ho So, along those lines, do you two have any interesting food stories from your childhoods that relate to your relationship to Filipino food when you were young?
Natalia Roxas Well, I know when I was younger, I always wanted to eat street food, and my mom forbade it. My mom’s like, Nope, you’re going to get sick from that. And yet, so what I would do is I would—like when my mom’s at work—I would hold on to my allowance for dear life, and then ask my nanny to go buy me whatever I want when my mom was not around. Anywhere from like, they called it “dirty ice cream,” but it’s not really—
Sarahlynn Pablo It’s not dirty.
Natalia Roxas —No, it’s not. But that’s like the common terms. And I was like, I want dirty ice cream and I want taho, which is silken tofu with this caramely goodness of a sauce and tapioca pearls on top and that’s breakfast. And I would ask for this street barbeque even though, as I said, I eat good at my house because my mom is an amazing cook. But at the same time, I tried to go behind her back when it comes to eating street food, because I think she’s going to go bust her jugular as she’s about to yell at me so I should not eat it.
Sarahlynn Pablo And I think for me, my favorite, it was probably one of my earliest memories. So, as Natalia mentioned, I used to spend my summers growing up in the Philippines. And, of course, it being summer, it’s like rainy season. So it rain rain rains so hard for that maybe hour between noon and 3 and 3 o'clock is magic time which means merienda, right? So, you always get to go out to get some merienda for the house. So, I remember going with my one older cousin to get our umbrellas, go out into the rain to go get a liter of Coca Cola and some fresh pandesal for the house. And I remember it was just like this little, it wasn’t even a building. It was like a shack. They must’ve had some sort of oven in there. And I remember in this brown paper bag and just bringing it home for everyone to eat this little merienda snack together. That’s probably my favorite memory.
Soleil Ho What’s merienda?
Sarahlynn Pablo Snack, it just means snack. Merienda.
Soleil Ho Ah, ok, ok. Got you.
Natalia Roxas Midday snack, to be exact. But also, I grew up having a family who loves to eat. I kid you not. How many hotel buffets that we have shut down and kept open for like three hours after closing time because my family would not stop eating.
Soleil Ho Wow.
Alan Montecillo Dang.
Natalia Roxas I think one of the record times is we met up for breakfast and we did not stand up until midnight, because it’s eating and talking and eating and talking. And my family, when I was home last January—and Sarah can attest to this that when she met up with my mom—but for one day I had a lunch meeting so I ate lunch. My auntie picked me up 30 minutes later and had another lunch. Then we went to the museum, then had another like food. And it’s like it never stopped until midnight, until we were at this coffeeshop that was literally kicking us out and turned on the “ugly lights,” as I called it.
AM and Soleil Ho [laughing]
Natalia Roxas And we’re like, Yo, it’s 1 o'clock. I’m looking at my auntie, my mom, and they’re like, Maybe we should go to blah blah. I’m like, No! Stop!
Soleil Ho Do you have any stories about introducing friends to Filipino cuisine for the first time? Do they usually love it at first blush?
Natalia Roxas It depends on how adventurous they are.
Sarahlynn Pablo Because, I feel like most people we meet who are at least a little bit familiar with Filipino food say something like, Oh I had a coworker… or, My best friend is Filipino and I would always go to their house or they would bring a dish to office parties so I know lumpia and I know pancit. So that’s always usually the—
Natalia Roxas Or adobo.
Sarahlynn Pablo —or adobo, the gateway drug to Filipino cuisine.
Soleil Ho Gateway to dinuguan.
Sarahlynn Pablo Sorry?
Soleil Ho Is that the gateway to dinuguan?
Sarahlynn Pablo and Natalia Roxas [laughing]
Sarahlynn Pablo The gateway to dinuguan. Yeah, dinuguan is really an adobo, just with blood, but it is obviously another level.
Natalia Roxas That’s the master level. If you want to start at kindergarten, you have your adobo, pancit, lumpia or sinigang. That’s like four things that you can… like, nobody would hate it.
Alan Montecillo Yeah.
Natalia Roxas So, most of the people that we surround ourselves with, or even that attend our pop-ups, are pretty adventurous. We did a pop-up last year with chef AC Boral, we called it “No Guts, No Glory,” and it was completely and utterly offal.
Sarahlynn Pablo Yeah, so we just had this idea, Let’s do an all-offal dinner, which is obviously not that difficult with Filipino food. So I think we had a salmon head sinigang. We did a kare kare, right?
Natalia Roxas Ox tail.
Sarahlynn Pablo Ox tail.
Natalia Roxas With the sinigang, it’s also head-on prawns. We had chicken feet as our street food platter. We had boiled peanuts, chicken feet, pork cheek tacos—but the shells are slivers of jicama—with achara or pickled carrots and green papaya. So we kind of just went there.
