Teena Apeles, KUMAIN!: WHEN YOU'RE TOO YOUNG TO CARE ABOUT WHAT'S COOL TO EAT
"In the near future, will non-Filipinos/non-Asians outnumber Filipinos at my favorite Filipino restaurant? (Actually, that has already started to happen.) Will more local Filipino food restaurants start to deliver, and will I find their menu fliers hanging from the knob of our front door? What does this all mean? And why has it taken so long for the public to embrace Filipino culture, at least its food, wholeheartedly?"
This past Friday morning, my septuagenarian father called me on the phone, very excited. (I’m failing to give his exact age because, embarrassingly enough, for one, I’m not sure, and, second, I want him to be seventy forever.) This in itself, a morning phone call from my dad, is rare and accidental the majority of the time, as revealed by his first words, “Oh, sorry, dear, I misdialed…everything okay?” But on this occasion, it was intentional.
“Dear, I just read the paper,” he began in an upbeat tone, sounding as if he’d made some amazing discovery. “There’s a big article on Filipino food in DTLA. I don’t know what ‘DTLA’ means…”
“Downtown LA,” I tell him.
“Anyways, dear,” he continues, “it’s about Filipino restaurants there. It takes up about a third of this section! I’ll cut it out for you!”
I know exactly where he is calling me from: his bathroom toilet (AKA “the office”), next to a stack of newspapers probably taller than my five-year-old daughter. Also within arm’s reach is a pencil cup filled with a pair of scissors and black rollerball pens, to use on occasions like this. I know this because that’s how it’s been since I could remember. Yes, he’s old school.
I was going to tell him, just as my sisters Tricia and Linda have also said for more than a decade, “Dad, I can find it online.” But he was so giddy that I didn’t want to disappoint him. I just said, “Thanks, Dad! How does it make you feel that Filipino food is trendy now?” But like my father often does when I’m on the phone with him, he had already checked out within five minutes of calling me.
The timing of this all is a bit upsetting. Just a week or so earlier, an article I wrote about Filipino food had been published, and he featured prominently in it. But for some reason that didn’t excite him. Why? It wasn’t in a newspaper. It was on the popular website LAist—he can’t use his scissors and a rollerball pen on his Samsung Galaxy S5. (Yes, old school.)
But it was still nice to hear my dad so thrilled with seeing Filipino food in the news. My mom, too, has called me a number of times over the past couple of years about new Filipino restaurants that she has read about or visited with her friends. She and her college friends, now all retired, have made trying out new Filipino food spots one of their regular outings in Los Angeles, and they promptly post photos from these meals on Facebook. The interesting thing now is that not just retired Filipino American grandmothers are proudly posting Filipino food pics online: it can be anyone these days.
For my parents, I think Filipino food being the “it” cuisine—with every outlet increasing the buzz, from Forbes, NPR, and The New York Times, to major food critics and personalities like Pulitzer Prize-winner Jonathan Gold and Anthony Bourdain—is akin to suddenly becoming the most popular kids in school just before graduation. After long last, acceptance and ascendance! Prior to the recent Filipino food trend, the only major headlines this past year mentioning Filipinos generally involved President Rodrigo Duterte, Manny Pacquiao, disasters and massacres, and the Atlantic's viral “Lola story.” So, my father’s enthusiasm to see something positive about Filipino culture in the news is understandable.
I think about my young daughter, Nica, and what Filipino cuisine’s popularity means for her. I understand its significance, and that it will impact her life in years to come, because the absence of Filipino Americans in the media—much less our food—shaped mine.
That same Friday morning, our family made plans to go to my dear friend Anne’s home for dinner. For the record, she isn’t Filipino, though as a longtime friend of almost twenty-five years, she and her family of four (including a five-year-old and fourteen-year old) have come to love all things Filipino. Since we weren’t able to see Anne on her birthday last month, to surprise her, I stopped at the Filipino bakery Leelin to pick up her favorite mango cake, and Island Pacific market for mango and macapuno (a kind of coconut) ice cream. Coincidentally, she had picked up Filipino food at Lutong Bahay restaurant around the corner from her house in Glassell Park.
Now that’s never happened before in my life—going over to a non-Filipino friend’s house to have Filipino cuisine, and in this case, an Italian American family (her husband is from Italy). My first reaction was, that’s so cool. The closest we had experienced a situation like this before was my Korean American friend Sabina picking up lumpia (eggrolls) for her Jewish Korean American kid’s birthday party. (He had gotten addicted to eating platefuls of lumpia at our parties.) Thinking about it now, is this something Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Thai people just got used to over time? In the near future, will non-Filipinos/non-Asians outnumber Filipinos at my favorite Filipino restaurant? (Actually, that has already started to happen.) Will more local Filipino food restaurants start to deliver, and will I find their menu fliers hanging from the knob of our front door? What does this all mean? And why has it taken so long for the public to embrace Filipino culture, at least its food, wholeheartedly?
