On Filipino Food and Identity: A Roundtable

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Food: It nourishes us. It nurtures us. It comforts us.

For immigrants, though, food can also provide a touchstone. A connection to a heritage that may be strained by distance and generations. Even if we don’t know any other aspect of our native culture, there’s a good chance we’ve been exposed to the food. Growing up, Filipino food represented family and home. We ate Filipino food at family gatherings. While I may have eaten pizza or sandwiches at school, I ate home-cooked Filipino meals at home. My relationship with food has changed over the years. While Filipino food is still linked with comfort in my mind, these days I bear a sense of responsibility to it. If I want to keep that bit of culture alive for myself, I need to engage with it. I need to learn how to cook it. Because if I don’t, who will? I’m an only child.

This experience with food isn’t unique to me. I turned to fellow Filipina WWACers, Angel Cruz and Kelly Kanayama, to talk about food, what it means to us, and its connection to the Philippines.

—Vernieda Vergara

Tell us a little bit about your background. What role has immigration played in your life?

Angel: I spent my childhood in the United States, moved back to the Philippines, and then made the permanent move to Canada about five years ago. It’s been almost one year since I became a Canadian citizen. I’ve spent much of my life living on a metaphorical fence between the Filipino culture and North American culture, and I identify as a member of the Filipino diaspora.

Kelly: I was born and raised in Hawaii, as were my parents. Dad is second-generation Visayan Filipino (although his stepfather was Ilocano) from the Big Island of Hawaii, and Mom is third-generation Japanese from Honolulu. I’m now living as an immigrant myself; for the past 8 years I’ve been studying and working in the UK and currently live in Scotland.

My mother has lived in Hawaii all her life. Her big move was from Oahu (the island where Honolulu is) to the Big Island, where she worked for a few years. My father is from an almost unbelievably country upbringing—for instance, he didn’t wear shoes or use indoor plumbing at school until he was eleven, and he and his classmates used monstera leaves as umbrellas. It’s like Ferngully. Nevertheless, when he joined the army to pay for college, he was stationed in Indiana for basic training and then in Korea for a few years, so he’s seen some notable demographic contrasts around the world.

Vernieda: I was born in the Philippines. Both sides of my family are from the island of Negros; Visayan Filipinos unite! My parents immigrated to the United States when I was about a year and a  half old, and we became U.S. citizens when I was a young child. My memory’s fuzzy, so I’m not sure about the exact age.

I’ve lived in the Washington D.C. area for nearly my entire life. For all intents and purposes, my experiences are closer to that of a second generation immigrant despite technically being a first generation one. It wasn’t until college that I learned that people like me, who’d come to the U.S. at a young age and were raised here, were often referred to as 1.5 generation immigrants. In terms of a label, it fit in a way first-generation or second-generation didn’t. A little of this and a little bit of that.

Children of immigrant families often feel a duty to uphold the culture of the homeland. Have you ever felt this pressure? In what ways?

Angel: Strangely enough, I don’t think I felt it as much as one would think. My mother wasn’t very attached to Filipino culture so much as she was attached to its values. So I was raised in a very devout Catholic household, but we didn’t participate in the social gatherings that are usually part-and-parcel of Filipino Catholicism. I didn’t grow up knowing the names of Filipino celebrities or listening to Filipino music or watching Filipino movies. I didn’t really feel like I was Filipino until I was around 18, 19, because I couldn’t identify with the culture as I saw it.

Around that time, I read about Third-Culture Kids (TCK): “a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents’ culture.” Many of them are children of diplomats or army officers, but I think there’s also room in that definition for children of the diaspora who then return to their “homeland” and experience major culture shock. Since then, I’ve identified as a TCK, and it’s made approaching both cultures a little easier for me because I don’t feel the pressure to identify completely with one.

Kelly: Like much of my Hawaii friends and family, we’ve invested a lot in retaining general traditions and values from our ancestors’ home countries. Since I live in the West, there is definitely pressure to uphold those traditions and values in order to not forget where I came from. However, this is more in the sense of not forgetting my Asian-influenced Hawaii upbringing than preserving some kind of pure Asianness.

Similar to Angel, I didn’t really get a sense of my own Filipino-sity until I was about 18. I grew up in East Honolulu, where there are very few people of Filipino descent and had hardly any Filipino friends at school. My father’s family was the only point of reference I had for a sense of Filipina identity.

As a result, there were certain aspects of my identity that I didn’t quite understand. In some ways I’m quite stereotypically Filipino: I love singing, dancing—especially working that booty and performing; I’m a naturally ebullient person; and my wide nose used to bewilder my mother, who would keep pinching it to mold it into a thinner shape. Sorry, Mom. That’s genetics. But I didn’t fully realize that these were related to a larger sense of cultural identity until I left home and met other Filipino people from other parts of America and the world. Now when I spend time with my Filipino relatives, I note the similarities between us with more pride. (At our last family reunion, my aunties and I made exactly the same “EEEEEEE!” of joy when we saw each other. Culture!)