And also, as a conversation piece for that, is, “Why do certain regions or a lot of Filipino food uses offal?” Once again, let’s revert back to history. It’s the scraps of our colonizers. And people were poor, and people were hungry. And whatever then they could make out of the scraps is what’s for food and right now is known to be to a certain region or to a certain family. Sisig alone, which is made out of pig face, is very specific on when it was, when it started. It was conceived during American occupation, because nearby the military base they would just discard pigface and, I forgot her name, Aling something.
Sarahlynn Pablo I forgot the name, too.
Natalia Roxas Aling… We need to look that up, I swear. But what she did is she got this discarded pig face, boiled it off, and then used every part of it and then just made this sizzling, spicy sisig dish. And that alone can trace straight from American occupation.
Some people, we get a pushback and say that we’re too serious about it or we always have issues about it. But then again it’s like, let’s just contextualize where everything comes from. And not everything, just because it’s glorified by white people, that it’s OK.
Sarahlynn Pablo And so, just to kind of build off of what Natalia said, There’s a kind of fear factor, quote unquote, around certain offal foods specifically. Filipinos are known for balut and balut being like, Oh my gosh it’s so crazy, how can you eat that partially devolved duck or chicken embryo? And kind of the way we explain it, through our pop-ups, through our events, through our articles in social media, it’s like, Well, you eat the eggs right? And you eat the chicken. So what’s wrong with the in between?
Sarahlynn Pablo and Natalie Roxas [laughing]
Alan Montecillo Have you served balut at one of your pop-ups?
Sarahlynn Pablo and Natalie Roxas Yes, we have.
Natalia Roxas We served balut as a, quote unquote, surprise menu item.
Soleil Ho I love that. That’s so amazing.
Natalia Roxas Going back to the sisig, we found it was Aling Lucing who created the sisig around 1974. That’s such a recent memory. So that’s how long sisig has been around. And the funniest thing is like, Food & Wine magazine, and it was coauthored by Andrew Zimmern, saying that use pork belly because the roasting is what gives it whatever bullshit that they—Oh, I’m sorry. Can I say that?
Alan Montecillo Yes—
Alan Montecillo This is not on the radio. This is on the internet, so—.
Sarahlynn Pablo No FCC. OK.
Natalia Roxas —I mean, really. I mean, dude. Google it. OK, maybe to make it palatable—
Sarahlynn Pablo Or easier for people to source.
Natalia Roxas —Yeah, use pork belly. But come on. It takes like two sentences for you to say the original recipe came from here. And that’s what we work for. And that’s what we’re about is we’re not here to say, Let me Google that for you, but to entice—OK that’s not the right word—to have people start thinking critically.
Alan Montecillo When I read American media or I see Filipino media and American media, there’s this genre of either Filipino media or Filipino social media that is like, Look, a Western thing is talking about us. In every field, too—
Sarahlynn Pablo So we’re legit.
Alan Montecillo —Like following basketball it’s like, Tony Parker said something about the Filipino basketball team. I don’t know. I can’t put words to it, but that’s what it reminded me of when you were talking about that.
Sarahlynn Pablo Yeah, it’s like a validation, you know? Like, no. We don’t need outside validation. You should understand that knowledge to cook an oxtail or knowledge to be able to use things like balut or sisig or pig’s head, that is real cultural value. And so I think when people say things like, Well, Filipino is just cheap food, then I kind of counter with like, No, it’s not, because you have to have real knowledge to be able to make these things. Is it easy to make a rib-eye? Yeah, it’s totally easy. Everybody knows how to do it. But, do you know how to make an oxtail? That’s a completely different story.
Soleil Ho This narrative that I think y’all are speaking to right now, actually, within food writing and the food media, where Filipino cuisine is constantly cast as this underdog, as this thing that’s about to hit it big or that’s been unappreciated, right? I think I first read about that sort of sentiment in Food & Wine magazine around the time of that typhoon. And I was like, this is weird, this thing that is happening. But it almost seems like an extension of colonialism, that narrative.
Sarahlynn Pablo Yeah, you see it in travel writing, you see it in talking about—I mean, it is just a direct parallel if you go from talking about Yelp reviews to talking about like the ten best islands—
Natalia Roxas [grrs]
Alan Montecillo The ten best islands?
Soleil Ho Out of like 7,000?
Sarahlynn Pablo —And somebody can just look up a recipe online, and now they know everything about Filipinos, Filipino history and—you know what I’m saying? And it’s like, I understand that some people’s intentions may be good, but there are problems with the language and how that can kind of extend. “Dog eaters,” the practice of eating dog, by certain Northern tribes indigenous to the Philippines, that was very instrumental in the United States continuing their imperialist agenda in the Philippines. So, at the St. Louis Fair in 1904, they basically brought a human zoo, right? So it wasn’t just indigenous Filipinos. They were from—
Natalia Roxas All over the world.