When I was approached to write this piece, I thought about this question for a while: How do I feel about Filipino food becoming popular? For years, I have been trying to bring attention to Filipino food. I first wrote about it for a 2002 issue of the Asian American pop-culture magazine Giant Robot, albeit not your typical food coverage, as it was about Filipino prison recipes concocted in Los Angeles County Jail. In it, my cousin Duane shared his first-hand experience of jail culture, while also revealing the creative ways Filipino American inmates tried to recreate Filipino dishes they couldn’t have in jail. I wonder if some Filipino dishes might actually appear in jails in the future. Could adobo chicken ever be as prevalent as orange chicken?
The following year, Jonathan Gold would be my editor for brief Filipino food entries that I wrote for LA Weekly’s “Best of LA” issue: “Best Halo-Halo” at Max’s of Manila in Glendale, and “Best Fast-Food Breakfast” at Jollibee in Carson. Both he and I were excited to give ink to Filipino favorites, but the attention given to our cuisine continued to remain minor, if at all. Fast-forward thirteen years, and the title of one of Gold’s recent Los Angeles Times columns reads, “Jonathan Gold says the time for Filipino cuisine is now, and the place is Los Angeles.” Has he, like me, been waiting for years for Filipino food to become hip? I remember a dream I had years back: to open a restaurant with my sisters called Halo-Halo-Halo, not just because we love halo-halo dessert, but because it would be so funny to answer the phone, “Halo Halo Halo…” At the time, the food trends included gluten-free-everything and all-organic, something our icy dessert—loaded with ice cream, flan, ube (purple yam), and other gooey, colorful items—is definitely not.
But in other parts of the world, like London, at least, there was already a Filipino restaurant catering to non-Filipinos. In 2005, my sister Linda, our non-Filipino boyfriends (now husbands), and I, visited what must have been Josephine’s, a mainstay near Soho. Linda and I were shocked to discover that 1) she and I were the only other Filipinos in the restaurant apart from staff, 2) how familiar Filipino dishes were plated in elegant ways, versus the beautiful mess piles we were used to at home (or plopped simply in takeout boxes), 3) that European couples would choose to spend their date nights here, eating kare-kare by candlelight, and 4) when the bill came, that we paid $100 for food that would cost us maybe $20 at home. We felt like we were in a Twilight Zone episode as everything seemed so odd, but maybe just odd for us Americans. In a country so diverse, even in a city as metropolitan as Los Angeles, our cuisine, until recently, was relegated to places where only we gathered, consumed almost exclusively by Filipinos, our non-Filipino partners, and friends, and, at least in Los Angeles, Latinos who resided in those same areas.
Now, with the rise of Filipino American chefs, many of whom first came to prominence cooking at non-Filipino establishments, Angelenos are experiencing a wave of food trucks, pop-ups, and restaurants serving primarily Filipino-inspired dishes or fresh takes on traditional recipes. It is a wonder to witness the pace at which this is happening. With Filipino Americans making up the second largest Asian American population in the country, and continuing to grow, this trend may last for some time, and clearly it is international in scope. Just looking at the social feeds of friends and family all over the world, there is a lot of Filipino pride in this. For me, I guess, there is hope.
My earliest memories of Filipino food took place at my lolo and lola’s (grandparents’) charming green Craftsman home on Kenmore Avenue in Los Angeles, where many of my cousins, along with my sisters and I, were cared for as babies and later after school. Actually, the front of their home was a private daycare by day, and the back was a popular hangout for Filipino neighbors at night, with multiple mahjong tables always in play. On an average night, there would be sixteen Filipino senior citizens at it. I fondly remember the constant rumbling sounds of tiles being shuffled, thrown, and stacked. It definitely made for an interesting upbringing.
At the center of both experiences was Filipino food, either made by our loving caregiver, Manang Mary, or brought by my Lola’s friends. In the tiny kitchen, Manang Mary would make us all line up (cousins and non-Filipino kids alike) to be fed in her kamayan style—by hand. On a plate, she would arrange one stack of rice and a separate stack of a saucy Filipino protein. Then, using her right hand, she would carefully squish a stack of rice together, pick it up, and add a portion of the meaty goodness to it, lifting the handful to each of our of mouths, one after the other. Obviously this doesn’t sound like the most sanitary way to be fed (though we were rarely ever sick). But this way we each received equal attention, equal portions, and she would know that we all ate. Her ratio of rice to meat definitely shaped the way I eat to this day: I always need a three-to-one ratio of rice to meat, and I can’t have it any other way.
