How To Fall In Love With Filipino Food Episode Transcript

This is a transcript of “Episode 02: How To Fall In Love With Filipino Food” (Click the episode link for the audio!)


Welcome to Exploring Filipino Kitchens. I’m your host, Nastasha Alli.

Today I want to talk about what drives my desire to learn as much as I can about the history, traditions, and culture of the food from my homeland, the Philippines. This episode is about how to fall in love with Filipino food.

What always interests me are the stories people share about themselves, when they’re cooking or sitting down to share a meal with someone. If you’ve got a keen eye and an open mind, you can learn a lot about life from these folks, and that’s really rewarding. That allows stories about Filipino food to open themselves up like a glistening oyster. Like you’re saying, “Welcome to the party! Come on in.” You get to enjoy an incredibly delicious, flavour-first cuisine with textures and flavours that run the spectrum.

This kind of stuff sticks with me, and it caused me to fall deeper and deeper in love with it. Here’s how that happened for me.


The obsession started with Doreen Fernandez. Doreen wrote about Filipino food in ways more eloquent and lyrical than I’d ever read before.

She wrote about Filipinos and their economy with food, making street fare like grilled chicken innards on a stick and soups made with potatoes, cabbage and marrow-filled beef bones that are cooked low and slow for hours.

Doreen wrote about regional Philippine delicacies like pancit – a type of dry noodle dish – and how cooks used the ingredients that grew around them to make this “borrowed” Chinese noodle truly their own.

Like how folks from the seaside town of Malabon took their bounty of mackerel and smoked them to make tinapa – a smoked fish – a topping so iconic to that town’s pancit, you just can’t have pancit Malabon without tinapa.

Or how folks from the farmlands of Lucban realized that banana leaves were nature’s perfect take-out container. They’d rip leaves from a banana tree, cut them into large squares, fold them over like a pocket square, then top that with a mound of noodles and vegetables.

I remember that from when I was a lot younger. We would go to Quezon where my dad had a business at the time. There was this restaurant called Buddy’s Pancit, whose specialty was this type of noodle dish with the banana leaves on them. It was so much fun just walking around town with this little mound of steaming noodles on a banana leaf.

Every time I read an essay by Doreen, I was rewarded with learning about the culture and traditions that I too quickly left behind. Her words made an impact because they got to me in a way that I didn’t even know essays about food could make you feel. I felt euphoria and heartache and longing, often a sense of pride and joy too. I reveled in those lands that Doreen took me to, like my favourite story about a seafood that’s “cooked” in acid – much like ceviché – called kinilaw.


These are excerpts from a story Doreen wrote, called “Kinilaw Artistry In Old Sagay.”

Sagay, Negros Occidental seemed hours and eons away when I first visited friends there in the fifties. Now it’s only two hours away from Bacolod on good roads and my friends – the Maranions – just this year in kind.

I wanted to talk to fishermen and ask them about kinilaw. It’s six in the morning. They took my sister Dela and me to a town called Old Sagay. New Sagay has the town center and businesses close to the highway. Old Sagay had the fishermen.

Right there on the shore, Felipe and Juanita have their home and the business with three boats, some 2000 meters of fish net, and large catches that buyers came in for.

Felipe spent 18 years working in a rural bank, and then decided to set out on his own. Juanita works alongside him and makes kinilaw. Soured not only with vinegar, but sometimes with Indian mango, and flavored not only with ginger, onions, and chili, but sometimes with salted eggs and mayonnaise.

We boarded the radio-equipped pump boat. It was large, clean, and white-painted. Roberto at the controls, Lorenzo as adjutant, and then Inteng as chief. That’s Inteng Lubaton.

Off we went into a calm, seemingly endless sea. But because there had been no fish at Old Sagay, we stopped. Then it seemed miraculous how we did that, apart in sea lanes invisible to land-lovers. At a tiny fishing village called Siyak, there we found fishermen who had just returned with catches, having set out in the wee hours that morning.

With ₱150 worth of crabs and fish – enough to feed us six times over – Inteng immediately started preparations in the small triangular space at the stern of the boat.

Inteng Lubaton is a master kinilaw artist. As well as a careful and intelligent craftsman, he knows exactly what he’s doing and why. “For every six fish, there’s a different kinilaw,” he declared.

The squid he’s chosen – about six to seven inches in length – was just the right size for kinilaw. Anything larger will be a bit tougher. This he washed first in sea water. At that far out, the water was clean and clear, without a hint of pollution.

Slit on one side to remove the spines, the eyes, the ink, and the innards, then sliced in even strips, and tossed into a basin of salted water, the first step to flavoring.

The large live crabs crawling about his feet, he continued to sort. The liveliest was for kinilaw. The rest went into a well-warmed palayok – a clay pot – to be steamed over wood, split right on the the boat, and some coals.

The bulao, a type of seafood, Inteng scaled and cleaned, and fillet off the back bone. The heads and the roe were set aside for tinola – a stew – and flesh was sliced skin on.

“Why,” I asked and wonder, “are different sea creatures made into different types of kinilaw?”

“Well, squid,” he explained, “toughens when it’s marinated in vinegar, and so it’s only dipped. Some fish like bangus – which is milkfish – and tanigue, cook too fast in pure vinegar, and so salted eggs can be crushed into the vinegar to temper the sourness, or sugar can also be added. Coconut milk, which absorbs some sourness as well, can be added to bangus and tanigue, both firm fleshed fishes.”

Live fish don’t even need vinegar and so fishermen on the sea strip them off the bone and dip them in the seawater right away, to savor the translucent sweetness of freshly-caught fish.

And so for breakfast on that lovely morning, we had bulao, which Inteng first mixed with chopped ginger and sliced spring onions. Sliced tomatoes were laid on top, adding another bit of sourness.

But our peak experience was crab kinilaw. Open, split, and still quivering, the gristle removed such that each leg was a stem with the flower of soft, white flesh at the end, that we dipped into a sawsawan of vinegar, into which Inteng had shaken a few seeds of chili. It was absolute heaven!

How, I wondered, do other mortals fare never having known this?

Everything was done with an economy of motion and a wordless wisdom. Organic matter thrown back into the sea, man-made waste into a bag.

Kinilaw, of course, is food of pristine nature. Healthy because of it. It came about because the sea-going Filipino knew the value of freshness, and the food being left to taste as it was meant to – untampered, an ethos of freshness, a kinship with the environment, has led to one of the best and truest foods of our culture.

And with that, I was hooked on food in the Philippines.


I was so jealous of the food people ate and wrote about in a book called “Savor the Word” – a collection of essays from ten years of the Doreen Fernandez food writing award. These writers told stories about food in the Philippines in crazy, lively, descriptive ways. Like you can just taste what they’re eating at the tip of your tongue. It just goes to show the power Doreen had in inspiring other people to think about food in a different way.

I read these stories at a time when I questioned myself and my capabilities a lot. I wasn’t sure what direction my life was going in, and I wondered why other people seemed to be in a much better place than I was a lot of the time.

Internally, I argued the value of getting a post-secondary education in North America – where I’m now riddled with student debt, in an economy where virtually no jobs were guaranteed. Trust me, I was out of work for awhile. It was just tough because I felt like I was downtrodden, and I knew my family moved to Canada to open up these doors for us. I wondered what I could do to pull myself up and work as hard as my parents did, as many immigrant families do.

Flipping through this book, I kept reading about these stories the people wrote. People who could tell lush, intricate tales about food. There I found a real sense of solace and comfort.

People wrote about the pleasure of eating mangoes that were cooled in slow-moving streams, and they brought me right into the crowds of the Pahiyas festival, where rice-based dishes were offered up – with the biggest smiles – to everyone who passed by.

There was one story of this church a lot of people made a pilgrimage towards. Apart from the church, the other thing about Antipolo were cashews. Reading this story took me right back outside that church where there are easily ten or more hawkers with these little paper bags full of freshly-roasted cashews. They were salty, freshly-roasted… ohh fantastic! Frankly, they put all other nuts to shame.

In the story about sharing breakfast with her family in Surigao, one writer brought me right there with her at the table. I savored every bit of this big Filipino breakfast, despite being oceans away. There was milk, bread and coconut jam, hot chocolate, garlic fried rice and paksiw – a ginger- and pepper-laced stew of freshwater fish and vegetables.

There are so many stories in this book about everyday life, how food plays such an important part, how we relate to others, and how we establish our relationships with other people.

One writer wrote of the sadness of losing a loved one, and trying to fill the spaces they occupied with bowls of fermented rice pudding, called binuburan.

All these stories over time embedded themselves in my mind. Because they were so richly described, visually – through the words printed on the page – they were the kind of experiences I really longed for.

With that, I had to go back.


So, what do I do? I plan a trip to the Philippines. I got on a plane in Toronto and found myself – 26 hours later – further south of the equator than I’d ever been. I had a list of dishes I wanted to try and ingredients I wanted to taste in the province of Mindanao.

Once I got there, I made friends with a chef who burnt mushrooms until they smelled and looked like firewood, that tasted like the charred, crispy bits of a pot roast. I sought out a dish of grilled pork belly and tuna that was dressed with a citrus in a hardwood fruit available only in that region – the suha and the tabon-tabon fruit.

I visited farms where they grew coffee and chocolate, and ate durian fruit for days. I remember having durian candy when I was little, but I don’t remember ever having hand-fresh durian. So, when I got to Davao City, I hooked up with Mel of Mel’s Food Tours. She took me around town to where the durian shops were.


So at this point, I’m struggling for words to describe this fruit. It’s like slightly sour and savory, and I use the Tagalog word malinamnam. The texture of this fruit justifies the tastiness of that thick, creamy durian pulp that surrounds this big seed. It’s hard to describe. And there’s a lot of different kinds of durian.

I remember my guide, Mel, who was really amused with me because I kept trying to figure out ways of describing this thing, but I couldn’t come up with the right words. It was the texture was kind of soft, its taste was complex and kind of smoky, but also fruity at the same time, and it definitely did not taste anything like it smelled like.

While I was there, I shared meals with some really interesting people: some cattle ranchers, had dinner with a couple of farmhands, where we had this simply-braised fish. First it was roasted over coals, then lowered into a simmering broth of garlic, ginger, some peppercorns and a wild-growing weed – a kind that look like dandelions.


That’s me and Henry Binahon, one of my favorite people in the world. I wanted to visit Henry in his farm in Bukidnon, that specializes in agro-forestry. I learned so much about nature and the ecology of things, just by spending a couple of days at the farm.


I shared a meal with some adventure guides who I went whitewater rafting with. I spent a night at a monastery and had breakfast the next day with a group of 50 or so people who were there for a retreat.

For breakfast at the local market, I tried something called puto maya which is a type of kakanin. That’s a rice delicacy. Kakanin are typical breakfast items. The Filipinos have very clever, tasty ways of preparing rice. This kind, flavored with coconut cream or gata, first pressed, is left to cook for a least an hour. The lady I spoke to said she goes through a whole sack of sticky rice every morning to make her puto maya.


At the Bankerohan Public Market in Davao City, Mel and I go visit the fermented food stall.


There were fermented fish, beans, shrimp, mussels, all kinds of funky fermented pastes and sauces out in the open-air market, displayed neatly in three staircase-like rows of brightly-colored plastic pails. I wanted to try everything, even the ones that look like unpalatable goo. People have been eating this stuff for ages and there must be a reason why.

In the City of Golden Friendship – Cagayan De Oro – I met people from the local hotel and restaurant association who welcomed me and sent me off to places where I was greeted with the unbeatable hospitality that Filipinos are known for.


At Kagay-Anon Restaurant, I had this kind of seaweed called lato. They look like little sea grapes.

That’s a little dip in spiced coconut vinegar.

That’s Russel, the restaurant’s manager and my guide, Tita Noli. Considering I just met them, they didn’t hesitate to share stories about local food culture, what balikbayans look for when they came into the restaurant, and how the availability of the ingredients – especially seafood – has changed over time.

It just fascinated me to see how much we all had in common when we sat down to eat. Any lines of social class, ethnicity, or apprehension melted away in the presence of sharing food in good company, exchanging these stories about my life, their life, and often about the food.


Slowly, perhaps as I descended the peak of the mountain I’d just climbed – literally, an actual mountain – I realized there was nothing more I wanted than to keep telling stories about food, the people that surround them, and how it shapes ourselves and the communities we live in, regardless where we are in the world.


It’s easy to dream of the life you want to live. To have that sweet place downtown where you can walk or bike to work and have this nice view of the city, be in a great neighborhood. Or to save up every paycheck, so you can jet off and wander through Europe, doing a bunch of regional beer tours across Germany or Switzerland. Those are my dreams anyway, but everyone’s got something that drives them, some kind of journey they want to take.

Desire is defined in the dictionary as “an unsatisfied longing or craving.” Coming into contact with Filipino food triggers that current of desire like a jolt of electricity right through me, through all of my senses. Like, when I enter a room with a spit-roasted pig on the table – the classic lechon – my eyes immediately turn to the roast’s caramel-smooth complexion that’s got to have it. It’s like looking at a great painting; you need to stop and appreciate. Then I breathe in the scent of the pig that’s been roasted over coals for 12 hours, mixed with whiffs of charred bamboo that’s at either end of our dear friend.

When someone finally takes a cleaver to hack the lechon’s skin, I get close to the lechon and pick up a piece. Then I take a bite. A well-done lechon has one layer of fat that shatters when your jaw clamps down to chew, and another layer of fat that just melts into the roof and crevices of your mouth, coating everything in this delicious slow-roasted goodness. The meat is perfectly succulent. I can dip the next piece of lechon into a chunky liver sauce, or into a condiment of soy sauce, shallots, chilis and vinegar.

I can’t help but be aroused by this kind of food.


To take another word from Doreen, “Philippine cuisine began as other cuisines do,” she says. “With the weather, the seasons, the sources and the particularity of place. From the food of the islands and waters come the cooking processes: the steaming, boiling, stewing, roasting, that local knowledge saw as natural and logical for food so proximate, so abundant and incredibly fresh. From these ingredients and cooking processes came dishes that vary per cook, per town, per region, but have many similarities because they grow from the same landscape and seascape. That constitutes the country’s cuisine.”

So really, you can’t ask for a better reason to indulge in Filipino food.


Theme music for this episode is by David Szestay, Eric and Magill, Blue Dot Sessions, Gillicuddy, and Squire Tuck. Thanks to Jacklyn and everyone at her Birds for Feather Writing Workshop for helping shape the script for this episode.

Any my sincerest thanks to you, dear listeners, for spending half an hour with me. I’ll see you soon!

Rediscover Philippine Ingredients With Amy Besa Episode Transcript

This is a transcript of “Episode 03: Rediscover Philippine Ingredients With Amy Besa” (Click the episode link for the audio!)


Welcome to Exploring Filipino Kitchens. I’m your host, Nastasha Alli.

Today we’re going into the kitchens of a restaurant where old ingredients collide with new techniques, and a thirst for knowing where all those old ingredients come from, governed with kitchen and service, bring taste to the Philippines to your plate.

Shortly after moving to Toronto, I was at a Chapters Bookstore downtown when I first saw the spine of a hardcover book called “Memories of Philippine Kitchens.” It was a book by Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan. Amy and Romy owned a restaurant called Cendrillon in Manhattan in the early 90s. This was back when Philippine cuisine was unheard of in North America, outside of Filipino homes.

That day I debated whether to get Barefoot Contessa, Nigella Express or this intriguing Philippine cookbook that I’d never heard of. It was the first time I remembered seeing a beautifully photographed book about Filipino food on a bookshelf with other beautifully published books that I coveted. Of course it drew me in.

Beyond the recipes and stories of food traditions that were generations old, what Amy really taught me was to think about “food that was always ours” and “food that was borrowed and made our own.” This perspective – or lens – of thinking about Filipino food has carried and informed my own kind of self-paced study about food from the land I grew up in.

When I decided to write reviews of Philippine cookbooks on my blog – because I couldn’t find any online – I wrote about Memories of Philippine Kitchens. I contacted Amy through the Purple Yam website. (Purple Yam is the restaurant in Brooklyn and Manila which Amy and Chef Romy now run.) And one year later, here I am, finding I’m about to share a really meaningful and downright delightful conversation with Tita Amy about food from the Philippines.

Life can be pretty awesome.

So today, we’ll explore Philippine flavors, ingredients, and foodways with Amy Besa.

In this interview, Amy and I talked about Philippine flavor profiles. About how what grows around is what’s used in cooking, and how those ingredients that grow around are what become the preferred flavors that seemed to be embedded in our DNA.

We talked about serving Filipino food, about how sawsawan – a Tagalog word for dipping sauce – was such a definitively Filipino way of customizing a dish to your taste.

Amy’s stories of life at Purple Yam Malate – the restaurant whose walls where the place that Amy spent her childhood – now a place that literally exudes that homey feel that so many restaurants try to convey. That story stuck around with me for weeks!

When Amy talks about sourcing Philippine ingredients, it’s like I feel little shivers of delight working their way up from my belly. And this huge smile spreads across my face whenever I listen to her talk about the importance of working with agriculturists, with farmers and local cooks directly. The Philippines is like a treasure trove of these types of folks to speak with and work with, and it just excites me to no end.

We talked about what Filipino food is. How the “show, don’t tell” approach fits getting people to understand the value and beauty of our food culture. “To get a sense of how land shapes food traditions, we can even start with a map,” Amy says, and take a look at how climate and geography dictate the foods that thrive in the Philippines.

She talks about looking at a map and observing the contours of the land, noticing where the cliffs begin and the shores start, understanding how food traditions in certain regions or provinces are shaped by those contours of the land. That was fascinating!

Amy and the Purple Yam team are gifted storytellers who use a dinner plate as their canvas. They tell stories about Filipino people, of the ones who grow, harvest, and process the ingredients brought into their kitchens. Then in turn become these captivating works of the Philippines on a plate, a form of edible artistry.


04:35 “It’s so easy to win Filipinos over”

AB: It’s so easy to win Filipinos over to something like that because it’s an adventure.

NA: This is how my conversation with Amy began.

AB: When you have friends, and friends talk to you, you need to listen. When you hear, you need to listen. When you look, you need to see. I always say that. So I find a lot of stuff at the back of my head. Then I remembered a friend who once said, “I have a brother who’s based in Dumaguete,” and then I said, “I knew Dumaguete is a source for siniguelas.”

NA: Siniguelas is a Spanish plum.

AB: So I contacted her and said, “You know, I need siniguelas from that part of the country.” “Yes, your brother..” It was like that.

NA: And just like that, we come to learn a little bit more about food in the Philippines.

AB: And they found this area in the southernmost part of Dumaguete where there are a lot of trees that are organic, nobody owns them, they’re just growing wild. People would pick siniguelas from them, bring them to market.

AB: So, for two shipments I was able to get 10 to 20 kilos of this beautiful siniguelas. They flew them, they put them on a Philippine Airlines plane and shipped them to Manila and my guy had to go to the airport…

06:17 Siniguelas fruit at Madrid Fusion Manila

AB: That was a project we worked on because we featured that in the Madrid Fusion presentation last April in Manila.