Vernieda: Do all titas make that “EEEEEEE” noise? Because mine certainly do!

Growing up as the child of Filipino immigrants to the United States has a strange push and pull to it, if that makes sense. My parents made the deliberate choice not to teach me Cebuano (my family’s dialect) or Tagalog because they wanted me to speak only English. It’s common experience to immigrant children here, I think. Parents buy into the fallacy that in order to succeed we must speak English and only English. It wasn’t until my first visit to the Philippines when I was 8 that I learned from my titas that I’d already been speaking Cebuano by the time we left. Having to field the questions of “What happened? Why can’t you speak anymore?” as a child was bewildering, to say the least.

On the other hand, my mother’s brothers and sisters also immigrated to the Washington D.C. area. My childhood and teenage years were filled with family gatherings at holidays and birthdays. There are also several Filipino organizations in the D.C. area—we have a local community newspaper!—so I attended quite a few picnics, galas, and cultural festivals. It wasn’t until later in life that I realized how fortunate I was in that respect: being able to see how Filipino culture manifested in the U.S. and in a community wider than just my family.

Food is a major part of Filipino culture. It’s often the centerpiece of our celebrations and family get-togethers. What was your relationship with Filipino food growing up?

Kare-kare courtesy of Angel’s mom.

Angel: My mother is an amazing cook, so I’ve grown up judging all Filipino food against her version of those dishes. I’ve become a really picky eater over the years, and I don’t like eating at Filipino restaurants because the food never tastes as good as her cooking.

That said, I also remember wondering why my classmates and people in general talked about loving Chinese food or Japanese food, but Filipino food was pretty much non-existent. To be fair, I did grow up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, so we didn’t really have a huge Filipino community around.

Kelly: I used to find it bitter and strange, probably because the first full-on Filipino food I ate was soup made from calamungay/marunggay leaves, which taste crazy bitter if you’re a pathologically picky child. It was a special occasion—my grandfather was visiting—we didn’t normally eat Filipino food at home.

As I’m typing, it occurs to me that part of that perceived strangeness may have come from the combination of the food and my grandfather’s presence. I barely knew this man; he and my grandmother had been divorced since my father was about five years old, and I’d apparently met him maybe once before that, although I have no recollection of that meeting. So here was this stranger (who, I was told, was in our house because he was blood, even though my grandmother had somewhat expelled him from the family ages ago for deadbeatness), who smelled unusual and ate bitter food that I didn’t understand, and who my parents were treating with a hospitality that even then felt somewhat uncomfortable.

I managed to surmount that barrier one summer when I was home from college. Our church was having a potluck, and I volunteered to cook chicken adobo. I’d never cooked chicken adobo, but I knew from Hawaiian comedians that it was a quintessential Filipino food. The combination of soy sauce, garlic, white vinegar, and peppercorns was gastronomic alchemy, and I started to realize what I’d been missing all those years.

Plus, hot dogs in everything? A lot of people make fun of that, but until you’ve tried it you don’t know how amazing it is.

Vernieda: People don’t understand the magic of putting hot dogs in spaghetti.

I’ve always eaten Filipino food. Pancit, tinola, sinigang, and lumpia were staples. My mother always cooked it at home, and I agree with Angel that it can be hard to eat in Filipino restaurants and the like because the food just doesn’t taste right! Things like kare kare and dinuguan were for special occasions, but that made me love them all the more. It wasn’t until college that I had the so-called American staples of mac and cheese or Hamburger Helper—mostly because my roommates were shocked to learn I hadn’t ever eaten any before then. Even after the experience, I was like, “Why would you eat this?” and then happily went back to my stir fries.

What is your relationship with Filipino food now?

Angel: Eating Filipino food is probably the most kinship I feel with the culture. It provides comfort in ways I can’t really describe, because it’s at once unique to a family and a shared experience with fellow Filipinos. I’m pretty sure my mum’s version of sinigang is different from yours, but when we remember that dish, we all know the sour bite of the stew and the warmth as you bite into the meat and vegetables.

I watch my mum cook every week, and I wish I had the ability/confidence to cook like her, because she doesn’t follow recipes. Her dishes have changed over the years to adapt to our tastes, and when I ask her how to make things, she’ll usually say “Oh, you just put this and that and then you stir and add a little seasoning.” “How do you know it’s done?” “Oh, you just know.” But I don’t know, and it’s a little like my own relationship with Filipino culture, I think.

I identify with very few things in popular Filipino media, and I was bullied in my high school in the Philippines for being too “American,” so it’s been this weird line I’ve tried to walk over the last ten years. I’ve had some encouraging mentors and friends though, so there have been some aspects of the culture that I feel comfortable calling my own, but it’s definitely an ongoing process. I’m not quite done yet, if that makes sense. I feel like I’m going to be more at ease with cooking Filipino food when I’ve learned how to understand what parts of me are Filipino and how they’ve contributed to the person I am today.

