Anna Buckley; Jerry Deutsch / Getty Images; Bonchan / Getty Images

I food-crawled my way to understanding my Filipina identity, one kare-kare bowl at a time

July 26, 2018 10:30 am

Hands smeared with soy sauce and chicken fat, my brother and I tore happily into the food our grandfather had prepared. We clawed into meat like wolverines, ignoring utensils, gnawing on the bones. These meals were more than merry gorge-fests—they were the main gateway to our mother’s family, our springboard to cultural connection. Over plates of crisp, cigarillo-shaped lumpia (spring rolls) or fluffy mounds of citrus-infused ponsit (noodles), my grandparents would unspool stories about the Philippines. Sampling ice cream made with ube, a violet yam, led to spooky tall tales from the countryside where they grow. My mother emigrated when she was six; for her, food and memory are inextricably tied. She often reminisces over one long bus ride through the countryside. A roadside stand selling piping-hot balut—boiled duck fetuses, a snack that freaked me out—was, for her, comfort.

Our favorite dish was adobo: a hearty stew of chicken or pork doused in tangy vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, and peppery bay leaves. However, there was an unexpected twist. Within the fragrant folds of a chicken thigh, our grandfather, whom we call Deng, would conceal whole black peppercorns. With our brains focused only on our hunger, we would inevitably forget they hid there—lying in wait. We’d lift a deceptive morsel to our mouths, chomp down, panic. Deng, who always has a mischievous glint in his eye, would smile as a surprise fire spread inside our mouths. The betrayal was jarring. But it was also a badge of honor. This was how it was done in the Philippines, and we were part of it.

Rachel Marie Del Rosario / EyeEm / Getty

My mother is a chef who ironically never cooks Filipino cuisine. Even though her family settled in diverse San Francisco, sampling different cuisines was not a regular pastime during her childhood. This was a practical immigrant family; they cooked Filipino food and interacted with Filipino people. Spending money on vacations to distant lands was unheard of. I suspect that when my mother became an adult, she had had enough; adobo and balut were the last things she wanted to encounter. Enrolling in cooking school, she traded the dishes of her homeland for elaborate French techniques and Chinese flavors. She learned to make Italian pasta from scratch, not ponsit. So for my brother and I, Filipino dinners with Deng were our only portal.

Over time, our gastronomic gateway narrowed. When I was 12, Deng had a blocked artery and underwent an angioplasty. It triggered a shift in our family. Ripe, salty meats became sensible portions of salmon and fresh vegetables. Blueberries from the garden were dessert. But not all was lost. My father is also a skilled cook who grew up helping his mother in their kitchen. He met my mother while they worked at a chic, breakneck-paced restaurant in San Francisco’s Marina district. Mom worked the line while he, apparently a grungy engineering student who sought a kitchen job so he could take home leftovers, washed lettuce. There, the head chef had an innovative vision; the menu changed daily. Each day brought new gastronomic experiments. Like my mother, my father also grew intrigued by unfamiliar flavors. They bonded over exploring and diving into new tastes and techniques.

Years later, he decided to tackle Deng’s adobo recipe. But as dishes often do when they change hands, it warped. Dad instinctively took cues from his upbringing. He browned meat and garlic in separate batches, building flavor like his Serbian mother taught him. He opted for apple cider vinegar over traditional cane or coconut vinegars. A daub of tomato paste entered the mix. While still comforting and delectable, it became a curious blend, vaguely Filipino and distantly European. Like us, his children.

Tednmiki / Getty Images

While dad’s adaptation was tasty, the holidays would route us back to “authentic” Filipino food. We’d crunch through stacks of lumpia between bites of Thanksgiving stuffing. My mom, at my brother’s and my request, occasionally channeled her ancestors. She slow-roasted lechon, a whole pig crackling with brittle, burnt-sienna skin. The holidays became an important tether, especially as time passed. As I grew, I resembled a tan version of dad’s Serbian mother—adopting an appearance that others were quick to deem exotic, “interesting,” even confusing. Sometimes, right after meeting me, strangers would feel impelled to decipher my DNA. From early in life, I had the uneasy sense that my existence perplexed people. I got used to having my features scanned intently. Saying I was Filipino was always met with surprise. Yet even in these moments, perhaps due to those formative meals with my grandparents, I never doubted my Filipinoness. I knew I could remain close to my mom’s side even though I looked more like my father.

This belief crumbled in college. One evening, I went with a full-Filipino acquaintance to my school’s Filipino club. I immediately knew I’d made a mistake. Conversations in full Tagalog—which I never learned—peppered the air. I froze, realizing that the only “authentic” Filipino people I knew were my grandparents. I became hyperaware of my mixed features. I felt most alienated, however, when someone handed me food. Atop a hump of white rice was a meaty slab of unknown origin, pink and glistening like an open wound. “You haven’t had spam before?” someone asked as I gaped. I thought about Deng’s arteries. No, salt-engorged meat pucks were not a staple in our health-conscious family. My denial triggered an interrogation. Others chimed in, asking if I knew about other dishes. To me, it was a flurry of foreign words. Even those who appeared mixed like me knew more than I did. “My dad is white,” I ended up stammering. “And my mom doesn’t really cook Filipino food.” I was too overwhelmed to get into why.

I left the meeting feeling both raw and confused. I felt I had been woefully misinformed about a large part of myself. I knew I was always slightly removed; I didn’t speak the language and hadn’t even visited the Philippines. But this whole time, I thought I at least knew Filipino food, my strongest cultural currency. Now, it seemed I knew nothing. Most of my recent Filipino food encounters were of my dad’s bootleg adobo.