NA: Madrid Fusion is currently one of the Philippines’ biggest culinary draws. Over the last three years, chefs such as Joan Roca of El Celler de Can Roca, and Elena Arzak of the three Michelin-starred restaurant Arzak, have visited the Philippines, specifically to take part in this international gastronomy congress. What an exciting time to show off this local fruit. But then…

AB: It’s a dying fruit. Hardly any commercial value because it’s a childhood fruit. Nobody cares about it. They cut down most of the trees. So we decided to focus on that, and this is my kitchen mindset. If we get something like that we have to figure out what to do with it.

NA: And sometimes that involves factors like…

07:20 Doing what it takes to get the best ingredients into the restaurant

AB: Going to the airport. This is what we do all the time. We do whatever it is to get something really good. That, for me is what I live for. To figure out all these logistics so that people who come to the restaurant, they don’t need to travel all over the country. Like, “Hey we flew this in from Dumaguete, and this is the taste of the soil of that place of our country. Their siniguelas that grows there, so different from the siniguelas in Luzon.”

AB: So this is what we found out. We were tasting it. It’s so delicious. I’ve never eaten siniguelas like that in my whole life because the siniguelas of Luzon is very, very astringent. So, Romy was there at that time, and we were analyzing it. And we came to the conclusion that there were two flavors involved in the siniguelas. There’s the plum part – because it’s a plum – but then there’s a huge part of it that’s mango. When you get things like this in your mind, your brain starts exploding, my brain was like, “Oh my God! No wonder our mangoes are the best.” Our soil really is very well-suited for fruits that have this mango flavor.

NA: On sourcing Philippine ingredients…

09:15 Sourcing from small farms

AB: Everybody asks me about that. “How do you find your ingredients?” I started with a few sources. I get to meet people whose mandate is to create markets for small farmers. That’s been a very nice relationship for me because when this DOST person said…

NA: That’s someone from the Department of Science and Technology.

09:45 Benguet cherries

AB: …we have all these native cherries. I said, “We have cherries?!” I would text her, “What would they call the cherries? Is there a name for it?” Then she said, “No ma’am we just call them cherries.” That was so funny. When they came and we cut them, they were really so different. They have a lot of seeds when you cut them. They’re like cutting a calamansi, with all these seeds radiating from the center.

AB: I supposed when you’re used to a cherry here… It’s a stone fruit. It’s one huge pit and we were tasting it but it doesn’t taste so good. It’s so astringent, very thick skin, you don’t know what the pulp is like. These farmers were able to pick 20 kilos of wild blueberries…

NA: Along with those cherries…

AB: …in the forests, and they don’t know what to do with them. So, I said “Okay, I’ll just get the 20 kilos.”

10:51 Their philosophy at Purple Yam

AB: That’s the philosophy I use in my restaurant. Its seasonality, it’s based on the producer, I am very respectful of the problems and the needs of the producer. Like last year was a horrible year for us because of the drought. I had such a hard time getting stuff because they weren’t good. But thank God because of Benguet, because it’s still in the mountains, I still was able to get a lot of good stuff. But like from my other sources, it is very difficult.

NA: Even in the Philippines, it can be easy to forget that…

11:36 “Nature is not a factory!”

AB: Nature is not a factory. Nature is very challenging and it’s the best source of flavor, it’s the best cook in the world. Fortunately, one of the most popular products we have in Malate is our ice cream. Our halo-halo bar is also very popular. So whenever we have fruits like that, we just transform them into preserves. We put them in jars or we make them into ice cream.

NA: It’s an approach to food that’s visibly inspired by the likes of Alice Waters in the west.

12:15 Purple Yam’s kitchen mindset

AB: For me this is one of the things I try to press on to restaurateurs and chefs. When you plan a menu for your restaurant and you think of dishes first, for me that’s putting the cart before the horse. When I get ingredients – and these have to be really extraordinarily good ingredients – I just don’t go to any market and pick things up. If you eat at our place, I source out and vetted the produce.

NA: That underlines Amy’s commitment to work with farmers directly.

AB: And if I buy from them, I know them personally. For a lot of them I’ve been to their farms. I know what their methods are, I know they are very careful. They’re people with integrity and if that changes, I no longer will buy from that. Because of that, the ingredients are very, very expensive.

NA: But it pays to find these top quality ingredients and increasingly, people are willing to pay for them.

13:29 On flavors embedded in our DNA

NA: “So why,” might you ask, “is it really worth sourcing these ingredients that are grown in small-scale farms?”

AB: I start with myself. Look at the common denominator and you’ll go back to what is growing in the environment, what people really have selected from the environment to use in their food.

AB: We share a lot of things with a lot of cultures and countries especially in Southeast Asia because people before us travel to different islands and regions and brought stuff with them, but I think it’s really the selection process, the preferred flavors. That’s basically embedded in our DNA. Even the food that grows today.

14:26 A profound concept

AB: This is a very, very profound concept that people must understand. If they look around and look at the type of rice that grows, the type of fruits that grow, they’re here today because our forefathers liked them enough to replant them.

AB: Just think, hundreds and thousands of years ago, we have all these selection of plants around and you want to farm, you want to grow some rice. Maybe you have a thousand species of rice there. But what do you grow? What do you replant? A lot of that they preferred, they liked it enough to replant. That’s very, very profound. Think of all the things and plants that are not available now. It’s because no one likes them enough.

NA: So how does Purple Yam play their part in saving these indigenous varieties of fruits and vegetables? I find myself asking, can we really encourage farmers – who struggle with their own problems of turning a profit from farming in the first place – to save those seeds and plant those nearly forgotten breeds of grain and legumes? How can we as people who might go to restaurants like Purple Yam do our part to help save these inherited Philippine ingredients from extinction? Is that even possible?

16:02 Community supported agriculture (CSAs) in the Philippines

AB: I am also on the board of CSA – Community-Supported Agriculture – called The Good Food Community. This is very recent and it’s very good for me because they work with 200 farmers in Tarlac, Benguet, and Mountain Province. So three provinces. They also need a way to push the product to market so that these farmers can earn a living. It’s difficult.

NA: And I absolutely believe it.

AB: Very problematic, because your supply is based on what the farmers produce. It’s not what you want or what you need. You get ‘this’ every week, whatever they have, and you use it.

NA: That’s so much food for thought. Amy’s stories made me think about what it might be like to work at Purple Yam Malate. When I was in college in Manila, our second year of hotel school marked the decision to major in hospitality management, culinary arts, or tourism. If that were me today, the possibility that exists in truly marrying those three subjects into promoting food tourism in the Philippines, with restaurants with a similar mindset, is fascinating.

17:28 Working with Philippine ingredients

AB: Yes! That’s why they are there, actually.

NA: “They” are Amy’s current chefs at Purple Yam Malate.

AB: That’s one of the requirements to work there. That you really want to work with Philippine ingredients. If that’s not your interest, you don’t work there. They know that my job is to keep finding connections with farmers and new sources. What I do is really make sure the ingredient is good enough for them to work with. Then they test it out. Then they go, “Well, we have a problem with this. It doesn’t hold that well, the flavors aren’t that great…” Of course, not all ingredients are equal. Just because something’s very precious, indigenous, part of the culture, indigenous people, doesn’t necessarily mean they will translate well on the table.

NA: I asked Amy if she could give us an example.

18:38 New techniques

AB: So I got this new pastry chef saying, “Okay, we’ll work on getting a jam out of these.” Romy was there. Romy has this technique he’s been working with the jocotes here. The jocotes is the Mexican siniguelas. That’s the one they sent over from Mexico to the Philippines.

AB: We find them in Hispanic groceries here, frozen and all that. So, Romy actually started working with them. And you know, siniguelas is very difficult to work with. Huge pit, very little pulp, and this thick skin. Romy has three different ways to extract the flavor. He has the pulp, the skin, and the seeds. The seeds he boils them further extract more flavor. You don’t waste the seeds because he gets the flavor out of that.

AB: So then you got this pastry chef and she comes back to me and says, “If you cook this jam for this amount of time, you lose the plum. Then you come up with mango.” And I said, “No, I don’t want mango because if we want mango we’ll use mango.” Then she figured it out. She was able to figure out that using all these different things – the seed, pulp, and skin – how to do it so that when she cooks it, she still get the siniguelas part of it.

20:16 The importance of storytelling

AB: It’s funny that this is the one aspect of the restaurant I really didn’t think much about: it’s the service. We have very professional waiters working for us, and they choose to work with us. They make us their priority. They’re always on call, because we’re not open everyday. We only open for reservations. But when we get a reservation, they’re there.

AB: Whenever I am part of the service – because there are times when I host a dinner or lunch – they’ll really hear an earful from me because if they do not know the details. That’s what makes the dinner so unique. You serve three different grains of rice. If you don’t tell people what they are, they’re just not going to say, “These are grains of rice.” You say, “This is the ominio, the violet. Ominio is an heirloom rice, and it’s paired with adlai, or Job’s tears, which is not really rice, but a different type of grain. This coffee is from Bukidnon, a valley between two volcanoes…” Things like that.

21:48 “Back of house” stories

AB: And actually, honestly if you were in the back of the house – part of the kitchen – it’s really very exciting because my driver’s always going to the bus depot picking up this and that, or we get deliveries from Bicol. Everytime there is this shipment and we open the boxes, it’s always like this treasure, what is it that they’re sending, because sometimes I get all these offers.

22:23 Kitchen is like a lab

AB: That kitchen is like a lab. You are free to do whatever you want. I’m not gonna stand over here like a cop. I’m just gonna give you some guidelines. Then they come back to me and say, “Okay this is it. This is what we found.” I said, “The number one thing is you need to interact with every single thing that comes before you, because the next time you do something is not always the same. Like when you’re cooking the same grain of rice every day, don’t expect it to come out the way you did before.”

23:00 Developing a relationship with ingredients

AB: So all of them have a relationship with the ingredients they are working at the time. When they work that way, they are never bored.

NA: Given the hundreds, maybe even thousands of species of grains, legumes, vegetables, fruit that grow in the Philippines, how could they?

23:20 Training at Purple Yam

AB: Okay, that’s the training they have. A healthy respect for nature, the ingredients, the process. Everything is a thinking process, so when they come out of that experience, they are actually smarter and more knowledgeable.

AB: So I said, “When you come out of here, when you leave, if you are a lot smarter than when you came in, then it was all worth it.”

NA: And before I forget, that bit about sawsawan?

23:54 On sawsawan (dipping sauces)

AB: It’s very democratic because the final chef or the final cook is the diner. Every diner creates a different dish at the end. When he eats it, he use all that sawsawan.

NA: As a dipping sauce, that could be anything from soy sauce and calamansi, or liver sauce to banana ketchup, or the dozens of varieties of spiced vinegars available all throughout the Philippines.

AB: Then it’s his dish already because he manipulated the final taste with the sawsawan.

NA: As if decoding the Filipino palate isn’t enough.


Music for this episode is by David Szestay, Squire Tuck, Eric and Magill, and Josh Woodward. My sincerest thanks to Amy Besa for this interview. If you’d like to hear more, please visit and share the page on Facebook, or leave a comment.

Also, would love if you subscribed on iTunes or your favorite podcast app.

Until next time, when we explore more Filipino kitchens, thanks for listening.

Cooking Filipino Food At Home With Betty Ann Quirino Episode Transcript

This is a transcript of “Episode 06: Cooking Filipino Food At Home With Betty Ann Quirino” (Click the episode link for the audio!)


Welcome to Exploring Filipino Kitchens. I’m your host, Nastasha Alli.

Today we’re talking with Betty Ann Besa-Quirino, an author, recipe developer and prolific blogger whose thoughts and experiences on cooking has personally helped me develop confidence in my own cooking abilities – to become part of what keeps global Filipino food culture alive.

I’ve been reading Betty Ann’s blog, called, for awhile now – pretty much since I started cooking Filipino recipes from scratch. What I love most about Betty Ann’s writing is that it’s very personal. She writes truthfully, and like the best blogs, I always feel like I’ve walked away with some kind of reward, or treasure, after reading her posts about cooking Filipino food at her home in New Jersey.

So I asked Betty Ann if we could talk about home cooking – and particularly, the kind of Filipino home cooking that first and second generation Filipinos who grow up in the US know. And these are lessons that apply to understanding every kind of food culture, not just that of Filipinos.

There’s a deep love for food that’s simultaneously comforting and also really ecstatic. Between friends, I’ve found that although our love for the food runs deep, there’s still a bit of apprehension with actually cooking the dishes we crave, either because we know our moms make it best, or we’re not familiar enough with the cooking techniques and get this fear that we just ruin a dish would take over. Maybe that’s just me, but it’s a familiar feeling!

This episode, we’re talking about what it’s like to cook Filipino food at home. I can’t promise that we won’t make you hungry.

BQ: Hello Nastasha, and hello to all your podcast listeners. My name is Betty Ann Besa-Quirino. I’m a Filipina at heart who lives in America. I live in Northwestern New Jersey. I’m a writer by profession. I’m a cookbook author, a journalist, and I’m also an artist.

NA: Betty Ann has also written a book about her husband’s grandfather, a former president of the Philippines named Elpidio Quirino. The foundation they’ve helped start, continues to advocate for accessible education among students and teachers in the Philippines. Betty Ann is an active member of several research and journalism committees as well, including the International Association of Culinary Professionals based in New York, and a group called the Culinary Historians of the Philippines.

BQ: Right now I’m a correspondent for Positively Filipino, a premier online magazine that publishes out of San Francisco, and I have a blog called Asian in America, where I transform traditional Filipino dishes to modern meals in my American kitchen.

NA: I’ve been reading Asian in America Mag for several years now, and that’s one of the things that I’ve found really manifested itself in your blog posts, it’s a really big inspiration too. Roundabout the time that you started your blog, there weren’t that many Filipino recipe blogs online at the time. I remember that was when around the time we first moved to Canada and if I would start to crave some things, I would start searching for recipes. I always came across your recipes online there and I always enjoyed the stories. That was such a big part of cooking for me, that there’s always a story involved about the Philippines and life in America and that kind of thing.

04:25 “People paid attention to my stories?”

BQ: Oh thank you! That’s very encouraging to hear and I’m flattered. I didn’t realize people paid attention to my stories. It’s just that I was beginning to feel the I was boring people, and I don’t want to come off as a very self-centered person in my writings. So lately I’ve been trying to cut shorter my stories, but that was interesting to know.

NA:I think it is really valuable and I guess it’s kind of eye-opening in some way too, because for Filipinos sometimes, we still have this tendency to feel a little bit shy about ourselves and our cooking. So even – for example – if I’m cooking at home with my mom, we’ll talk about making dinner or something, or cooking Filipino food, and then I’ll tell her, “I cook this for my boyfriend who’s not Filipino.” And she’ll go, “Oh well that’s just lumpia. Would he like some?” And them I’m like, “Yah, he actually really does!”

NA: So, I really like that your stories are very descriptive and it’s a mark of a good journalistic take on it.

BQ: Oh thank you! Now I’m looking at my blog and I’m wondering, “Really? She likes my blog!”

NA: Some of my friends also know about because of all the recipes that you have published over the years. Could you tell us a little bit about how the blog started?

06:07 From writing ad copy to blogging and authoring

BQ: Okay sure, I’d love to. First of all, the blog is a recent writing platform. I have been a writer all of my career life. I have a degree in communication arts from St. Paul University in Manila. So, right out of college I worked as a copywriter for an ad agency. For many years, that was my life. I was very proud because I was trained by the best in the industry in the Philippines. It was a lot of hard work, but I learned so much. It was a very diverse industry and field, and you learn to write for everything – motor fuel, airline, cars, butter, noodles, ice cream, beauty soaps, detergents, and our clients from Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, San Miguel Corporation, Nestlé…

NA: And those are some of the largest corporations in the Philippines.

BQ: …And it is hard work but I was trained by the best. So, that’s honed my writing skills.

NA: And if that wasn’t enough…

BQ: Oh, and I also was a college professor for Assumption College when we were living in the Philippines. I taught creative writing and advertising.

NA: Now THAT’S impressive. “So, how did being an advertising copywriter and college professor lead to the blog?” I asked.

07:30 Moving to the US

BQ: Then we moved to the US and of course, life was different, totally different. Totally different from what you see in the movies and magazines, and it just shatters everything you dreamt about living in America.

NA: This was the first of several “real talk” moments during my conversation with Betty Ann that’s stuck with me; that difficulty of adjusting to life in another country as a new immigrant. I understand what she means by how it shatters you, perhaps not always in a way that other people can see, but you know is real.

NA: Anyone who’s started life in a new country inevitably becomes familiar with that feeling of being very far away from the world and family you know, with a day-to-day reality that doesn’t always match up to what most other people think life in America is going to be like.

BQ: Our children were very small. Our youngest son was only three years old. Of course, I opted to stay home and raise them even if I had offers to work in ad agencies. New York City is 50-60 miles away and I just won’t do that, leave the children. So I took some part-time jobs along the way just to be close to home, research jobs. I also taught language at Berlitz Learning Center because I’m also fluent in Spanish; I was teaching professionals Spanish to English. So those were things that kept me occupied as my children were growing. Before I knew it, they were soon off to college.

BQ: I have been home-cooking the whole time and all my life. That was the norm for our family, home cooking.

NA: And so with the help of her American-raised children who became digital product designers and cross platform journalists, became one of the first Filipino recipe blogs that consistently landed in top search results for Filipino recipes.

09:36 Starting the blog

BQ: I was afraid that my sons will be eating junk food when they go off to college, so I started writing recipes in a yellow pad for them. But being millennials they preferred something digital, so they told me, “Mom, you need to have a blog.”

BQ: So then my son Tim, who’s now a product designer at Facebook, he told me, “I’ll create it for you, and I’ll only teach you once. Then you’re on your own.” My youngest son Constante, is a journalist and a communications major. Both of them went to Drexel University in Philadelphia. Constante also gave me tips on writing for online publications.

BQ: So that’s how the blog started. It was a desire of a mother to make sure that her sons were well-fed while they were away from home. Even the name was off the cuff and done in a hurry because we were at the dining table and my son Tim – the older one – was starting away, and he said, “Okay what name do you want?” “Oh I don’t know,” I said. So I blurted out the first thing that came to mind. I had no idea what I was doing. But both of them said, “Mom, you’re a writer and you write about food. So you’ll know what this is all about,” they both said.

BQ: So that’s how it started. I had the camera but it wasn’t a nice one. Eventually, my husband started giving me for birthdays and Christmas – cameras, lighting equipment, and the boys did the same. Now they give me props for my blog or for my cooking.

BQ: So, it has grown. It was a writing platform at the start for me, and it grew.

NA: I love that story that you just shared with us because one of the things I really like about blogs is that it allows you to be very intimate with your writing in a way you can share it with other people. I was smiling as you were telling me the story about how your sons had encouraged you to start it and prompted you to start doing the recipes and recording them online because it’s such a great example of how really very family-oriented a lot of these types of projects begin, especially with cooking and especially with Filipino cooking.