Kelly: When I eat or cook Filipino food now, it feels like an attempt to make up for lost time. Although I never doubted that I was wholly loved, while I was growing up my relationship with my father was pretty rocky. If it had been perfect, the reasoning goes, if I could have dealt with flavors like a normal person,  this is what I could have been eating.

In that respect, Filipino food gives my father and me a point of conventional daughter-dad admiration. His chicken papaya (chicken tinola to those more Filipino than I) is DELICIOUS, and every time I go home I ask him—repeatedly—to cook it for me. It’s not entirely traditional; there’s kabocha, eggplant, basil, long beans, and loads of other vegetables in there, but there’s always the chayote and the huge chunks of ginger. And no matter how many times I eat it, no matter how many times I see him prepare it, I can’t get mine to taste the same. I have stood in the kitchen as he cooks and noted the order that the ingredients go into the pot, and yet the taste is somehow impossible to duplicate. When I get after him to cook his chicken papaya, then, it’s an acknowledgement of something that only he can do, and that I, with my education and achievements and all that good stuff, still need him to step into that role for me.

It’s also a bit of cultural defiance. Some of the ingredients that go into Filipino food smell fishy, sour, too sharp, unacceptably foreign, but this is me. In an overwhelmingly white society, I am still a child of people who love stinky food and, damn it, I am proud of how stinky and satisfying that food is.

Vernieda: Why is chicken tinola so hard to replicate? I’m getting closer and closer, but mine doesn’t taste like my mom’s at all, and I just can’t figure out why.

Vernieda’s first attempt at cooking menudo

As an adult, I find myself working harder and harder to improve my Filipino cooking. Master the skills, if you will. Now that my extended family has scattered to the four winds, we don’t have those big holiday gatherings anymore. My parents are retired and have moved to Florida, so I don’t go to those professional galas and picnics either. In my desperation, I went scouring the local Filipino supermarkets to see which ones offered turo-turo take-out, but again I run into that issue of the food not quite tasting right. That said, the Filipino supermarket down the street from me offers a kare-kare that tastes just like my mom’s!

Learning how to cook Filipino food can be an adventure. My mother doesn’t use recipes either, so asking for advice and implementing it is a process of trial and error. There are no measurements. There are no estimated cooking times.  I don’t follow recipes to the letter myself, but a little more specificity would have helped me a lot at the beginning of this journey.

Kelly brings up a good point: food shaming. Some of our dishes are considered “stinky” or “weird” in a white-dominant society. Did you ever experience food shaming—from other people or even within yourself?

Kelly: Not personally, but there is a definite food-shaming that shapes the way people talk about food in Britain. While it’s reasonable for office workers (for example) to object to a colleague warming up “stinky” food in the microwave, the criteria for “stinky” here seems to be “anything of non-white origin.” By contrast, in Hawaii pungent food is pretty common. We all know what kimchi tastes like; we all know what bagoong is; we love foodstuffs that are fishy and/or fermented.

Vernieda: Through high school and college, I was very conscious of  there being food I could eat at home and food I couldn’t eat in the presence of white people. Or rather, I could but I better brace myself for unwelcome, intrusive comments. One memory that stands out in particular happened during college. My parents had come for a visit and my mom had made me a batch of kare-kare, which is my favorite dish of all. Traditionally, it’s made with oxtail but the version she’d brought had substituted tripe. I was eating it for dinner a couple weeks after that visit and one of my apartment-mates thought it was the grossest thing ever and had no problem telling me—and our other apartment-mates—that.

As an adult, though, I’ve been fortunate to have friends who aren’t like that. I’ve won them over with the wonders of pancit, lumpia, tocino, longganisa, and even achara. Some of them want to try the more “adventurous” dishes, so I’ll be introducing those to them in the coming months.

Angel: I never felt ashamed of the foods I ate when I was younger, but I’ve recently started introducing some of my closest friends to Filipino food this year. I was surprised by how much anxiety it gave me! Where does one even start?

Earlier this year, some friends came to visit me and I cooked longganisa for lunch. I won’t lie: I was very nervous as I brought the still-sizzling bowl to the table and watched them cut up the sausages and eat them cautiously. When the three of them said they really liked it, I was honestly so relieved I could have cried. Every visit since has involved cooking longganisa for breakfast, and it still makes me just as happy to see my friends enjoying my own favourite breakfast food.  Since then, I’ve felt much more comfortable talking about my favourite foods and introducing other people to those dishes. It’s a comfort that I never really thought to look for or expect, and I do look forward to being able to share more of my culture with the people in my life.

Vernieda Vergara

Vernieda Vergara

Writer. Manga and webtoon aficionado. I hail from Washington D.C. where I consume too much media and cause only a little trouble. Tweet me @incitata.