This college experience left me waffling. Was I a fraud to my heritage? Internet searches yielded more dishes that I’d never heard of. I began to believe that, worse than knowing nothing, I only picked at the parts I wanted to encounter—fun, romantic things: food and fairy tales. Even though others are quick to label me non-white, I began to wonder if I really exemplified white privilege.

Dane Sigua / Getty Images

Years later, a photojournalism class gave me a chance to repel down into my Filipino hertiage. A project required that I explore a New York City neighborhood. I chose Little Manila, spanning just a few blocks in Woodside, Queens. The Filipino market brimmed with more wares I couldn’t identify, foods, tools, and ingredients that I probed like an anthropologist. At a family-packed restaurant I tried kare-kare, a classic oxtail stew. It swam in a viscous peanut sauce that I found almost too intense. At a café, I tried halo-halo, a famously decadent dessert piled with colorful accoutrements. (Even non-Filipinos know this Instagram-worthy treat. But somehow, I’d never had it.) Those around me watched a soap opera in Tagalog. I suspected that even if it were in English, I wouldn’t have understood it.

At the local Filipino community center in Queens, I found a disorienting mix of welcoming kindness and bewilderment. For every warm interaction, I met someone who didn’t understand my presence. They would wonder at my explanation that my mother is from the Philippines. “Your father must be Caucasian,” one man declared. I was the one with the camera but seemed the most exposed. “Wow, you don’t look Filipina at all,” another man said, holding his gaze on my eyes. He then said what I’ve heard dozens of times before. “You look Italian,” he offered. “Or Indian.” I was back to explaining my bloodline within the first minute of meeting people. I was back to being an other. But this time, those most puzzled looked just like my grandparents.

When I eventually moved to Queens, Filipino food was starting to trend in New York City. Several eateries promoted chic fusion dishes. The thought that hipsters would queue for balut was odd to me. Friends would ask about Filipino food like I was an expert. It emboldened me to try again to learn more. Intrigued by hearing about a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Little Manila, I trekked through the neighborhood where I once felt so foreign. From a glance, Little Manila looks like other Queens enclaves that run along the borough’s No. 7 train line—always shrouded in a bit of darkness from the elevated track. The key to distinguishing Little Manila from neighboring South Asian or Latin neighborhoods, which transition from one to the next remarkably suddenly, are the businesses. Branching out from the main artery of Roosevelt Avenue, salons or travel agencies with Tagalog printed on the outside share blocks with muted brick apartment buildings. Walking down the street is like stepping into a symphony of Tagalog and other Filipino dialects. Queens emits a sense of realness—this is where families live. This neighborhood is where Jolibee, the beloved Filipino fast-food chain, established its first New York location. I always get the sense that if my mom’s family chose New York instead of California, this is where they would live.

Chris Danielle Tabangay / EyeEm / Getty

My destination was Papa’s Kitchen. The restaurant is about the size of a subway car; meaty aromas gliding in from the kitchen hover over the few tables inside. Twinkle lights and cushions give the essence of a family room. A woman peered over from the corner before insisting with the warm zeal of an auntie that I sit and relax. Beth Roa, who floats around with a calm authority, co-owns the restaurant. Her brother, Miguel, serves up food on unpretentious paper plates lined with bamboo leaves. Most of the menu was unfamiliar to me. But this time, that was okay: Many, Beth said, enter Papa’s without ever trying Filipino food before. She was used to detailing ingredients and customs. Her demeanor was gentle and disarming. When she learned I sought more information about my mom’s side, there was no judgment. Not even a quick exploratory assessment of my face. She simply explained.

My first meal was crispy pata, something certainly missing on Deng’s menus: a pig trotter submerged in a deep fryer. It rises hissing and glistening, a crunchy chunk of fatty goodness. Another night, Beth brought out a piece of tamarind from the kitchen. It was a key ingredient in the sinigang, a sour soup that I slurped as snow fell outside. Later, she recommended dinuguan, a generous pork stew simmered in pig’s blood, chilis, and vinegar. One southern-Filipino dish became my favorite: satiny coconut milk with green beans and tender squash. Anomalous red flecks dotted the opaque surface. At the first mouthful, I realized what they were. As the chilis’ sting flooded my mouth, I recalled being a kid, the victim of Deng’s peppercorn mischief. Suddenly, tasting foods wasn’t rife with the fear that I didn’t know anything. Instead, I felt a playful sense of discovery. Explore if you want to, Beth said.

As I ripped into more pig trotters, she offered Tagalog songs to listen to, travel guidance, and other tidbits. Again, I was sitting and eating while listening to stories about the Philippines. For years I had agonized so much over being an impostor that I forgot the main joy of my grandparents’ table: connection to one part of myself.

One evening at home, feeling exhausted but facing a package of chicken thighs in the fridge, I did what my chef mother often does: made up dinner as I went along. I opened my cabinets and started throwing things in a pot. I browned the chicken. I deglazed the pot with some vinegar before stirring in garlic. I emptied the rest of a half-used can of tomato paste. I returned the chicken and sprinkled in soy sauce. As I tossed in a bay leaf, I stopped and laughed out loud. Without realizing it, I assembled my dad’s adobo. His dish may not have been original, but for me—who conjured it like a spell that lay deep in my bones—it was authentic enough.