12:22 On food, family, and cooking

BQ: Food, family, and cooking has always been central in our lives. Like I told you, home cooking has been the norm for us ever since. My sons, I taught them how to cook, and now I’m very proud they do better than me in the kitchen. It’s always a feast when they come home. There’s so much noise. We fight. They shoo me away from the kitchen. Now they think they know better, and they do! They actually do. It’s a very fulfilling and gratifying feeling and I’m very proud of it. I’m proud of how they turned out and I’m so happy when I hear from people that they read my blog, they love my recipes. It’s always my intention to help somebody, to share a recipe, if I can make somebody’s day better, that gives me a lot of happiness.

NA: As it should and to me as well. Personally, what I find very rewarding about it is really being able to share that experience as well as the story too.

13:35 Growing up on a farm in the Philippines

NA: I mentioned over email a few times that, really when I started learning how to cook Filipino food, was really when I moved out of my parent’s house because I was going to college downtown. With a lot of Filipino families too, there’s still the tendency where, you know “Oh you know my mom will cook it,” or “I’ll come home.” And there’s always like something that someone in your family has made, and after I moved out it was like, “Oh you know I’m craving adobo or pancit,” and all that. Then I’m like, “Oh well, I have to learn how to make it,” because no one else will be able to make it for me unless I go to get some take-out or something.

NA: It’s very reflective of me realizing that so many of these food traditions I didn’t really care about much while I was growing up, became really important as I became an adult.
That’s what I’m finding in your blog posts and recipes over the years. They’re like a marker of life and things that you’re experiencing, that kind of thing.

NA: Naturally, I wanted to know more about how all of this started for Betty Ann, so I asked her to tell us about where she grew up.

BQ: I grew up in a very rural, agricultural province. Tarlac was my home province. I was raised in Tarlac up to high school. Then I went to college in Manila. But my father – by nature, by profession – was a farmer. He was an agricultural businessman. We owned farms and we owned rice fields and sugarcane fields. I was raised in that kind of environment. Our home had a large, huge backyard in the back. And we had cattle and we had a piggery and we had chicken and goose. I can’t even remember what other animals we had. Then we had fruit trees and vegetable crops. That was my way of life growing up. I didn’t step into a supermarket to buy food until much later, by the time I was merely a teenager. As a child, I remember being tasked with collecting the eggs from the chickens we were raising. For as long as I remember, there were always brown eggs because that’s how farm-raised free range chickens lay eggs.

BQ: For years I would collect the eggs and put them in the basket and later on, when we went to the city – by this time I was, I think it was fourth grade or fifth grade – my first experience to see white eggs in the supermarkets, I was shocked. The first thing I asked was, “Who washed them? Why are they white?!”

NA: …as if to say, why do these eggs look different from what they should be? They should be brown right?

BQ: So yun nga (that’s it). That was my kind of upbringing. Everything we had on the table was from produce that we grew in the backyard or our farm. As the seasons came and went, then our vegetables and fruits were seasonal.

BQ: And that’s how I learned to cook. I started going into the kitchen, and if I could reach the kitchen counter, one of my first task was trim the edges of sitaw, long green beans. I remember that. That’s why I love sitaw because that was one of my first tasks, to remove the edges of it with my fingers first, and later when I was old enough to hold a knife I was assigned to cut it into smaller pieces to be cooked.

NA: That’s the magic of bringing kids into the kitchen, pretty much as soon as you can trust them to keep their hands off of hot items, because those are the kinds of lessons that need to be learned. They need to be internalized in their own way. I totally remember snapping the ends off from these bright green beans like the yard-long ones Betty Ann talked about. They’ve got this little snap to them when you break them off, kind of how you’re supposed to snap off the woody ends of an asparagus stalk at the point where they naturally break. It’s a good task to give like six or an eight year old maybe, get them all set up in the kitchen, prep some vegetables next to the grown ups while they’re cooking. It’s the kind of stuff that sticks, until you’re grown and you have your own little kitchen helpers to share that kind of experience with.

NA: These kinds of food memories, in the end, are the things that drive us to write the stories that matter; the stories that we get to tell from our own perspectives, and in our own voice, driven by the need to connect with some part of ourselves that we’re looking for, or maybe have lost, in the “now” or the reality of our everyday lives.

NA: This next story is about mango jam, and it’s Betty Ann’s award winning piece in a food writing competition that’s like the gold standard of Philippine food writing.

19:50 The story of mangoes in a jar

BQ: I saw in your website you have the book ‘Savor the Word’ of Doreen Gamboa-Fernandez’ Writing Award Essays. My essay ‘A Hundred Mangoes in a Bottle’ is in that book. I won an award in 2012, and if you read that essay, it’s all about making mango jam. That is a very memorable essay for me because I grew up cooking with my mother, learning from her, and mango jams in the summer were one of the most important traditions we used to participate in.

BQ: Fast-forward to life in America. A few years ago when I saw mangoes in the market, I was so excited and I said to myself, “Let me recreate the mango jam of my childhood.” I was trying and I couldn’t quite get it. At the same time, I was refreshing my writing, so I was taking writing classes with Monica Bhide…

NA: Monica is a renowned food writer and cookbook author with a dedicated online following. Her blog about modern Indian cooking has led to several book deals, leading workshops and international conferences…

BQ: …and she was coaching me on different writing styles. I told her about the mango jam experience…

NA: …and Monica basically said, “That’s a beautiful story, why don’t you write about it?”

BQ: …so I said, “Yeah, why don’t I?” So, she said, “Write an essay about how you made mango jam with your mother.” So I set off to write an essay, then I went back to my writing teacher, went back to Monica and I said, “There’s a problem. I can’t write the essay.” She said, “Why not?” “You know? I just remembered, one of the most painful things I remembered is I never asked my mother for the recipe. My mother died in 1981, so of course six years ago, I couldn’t ask anyone anymore.” I told Monica, “How sad is that? I’m really, really so sad that I never asked my mother for the recipe of the mango jam. It’s something we did for so many years and I took it for granted, and I never asked her. Why did I not ask her?” I said, “I know how to do it, but I don’t know the measurements. I don’t know how many mangoes, how much sugar, or the temperature, or what kind of mangoes to choose.” I was so sad, and Monica said, “You know what? There’s your essay. Write about the sadness.” And I said, “My God! That’s hard! I’m going to be crying for every word.” “And that what makes a good writer,” she said.

BQ: So I wrote the essay. Long story short, I wrote it, 800 words, showed it to Monica my writing teacher, showed it to my sons, showed it to my husband, and they all said it’s good. “Yes,” I said, “it’s good. But I’m not giving it to anyone,” I said, and I put it away in a drawer. I kept in in a drawer for years.

NA: At that point, Betty Ann says, she just wasn’t ready to share something so personal yet; something that affected her deeply, that touched upon a memory that wasn’t just about food, but really about loss and regret.

BQ: Then one day, I saw the Doreen Gamboa-Fernandez Writing Awards. They were open to submissions and, even if I was in the States, they encouraged me to “Yeah, why don’t you submit?” So I emailed my essay, and I’ve won an award…

NA: Which just goes to show that if you’ve got a story that needs to be told, go ahead, tell it! Because there’s no other person on earth who can tell that story better than you can.

23:50 “Who cares?”

BQ: When I wrote ‘A Hundred Mangoes In A Bottle’ essay, Monica – my writing teacher – encouraged me to submit it to several publications. “But, first of all,” I told her, “Who will be interested in this? People who don’t know me are not going to care.” I said, “It’s about my personal sadness, and there’s no recipe. So ultimately, nobody will care.” And she said, “No you’re wrong, no really.” The thing is from my perspective, who’s going to care about my sadness? If you don’t know me, are you going to care? Who’s going to care about mangoes if they’ve never tasted mangoes. I also said, “It’s about a rural town in a province in the Philippines that people have probably never heard about.” There’s really no draw for the reader; that’s what I kept thinking. So I kept it.

24:50 A lesson learned

BQ: So what did I learn from that? Nobody else has your story. Every person is unique and if you worry about things that have not yet happened, then it’s an exercise in futility and it’s just going to make you crazy. I should not have said to myself, “Hey, nobody’s going to care.”

NA: See what I mean by real talk? Thanks for the life advice, Tita Betty Ann! It’s all real in many respects. There’s absolutely nothing to be gained by simply waiting for something to happen to you. I can’t help but think of how motivationally engaging that is; to know that other people experience that same kind of vulnerability you feel, that you’re not alone.

NA: Drifting away from our story for just a little bit. I just want to talk about this event I went to not long ago called “Fear as Fuel,” organized by my friend Gelaine who runs a social entrepreneurship meet-up group. Amazing, right? Anyway, I’m glad I went that evening. It was at a co-working space right across the Christie Pits Park in Toronto. At the event, there were business owners, people who ran workshops, people who were looking to find a community of other self-starter kinds of people. Honestly, taking part in that form of community engagement – for me I think – really helps. In the end, it’s kind of nice to hear other people go through similar kinds of challenges with their lives. You can feel vulnerable about work, about relationships, life in general. But you kind of just have to learn how to overcome them, and it’s a lot easier – or at least a bit more comforting – knowing that other people experience that same kind of fear, that same kind of vulnerability too.

NA: Next, I wanted to hear about things Betty Ann has learned over the years as a food blogger and recipe developer; like cooking techniques she’s honed or adapted for her North American kitchen, and examples of ingredients she’s used to substitute for more traditional Philippine fruits and vegetables.

28:02 Finding ingredients is a challenge

NA: I’m wondering over the years, what kinds of substitutions have you had to make? Say for calamansi, for example, because that’s kind of a really very popular, integral thing to a lot of Filipino cooking, but even here, it’s not very easy to find.

BQ: No, it’s not. Here’s the thing. As far as the ingredients are concerned, substitution has always been a challenge for me and I will say, for most people who do not live close to a Filipino community where Filipino groceries or Chinatown are far away, it’s always a challenge.

28:43 Three components to successful recipes

BQ: How do I deal with it? First of all, I came to the realization that for the success of a recipe, there are three things that are needed: ingredients, ease of the recipe/how easy it is to do, and the delicious result. If you have those three things, those three components, then your family will have a very good meal. It doesn’t matter if it’s a simple adobo or an elaborate paella. You have to have ingredients, ease of the procedure, and a delicious result.

29:22 Substituting traditional Philippine ingredients

NA: So, how does Betty Ann get that in her own kitchen?

BQ: Early on, I realized I will not always have 100% of all the ingredients in my Filipino notebook or my Filipino cookbook. So, I learned to memorize what flavor I wanted to achieve and I taught this to my sons. Then I kept searching and searching for the right substitute. For example, if we got invited to Filipino parties in New York or where Filipino communities are, I wouldn’t ask, “Oh where did you buy your calamansi,” or “where did you buy your pancit.” I wouldn’t ask. I pay attention to the flavor that was achieved, then I keep that in my memory, in my mind, in my heart, in my senses. Then I go home and try to recreate it to the best of my ability. Calamansi was only something I recently found because it’s only lately that we have frozen calamansi. In the early 90s, we had to go to Chinatown in New York, which was 60 miles away by car for us. Even then it was always expensive, so why do that? Later on, through asking, through researching, and through tasting myself I found that Meyer lemons are the closest in flavor to kalamansi. So I kept that in mind, even in my blog I say that, I said that to friends, I share it as a cooking tip to other fellow Filipinos, or to those who are not Filipino who want to cook Filipino food. That’s one.

BQ: And you know, everything down the line, if you need a souring agent for sinigang? I know that tamarind is not unique to the Philippines and geographically it’s used by other neighboring Asian countries. So, this was like in the early days of the Internet, in the early 90s. I researched for ingredients from other cultures, from other stores. Sometimes, international markets will have a wider inventory of Thai ingredients versus Filipino products, so that’s where I look.

NA: And really, the 90s were not that long ago. Thinking about how difficult it was to source certain types of Asian produce then – before the arrival of today’s international mega-marts and online shopping and even Asian vegetables like bok choy and those yard long beans we were talking about, available at local farmers’ markets – you would really have needed to think outside the box and kind of critically about the flavors you were looking for. If you couldn’t get the ingredients you wanted at the closest grocery store…

32:30 Remember the origins of a dish

BQ: When you have to remember also the origin of the dish – again I taught my sons this one; aside from remembering what the flavor is trying to replicate – you have to remember that basic Filipino dishes in the Philippines, they use backyard fruit; like sinigang, pinakbet, they always use backyard fruit; nilaga, whatever is the produce from the backyard is what goes in the cauldron, and that’s what you cook with. That’s important to remember. That’s how I learn how to substitute ingredients here in North America. You just have to remember the origin of the dish. You have to remember how it tastes like, and then you go on your search to try to recreate that by being creative and finding different sources.

33:40 A visit to the Ilocos region

NA: Switching gears a bit. Next, I wanted to talk about culinary trips, and some of Betty Ann’s travels to the Philippines that she’s written about online.

NA: I know earlier you were telling me about the experience you gained as a copywriter in the Philippines early on in your career and how a lot of the skills and the lessons you learned, copywriting for all these different brands and these different types of products kind of fed into your approach to writing in general with being creative. For people listening as well, I’ll post the links to two of Betty Ann’s articles on

NA: Specifically the one you sent over to me was something called ‘Holiday Dishes With Ilocano Flavors’ and ‘Day Trips to Culinary Heaven.’

BQ: The Ilocano Flavors coincidentally, that was the same year we were celebrating the 125th birthday anniversary of the late President Elpidio Quirino who was the grandfather of my husband. So the entire Quirino clan was going to get together in Ilocos in November 2015. As early as a few months before the trip, here in America I was already planning, “Hmm, why don’t I research about Ilocano food and write about it?” It was twirling in my mind already; the different ideas, different things, and what approach I could do, because I knew we will be served the flavors of the province. I knew that. I knew that just going from one town to the next, there’s a big difference in flavor and in ingredients, even if it’s the same dish you’re served. That’s how it came about. I already planned it even before going home to the Philippines.

BQ: Now when I got there, that was the challenge. You know why? Because nobody else had the mindset that I had. Everybody else was busy with the reunion, with the historic events, with getting together with relatives you haven’t seen in 30 years, and then the heat, the traffic, and so many other elements. So, long story short, I was the only one who was interested in doing a deep dive of Ilocano flavors. Nobody else was thinking the way I do.

NA: Man, if I were there, I’d have loved to go around and accompany Betty Ann with her research. That would be amazing!

BQ: It was interesting. You know how I went about it; I would take as many pictures I could. I tasted everything; taste, not ate; taste a little bit of this, a little bit of that. I interviewed people – not celebrities – I interviewed ordinary people in the restaurants, in the streets, the family cook, the aunt, the cousin, the friend of the cousin, and just basically put the article together. The thing about Ilocano food is that regionally, the flavors are strong and powerful. They grip you. You know when you come from America where the FDA controls the saltiness and the ingredients and requires a list of ingredients on the labels, then you’re thrown in the province where nobody gives a hoot what’s in it, but it’s delicious, then it’s really, really, really a cultural experience.

BQ: Again, you have to look at the geography and where you are. Ilocos is in the northern part of the Philippines, where the soil is barren and dry, and not good for many other vegetables and produce that are grown in other parts of the country. But there are things that survive in that kind of soil, in that kind of heat.

NA: Some examples of fruit and vegetables that thrive in this environment include string beans, squashes, gourds, peppers, eggplants, some corn, papaya, root crops like sweet potatoes and purple yams, and a plethora of beans, okra, and the eponymous bitter melon.

BQ: Believe me it was so hot in Ilocos. Hotter than any other province I have been to. Geographically, that’s because we’re nearly at the tip of the northern part of the Philippines. There’s actually a part of Ilocos where you can see China from there. Now, going back to that you have to understand the geography and what kind of food they produce. They produce a lot of garlic, that very powerful Sukang Iloko (Ilocos vinegar) made from coconut, and then they put siling labuyo (wild chili) with some bird’s eye chilies which, whoo! It’s much more potent than it is here in America.

BQ: One of the first things I ate was the Vigan longganisa. They’re small, cured pork sausages that are very garlicky and very vinegary. You can’t be in Vigan, Ilocos Sur if you don’t try the longganisa. Then I also had lechon kawali (crispy pork belly). In Ilocos, it’s called bagnet, and we had that. Why is it very popular there? Piggeries and agricultural livestock are predominant.

BQ: We were also served pinakbet, the vegetable stew, which is not the same as the pinakbet you eat here in America, nor the pinakbet I had in Tarlac. It’s just really Ilocano pinakbet. There’s a different way they do pinakbet there. There’s different norms and customs. In Ilocos, you do not put squash in the pinakbet. You don’t. A true Ilocano knows that. If you put squash like the kabocha squash? Aha! You’re not Ilocano. Even the way it’s cooked, they basically layer and layer and layer the vegetables in a crock pot, they don’t mix it, they don’t stir it, they just layer and layer and layer the vegetables with the bagoong (shrimp paste), a little broth, onions and garlic, some seasoning, and that’s it. That’s the way. As simple as that.

BQ: We had something that was like malunggay – moringa – we had that and it was… Wooh! Now I’m getting hungry. It’s just basically malunggay simmered in fish bagoong. Yes, it was delicious!

BQ: I also brought home a lot of pasalubong – gifts from the travels – to my family in Tarlac and to friends in Manila. I brought back Vigan longganisa – the cured pork sausages – because they were very garlicky and potent. I brought back a lot of cornik, which is fried corn kernels, they were full of garlic, full of adobo spicy flavors. The native pastries, the Vigan bibingka (rice cake) is different from the bibingka that we know. It’s more like a cassava type of coconut cake. It’s very delicious. I have the recipe. I have yet to make it here in America. I’m afraid it won’t turn out the same.

BQ: You know why? Here’s what I also learned. The humidity contributes a large part of the success of the recipe. Here in North America, on the East Coast, we cannot replicate the heat and humidity of the Philippines. But therefore, there are a lot of dishes, even if you have 99.9% the complete line of ingredients ready on your counter, it’s not going to be the same. Our water is different and the heat is different. It’s not going to be the same.

BQ: The Vigan empanada was legendary food I was trying to taste. I tried it a long, long time ago and I haven’t had it in a long time. The Vigan empanada is different. It’s a half-moon-shaped large empanada. From Ilocos, the ones they have there are almost orange in color, but that’s because they put achuete or annatto seeds in the dough. The dough is spread out so thin, it’s almost like a wafer, it’s almost like the lumpia wrapper. That’s what the texture is like of the Vigan empanada. The filling is made up of grated papaya and vegetables, some meat, some pork, and then they put a raw egg inside it. They seal the filling, so imagine it’s a half-moon orange empanada, and then they deep-fry it. And it’s best eaten when it’s warm and crisp.

NA: Mmmm. That really makes me want a Vigan empanada!

BQ: I know, me too, I’m drooling at my own description. Can you imagine how shameful that is? I have a recipe for the Vigan empanada which I got from the family cook at the Qurino-Syquia mansion but I’m still going to kitchen-test it. Like I told you, the heat and humidity of Vigan is different from Flanders, New Jersey so I’m afraid it’s not going to be the same but I’ll do my best.