As my first-generation American cousins, sisters, and I grew older, Manang Mary and our parents taught us to eat the other Filipino way: with a spoon in the right hand, a fork in the left, and rarely with a knife (unless American food was involved). And just as Manang Mary had done, we generally stacked food items separately on the plate, and with the tip of our spoon we would scoop specific helpings of each item, rice always being the biggest portion. Then, with the back of the fork, we would push all the food together onto the spoon and then into our mouths. This was normal—to us. And certainly this practice kept food in place better than just using a fork, with pieces often falling out.
But outside our household and those of our relatives, this way of eating was alien to most people. On the surface, we were Asian, and that meant people just assumed we ate with chopsticks. This ignorance always bothered me. Why couldn’t people bother to tell the difference? At the same time, as a child, this made me self-conscious when I was in public, as if people were gawking at me because of how I ate—and what I ate. Some non-Filipino male friends often made fun of my family when they came to visit our house. “What’s for lunch?” they would ask, only to taunt me by answering themselves, “Fish heads and rice, fish heads and rice…” I would tell them to stop, but indeed, if you opened our fridge or saw the breakfast leftovers on the table at all hours (a familiar sight and smell at Filipino homes), there they were: fish heads and rice.
I also recall how embarrassed I was when a freshly shot pig was delivered to our home in the depths of suburbia in Thousand Oaks, California, where my parents roasted the pig, lechon, in our backyard for a big party. I was in high school at the time and was horrified that the overwhelmingly Caucasian residents in our neighborhood would also poke fun at my family, just as my friends had, and then we would be those people who cooked a cute pig in the backyard. I never ate any of that lechon because of my discomfort with these Filipino cultural practices in such an “American” setting. At the same time, after seeing the respect with which my family and my dad’s right-hand man, Gabriel (who is Latino) treated the pig—gingerly cutting it open and emptying out its innards into separate bowls, to prepare it for the feast—I was both moved and repulsed. It appeared not one item of the animal was wasted. Such feasts were, and still are, preceded by family members and friends surrounding the table of lovingly prepared food and saying a prayer to give thanks for the meal (and, in the silence, for the animals involved).
I am now nostalgic for that time, when Lolo, Lola, Manang Mary, and other relatives and friends who have passed away, were around to share in moments like these.
I’m happy that my daughter, so far, hasn’t shown the same discomfort with sharing her Filipino heritage, food or otherwise, as I once was. Even in her preschool class, Nica shared her love for one particular dish on her “Favorite/Least Favorite” worksheet: “My favorite food is a Filipino food: adobo. There’s sauce on top of the rice, brown sauce.” I take pride in this. She now lives in a world where she’s not just eating it at home, though she likes to say, “Mama makes the best adobo.” (I had never made it before she was born.) We can go to tons of restaurants in the city and order it. We went to an evening event at the Natural History Museum, and there was a Filipino food truck outside. When we go to malls in the San Fernando Valley, she can order an ube milkshake, and at Filipino markets she sees various ethnicities shopping there. For her, this is the norm.
After reading her the first part of this essay, my daughter wondered why her lolo was so excited to read about Filipino food in the newspaper. I told her, “When I was growing up, I didn’t see articles about Filipino Americans in the newspaper, and there wasn’t anyone who really looked like us on TV.” She asked, “Why?” That answer will come later.
At five years old, she is not yet concerned with what’s hip to eat. She just knows what she likes. And for her annual birthday rager (which generally has a hundred-plus people in attendance, because that’s how this Filipino American family parties), she had only one request: “I want a big pig.” My Texan husband is really the one who helped her develop a love for roasted pig. Since she was a baby, he has always made her pose next to one at every Filipino gathering. (And there are many photos of her being first in line for a helping.) When we told Nica that a roasted pig would be really expensive, she was adamant: “I really, really want lechon. I told all my friends we were having pig.”
Her lolas (thanks, Titas and Mom!) ended up chipping in for the expense, care of gambling winnings—some things never change—and a medium-sized roasted pig, head and all, arrived at her party in May, care of Little Ongpin on Sunset Boulevard. It was prominently displayed as people arrived for the festivities. Just as the elders had done in the past, my Tito Butch took a cleaver to cut up the pig into what Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike said was “so good!” and one of the best lechons they ever had. Three hours into the party, it was all gone. Me—I didn’t have one bite. But after I said a prayer for the little pig and thanked him for the memorable meal, I wondered how many other people in the city were doing the same thing that weekend.
If this Filipino food trend continues, Eva’s Lechon, which provides lechon to many restaurants in the area, will be very, very busy. Amen.