Applied Anthropology and Culinary Arts
Food is one thing that can always bring people together. Cooking is a domain rich with tradition, meaning, and connection. Even when other points of connection are limited, such as when two people come from different cultural backgrounds or speak different languages, they can still come together and make connections around food.
I grew up watching family members cook all sorts of Filipino dishes, but I very seldom had that opportunity with my maternal extended family (this summer’s trip to the Philippines was my second time visiting my mom’s side there). During this trip, I was reminded of how special family time in the kitchen is and how extra special it is that I could document the experience. I should have been doing this my whole life because there’s no verbal instruction in how to make Filipino food. Whenever I ask how to make something, no matter who the relative is, I’m answered with, “Just watch!” The only time I would receive actual instruction is when I’ve done something wrong. So in all my instructions, I learned not to confuse soy sauce for fish sauce, that I’m not good at rolling egg rolls and that I’m better off cooking with a rice cooker instead of on the stove top (you can see a video of that in my Instastories).
Like many people, many of my childhood memories revolve around food. But for me, it was not always in the making and eating of the food, but family members would share stories about food. We all have stories of when and from whom we learned to cook, embarrassing stories of failed dishes, or a special connection we have to a dish. I never realized that food and storytelling of cooking and food is a part of my culture, but I do it now even with my own family. I tell my husband bizarre stories like when I was three and I was so excited to eat kare kare (beef peanut butter stew) that I ate too fast and started choking on a napa cabbage leaf. My parents didn’t notice, but I managed to dislodge the leaf and continued eating like it was no big deal. Everytime we eat kare kare, I tell this story. Gosh, I sound like an old person!
My Inay (mom) told me another one of the earliest stories I remember. Inay grew up poor and on many occasions, the only thing she would eat was rice with tomatoes and onions marinated in kalamansi and soy sauce. I'm sure she grew tired of it during her impoverished days, but it is a simple meal that is heaven to me! I eat that meal and I think of her. One Christmas morning I made chomporado, a chocolate rice porridge served with evaporated milk. A cousin told me he was thrilled to be eating the porridge because he hadn't eaten it since he came to the States. Chomporado, he explained, is a poor man's breakfast. When you can't afford breakfast meats like bacon or sausage, you eat chomporado. He thanked me repeatedly for making him feel at home.
The culture of Filipino cooking is probably similar to many other cultures, but growing up in America it stood out in many ways. One was that the whole family was involved in preparing a meal (yes, even the men). I was taught to cook rice at the age of five. Luckily, I didn't have to go into the woods, chop the wood, build a fire and wait by the fire to watch the rice cook, like my mom did as a child. I had a handy dandy rice cooker and so, unlike my mom’s childhood experiences, there was a slim chance that I would burn the rice and get punished for it. It was a cooking task a Filipino-kid-growing-up-with-first-world-privileges could manage.
If you know Filipinos, you probably have noticed how we can talk endlessly about, take a lot of pride in, and feast on a lot of food. I have always loved inviting friends over to all my family gatherings. The first time I invited a friend over for a meal was when I was four. We sat at my table and I just raved about this dish. I promised her she would love it. Just love it! My mom walked in and set a bowl down of Ginisang Pusit, a dish made of squid simmered in vinegar and sautéed with onions and tomatoes. Are you impressed that a four year old could love this stuff? Well Stephanie sure wasn't. I naively believed her when she said her mom was calling home. Luckily, I didn’t have the self-realization that I was Filipino and therefore different from Americans yet. So I wasn’t embarrassed. Instead I felt sad for Stephanie caue she sure was missing out!
I continued to invite my friends over for meals all growing up! In high school, friends loved coming over and taking on the challenge of trying our exotic cuisine. My whole family (and I mean my whole family) would challenge my American friends to try everything from tuyo (dried fish) to dinuguan (pig blood soup). It was the only way to impress my family and boy were they impressed when they were willing to eat our food! When I brought my husband home to meet my family, he tried tuyo and my uncle said, "my daughter's husband has been in this family for years and he hasn't even tried tuyo!" So now Jordan is the favorite. During this trip, Jordan continued to prove himself to my family as he ate everything and even helped prep a meal. But my favorite part of this Filipino foodie experience is when my family had finished cooking they would always ask, “Where’s the American? Does he not eat?” Because in a Filipino family, being the last one at the table means you either don’t like the food or aren’t hungry (either of which just isn’t possible) or that you’re gonna starve cause the food is gonna go fast! In fact, on one evening Jordan did wait too long, then went downstairs to find that there was no food left for him for dinner. When he asked my cousin where the food was, she simply said, “Um, okay,” and tried to find something to feed the American.
So, once again, this summer gave me more stories to tell and a connection with my mother’s family that I have always longed for. I'm also so thrilled that my husband and son are building their memory buds (get it!?!?) of Filipino cooking. There’s no better way of learning traditions than having hands-on experience. Oh, and you best believe I'm going to be squeezing fresh coconut milk from now on! But first, I got to master the skill of cracking a coconut open with three taps of the knife like Inay.
Also, who can name the TV show from where I got the title for this post? The title is the name of an episode of this comedy! Winner will be my best friend!
Here are links to some of the recipes (in order of pictured) from the post:
Ginataang Tilapia Tilapia in Spicy Coconut Milk
If you're not a fan of tilapia, here's a Ginataang Salmon recipe.
Lumpiang Shanghai Filipino Eggrolls