NA: The way you were describing the Vigan empanada where it’s wafer-thin, half-moon pastry, with a fried egg inside, all these delicious, really yummy fillings, it’s the kind of stuff that people love posting about online these days. A part of what I really want to do with this podcast project is tell the stories of Filipino food from different perspectives. From the story that you shared of actually going to the province in the Philippines where this particular empanada is born, it reminds me and it reminds us that we can almost associate the Latin-American-like Spanish thing, and then it goes back to what you were saying again earlier of you have to remember the origins of something.

NA: There’s so many different things you can almost learn about, like the history of the Philippines through the different foods we offer. These kinds of recipes and dishes kind of make their way through time because even simpler dishes like sinigang or adobo, those are very everyday dishes most people make. Like you mentioned earlier, the three things to make a successful recipe are that, you have the ingredients, it’s easy to make, and it gives you a really delicious result. All of those three things are checked off everyday from meals like sinigang and stuff like that, and it also gets checked off with really special kinds of things that you eat like Vigan empanada, stuff like that, that you go on a trip for.

46:27 Food traditions are priceless

BQ: You know for this article I wrote ‘Holiday Dishes With Ilocano Flavors,’ aside from asking cousins and aunts and people and strangers about the different kinds of dishes I tasted, I also asked my aunt – I have to give credit to Atty. Aleli Quirino, or Tita Nila, she’s the daughter of Judge Antonio Quirino who was a brother of President Elpidio Quirino – and Tita Nila had to go through the family diary of her parents to look up some of my questions. She took the time from her work – she’s a lawyer – and I was pestering her about this. I said, “Tita Nila how do you make this and how do you make that, and what do you do during Christmas? Do you serve this or that?” and she said, “Let me go look at mama’s journal.” These are priceless memories really, because they are family journals. They are family diaries that are kept and a lot of them are confidential. But food is meant to be shared, so I guess it wasn’t a problem to ask.

NA: That’s one of the things that I would really hope. It’s kind of a little spin-off project I would like to do with these podcast recordings, to hopefully kind of encourage people in the Philippines and people anywhere who want to start recording their recipes. Especially now more than ever, it’s so easy to have a copy of these types of mementos and recordings whether you write it down or upload it to your own personal blog or record it on your cell phone and save it as an audio file. It’s so important to me to be able to get these stories about the food and about your family and about certain regions and places in the country because I am looking forward to going back to the Philippines so much because there’s always a new province I want to visit every time because there are so many places to visit and so many things to eat.

48:40 Advice for home cooks

NA: So, what’s Betty Ann’s advice for a curious cook like me?

BQ: Let me tell you this. I used to be in your shoes. I used to be young and nervous and afraid of being scolded for doing the wrong thing. Don’t be, alright? I used to hate it when someone hovered behind my back while I’m cooking, breathing down my neck and face. “So what are you making? Oh, don’t do that. Your fire’s too high. Noo…” Okay, block that all out. If that makes you nervous, get away from that moment. If it makes you nervous that your mother is watching you when you’re cooking, that your aunt is screaming at you for having a high fire, then don’t cook in front of them. Do it by yourself in your own time, at your own place, with ingredients you bought yourself. Then you’re not accountable to anyone.

BQ: Number one, get away from what makes you nervous. First you identify, “What makes me nervous? My mother? Okay. She should not be around me if I’m cooking,” but don’t tell your mother that; I’m sure she’s nice. I’m telling you, eliminate the factors that make you nervous. Number two, don’t experiment when you’re about to serve a humongous amount of people. If you’re going to have a party, serve recipes that you are used to making even if you’re asleep. So, that means going back to practicing, until you learn how to make the biko properly, until you learn how to make the puto properly and you’re confident. The self-confidence comes with practice. And most of all – don’t forget this – learn and know what you do best and keep doing it. Nobody else is like you, Nastasha. Nobody else is like me. We’re all unique people. We all have our differences…

NA: And with that, like a magically timed flourish, the power went out in my apartment building because of a heavy snowstorm that was barreling outside. Talk about pulling out of the tropical paradise we almost felt like we were in, remembering trips to the Philippines and the heat of the countryside! Total contrast. It was the middle of winter, the middle of February for both of us on the east coast and everything outside was buried in at least a foot of snow.

NA: Anyway, Betty Ann ended with some valuable advice that I’ve definitely taken to heart – do what you want to do, do what you love to do, travel to the places where you know you’ll get to taste the real deal, and don’t be afraid of translating recipes in ways that you feel comfortable doing.

NA: That follows my personal take on cooking sous-vide Filipino recipes. I got a couple of them up in my blog. They’re definitely not traditional, but I love the precision of sous-vide cooking too much not to at least try and to see what a 24-hour oxtail peanut stew is like. Man, it’s delicious! It’s my super modern, slow-cooked version of kare-kare. I gotta say, the ligaments around those oxtail bones were the perfect bite. There’s no other way you could get that with regular cooking, they’d melt right into the sauce. Absolutely worth it. Anyway…

NA: So as a take-away, Betty Ann’s philosophy on cooking is something I appreciate and totally relate to. And I hope it’s encouraged you to cook a Filipino dish, maybe tonight or if not, sometime soon. At least look up a recipe, pick up a few ingredients that you can work into your own take on a particular Filipino dish. Forget about everything other than your desire to make something good, because, with a little bit of research and prep, it’s really not that hard to create a memorable Filipino meal, whether it’s a weeknight or special occasion, to share with others.


My warmest thanks this episode to Betty Ann Besa-Quirino. Please visit for recipes – it’s a good time to try one out – and follow Betty Ann on Instagram and elsewhere online as well.

Music for this episode is by David Szestay, Eric and Magill, Squire Tuck and Blue Dot Sessions.

Visit for more information on the show. Do check it out, I’ve updated the website with a new look! It looks pretty slick! Subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts from. As before, if you enjoyed the show, please recommend it to a friend, then maybe leave me a review on iTunes. I would really appreciate it.

Everything you hear on Exploring Filipino Kitchens is written and produced by me, and I’d love to keep sharing stories about food and people from the Philippines. So every subscription helps!

Maraming salamat and thank you, for listening.

Building Communities Around Filipino Food With Joanne Boston Episode Transcript

This is a transcript of “Episode 05: Building Communities Around Filipino Food With Joanne Boston” (Click the episode link for the audio!)


Welcome to Exploring Filipino Kitchens. I’m your host, Nastasha Alli.

Today we’re talking with Joanne Boston, a founding member of the Filipino Food Movement. Joanne’s vision for the success of Filipino food in the American mainstream has and always will be supported and inspired by community – the main theme we’re talking about on today’s show.

Another big thing we’re talking about today is place – San Francisco, California in particular – and the people who live there. What you’ll want to keep in mind, while listening to this interview, is that even though Joanne’s talking about what her environment was like growing up in San Francisco – the experiences she has, especially around food – are totally universal, whether you’re Filipino or not and regardless of where you are.

As we’ll hear, building community is really about creating those experiences that bring people together, and then keeping that momentum, that excitement, going forward, and sustaining it so that people gain a sense of ownership and pride in the places they live in. That’s community, and how Filipinos build community, whether in a small town in the Philippines or big cities around the Bay Area.

This is essential listening for anyone interested in learning about how Filipino food culture has and continues to develop. Let’s dive right in.

JB: Thank you for having me. First of all, it’s an honor to be part of this project. My name is Joanne Boston. I am based in San Francisco, California…

NA: And for six years, Joanne was vice-president of the Filipino Food Movement.

JB: …which is a 501(c)(3) non-profit that was made official two years ago. I have been involved with Filipino food for over eight years. I think we are at a golden point in the progression of Filipino food, and I just want to be a part of it.

JB: My connection to Filipino food started from the day I was born. Let’s just say that. I grew up with Filipino food. I just see the beauty in it and I want people to get to know it.

NA: Full disclosure: I’m a contributor to the Filipino Food Movement blog, which was how I first got connected to Joanne. We talked a little bit about Project Adobo, one of Joanne’s early blogging projects that featured adobo recipes from home cooks and working chefs. Adobo is that quintessential Filipino dish that’s cooked with vinegar, spices, sometimes soy sauce, and often with a lot of other extras thrown in.

NA: I came across it when I was in journalism school at the time. Like I always do, I wanted to write about food in some way, but when I started back then I was kinda like, “You know what? It’s really cool that I’m seeing these stories that are distinctly Filipino, that was shared by Filipinos, about something that many other Filipinos can relate to.”

NA: So it’s one of those things where it really made me realize that you could approach the story about Filipino food in not a conventional way. So, it’s great to see that progress, to see it grow. Just the community aspect of it as well.

03:57 Project Adobo

JB: I saw that a lot of the people who contributed to Project Adobo ended up participating in other parts of my personal journey through Filipino food and with Filipino Food Movement. So, it’s a great place to see how one dish can affect one person’s life. And you know all the stories are different.

04:30 Starting a food blog

JB: So I started food blogging in 2007. I was on social media. Prior to that – high school – we were on Asian Avenue Apartment 107, really old school on social media. But actual blogging for food started 2007 when I started going to college here in San Francisco. I had been working throughout junior college, and then when I went to a medical program, I was in the city. San Francisco is a mecca of all these great Californian restaurants – very diverse restaurants.

JB: Coming from a family that works in hospitality – my mother and my aunties, they all worked at hotels in the city – I learned from my mom to go out and eat out because she was also in culinary and hospitality. She introduced me to home-run restaurants and really fine dining restaurants. And when I was walking around here, I said, “Wow! This is a great place. People come to San Francisco just to eat.” So I just decided to make a blog to chronicle all the things that I ate.

JB: I was in school. I initially did it as a “what can I eat on a college student’s budget.” And then after I graduated, my blog got more and more attention and I started doing freelance writing for different local publications here.

JB: There used to be one called ‘Pinch’ and I don’t know if it’s here anymore. But Pinch had CPS and they would ask me, “Hey Jo, can you write up a list for people who wanna look for the best burger, the best pizza, things like that?” There is just one time where I was asked to do that, and it was called ‘The Best Of…” series for CPS. I asked my editor if it’s cool to write a list of Filipino restaurants because there’s such a high concentration of Filipinos in the area, yet we are not represented anywhere. And so, I don’t know what made him say ‘yes’ but I made a small list of food carts and food vendors here in San Francisco.

JB: After that, I said, “Hmm… I could either go on and talk about tuna tartare and fillet mignon,” but after a certain point I got tired of that. I got tired of writing the same thing and it got old for me, and I said, “Okay, you know what? You gotta go back to your roots and you gotta write about what you really enjoy, which is the Filipino food.” So, after a couple of years I was writing for my blog. It went from a restaurant blog to more of a promotion blog of how to find Filipino restaurants.

JB: I got invited to certain community events, and the main one I was introduced to was ‘Kulinarya,’ which at the time was a Filipino cooking competition. Just think Iron Chef but with four chefs and there were judges for it. It was a big deal and I was asked to write a small article for their newspaper.

JB: Soon, I was approached by different people who were at that event. I was approached by the chefs, by other media outlets, and we all just said, “Hey! You know we see each other all the time.” This wasn’t the first time I saw them. I’d see them at festivals around the city. I’d see them at, of course Kulinarya, at restaurant openings, and we just said, “You know what? Let’s do something. Let’s go out. Let’s mash our brains and think of how we could get our culture and Filipino food here in San Francisco.”

JB: So I went from blogging, to freelancing, to attending events, writing for events, and then eventually collaborating with the people who are already in the industry and the community. So that was the progression.

JB: And from then on I just started meeting great people like Sonia Delen who was one of the chairs of Kulinarya. She introduced me to other restaurateurs in the city. And then on a trip to New York City, I met Chef Romy Dorotan, and he said, “You need to go meet PJ Quesada.”

JB: So, this whole networking was the key for this progression and I probably wouldn’t get here if it wasn’t for the blogging, because blogging is really important. I don’t do it too much now because I like to be more on the ground now, but blogging is very important because it does tell a story. And it does tell people tips on where to go, it gives them the chef’s story, your story. So hopefully for this year we hope to have a more active blog for the Filipino food community.

NA: Those stories are at the core of this episode. And really, the core of our existence if you happen to be as crazed about food and people as Joanne and I seemed to be. The idea of how the place you grow up in kind of fits into who you are as a person, is another big theme that runs throughout this talk. So, I asked Joanne to paint us a picture of what growing up was like for her in San Francisco.

10:18 Growing up in San Francisco

JB: I’m a rare breed. I’m from the Bay Area, San Francisco born and raised. I was born in the early 80s in San Francisco. I lived along Mission Street for much of my childhood and I only lived in two places really. I lived in San Francisco and then I lived in Daly City.

JB: I have been exposed to so many Filipinos over the course of my lifetime because the Bay Area – especially Daly City – they call it Manila town because there are so many Filipinos here. It was never anything foreign to me. I thought Filipino was the normal, which it is, it is the normal for me. I was just blessed to be brought up in an area where, you could just go down the street and rent out a VHS tape of a Lito Lapid action movie and buy a package of kutsinta or chicharon.

JB: Throughout my childhood, being Filipino has been an integral part of it. I went to a Catholic school – first two years of my schooling — and a bunch of public school and high schools in Daly City where they had a Fil-Am club. Majority of the student population was Filipino. I went to school at Skyline College which is along the peninsula where more Filipinos lived. I was a co-founder of the Filipino student union back in 2005, and it’s great to see that it’s still alive, a lot more people joined after I left. We even produced the first PCN at Skyline. I want to say that was one of my proudest moments because it was very important for me to connect to my roots, because even though I was Filipino, I had not visited the Philippines in ten years. I went there every couple of years up until I was probably 13, and then I had a 10 year gap.

JB: Even though I was raised Filipino – I saw Filipino people everywhere literally – college was when I really realized that you have to go back to the Philippines. It’s a blessing just to be in the Bay Area. However, you do see a stark difference with other cultures. Filipinos’ most concentrated area in the United States, yet again, we’re not represented, and we’re not necessarily brought up in many conversations as far as entertainment, cooks, things like that, but we’re there. It’s just that there’s not enough noise about us out here, and I think when I met up with those people at those events, we saw the same thing. We see hundreds, thousands of people going to these Filipino fiestas, but where are we in the press? Where are we in mainstream media? Where are we in the cooking shows? That’s where it all started. It’s was just very daunting that we are here but we’re still being ignored. It’s about time that people get to know us. I don’t want people to know us just because some guy on TV made us cool. I want our own people to be proud of us, to be proud of ourselves. I still think it’s a cultural thing, that we aren’t that way. But it’s changing.

NA: I think that a lot of what drives this desire to be known is, in one way or another, related to our search for identity. Whether it is establishing your identity as a Filipino-American, a Filipino-Canadian, just being able to reconcile who you are with your cultural background, I think is such – at least for me – that’s the big driver for me and why I’m very interested in learning about the culture, traditions, and the history of Filipino food in particular.

JB: Guaranteed if you ask any young person – or any person in general – what are the best parts of being Filipino, guaranteed they’re gonna say ‘their food.’ Guaranteed.

NA: From those early events, when you had to think about how you want to present Filipino food to the public, how did that change over time? Could you tell us about when it’s been particularly challenging or rewarding?

15:17 Early days of local food communities

JB: When I first started getting involved with the community, there were only two organizations that really initiated events here. One is the consulate, and FAAE, which Al Perez – he’s one of our board members – started it. He’s in charge of the Pistahan festival. There weren’t very many kids in my generation who were doing that at the time, around 2009-2010. But then again, Pistahan has been here for 25 years. They have been here forever.

JB: So, my generation, we’re coming to that age where we know, we now have a voice, and we have a force. Back then, it was very hard to get everyone together because it was very sparse where people were, who were interested. There was only two people at the time having a pop-up. The restaurants that were open at the time were very traditional, are very traditional, usually owned by first-generation Filipino-Americans or immigrants who came from the Philippines to open up businesses here, or were born there, came here at younger age, there wasn’t any sort of glue.

JB: I think that’s what we want to create. We want to create a net for everybody to fall into and work together.

NA: Now, I know this might not be relatable or even all that interesting to everyone. If I were busy with my back-to-back shift six days a week from a couple of years ago, I probably wouldn’t be listening to this podcast at all. But the fact that you are means that you are interested in hearing about how grassroots communities spring up around food, and how people strengthen their relationships with each other by eating together. To my mind that is a very powerful thing.

NA: So, how exactly did this small network of people bound by their love of Filipino food turn into a base 56,000 followers and counting on social media?

17:41 Looping in chefs

JB: Let me backtrack to 2010, where I met those people at those events and when my kuya Chet – he was a nephew of one of the chefs I met, and he was the one who created that spark – said, “Why don’t we collaborate with the chefs?” Back then the chefs never really worked together unless they knew each other from way before. But for the most part, each restaurant was working for themselves. They weren’t really collaborating.

JB: So, we went to each chef and went to the restaurants and said, “Okay, is it possible to have an event at your restaurant, invite a demographic that hasn’t been touched yet, and possibly provide a dish or entrée that hasn’t been presented onto your menu? So make it a special event for whoever comes.” And the group that I was in at the time, we called ourselves ‘kapaMEALya.’ It’s a social dining group. This was way before Feastly, or even before all that.

NA: The word ‘kapaMEALya’ is a play on the Tagalog word ‘kapamilya,’ which by definition is someone you’re related to by blood. But like a lot of Filipino puns, food is kind of in there in the mix someplace. In this case, where the English word ‘meal’ stands for the family that you enjoy eating with, with whomever you count as family.

JB: And it was a success for the most part, until we found out that the restaurants were closing left and right, and we were losing our venues. That was a wake-up call, like, why are all these restaurants closing? And of course a plethora of notions came, like, maybe the general public is not educated. What are they thinking about Philippine food? Do they even know what Filipino food is? Do people know where to get Filipino food?

19:47 How the Filipino Food Movement started

JB: We had all these questions and it was disheartening to see friends of ours having to close down their restaurants and we said, “Let’s do something about this.” We didn’t know exactly what at that point, but we knew we had to create noise some way. A year after kapaMEALya stopped operations, because, life happens, I met with Amy who introduced me to PJ Quesada, who is from a family business who’s been in the area for a really long time and his passion is Filipino food.

NA: And when Joanne got together with PJ to brainstorm ideas for the kind of group they could gather around promoting Filipino food…

JB: Some of our conversations, we realized that social media was a huge tool. This was when Twitter was coming out – Twitter had been ‘the’ thing in 2009-2010 – Instagram was coming, and we saw the values in using those vehicles. And then one day he just said, “Jo do you want to do a food event?” Honestly when he said that, I knew I found the right people because I had wanted to have a Filipino food festival for the longest time.

NA: To put things in context, this was when…

JB: The street food movement was here, the food carts, the food trucks… This was about 2011-2012, so they were hyped up at that time. And I was saying, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we had all the food trucks come at one place and everybody just eat Filipino food?”

NA: And then a year later…

JB: That’s what they’re doing now, not with just Filipino food trucks but with Mexican, Puerto Rican, Spanish, all these Asian food trucks. So, he said, “I have a similar idea but it’s gonna be with the chefs and restaurants and food trucks.” And when he told me that it was going to be at Justin Herman plaza…

NA: One of San Francisco’s largest public squares…

21:46 Collaboration over competition

JB: I was like “Wow!” If he told me that I was gonna be able to do this when I first started blogging, I would have told him he was crazy because I never expected anything like that to happen.