Sarahlynn Pablo —all over the world. Indigenous peoples literally put on display. So the term, the pejorative, “dog eaters” came directly from that. So, yeah, we’re very conscious as far as needing to understand where these stereotypes came from, with all like. Your stinky lunch. Even when it comes down to that like, Oh you brought this rice that needs to be reheated and this stinky adobo, and, Why don’t you have a sandwich? So it’s just all connected, I feel like.
Natalia Roxas We’re faced with certain choices of what to do. We positioned ourselves to be in food media and having a niche market and yet also wanting to, so to speak, play with the big boys or, in our world, play with the big girls, so…
Sarahlynn Pablo We’re in the social media age, so it’s the age of the Twitter, Facebook, Instagram clapback. You cannot expect to put something out there as a mainstream media and represent it as Filipino cuisine and then just have blatant errors in how the dish is tasting, how it’s—
Natalia Roxas Presented.
Sarahlynn Pablo —not put into context. Like the Saveur article that Natalia’s mentioning, that we pushed back for them on was the sinangag, which is a garlic fried rice—it’s commonly served as a breakfast item. And, first of all, they misspelled “Philippine.” There were definitely—
Soleil Ho [laughing]
Alan Montecillo How? How was it spelled? Was it with an “f”?
Natalia Roxas Oh my god. It was spelled P-h-i-l-l-i-p-i-n-e.
Soleil Ho [laughing]
Alan Montecillo Mm. No.
Natalia Roxas The double letter was wrong. So like, bitch, it takes like 30 seconds to spell check.
Alan Montecillo You can spell “Mississippi”? You can’t spell “Philippine”? Come on.
Sarahlynn Pablo —Right. So, then they were just going through the recipe. I think they were trying to go for a silog, but they didn’t want to maybe explain what a silog is. So silog is kind of a, well it’s called a portmanteau, so you have a tapsilog, bansilog, spamsilog—so it’s like the first part is the protein, spam, bangus, tapa, and then you have—
Natalia Roxas And others.
Sarahlynn Pablo —Right. Any other combination you want, plus the sinangag and then itlog—egg—at the end. So it’s like a little awesome combo plate. So, instead of just putting—
Alan Montecillo Yes it is. I’m really hungry.
Sarahlynn Pablo —Instead of just putting the vinegar on the side for dipping, they poured it right on the rice, and then they used chili flakes. Like, that is not even delicious.
Natalia Roxas It’s like a quarter cup of vinegar doused on top of eggs and rice. Who?—
Soleil Ho Oh my god, that sounds gross.
Alan Montecillo Ew. [groaning]
Natalia Roxas And to top it all off—
Sarahlynn Pablo The grand finale.
Natalia Roxas —They served it in this Chinese bowl with frickin’ chopsticks. I mean, come on. What the fuck, you know?
Sarahlynn Pablo Like, Oh because all Asians use chopsticks.
Natalia Roxas Yeah, like all. All Asians, the whole continent of fucking Asia—
Alan Montecillo Yup. [laughing]
Natalia Roxas —uses chopsticks.
Alan Montecillo Have either of your families been to any of the pop-ups that you’ve done?
Natalia Roxas When we did one at the Bay Area last year. A bunch of my family from my mom’s side came. They hosted us. Some of her family came out.
Sarahlynn Pablo Oh yeah, that same one at San Mateo, yup.
Natalia Roxas And then our project manager Caitlin, Caitlin’s family came out. And then also, in the recent pop-up that we did, once again in San Francisco, this time around, her family came out full force.
Alan Montecillo What’s it like to have family come to one of those?
Natalia Roxas It’s fun just because they’re so used to either my mom or my grandma’s cooking, and here we are. My family is very supportive of what we do, and one of my aunties wasn’t able to go to a pop-up, ordered like hella shirts and aprons just to be able to show support. I mean, each of our family members—there’s three of us at Filipino Kitchen: Sarah, me and Cailtlin—our families are just… It’s just so nice to be able to have that support and that enthusiasm. Sarah and I’s moms would be on social media or on Facebook specifically because that’s where they’re comfortable. One day, even just a day, if they’re both at the same time online, they will comment on top of each other on our photos. And then we’ll be like, 100-something notifications, I’m like Sarah, what the hell did we do? And then we just see her mom, my mom, like like like like like like like like like like. Yeah.
Alan Montecillo That’s so awesome. Thank you both so much for talking to us. We really appreciate it. Where can people find you and your work?
Natalia Roxas Filipino.kitchen—
Sarahlynn Pablo Is the website.
Soleil Ho Thank you for listening to “Racist Sandwich.” If you like the show, please share it with your friends on social media.
Soleil Ho and Alan Montecillo [laughing]
Soleil Ho You can find us on the web also at www.racistsandwich.com.
Transcribed by Ann-Derrick Gaillot.