NA: And as those initial ideas with PJ and key community leaders came into sharper focus…

JB: I don’t know what it was. Call it a major coincidence, the right timing, I don’t know. But after that event we had in 2014 here in San Francisco, I have seen so many collaborations between the chefs who were present at that event, whether they cooked or participated in on the prep or just being there.

JB: So I began to see all these connections being made, and again if he told me that if that was gonna happen back when I first started blogging, I would have said, “No, that’s impossible.” Because at that time it was more about competition over collaboration.

JB: Now it’s collaboration over competition where everyone is working on the same team. We have the same goal, but those who are in it now, they see the value in working together. Rather than pushing each other down, they’re pricing up together, which is great!

NA: Collaboration over competition. I love how that’s like straight out of a motivational poster of some kind. But it’s real and more importantly, addresses another key issue that’s familiar to Filipino communities across the globe. That infamous crab mentality, where, as you push yourself up just a little bit higher to get closer to the top, to your goals, you realize that the competition to get there means a lot of other people are also determined to pull you down.

JB: But then again, it’s hard. A lot of restaurants are still having trouble keeping their doors open. There’s a lot of people opening their restaurants, but then again, I see that some of them are not educated enough on the business end. Their food is great but on the business end, it might be a little lacking.

JB: So I’ve seen the struggles the chefs have had, but I’ve also seen successes which has been great. Like here in San Francisco, we have two great friends of FOB Kitchen where they actually said, “We started our pop-ups because we see all these inspiration from all these other chefs doing it.” And that to me was like, “Wow!” If they could just feed off each other’s energies and be successful with their businesses, isn’t that great?

NA: Now, I have never been to San Francisco, but I could almost see – like a flashback – Joanne sitting with her grandparents by the window of this restaurant, with San Francisco’s Manila town behind them. Bustling with people doing groceries, running errands, going about their everyday lives, and I kind of imagine that it’s me and my folks sitting on the stools by the window of this burger joint called Tropical Hut in my hometown in Manila. It’s definitely got this 80s vibe to it.

NA: There’s a little carousel in the corner that six kids can ride on, and one of the best things I loved about this place was how every time we went, my dad would always order something called ‘burger steak,’ which is a hamburger patty dripping in gravy. This insanely juicy burger patty, rice on the side, easily the best part of our week.

NA: The last time I went home, I sat at the Starbucks across the street from this place, and thought about how strongly my memories of home were tied to the four blocks that surrounded this corner. It was right at the entrance of our town, so you can’t come in or out without passing it.

NA: As a teenager, it was easy to hop onto a tricycle or a jeepney from the terminal – that was our escape from boredom – and spending the last of my pocket change at the barbecue stand another block away on ten sticks of isaw, which are chicken intestines marinated in this sweet, garlicky, tomatoey, peppery sauce. The barbecue vendor there never cared that a bunch of teenagers always hung around her stall for hours, gorging on grilled meats and cigarettes.

NA: That’s what I mean by the concept of place as a central force to defining and understanding who you are as a person, because we all have our origin stories and the places we spent our formative years – for better or worse – make up an integral part of who we are and who we become.

NA: And back in San Francisco…

26:41 “We are here!”

JB: I would see all the same people just working together, collaborating, consulting on each other’s menus. It’s a rewarding feeling just knowing that they’re all here for each other. You could say the area’s been saturated with Filipino restaurants, but at the same time, we’re creating a community. We’re creating a force that will not be erased. We’re here.

JB: Currently, I’m in downtown San Francisco, but two blocks away, there’s SOMA Pilipinas, which is a district that San Francisco just made official last year. And that’s huge! It’s time for this country that, we have a community of Filipinos and I think that efforts from all these business owners, and all these restaurateurs and chefs, they’ve all contributed to that – to that noise, to that effort. It’s heartwarming, it’s rewarding, it’s something to be very proud of. I don’t want to tear up right now. My family has been in San Francisco since shortly after World War II. My grandpa and granduncle came here because of their efforts in the war. My granduncle stayed in the old Manila town way back when, and then ended up moving to different parts of the city before he settled down near Mission Street where I grew up.

JB: So, San Francisco in itself, is a very important part of who I am. I don’t think I could live anywhere else, honestly. Just knowing the city recognizes us and the city knows we’re here and finally giving us a place to call our own? That’s amazing. I have seen the progression of how we were, you know kind of on the surface, where we’re an oil slick on the surface, but now we’re a frickin’ iceberg. You know we’re here, you’re not gonna avoid us, you can’t avoid us now.

JB: So that’s how I see it. But then again, we still got a lot of work to do. The Heritage District is still in development and what I’ve seen is lots of organizations working together. I hope to participate in the development of that area because I used to come to this area so many times as a kid because my grandparents would just sit at a restaurant on Fifth and Mission and we’d eat Filipino food there together.

29:32 The Filipino food community

NA: So who does the Filipino Food Movement reach out to? Who are some of the people in the community?

JB: The Filipino food community have this drive to make their families proud. Every person I talk to, every chef I talked to, I ask them, “Why do you cook?” And they said, “I wanna tell my family story and I wanna make my mom proud.” What we see in the community is that they want to make a name for themselves, they want to be successful and they want to change the narrative. They don’t want to be part of that generation where everybody became a nurse or a lawyer or a doctor. They want the community that we work with. They’re the trailblazers – there we go – they ARE the trailblazers. They’re the one saying that we can be successful in the restaurant industry, as cut-throat as it is already.

JB: I’ve seen that there are so many openings of Filipino restaurants with an American narrative to it. That’s one community that we work with. Another community we want to work with more are those who are intrigued or are curious about Filipino food.

30:44 FFM’s mission

JB: So, let me just backtrack. The Filipino Food Movement’s mission is to promote, preserve, and progress Filipino food through education and community-building. So, we see all these chefs coming together. I think that’s a great way of promoting and progressing. And then as far as preserving and promoting, you have to make sure that those who have not had Filipino food are educated about the dishes, that they know the general history.

JB: It’s very multifaceted, our food. It’s got Spanish, Malay, Chinese, American, the native flavors in it, and I think that was one part that was missing from a lot of the menus back in the day. They just serve the food, no description, where it came from, it’s just there. So people were kind of, “Okay, what are we eating? Why are we eating this? How does this connect to anything?” So we want to create that context.

JB: So that’s one community. Another community we want to work with are those who are curious, have entrepreneurial spirit, yet they don’t know how to start their own businesses. So I guess we have the established, we got the newbies, and we have those in transition – from becoming a newbie to an established restaurant.

JB: When you say ‘community’ it could go in so many directions because Filipino food grew from community, but yet it can grow into so many different ways and go into so many different tangents. So I think we have a real great opportunity to tap on all those communities and see what they want to happen with our food.

JB: Like for you and I, for example. We like to write about Filipino food. We like to tell the stories and create connections between our families, the food we eat, and our culture. That’s one of many parts of preserving, progressing, and promoting. So, we’re all aligned. We are all in this for one goal. Actually, many goals. We all have different goals. But one main goal that we have is to show off our culture and be proud of that culture.

NA: But at the same time…

33:20 Filipino food outside the Philippines will always be different

JB: We have to be mindful that the food that is being made here in the United States, or in Canada, on in Europe is gonna be different from the food that’s going to be made from the Philippines, because the personal stories are gonna be translated on that menu. The community we work with are entrepreneurs, work hard, the ones who work their butts off to make themselves seen in the media, who go above and beyond to ‘just cook.’

JB: One person is Alvin Cailan who is in LA Unit 120. He had an incubation program where he let other chefs in his area come in and test out their concepts. That’s great! That’s the type of people we want to work with. We want the community we work with to work with other people, other chefs, business owners, entrepreneurs, so that they could help each other out, so that these businesses can thrive.

NA: You’re not seeing my head but I’m nodding very vigorously with a lot of the things you say. It is truly heartwarming. Because as you mentioned a couple of times, the word ‘community’ and what’s happening in the Bay Area, is guys like younger chefs who are changing the narrative of Filipino food. I identify with that quite a bit because we’re all doing our part even if it’s you introducing your non-Filipino friends to one Filipino dish at a time, even if it’s that one little step that you take forward, it does play a big role in kind of like paying it forward and introducing more and more people to it. It’s the community aspect of it is totally at the heart of all of this, I think.

JB: Yup, and plus Filipinos are naturally hospitable people.

NA: Absolutely!

JB: Yeah, that’s what I like about us. You will never leave a Filipino household hungry.

35:42 Three truths to live by – be inclusive, diverse and personal

NA: Let’s talk about truth and pride.

JB: We at Filipino Food Movement, we have three truths when it comes to Filipino food. The first one that is inclusive. The second one is diverse. The third one is personal.

NA: Now, let’s go through that one by one.

JB: Again, the inclusive, this is for whoever wants to eat it, eat it. Whoever wants to make it, make it, do it. Who can say that you can’t eat or make it? I think a lot of people do not have access to Filipino food within their communities, which makes it harder. But hopefully with more and more restaurants and more and more chefs around the country contributing to the movement or doing their own events, that’s helping the movement already.

JB: The second thing is that it’s diverse. So many regions in the Philippines, so many dialects being spoken. An adobo in the north will totally be different from adobo in the south. And pride comes into that because a lot of people say, “Well you know, mom’s adobo is the best. I’m not gonna taste yours because I already know it’s gonna suck.” So, pride plays into that because a lot of people do not want to go out to restaurants to eat Filipino food because they automatically think that what they’re gonna get, won’t be good as the one they get at home.

NA: Let’s stop for a second here. In many Filipino communities, that reaction that Joanne talks about where people go, “I’m not even gonna try this because my family or my region’s version is better,” is a real barrier that prevents many Filipinos – wherever they are in the world – from appreciating the full spectrum of Filipino cuisine. It prevents people who live in the northern provinces of Luzon, for example, from sampling the palate of spices used in everyday southern Mindanao cooking, simply because they don’t know what it’s about or what it’s made of. It’s the kind of thinking, unfortunately, that prevents your particularly traditional relatives from enjoying the refinement that the soul of their cooking impressed upon younger people.

JB: But then again, if you have an understanding that it is diverse, you have to keep an open mind that whatever you’re gonna have outside of your household will be different from yours. You cannot be making comparisons, only because you’re doing yourself a disservice, you are not letting yourself enjoy what other people have made for you. So that, having pride there, that can affect it. That can affect your own availability to eat the food other people have made.

JB: The third one, personal. Of course everyone has their stories. We’ve been talking about stories the entire time. Stories are very important. One, because we all have them. It makes us human, and it makes us appreciate what we do appreciate in our daily lives. We have to keep those stories alive in order for our kids, their grandchildren, our grandchildren, their kids, their kids, their kids, to really understand our culture, and to appreciate. Our immigrant families coming over from the Philippines, and even the families coming or that are back home in the Philippines, we have to make sure those stories stay alive. A lot of Filipinos think that it’s all pork-based, that it’s all brown, that it’s not healthy. But that’s not necessarily true.

39:25 Pride in culture

JB: As far as pride, I think the pride the chefs feels when they have their dinners, when they create a new dish, or the pride they feel when they know that what they’re cooking is an homage to their family? That’s the pride I appreciate. Not so much the pride of ‘my mom is so much better than yours.’ There’s different levels of pride. The pride that I want to resonate is the pride in our culture, that we are all working together to make our culture known, and that we are all putting together an effort, contribution to this bigger thing that we are.

JB: I don’t want to keep calling it ‘the movement’ but I guess this approach, even more so than just the food, just us as Filipinos, that’s the pride that I feel that we all should feel.

NA: What I personally believed was a big key to telling the story of Filipinos all over the world, and of the food in particular, one of the keys to being able to tell that story more fully and more richly, does have a lot to do with educating people. Not just educating foreigners like people who are non-Filipino, but also Filipinos themselves because a big part of this, I guess you can call it a bit of a rediscovery of the different types of regional cuisine, like “listen to us because we have legitimate stories to tell and we do actually have really good food we wanna share with you!”

NA: And we do have all these great cooking techniques and ingredients back home that, thankfully I’m starting to see becoming a little bit more available even outside the Philippines. So, it’s exciting!

41:34 Closing thoughts

This month was a blast, and I truly wanna thank Joanne for taking the time to chat with us for this episode. She was totally down with this idea of sharing stories from the Filipino Bay Area community with all of us. So, our sincerest thanks!

What I hope you take away from all this, though, are not just stories about the emergence of Filipino food in the US and western world. In fact, I encourage everyone who identifies as Filipino, including friends and family that I grew up with back home, to appreciate the magnitude of what a passionate, curious group of young people can do. This idea of building communities around food, it’s an old one, by no means invented or “made cool” by the kids of American immigrants. We’ve known this for centuries.

Every culture celebrates around food: for baptisms, weddings, getting a new job or house, anniversaries, or – in the Philippines – town fiestas in particular for patron saints that are very much alive and well. I admit, I really wish I went to a lot more of those town fiestas when I was a kid.

Anyway, this gathering of people with a common goal, to share their love of Filipino food, I think is the most extensive and purposeful spread of knowledge about food in the Philippines. Ever. Think about it… with stuff you can find online, accessible wherever you can get a Facebook connection, that community-building aspect almost automatically comes with it, and enables us to have these conversations about food, and why it’s okay to talk about them it in terms of being trendy, in terms of more people who’ve never had Filipino food before, trying them for the first time.

Even if there are larger, more pressing issues about food in the Philippines – like food security that also exists, that also needs time in the larger frame of discussions – I really believe that the best way to tackle these complex issues is to start by making it matter to you, to a friend, to one person at a time. Eventually, those people will find a way to come together and build the kinds of communities that can make change happen themselves, almost organically.

It’s all about strength in numbers and it’s the best way for us to make noise – as Joanne puts it – to engage as many as we can in meaningful conversations around Filipino food. The more we talk about it, the more we collectively lend our voices to the emergence a strong, burgeoning food culture.


Music for this episode is by David Szestay, Eric and Magill, The Polish Ambassador and Podington Bear.

To say hello to other Filipino food lovers who also listen to this podcast, head over to and give us a like on Facebook, leave a comment, or just say hello! And, I’ve got one little favor to ask. If you enjoyed this talk, mention it to a friend. Then find Exploring Filipino Kitchens on iTunes and hit subscribe. That would be amazing!

Maraming salamat – thank you, for listening.

Recording Filipino Food History With Felice Sta. Maria Episode Transcript

This is a transcript of “Episode 04: Recording Filipino Food History With Felice Sta. Maria” (Click the episode link for the audio!)


Welcome to Exploring Filipino Kitchens. I’m your host, Nastasha Alli.

Today we’re talking with Felice Sta. Maria – an award-winning author, cultural heritage advocate, and culinary historian who specializes in the Spanish and American periods of history in the Philippines.

Talking with Felice is a real privilege and pleasure. She is an incredibly esteemed researcher in her field, not just of culinary history, but of Philippine colonial periods in general. If history, to you, is something you associate with a class you just couldn’t get out of, my goal for this episode is to change your mind completely. It’s a tall order, but we’ll walk through it together.

Cultural, and especially food history, is one of the most exciting fields that I can think of. To be a historian, you need to be detail oriented and laser-focused, patient, curious, and persistent to the core. You’re the kind of person who asks questions that no one else thinks of. I admire that determination to simply get to the bottom of things. It makes you like a real-life detective, who uncovers secrets and alternate endings to stories that have been hidden away in dusty old libraries and archives.

The value of all this, for anyone interested in food, is that we can tap into this recorded knowledge by looking to historians for help. They are our translators who provide context to questions like, why is Filipino spaghetti sauce toothachingly sweet and studded with hotdogs? Or, why is a particular fruit better for souring the sinigang in this region of the Philippines? And more importantly, why does all of this matter today?

We’re gonna find out. Join us as we speak with Felice Sta. Maria.


FSM: My name is Felice Sta. Maria and I have been writing about Philippine food since the 1970s and more seriously since the turn of the century. I’m currently engaged in writing two books, one of which would be the first historical narrative for trying to understand Philippine cuisine during the Spanish and American colonial eras.

02:43 Who is the Filipino?

FSM: Many years ago, I came across descriptions of Japanese culinary vocabulary. And there were so many words that I started wondering, what about the Philippines? How many words do we have? And if we put the words together, what stories would the words tell?

FSM: I didn’t want the Philippines to be left out of the global conversation. So, over many years, I have been trying to understand who the Filipino is based on whatever I can find about our food and our foodways, using historical research.

NA: That sounds really interesting! Historical research – especially with regard to food – is always something good to have more of. So what can historical research about food tell us, specifically, I asked? How did you get started in this field?

03:50 Developing an interest in food

FSM: Well, my interest in food really began as a hobby, Nastasha. In my generation it was not unusual for girls to want to cook well, and so by seven years old I knew how to cook rice. I received a Betty Crocker cookbook for children. I baked my first brownies, my very first sugar cookies. So, I realized that I enjoyed baking and cooking and I was always in the kitchen. By the time I was nine or ten, I persuaded my mother to buy me an American hardcover book on how to entertain at home. I guess I was really into it even as a child.

FSM: As a teenager, the books of Elizabeth David became available in Manila. It was different then. We didn’t have the computers and things like that. It wasn’t easy to get subscriptions to foreign magazines. We didn’t have anything local that was the equivalent. And some of us used to go to Angeles, Pampanga to a little town near that called Dao. It had a market that sold surplus from the nearby American military base. Sometimes I found back issues of Gourmet magazine. Gourmet magazine at the time was based in New York, and it became my example of how to write food stories even if I wasn’t thinking of writing at the time.

FSM: Then I got married, and decided I wanted to see if I could write, because it was the kind of work where I could be at home and at same time earn a little money. So I began writing for women’s magazines, even if I had no experience and no training as a writer.

FSM: About that time, I met a wonderful writer about 10-12 years older than myself, was very well established.

NA: That writer is an author named Gilda Cordero-Fernando.

FSM: And she gave me the break to not only write in the women’s magazines, but also to write for Filipino Heritage. Filipino Heritage was a project of Paul Hamlin Australia. The idea was to come up with a 10-volume series of something like an encyclopedia. Articles about Philippine history, but written for the 14-year old English language reader of the 1970s. That was my first sortie into writing anything with a historical bent.

FSM: The articles I wrote for Filipino Heritage were generally not about food. But I kept discovering material about food. So I would jot down what I found, and eventually I found myself xeroxing articles. I was buying reprints of colonial-era books. I was buying vintage menu cards, collecting antique and out-of-print cookbooks. Before I knew it, I had so much data about Philippine culinary history of the colonial era, which is why I wrote “The Governor-General’s Kitchen: Culinary Vignettes and Period Recipes from 1521 to 1935.” That’s what started me off.

NA: These all sound like things I would LOVE to make my life’s work. Imagine… getting to just pore over these documents and records to learn about things that shaped Filipino culture over time. It’s like being a time-traveler!

FSM: And you will find that Gilda also wrote about food. In fact she came up with the very first – what we would call – a coffee-table Book, a hardbound, glossy book about any topic. That topic happened to be Culinary Culture of the Philippines, and she kindly included me among the authors for that anthology.

NA: That book Felice mentioned, called the Governor General’s Kitchen, is one of my favorites. Much like how Amy Besa’s book really got me into stories about regional cooking, this book really opened my eyes and sparked a real interest into how much of ourselves today, we can really understand by looking at history. It’s not a straightforward path, but that’s what makes it unique. The Philippines has always been a bubbling pot of cultures and traditions, and that continues today, like a multiplier effect where Filipinos themselves are the ambassadors for their own culinary culture, wherever they are in the world.

NA: I highly recommend getting a copy of this book, and I’ll share a couple sources in the show notes for this episode. In the meantime, I asked Felice, could you give us an overview of some of the topics you cover in the Governor General’s Kitchen?

9:33 Research on the Spanish era

FSM: Well, the kind of research I do is on the Spanish era which starts in 1565 with the arrival of Legaspi, although we do have the written recollections of Pigafetta who was the chronicler of the circumnavigation which took off in Magallanes in 1519.

FSM: Aside from that, I’m also doing the American colonial era, which is from 1898 until 1945-1946. I’m mining not only the Spanish era, but the American era, and of course our food history continues non-stop until today.

FSM: So there’s probably several important areas that your generation may want to look into. Firstly I think is the history of Philippine agriculture and how it developed. Same with husbandry, marine science, and things like that. The archipelago has different climate/weather zones affecting food supply, and each zone is an agro-ecosystem. Each zone has to be studied over time. It’s when all the results of these different agro-ecosystems are put together over time, that we might be able to make some sense of how new botanicals arrived, older botanicals disappeared, and how all of that affected what we were cooking and eating uncooked.

11:18 Research on canned goods

FSM: I think the second – and this is not a difficult topic for your generation to handle – is the history of canned and bottled food products that are made in the Philippines, like the luncheon meats, sardines, fruits in syrup. It’s time, really I think, that for those interested in eating at restaurants and cooking – it’s time to catch up with food scientists, with home entrepreneurs, with companies that have started out new products and new brands. This is all very important, especially now that we’re talking about sustainability of food and food security for different countries, and changing weather. How are we going to handle changing weather? Did we have anything similar in the past and how did we handle it?

FSM: So even if you catch just those more recent histories, I think we will find examples. We will find role models among people. We’ll find clues as to how we can solve the incoming challenges for food. And if you look into either of those, the agriculture history or the history of prepared foods, as a researcher you’ll really end up going back into time, because the Spanish brought ranching. We didn’t have any cows here, and they wanted to have the kind of food they were used to in Spain. So they brought the cows to Mexico, crossing the Atlantic, and they started cattle-raising there.

FSM: And then they decided they were going to do the same thing here. So can you imagine a cow or a whole bunch of cows, horses, and other live animals being transported on the galleons from Mexico to Manila? I mean, those poor creatures! You know I was wondering how did they manage? And can you imagine the noise on the boat from all these very uncomfortable animals. In addition to that, what they used to do was carry as many as 200 laying hens in cages so they will have eggs everyday!

FSM: I just really chuckle every time I think about how we have managed to have enough food, whether it’s at home or on voyages. It’s amazing how innovative we have been. There were botanicals that went from the Philippines to Mexico on the galleons – the tamarind, the mango, ginger. These were plants that were not only liked as part of the diet, but these botanicals had profit. So the idea of the king was to try to get some of these Asian botanicals into America, which was closer for them. I mean there’s only one ocean away. You just cross the Atlantic and you get your ginger, you could get your tamarind, instead of having to go all the way across the Pacific as well.

15:01 What the new world brought to us

FSM: So, there is the story of what we brought to the New World, but there’s also what the New World brought to us. And so we have tomatoes for instance, and it wasn’t until about the 1600s that the tomato was being grown in large quantities in Spain itself. And so at about that time you can also see the tomato now coming our way, and becoming part of the diet. It was starting to grow wild, in fact.

FSM: So again you’re back to researching into the Spanish era. And of course the American era, they also brought different kinds of tomatoes. Like now you can walk into a supermarket in Manila, in Cebu, in Davao, and you will have those beautiful large salad tomatoes. We never even had those in the 1960s. We had what we call the ‘kamatis Tagalog’ which was the smaller tomato. But that isn’t even the tomato that was available in the 1800s. The tomato then was more like a cherry tomato.

NA: I love hearing about this stuff. I wonder what those early, heirloom cherry tomatoes tasted like? Is there any chance some of those varieties still exist today? I think I know a few cooks who’d travel far and wide to try some of that in their dishes.

FSM: We never had the golden tomato – the pom de oro – that became very popular in Europe. I haven’t found records of that. What is interesting is that there are descriptions of the early tomato, and so that would have been more like the cherry tomato. But then by the mid-1800s there’s a Frenchman who’s in the Philippines, and he’s saying that his marketing list included large tomatoes. But he doesn’t describe how large they were.

FSM: So we are aware that at some point there were no large tomatoes, there were only the small cherry tomatoes – some of which were growing wild – and then at a later period, these larger tomatoes came in.

17:30 “How were our favorite dishes cooked originally?”

FSM: So if one is trying to ask, “How was the food or the dish cooked originally?” I honestly don’t know. We haven’t found the recipes. But we do know there was a particular kind of tomato that was being used.

FSM: These are the interesting spin-off conclusions that would interest chefs who are trying to determine what is the traditional savor, what is the baseline Filipino savor from which one can innovate.

NA: Case in point? The sweet Filipino-style spaghetti sauce.

FSM: It advertises the fact that it’s sweet. I remember doing a talk at a culinary school. I lined up recipes for tomato-based spaghetti sauces from the 1920s up to about 1970s. It showed that there was no sugar. See, the sugar came in a lot later because in the 1960s, whenever we had children’s parties, the goal of the spaghetti sauce was to have lots of ground meat, very good beef.

FSM: I remember we would have the butcher in the market ground up sirloin to put in the spaghetti sauce for the children. What’s Filipino in many ways about the sauce then was that we mix meats. It was a very Chinese style of cooking where we would have a little bit of pork and a lot of beef, and we would have the butcher grind all of that together. And that’s what we would use for our spaghetti sauce.

FSM: So it wasn’t the sweetness. It was the desire to have the meatiness. And then eventually there were companies making luncheon meats and Vienna sausages and things and hotdogs. And so of course they would advertise putting Vienna sausages and sliced hotdogs into what is already a very meaty sauce. Eventually, the meat disappeared, the sausages were retained, or the hotdogs were retained, and became sweet. It’s a very, very interesting study how Filipino “spaghetti sauce” evolved.

NA: Looking into this stuff can send you down a rabbit hole pretty quickly, if you’re the kind of person who possibly watches too many ‘related’ videos to something you originally started with. What’s fascinating to me about untangling these little histories that don’t seem like much from the outside, is that they inevitably play a crucial role in how Filipino food and culture takes shape, and that’s until today.

NA: While you can easily dismiss the fact that Filipinos prefer their spaghetti sauce cloyingly sweet – that adding sugar to everything is “just a Filipino thing” – the fact that it became a popular way of adjusting dishes to suit your taste, is in itself a reflection of society. When you start to understand that a combination of low sugar prices, that housewives in the 60s took pride in sourcing canned tomatoes, and that middle class families considered serving spaghetti that was studded with ground beef for their kids’ birthday parties as a status symbol, you see a much bigger picture.

21:54 The importance of food studies

FSM: And that is why I’m suggesting that your generation look into the impact of the canned food products on Philippine cuisine. You’ll find that that pattern is not just in the Philippines. It’s also in other countries when they started producing manufacturing canned food products that would – as you mentioned – provide a consistency of flavor.

FSM: But I think what you will find – whether you’re studying the canned products or fresh ingredients – is that all the stories are going to reveal how we cared for or didn’t care for the country’s food security. While one is interested in looking at the little stories – which is very, very interesting – I think what’s very important for people who are looking into food studies and food history is the macro picture. What does it say about the society? Sometimes it’s not just what we are eating that is the story. There’s always this quest for food security and you’ll find that even in Spanish records. I mean, the Spanish were here and they were looking for food. The Filipinos were already here and the presence of these newcomers was straining the food supply.

FSM: What I have found, which really shocked me, was that during the time Legaspi and his small group of men were in the Visayas, the Filipinos in the Cebu area decided they just were not going to plant rice, hoping that they could starve away these invaders. Even if that meant that they have to sacrifice, they just wanted to find ways to peacefully get rid of these people. So they said, “Let’s starve them!” But unfortunately, the Spanish were able to buy rice because there was a very active trade of rice in the inter-island Southeast Asia region. And so they were able to derive.

FSM: This is what I mean. It’s very interesting to read Spanish material. The good thing is there is quite a lot of Spanish material about the Philippines that is already translated into English. So to me if you are an English language speaker, or that’s your primary international language, then start reading those translations. But then you’re going to want to read more, which means that you’re also going to want to read the originals because you’re going to see something here isn’t making sense. For instance, the Pigafetta documents about the first circumnavigation. They got here in 1521 and he makes a word list of Cebuano food terms. And then he starts recounting what he had eaten with the datus or the chieftains. What always perplexed me, was he kept saying that he had been served fish with sauce and meat with sauce.

NA: So now I’m curious too. Why is this a big deal?

FSM: I think you know, I know that sauce is a very complex, highly sophisticated dish. A sauce, you have to go through a lot of processes before the sauce comes out correct. But if you read the other kinds of food he was being served – I mean it’s just basic roasted meat, roasted fish, boiled fish – and you go, it doesn’t sound like a cooking culture that is already at the stage of development where it can make a sauce, as we formally define sauce.

FSM: So, I looked for the original and sure enough, the translation was wrong. It didn’t say “sauce”. It said “brodo” – broth. So it was fish in broth, beef in broth, which makes sense because at that point in the development of culinary techniques here, it was basic boiling. So the translation was wrong, and it was very misleading because it implies – as I said – a different level of sophistication: kitchen technology, taste, understanding a complexity of taste.

FSM: That is why sometimes when you’re researching and you’ve been doing it for a long time, you get a eureka moment and you say, “You know? That doesn’t make sense. I’ve got to go back to the original.” And that means – in this case – it was Portuguese, which I don’t speak, but I was able to find the phrase and get that translated. But sometimes that means really going back to the original Spanish, and I really sincerely believe that for those of you who want to really study things about the Philippines – not just food – you have to become proficient in the Spanish language.

NA: So while my own Spanish is really limited to what a tourist needs to know, Felice mentions…

FSM: You have to go a little deeper, so that you can read a government document, you can read a little bit of the literature, and get the meaning of it all. And remember, the Spanish language has changed – like English and Filipino – over centuries. The word change, structure changes, the spellings change. So, once you start getting used to reading printed or published Spanish, then you’ll also probably want to look into the handwritten work. And that is a totally, totally different field. You look at documents and say, “Oh my gosh! I can’t understand the writing. It’s totally, totally different.”

29:35 “It’s like being a detective”

FSM: You can find many of those original documents at the archives in Seville, where they are lovingly kept. And it’s like being a detective when one does research into history and you use actual documents or writings of a period. You’re really like a detective trying to figure it all out.

30:15 A human element to history

FSM: It’s also why it’s important that even if one is following the science of history, that one also remembers once humanities background because you need to read the literature. You need to sense the humanity. All these scientific documents, for instance, that you’re reading. It’s very important not to miss out on the human element.

FSM: So now with Google Books and all these many, many sources for online material – a lot of it being free – that is amazing. Now you can ask questions about the past, and chances are you’ll be able to find a good enough answer. And hopefully, you will start asking more questions that will lead you to, not only understanding the period, but understanding how people reacted during that period, hopefully finding what is the best in their humanity.

FSM: That’s the idea of all of this when we do any kind of research in culture. The goal is really to see if what we find will affect us. Make us assess what we found. Make us try to express – in one way or another – what all of that historical evidence is saying. Have our opinion about it. But in the end, the goal is to make us think in terms of our own attitudes, behavior, and say, “How does this improve us? What does this say? What should we avoid? What should we follow? What should we be aware of?” That’s what all of this is actually for. It’s not just finding out the origin of halo-halo, or ube, or anything like that. One has to only – I think – be a bit aware of the philosophical side of doing research.

32:42 On traditional tastes

FSM: There’s a recurring theme, Nastasha, in our baseline taste it seems. From the 1500s all the way into the 1700s and early 1800s, the observation is that Filipinos seem to like salty and sour tastes. I remember reading something very curious, which was that the common Filipino meal in different parts of the archipelago was rice with the sour juice of a leaf. So, very, very basic. The only thing that you cook is the rice. Sometimes that was accompanied by a small piece of fish. Sometimes a small piece of fish that had been salted and dried.

FSM: I actually found a slightly long list of sour leaves, and they would call the juice of these leaves “the vinegar of the poor people.” So, the list of leaves that I have, for instance, I will be sharing in the book because our innovative chefs may be able now to look into those ingredients and see if they can use those ingredients today. And those ingredients might be more reason for Filipino cuisine to be distinct in the world and attract attention. So that’s the practical application of historical research.

NA: Then there’s also the direct benefit to local communities that this kind of research provides.

34:48 Benefit to locals

FSM: The more people there are who’re interested in Philippine food, the more chefs there are that cook it – whether in an old fashion or a very contemporary way – the more desire there is for the original Philippine product. Once that happens, if that product can meet its market, then again, the ones who are raising the trees and the herbs and the raw sources – for these materials – will now be able to earn.

FSM: As a parting shot, I think it’s wonderful that there are more Filipino chefs, Filipino restaurants, that there are even non-Filipinos who are looking into Philippine food and integrating ingredients, cooking processes, Filipino dishes into their own line-up on the menu. I think this is really very, very important. Not only because of the cultural pride that it brings to Filipinos all over the world, but the fact that there is this economic benefit that can help our farmers, our fishers, and our husbandry professionals.

36:16 Catch the interest now!

FSM: You’re right in the field Nastasha where – if you’re looking for a good topic, contemporary topic – if you could even just plot the interest and the connection between the new IT technology and the spread of interest in Philippine cuisine, that in itself is an amazing topic that is going to continue. And again, it’s something that has to be caught now. I mean you got the Filipino movement page, there are all sorts of blogs that have come up, there are all sorts of resources that weren’t there. And the fact that there is that much of it, and it’s all new information, because people are only now beginning to discover or rediscover Philippine’s cuisine, that would be a very significant addition to Philippine culinary history of now. That’s going to be so significant very soon.

NA: I can’t even describe how that fills my heart with so much love and joy, to hear Felice vocalize the idea that we can, and should, start plotting our own paths to help contextualize a cuisine and a culinary heritage that we are literally still discovering ourselves. As home cooks, restaurant patrons, and people who support Philippine products and keep those food traditions alive in whatever way we can, I’m enamored by the thought that within a few short decades, we might be able to collectively pool our research together on the ingredients, cooking techniques and flavors of the Philippines to fill in the gaps in our culinary map.

NA: The best part is we’re all in this together: everyone who’s listening to this podcast and everyone who’s had some kind of hand in participating in this movement towards a greater knowledge and acknowledgment of Filipino food. It’s such an exciting time.


Today’s music is by David Szestay, Squire Tuck, Eric and McGill, and Maria Pien.

My sincerest thanks to Felice Sta. Maria for this interview. Please visit for information on Felice’s books and some extras from this episode. If you haven’t yet, please take a minute to click “Subscribe” on iTunes or your podcast app for this show. I also wanna take a second and say thanks to people who have left a review. It helps and I promise to check my episodes for dead air next time. I really do want to hear from you, so please drop me a line by searching Exploring Filipino Kitchens on Facebook or iTunes.

Thank you sincerely for listening.

On Travel With Purpose To Manila, A Farm And Ancestral Lands Episode Transcript

This is a transcript of “Episode 09: On Travel With Purpose To Manila, A Farm And Ancestral Lands” (Click the episode link for the audio!)


Welcome to Exploring Filipino Kitchens. I’m your host, Nastasha Alli.

This episode, we’re going off the usual path – actually, quite a ways off from my studio in Toronto, back to where it all begins – the Philippines.

We can’t really explore Filipino kitchens, without going to the motherland, right?

So today, no interviews – just some raw thoughts from my trip, instead – and you’ll hear horns rise above the traffic of Manila, tricycles speeding by, the calm of the countryside and horses on the cobbled streets of Vigan, Ilocos Sur.

Let’s go!


Hello everyone! It is now Friday. I’ve been in Manila for about a week now. I landed on Sunday morning and, to be honest, everything is a bit of a whirlwind. It’s such a barrage on the senses to be back here amidst the traffic and noise you could probably hear just outside the window. I’m staying in Makati City which is the central business district of Manila.

Over the last couple of days, I’ve been meeting with people for interviews for the podcast and to reconnect with some friends I’m so glad to have been able to meet.

01:54 A walk through the old walled city

The city can swallow you up, and that’s the case for any big city, whether you grew up in it or moved there for school or for work. Yesterday, I went on a tour of Intramuros, which is the old walled city of Manila. I took a tour of Intramuros that’s run by a friend of mine, and it was really interesting because we talked about Philippine history in a completely different context than what we were taught in schools, from grade school all the way up to high school, and even college.

There’s such a big gap in all of this. How food, culture and traditions to be specific, is communicated to young people. I really hope that at some point, the educational curriculum in high schools and all the way through college, and especially if you go to a culinary institution like I did… it would just make such a big difference to have that type of content where you talk about the history of Philippine cuisines, providing context around the culture of how and why our food traditions have developed in this particular way. It’s something that just doesn’t exist right now.

It’s not to say the people aren’t doing something about it. They definitely are. And the big part of the reason I’m here is because I wanna talk to these people, and try in my little way, to bring these stories to life a bit more. To show people all over the world, whether you’re local or somebody who’s just visiting the Philippines – one of the many backpackers who are traveling through this area I’m in right now – that the Philippines has such a unique food culture and heritage and traditions that are kind of buried under the surface, they’re hidden. They’re there but they definitely need a bit of explanation. Telling those stories through a local’s perspective is necessary, because foreign food writers coming into the city and talking about the latest Filipino heritage restaurant that’s opened is important, but it doesn’t paint the right picture. Filipino people have such a deep story to tell. Their experiences are what you can’t really replicate, and telling those stories in our voices, I think, is something that’s really lacking.

05:12 Why “the middles” matter

How it affects me is that, growing up here I always think about why would I spend several thousand pesos on a meal, when I could go down the road and not have the same ambiance or the same quality of food, but… [it’s] still sinigang, still adobo, still lumpia, all that stuff that you want in a Filipino restaurant.

I really, really wanna be able to find a way to bridge that gap between what people see, what people understand of Philippine cuisine and culture because that story of “the middles,” they need to be told.

But what exactly do I mean by “the middles?” Well, from a food perspective – I mean, stories about what the hundred thousand people who work at night in call centers around the country, eat for “lunch” at four in the morning. Or the history of street food staples like fish balls, kikiam (made with tofu skins), “adidas” and “PAL” that are honestly my favorite examples of odd bits and ends transformed into truly Filipino foods by their taste, preparation, affordability and name. Who else shouts, “Adidas please!” when they want some grilled chicken feet?

Probably not the handful of tycoons who basically run the Philippines, but people like those call center workers, who spend hours in traffic on the way home during the morning rush.

Those are people who I grew up with. Many of my friends worked and have built their careers and their adult lives around that industry. It’s a big driver of the Philippine economy now to be sure. Walking around the city, driving through the major highways, I see these large condo towers that are very similar to the way the condo boom in Toronto is happening and in many centers around the world, where you have people who were coming in from the provinces…and finding that prosperity and financial stability they didn’t have. That means a lot to them.

This is why the story of the middles matter. Because we now have the technology and the ability to reach so many people with stories of the food the sustains us – like, a fried chicken rice meal from the corner store, and the food that we celebrate with, like the sizzling sisig at spots like Manam or Sarsa in Manila that your Instagram-loving friend just has to have for their birthday.

This stuff is popular for a reason. It’s not just because we love fatty, salty foods. But, because it’s within reach and embedded in everyday Filipino’s definition of “comfort food,” and it’s been that way for decades, which is not a long time, actually. Coming from mass marketing that’s pushed American deep fried chicken into the cores of our hearts, and of economic conditions that turned chopped up pig’s cheeks, ears and skin, from leftovers into a restaurant specialty. That’s Filipino ingenuity.

But it’s not all rosy. If you look at things a little deeper – like I tend to do – you’ll notice class distinctions arise even when we talk about food. Like, for example, how certain kinds of food are so closely associated with the people who tend to make and eat them.

While I was in Manila, I stayed at this little bed and breakfast, a restored heritage house with a really cozy, kind of Spanish-era feel. The front desk got my request for a room with a balcony, adding that the neighbor next door made steamed rice cakes, called puto, every morning. “It might get a little loud,” she said, “when he starts grinding the rice.”

And then she goes, “Ma’am, you know they do that at four in the morning. We asked them if they could be quiet, but they said that they also have their business to run.” My first instinct was, I don’t want these people to have to change what they’re doing. That’s their way of life, that’s their living! That disparity is jarring sometimes.

It took me awhile to understand why this particular thing stuck with me. On a base level, it’s because I felt uneasy that as a guest at this boutique hotel – I’m awarded this kind of superiority, some kind of outward power over the puto maker. The guy who wakes up at three a.m. every morning to grind rice, make batches of batter, steam the cakes, wrap them in banana leaves, load them onto his cart, and then actually walk around the neighborhood for several hours in the hot sun hawking the rice cakes he’s made. That takes so much work, and an artisanship on the maker’s behalf. This guy doesn’t measure, and somehow the rice cakes turn out consistently fluffy even when the weather’s crazy humid and there’s a torrential downpour.

In place of apologies that a maker of native delicacies may possibly wake guests with the sound of their work, I hope that someday the front desk says something like, “By the way, you’re in the best part of town. There’s a native rice cake maker right next door, and if you want freshly steamed rice cakes with some butter or salted eggs for breakfast, all you have to do is ask.”

11:38 At the Gawad Kalinga Enchanted Farm

Next, we’re off to the farm, because I love going to farms.

I’m at the Gawad Kalinga Enchanted Farm. It is someplace in Angat, Bulacan which is about two hours or so outside Manila, give or take. This place is amazing. It’s got a working farm and there’s a couple of other buildings down the road where a lot of the students who are part of a program here called SEED, which is the School for Experiential [and Entrepreneurial] Development. They have been so overwhelmingly amazing, and I can’t even begin to describe how floored I am by a lot of these kids and what they’re doing.

12:35 Growing SEED (The School for Experiential and Entrepreneurial Development)

This is not a regular school. According to Gawad Kalinga – the non-profit that houses this school – it’s “an education based solution to rural development.” I highly encourage you to visit for more information.

In short, it stands for “School for Experiential and Entrepreneurial Development.” It’s a two-year program developed by a range of innovators in the education, social enterprise and agriculture industries. The school is positioned as an alternative to community college. Basically, instead of taking generic courses, students apply for SEED and get housing, food, and an education for free, covered by a scholarship at the farm.

The program covers character and community development, business management, communications, financial literacy and courses on agriculture. While all of this seems pretty standard, the important thing to remember is who applies to be a SEED scholar. Those students are 18-20 year olds from some of the most poverty-stricken areas of the Philippines, from slums in big cities to parts of Mindanao where armed conflict is a part of everyday life.

The goal is to show these students how and why they are “world-class Filipinos,” an idea that Gawad Kalinga’s founder, Tony Meloto, stands proudly behind. To develop the countryside and uplift millions of farming families who live way below the poverty line, they say the focus needs to go back to farming sustainably and to growing crops that thrive in Philippine soil.

SEED follows a holistic approach to solving these kinds of issues. By providing young people from poor communities – the only ones who understand their problems best – what they need to succeed, they become more than a social entrepreneur or business owner. They become people who live with dignity and have an immense pride in their work. That was something I could see from the titas who served us meals and the people who manned the corner store. They become community builders who organize weekly volleyball matches and who, like a cog in the machine of empowering other people, think of themselves as more than just “a poor person.”

And so, back to the farm…

15:36 Why I love the countryside

The place where I’m sitting at right now is at the top level of a spot that faces this:

“I’m sitting in front of a tranquil rice field, with plots of land stretching as far as the eye can see, through the hills and into the horizon. It was late afternoon and the sun looked like a Sunkist orange, with carabaos and farmers dotting the field. I imagine, for a second, this is what it might have felt like for a plantation owner.”

Just to give you a better rundown of the people I’ve met here so far. I have been at the farm by taking a week-long tour with a company called MAD Travel, which stands for “Make A Difference” Travel. They are a social enterprise that also started at the farm. People who come here say that it’s life-changing and I understand and see why…because coming here throws you into the deep end of things.

But what exactly do I mean by that? Well, when you arrive at the farm, you start with a tour of the grounds. That includes the main assembly halls, the dorms, the cafeteria, the pool and basketball court, and further on something called “The Bamboo Palace” which I quickly fell in love with. Depending the kind of tour you get, you either spend an afternoon, several days or a full week with different entrepreneurs at the farm – preparing things like peanut brittle or carabao milk cheese, locally made iced teas, chocolate pastries or vegetables for community dinners.

You will meet so many different kinds of people at the farm. I get emotional thinking how, even in my short visit, I learned so much from the people I met. There was Christine – shout out! – our MAD travel guide and all around awesomest 18-year-old I know, well, after my sisters. She arranged our dinners, hung out with us and talked about her community at the farm, and had the prettiest pixie outfit hands down at the Halloween party – and yes, it was the best Halloween party I’ve been to in ages. There was tita Jenny and tito Jun, a bit of a power couple and host family for a number of French interns throughout the years. We saw beautiful pictures of their kids and the kids who’ve lived them, and on more than one occasion, was treated to jokes like this from tito Jun:

18:34 “What song does a centipede hate?”

“Are you familiar with the centipede? You know centipede?”

“Yes, yes.”

“What is the most hated song by that centipede or millipede? You want a clue?”


“It’s a nursery rhyme, children’s song. Imagine the centipede singing, I have two hands, the left and the right, the left and the right, the left and the right…”

I legit cannot stop laughing every time I’ve listen to this clip. It’s just such a really good reflection of what our week was like there at the farm.

19:29 “Walang iwanan,” or no one is left behind

The two girls I’m living with here, both from the UK. They’re traveling throughout Southeast Asia and they booked the tour without much background about what Gawad Kalinga is, what the farm is about, and even I had a little bit of difficulty explaining to them at the beginning, know what’s to expect, because frankly I had no idea either. Everyone I’ve talk to so far from the dozens of French interns were here – there’s a lot of them – people who live in the community and the Gawad Kalinga communities, that very simple concept of “walang iwanan,” which in English means that ‘no one is left behind,’ is really the driving force to everything here. It allows people to approach problems and challenges and really different ways. Everyone who’ve we met, it just shows you on a really basic level how accommodating, warm-hearted, hospitable, and humbling it can be to live in the Philippines.

21:05 The stories that get to the heart of me

Many people go through tons of different challenges. This afternoon I was speaking with a student from that school I was talking about earlier. Many students have had started all these amazing businesses. Throughout the course of the week that I’ve been here, I’ve cried several times just listening to the passion and drive these people have. People who work in fancy startups in the big cities could learn more than a thing or two from them.

The person who I was talking with this afternoon developed a brand of flavored sweet potato chips and banana chips. She’s funny, she’s telling me that she dropped out of school for a couple of years due to a number of things going on at home. Really did not think that she would have the confidence at all to do much more than that.

I just have to stop here for a second, because there’s a reason I’m telling this story. This girl, who just so gamely agreed to sit down with me and tell me about this vegetable chip business they started – she later tells me, in Tagalog, that she was adopted and up until high school, didn’t really have any problems with the family who took her in. She did very well and got top honors in her class, and that allowed her to attend a private school on scholarship. But when her adoptive dad lost his job, things started to go south. Money became scarce to the point that – although she received another scholarship to go to college – the adoptive parents chose to send her sibling, their own child, to higher education. What you need to remember is that along with tuition, there are a lot of other costs that come out of pocket with attending college in the Philippines, like daily living expenses, books, supplies, money for transportation, etc. They couldn’t afford to give two kids that, so they chose one.

Depression set in, and in the two years she lived at home, she was abused by a relative.

Her story isn’t singular, as I learned many kids have similar reasons for coming here. I say that I’m floored by them, because beyond of all this – that sheer determination, that will to succeed and make a difference for themselves – it drives these students to do more with the help of others. Everything is done together here, and repeatedly, she tells me that without her family here at Gawad Kalinga, there’s no way her business and her life would have turned out the way it has. It’s a support group and for these young adults, it’s the strongest, strongest kind. People who have already faced insurmountable difficulties in their lives find a home and an environment for them to grow in.

She’s talking about putting all her products through prototyping, spending so much time on product development marketing, learning the financial end of things. She mentioned that they used to take tricycles just around town and now they are going to Manila and Makati, places in the city where big corporations and big companies are based. One of their co-founders has gone to France and Australia. I met her briefly the other day. She said that she used to be a street vendor and after two years of the program – through very hard work, perseverance, dedication – has managed to put up her business, speak on behalf of her fellow students, to go places in France and Australia that they’ve gone to. As I’ve spoken to people over time, you just see that, coming here, if you expect this beautiful orchard – with organic vegetables and farm-fresh meals everyday – it’s not necessarily the case, but that’s not the point.

The point is that you have to come with open mind and heart as you possibly can because that is what’s most rewarding. You get to meet people from so many different backgrounds. People who come here for very different reasons, but have found their purpose and place by immersing themselves in the communities. I think the biggest takeaway from this is that, if the students who come into that SEED program are faced with so many things that would make so many people just falter and fall…it’s never a barrier for them, and they don’t even think of it as a reason to not do things and not keep going. That determination to succeed is driven by the fact that they want to make a difference for their family, then for themselves, as a secondary thing. It’s always the family first.

The great thing about traveling is that, you get all these opportunities to be exposed to other people and ideas that hopefully provide enough food for thought for you to learn from. If the only thing that I can do for now is to share these stories with you, and if you’re willing to listen, I hope you are inspired to learn more about it and realize that the Philippines is so rich in products that are really good. I’ve had some carabao milk butter that’s bloody fantastic and is served in Amanpulo, in some of the top restaurants in Manila right now by one of the city’s top pastry chefs. I’ve also tasted ice cream made from carabao milk, flavoured with ube.

There’s so much untapped potential in the Philippines, in general, and I truly, truly believe that.

28:59 A journey to ancestral lands

Finally, we head to Zambales, a coastal province also within a few hours’ drive of Manila. I found out about this trip called Tribes and Treks online, and the idea behind the tour just seemed totally up my alley.

Going through the ancestral lands of the Yangil tribe was such an experience; it was just why I travel. We met an amazing group of people who were there for something called “Life Stories,” which is what MAD Travel organizes in coordination with ‘Where To Next’ – a online group of people who want to travel with purpose, who are curious about the Philippines. It’s a group of people in their 20s and 30s – young professionals – who wanted to participate in the kind tour that allowed to see things a little bit differently and share a little bit about their life story, any challenges they’re facing, what things are on their mind that mean something to them.

This whole process of learning about ancestral Philippine cultures, about indigenous tribes whose livelihoods are very close to the brink of disappearing, it just highlights the need for sustainable travel and supporting those types of communities. For the Yangil tribe, for example, their lands were nearly wiped off the map when Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991.

Lots of land was just covered in ash and sand. You have these pictures of churches where the only thing that’s left are tall belfries that are several stories off the ground. Trekking through that terrain where the sun is just punishingly hot, for the while you are walking though it…as a traveler from the city or even out of the country – you go, “who lives in these types of conditions?”

You trek through these rivers that just cut through the lands. You have the mountain ranges in your backdrop. You can see it if you look left or right, walking alongside carabaos and the chief of the tribe who has accompanied us from the drop-off point up to their village. The first thing we did when we got there was we planted seedlings. As they explained, much of this terrain really took a very long time to regenerate because, what once was fertile soil was just covered by sand and ash, and nothing grows there.

Just listening to their stories of how, after the first several years, life was very, very hard for them because it was a day-to-day struggle of surviving. What they were able to previously rely on – things as simple as root crops, fruit from trees – all gone. These ancestral lands are at the risk of losing their traditional food ways, their traditional ways of living. Younger people are more and more leaving their tribes and going off to the city.

One story that one of the elders shared was with regard to schooling. At the community they have a multi-purpose hall which serves as community center, a place where people gather to talk about any visitors who are coming to town, stuff that happens around. It also serves as the classroom for kids, basically up until first or second grade.

There’s about 30 kids there right now, and once you go past that, they basically have to make this 10-kilometer trek – the same trek we were on – up to the drop-off point where they would have to walk into town to attend school. Everybody does this. From when you’re eight or nine years old, in the second grade all the way up to high school if you make it there.

34:27 Planting black-eyed peas in a nursery in a valley

Going back to what we did, we planted some seedlings – black-eyed peas – called kadyos in the local dialect. We stuck them into little black bags where we had some potting soil. The goal is to just regenerate as much of it as possible. For some of the trees – mango trees, rattan trees – their eventual goal is to be able to plant these trees back into the slopes of the mountains, which, as beautiful as they were…you could totally see the contours of the mountain ranges, you realize they’re beautiful and you could see so much detail from them. But that’s because they’re completely empty of trees. It’s going to take many years and a lot of heroic effort on behalf of visitors and locals together, to begin that process of replanting. Being there just makes you realize how much of this is very much a big picture, but also very localized and concentrated.

35:49 The Yangil Tribe

After we planted the seedlings, we bathed in the river for a little while. By ‘bathe’, I mean, we just got in there with our trekking gear, little rocks everywhere in our clothing. And then we headed off into the village of the Yangil tribe. We were met by a small community of about 35-50 families. Lots of kids around with the biggest smiles on their faces. The elders of the tribe had prepared this beautiful feast for us with their version of tinola, a chicken soup with green papayas, chili leaves, ginger. And we had chicken adobo, which was very tasty, a salad with some locally grown tomatoes and onions – everything has to be locally grown because, again, really the only way to get into the village is through that trek and hauling stuff in, like actual groceries and whatnot, requires the use of a carabao and a cart.

They performed some traditional dances for us. We got to shoot bows and arrows. Just the openness of every person in that community that they shared with us, people in the city who were just coming in for an afternoon…to see a genuine appreciation from the kids who were there, is the kind of stuff that makes such an impression on you. It really does make for real travel with purpose. With MAD Travel, their mission is to promote sustainable social tourism, which means that, we go there to learn about traditional indigenous cultures and also to provide a form of income for the community where there previously was none.

37:46 The importance of a light switch

Just to give you a bit of the impact of this, one day before we got there, there was a group of guests who came with Globe Telecom, one of the two big mobile phone carriers in the Philippines. Someone from that team had visited or heard about the place and had a fundraiser to donate a solar panel to the community. The chief was proudly showing us that they now have electricity in their little town hall. Over time, people have donated books for kids, little sets of chairs and tables. Very simple stuff you need for a classroom.

And just that, bringing a solar panel to provide light and a charging station for their mobile phones, that in itself is a big thing for them because that’s their way of communicating with the outside world.

38:41 Tourism that gives back

In 2017, that is a very concrete example of the benefit that this type of income generation can sustain for communities because it’s the combination of being there and learning from other travelers that really, really gives me hope for the future of this type of tourism in the Philippines. Of tourism that gives back, bringing a livelihood into areas that have struggled through very long periods of time preserving the Aetas’ culture.

One way that made very much sense to me, as our guide from MAD Travel had put it, is that, in the past, with so much of the struggle of each person in the community put towards staying afloat, towards living, your focus gets shifted away from preserving the knowledge of what their ancestors have passed on to them through generations.

Another activity we did was just walking around the forest and having elders of the tribe point out different plants and how to use it. A lot of them only have native names. They’d pick something up, let us crush the leaves, and then they’d explain that “this is used if you have colds, if kids have a stomach ache, as a source of food, from different trees and root crops and plants.”

The important thing is that, we recognize at this point that this type of knowledge is something that has to be preserved. If we don’t provide communities a means of livelihood to take care of their basic necessities, they have no other choice but resort to instant noodle packets because that is what’s available to them, that’s what they can get from town. Doing that diminishes the knowledge and the pride that older folks in the community have, and it just doesn’t allow them to pass on that knowledge to younger people. Younger people then in turn, don’t see the value in preserving all this.

I think that’s a great effect of having visitors come into the community with a stated purpose. Not for us to bring in luxury facilities or whatnot…but to understand that all this is “for you” because, as much as we’re there to experience how people live there on a day-to-day basis, we go in with the knowledge that we want to do this to help preserve that heritage. It’s something that I would really like more people to experience, especially Filipinos who are living abroad or have not grown up in the Philippines.

If you travel any place with the mindset of just learning as much as you can from that area, I think you do walk away with so much more than that day’s experience.


Special thanks this episode to my friend Dustin of Manila for a Day Tours. Please check them out online at I highly recommend his 3G or God, Gold and Glory tour, for an experience walking around the old city of Intramuros like no other.

Also my warmest thanks to the folks behind MAD Travel. You guys, you’ve got a place in my heart and I look forward to working with you on bringing more guests to experience what the Philippines has to offer! Visit for more information about upcoming trips and the amazing partners they work with, like the super chill Circle Hostel in Zambales where we stayed. Find them on Facebook and Instagram, where you can also follow Where to Next at wtn_wheretonext. You will love this feed.

Our theme music is by David Szestay, other music for this episode is by Eric and Magill, Komiku, JBlanked and Blue Dot Sessions. Visit to hear their music and more.

As always, you can find me online at We’ve got past episodes on this site and you can also find Exploring Filipino Kitchens on Facebook and Instagram. If you liked what you hear, I would really, really love it if you told a friend!

Maraming, maraming salamat, and thank you, for listening.

The Ancient Filipino Diet With Dr. Ame Garong Episode Transcript

This is a transcript of “Episode 08: The Ancient Filipino Diet With Dr. Ame Garong” (Click the episode link for the audio!)


Welcome to Exploring Filipino Kitchens. I’m your host, Nastasha Alli.

I would like to start off this episode by saying that, there were a lots of times over the past couple months, where I’ve felt way in over my head. And that’s pretty common, right? I don’t always trust that I can figure stuff out, and when that happens, my confidence just tanks when things don’t go right.

But when they do, things can turn out really, really well. This summer I co-hosted a Filipino food tour in Toronto, where we visited three Filipino food spots in the city that were run by second-generation Filipino-Canadians. They’re really different from each other, and honestly, I loved getting to know this community!

It was fantastic getting to know these different business owners who were totally passionate about sharing Filipino food in ways they knew how to do best. The first place we visited was a fast-casual restaurant that used to be some place where you could buy groceries and send home a “Balikbayan Box.” The other was an artisan ice cream shop – you know, the kinds that sell those black ice cream cones – with lines out the door for creamy ube ice cream and polvoron pie. The third was a bar, and oh, I love bars! They make everything in-house, from noodles made with squid ink to longganisa sausages with this crazy good marbling, made with pasture-raised pigs just outside the city.

Talking to these really driven, super passionate people about the businesses that they’ve built their lives around made me realize a couple of things:

One, you really can’t take away this knack that Filipinos have for being hospitable people.

Another is that we really do want to cook this kind of food, the food we know best, for others because it is legitimately good and we want you to try it.

Third, we do what it takes to educate ourselves and our customers about the tastes and the food culture of the Philippines.

Those types of realizations, it’s pretty profound when you think about it – these guys are in their 20s and 30s, they’re people my age, and they’re doing what they can to bring that food culture forward.

All of this, in essence, drives the question that I want to answer this episode: Why do we need to know about the history of our foods, and going a little bit deeper into that, about the ancient Filipino diet?

That’s what we’re talking about this episode.

Thankfully, we’ve got the foremost authority on the subject as guest on our show today. Dr. Ame Garong, who’s a researcher of the Archeology Division at the National Museum of the Philippines, wrote a book in 2013 called “Ancient Filipino Diet.” It’s the first study of Filipino food in prehistory, before any colonizers or foreign influence arrived in the Philippines. It’s written to explore and understand the prehistoric diet of our ancestors.

Admittedly, the book itself is pretty technical, but its contents are outstanding. Today, we’re talking with Dr. Garong about her research and her experiences at the different places they visited, digging for clues to tell us what our ancestors ate. Also, kind of answering how much of this lines up with what we eat today as Filipinos both in the Philippines and outside the country.

I’ve been so excited to do this episode for some time now, so let’s get straight into it.


04:34 What it’s like to be a Philippine archeologist

NA: Dr. Ame Garong has worked at the National Museum of the Philippines for 21 years…

AG: So it’s quite a long time already that I’m working in the Archeology Division and eventually that became my career as an archaeologist. I’ve been doing lots of excavation, more on burials. My focus is more on zoological research that entails understanding food resources, subsistence of humans in general.

NA: She graduated with a zoology degree in one of the Philippines’ oldest universities, and…

AG: Originally, my intention is to be a doctor. However, I failed to achieve that ambition. Because of my frustration that I did not go to medical school, my father, who is a Methodist pastor, he suggested that why don’t I take a master course in anthropology. So I said, “why not?” Then my father said, “It’s about culture, it’s about humans, so you can know other people by studying them.” So I said, “Oh! That sounds interesting.”

05:55 How her career started

AG: And then along the way, I had a classmate who told me that the National Museum is in need of a zoologist. Since I had a zoology background, and I already had a year of anthropology courses, I decided to apply. However, at first I failed, because they only needed one, and they hired someone who had more experience.

So, again it’s another frustration. However, maybe I was destined to be an archaeologist. A month after, they called me back, informing me that there’s another position. They need a researcher, so I immediately did not think twice. I said, “Yes! I am available…”

NA: Even amongst the most accomplished people, frustration and failure can be pretty common. Despite being a subject that deals with a lot of ancient stuff, archeology in itself is a relatively new field in the Philippines.

AG: It’s like 20 years in the Philippines that we’ve had this. So, maybe not everybody knows that we are offering that course.

07:18 Early fieldwork

NA: I asked Dr. Garong about what some of her early experiences with field work was like. For example, her first excavation site was something called a “habitation site” where…

AG: What I first saw were old potteries, the remains of utensils…

NA: …and then she got to work on a real burial site, in the province of Negros, where…

07:42 “An accident happened…”

AG: We were excavating this plaza, and they have these funerary goods, Chinese wares or ceramic goods together with the remains of the humans. Of course it’s my first time…

NA: …and like many first times…

AG: An accident happened. There was this pebble on the ground…

NA: This is like on ground-level ground. So, technically above the actual pit where Dr. Garong and her team was busy cleaning up their latest find.

AG: …and then there was a movement from the surface. That pebble fell on the skull of the individual and caused the skull to be broken.

NA: Oh no! I would have cried on the spot if that happened to me!

AG: My senior was shocked and I was scolded. But actually, it’s an accident. I was not really aware that there was a pebble there and something just made the movement. I don’t know because I was really engrossed in exposing the skulls, the bones. So I really felt bad after that. It was on my hand, it was under my responsibility. But that’s another lesson learned. From then on, I was so careful and always checking my square if there is something like that. I should remove it before I go down. After that, I’m a bit okay.

09:32 How do we find out what our ancestors ate?

NA: So, if we wanted to find out what our ancestors actually ate as a part of their paleo diet, where would we start? If you were someone like Dr. Garong…

AG: Since I am doing archeology, it’s far beyond the history. So, I’m focusing on diet. We use the paleo-diet analysis.
NA: And far beyond the concept of a food trend even existing, this paleo diet was the real deal. That means early humans ate these foods because it’s what they knew how to prepare and consume.

AG: One of the best way to know the paleo diet of our ancestors is by using stable isotope analysis.

NA: But what exactly is stable isotope analysis? That’s pretty technical, I know. And, how does it help us identify what prehistoric Filipinos actually ate? In Dr. Garong’s book, she explains that for stuff that’s organic – think of flesh and blood and anything that goes into a green bin – the ratio of carbon and nitrogen isotopes in that organic matter tends to be stable enough, so that even thousands of years later, we can apply modern technology and scientific techniques to find out where the protein in that properly preserved sample of bones usually comes from.

AG: That’s the best way if you wanted absolute information on diet.

NA: I am totally getting flashbacks of playing “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego” and thinking about how awesome it would be, now, to join Dr. Garong on one of these digs.

11:20 What exactly was in their paleo diet?

NA: So, what exactly were some of those foods that ancient Filipinos ate? According to Dr. Garong, she says that, “Food sources in the Philippines, especially plants, haven’t differed much then as now.” She adds that, “Plants collected for this study served as staple food since prehistoric time.”

What that means is that, it includes indigenous varieties of sugarcane, rice and millet. Meaning, ancient Filipinos knew how to grow these crops, and if you momentarily blank on what the Banaue rice terraces are – that’s pretty close to one of the sites Dr. Garong worked in – I suggest you look this up right away.

At some “newer” burial sites, they found corn that came with the Spanish galleons – a much later part of our ancestors’ diet. There were also root crops that included native varieties of taro and yams, and lots of old world bananas. Sago palm was consumed in some regions.

There were gastropods, bivalves – snails, coconut crabs, oysters – shellfish of all kinds. Prehistoric Filipinos, like many people across the world who lived in coastal areas, knew that seaweed was a delicious and really nutritious source of food.
There were fish of every size, shape and color. Early ancestors of things like catfish, tilapia, mudfish, dolphin fish and flying fish that you see in some Philippine markets today. Maybe the flying fish is a bit uncommon but in rural areas they might still be around.

Across the archipelago, and especially in mountainous areas as we expected, our ancestors hunted and killed a lot of wild game, including carabao, deer and wild boar. They trapped smaller creatures like bats, civet cats, low-flying birds and other kinds of local fowl like chickens. When they learned how to domesticate animals, a lot of them learned how to herd goats and keep pigs to add to the community’s food supply. Remember, in prehistoric times, barangays, or these communities with a leader usually called the datu, were common ways the communities in the Philippines arranged themselves.

13:53 Stuff they’ve found in archaeological sites

NA: So I asked Dr. Garong if she could give us a few examples of what they found in different areas of the Philippines.

AG: In archeology, once you have decided, you will have an idea of the food resources. If you have some animals that you recovered from your excavation, and then you identify it as a bovine or pig or goat, that will give you an idea. That’s a clue of the possible food sources of those individuals. But then, it’s just a clue…

NA: Which means that a scientifically-backed isotope analysis basically trumps what we simply used to presume, were the things people ate, because we found some gnawed-out bones buried with the ancients.

AG: What I did, I used the protein to get their sources of nutrients. I extracted the collagen from the bones. I took samples from many individuals. And then, in Japan where I finished my grading, they have a laboratory where you can do everything that you need for a stable isotope analysis. So, you have to extract the collagen from the bones of those individuals and once you get the values, I need also to establish the food resources from those municipalities or areas that I use.

15:32 Batanes and ancient fish

NA: Let’s go on a trip to the Philippines. Some of the sites we visited are: Batanes, Lal-Lo in the Cagayan Valley, Benguet Province, Sta. Ana in Manila, the city capital of Cebu province, and a couple of other places.

AG: One of them is Batanes. Both the National Museum and U.P. Anthropology have excavated in that area. So that means I can get more than five individuals. I also went to Batanes to get samples of their staple food. I can also use that to gauge the value that I can get from my analysis. I went to the fishing village. They have this fish that they said they’ve used as a staple food for a long time. I interviewed elders to ask what they remember as their old food.

NA: This particular fish from Batanes is known as the arayu. It’s a type of dolphin fish that’s line-caught and really a lifeline for many, many generations of local Ivatans. This fish, which is often slung two or three at a time – they’re huge, across fishermen’s backs when they haul them in from the sea – are split down the middle, scored into equal portions, then salted and dried for a week in what can only be called “unpredictable” Batanes weather. Remember, Batanes is at the very tip of the Philippines.

NA: In Batanes these fish are either hung in a dedicated smokehouse that’s made of bamboo and palm trees just outside the kitchen in people’s backyards, or over the hearth in the kitchen, slowly smoked as they go about with their daily cooking, to last for the rest of the year. What’s amazing is, how these local fishermen, called mataw, have perfected this preparation for arayu fish over centuries. It’s such a testament to the artisanship that’s needed to preserve this kind of fish, and it just lasted through time for the very same reasons that their ancestors had this fish for a staple food.

18:07 A giant heap of shell trash in Cagayan Valley

NA: In Lal-Lo, Cagayan Valley…

AG: Going down from Batanes, I worked in Lal-Lo, Cagayan Valley for 10 years from ’95 to 2005. Lal-Lo is very famous for its shell midden. It’s made of freshwater shells. The locals they call it kabibe. We found some burial sites in the shell midden…

NA: …and this shell midden, as Dr. Garong describes it, is basically a large trash heap of discarded shells from sea creatures. They were thrown into this huge pile by generations of prehistoric Filipinos in the Cagayan Valley. Over time, these prehistoric garbage dumps basically also became burial sites. The dead were laid to rest above this layer of shells, and then finally much later on, they were also buried under layers of fine, silty clay that flowed down the river from the mountain ranges up north.

AG: You can see how our ancestors relied on this Cagayan river by gathering and collecting the shells as their food – for the meat – and they just threw it in the riverbank, and it piled up.

NA: And here, Dr. Garong says, some of these shell deposits can get up to 10 feet deep. While some other sites are from the 16th century, and some have been dated to come from as far back as the neolithic period – that’s when people learned how to use metal tools like shovels and axes to domesticate crops and herd animals – this neolithic period in our global history is also widely considered the beginning of farming.

AG: So, that’s the shell midden along the Cagayan river. That is really very interesting.

NA: I’ll say! It’s easy to forget a lot of the history that literally lies under our feet.

One question that stumped Dr. Garong and her Japanese colleagues, though, has to do with what they found after examining those human bones that were at the top of this shell pile. Remember, there’s the 10-foot layer of discarded shells, and then above that were human bones from ancient grave sites. Those human bones must’ve had traces, in somewhat large quantities, of all the shellfish they ate, right? But…

AG: We found out that those who got the shells, they did not eat the shells. Instead, they make the salted kabibe – salted meat – and then it’s like preserved food. Then, they will sell it.

NA: So, all that work that our ancestors did to harvest the shells and extract the meat, turns out that wasn’t even for their own consumption. Instead, it was to make preserved oyster meat, that may have been traded with inland communities or early seafarers that traveled along the Philippine peninsula, possibly going all the way to China, possibly even in encouraging the development of oyster sauce. Mind blown!

21:29 “Tinapa” mummies in Benguet

NA: In Benguet province…

AG: They have this ritual that will last for a year. It’s removing all the muscles, the fat of the individual, like tinapa.

NA: Tinapa is a Tagalog term for smoked fish. Traditionally it’s made with scad or milkfish. It’s salted or brined, hung out to dry and finally, smoked. Tinapa taste intensely of the sea, and I kind of love them ’cos they look like little sun gods basking in their golden brown glow, especially when they’re all laid out in these neat circles on a woven tray called bilao.

AG: All you can see is the skin. It’s only in Cagayan where we can find the practice.

NA: So these mummies in Benguet province, the ones that are found in wooden boxes, have been dried and preserved in a process similar to smoked fish. I wonder if these practices are connected.

In Manila…

AG: If we go to Manila, we have this Sta. Ana site. It’s close to the Pasig river, actually, and based from my studies they utilized the Pasig river for their food.

22:50 Why Cebuanos love corn

NA: In Cebu…

AG: If you go to Visayas area, we have the Bolho-on.

NA: That’s in the province of Cebu. And here’s an interesting thing. If you ask native Cebuanos about some of their favorite foods, no doubt a large chunk of them will swear by corn. But have you ever wondered why is that so?

AG: They cannot grow rice. That’s why they like mais or corn, and millet.

NA: According to what Dr. Garong’s research uncovered, despite being so close to water, most of the human bones they found were actually not composed of sea creatures, but instead largely of plants that are called “C4 plants.” In the book she identifies these as rice, corn and millet. So what we can surmise is that in pre-colonial times, dating back to the same metal age of those shells up in the Cagayan valley, indigenous people in Cebu grew millet. Over time though, rice became a staple crop in other regions of the Philippines and never really took hold in Cebu because the soil was mostly made of limestone, and rice simply don’t grow well on limestone soil.

Later on, when the Spanish brought corn to the Philippines, that’s when locals realized that corn loved this kind of soil and growing environment. So, mais thrived and never left the Cebuanos’ diet.

Next, I wanted to know: what were some challenges that Dr. Garong and her team came across?

24:51 Challenge #1: Time and thieves

AG: If it’s already past 5:00 pm, we need to stop our digging, our excavation. Before you remove and recover all the materials, including the bones, you have to properly expose it. Our scientific illustrator needs to draw the whole structure or the whole skeleton, including the artifact, together with the human remains.

NA: So, as Dr. Garong tells us about her early digs, they’d go about their work and, at the end of the day, cover up the site they’d started digging, for the night.

AG: Actually we’re not really that cautious because we thought that the local people, who used to watch us during the day…would protect that. We’re doing archeology and we’re doing lectures in the schools.

NA: But, then…

AG: The next day when we returned, somebody did the excavation and they removed the ceramics. So, from then on I started to gauge, to have the sense of time. We really need to estimate whether we can still finish or not.

NA: So basically, as soon as they see hints of a new layer of bones – if it’s close to 4 or 5 pm, at the end of their day – they realized that it was safer to leave the site undisturbed for the night. Because once you start working on it, you can’t really go back. You gotta keep those bones and artifacts away from extreme exposure to harsh winds or humidity. Then, the illustrators and photographers they have on the team have to document where everything is in relation to the skeletons and other markers that they’ve found. So, you have to actually do the work of carefully excavating these items that are hundreds of years old.

AG: So, it’s better if you have the whole day, the whole time to do it. Then at five o’clock you have this peace of mind that you don’t worry that other people might be doing “archeology” at night…whoever has this negative feeling about archeology. So it happens, always.

NA: I could say it breaks my heart to hear that, but in reality, I prefer being optimistic. The core of the problem is that locals see this group of scientists digging about their land. Maybe they don’t fully understand what people find so interesting in a pile of bones. But what they do know is that sometimes, these digs unearth pottery, and they know how to make money from that, in some way.

28:11 Challenge #2: On rituals and religion

AG: When it comes to burial, it’s very sensitive. You need to be an anthropologist. You need to observe if they have some rituals that they perform for burying their loved ones.

Even though I am a Christian, I am a Methodist, in my faith – we pray. In other communities, in other ethnic groups, they have their own ways di ba (don’t they) of remembering the dead.

NA: So in every community that they visit for a dig…

AG: I ask somebody to pray, like a shaman. I will ask if someone can lead us, so in that way, we are making ourselves visible to the community, in a way trying to adopt in their practices.

NA: They provide offerings of food, sometimes cigarettes and liquor…

AG: And after that, once we do the excavation, I always invite people to visit us.

NA: They found it’s a way of educating people, and…

AG: Telling them that we’re trying to recover it carefully, not to destroy it, because we need to study them. And after, they will be brought to the museum for proper storage. Prior to that, we will try to study them first and hear if they have other things to tell us beyond the historical aspect. Nobody can tell us unless we try to dig it. So, that’s the only way we will know how our ancestors lived during those times.

NA: To many of us, that probably sounds a little archaic, but it’s a reality that researchers like Dr. Garong face, working in remote and deeply rural communities in the Philippines.

And this leads into…

30:33 Challenge #3: A lack of knowledge and involvement

AG: The community, they’re always there in their community. But the National Museum only goes there for a month. After that we will go back to our office. But it’s the community who will protect whatever heritage we can tell them that they have.

NA: I just want to add here that “telling locals of the heritage they have” in this context, means explaining how and why archeology is important, why it matters. For Dr. Garong and her team, who work with a respect for local communities front and center, it’s not about “stamping out” beliefs or even falsifying an ideology that’s been in place for hundreds of years.

When outsiders come in to make changes or propose a new way of doing things, naturally they’re met with resistance, and that’s common anyplace in the world. The study of anthropology in itself, deals so much with this really complex way that humans behave.

But what’s important is getting locals on board with that basic need to keep these kinds of sites undisturbed. This kind of involvement…

AG: We’re protecting the cultural aspect. It’s really important also. So they should know and they should also be informed that they should not ruin it or do something bad. Instead, they have to really protect it, kasi (because) it’s part of our heritage, and that’s the only way we will know our past.

NA: And with this approach, Dr. Garong hopes that…

AG: The community will understand and be familiar with what we are doing. They can also report to us if they’ve seen those materials already, and we can check and we can explore. So, it will also add information for the National Museum.

NA: …and by extension, the body of knowledge in Philippine archeology as a whole.

32:56 What’s next?

NA: “So, what’s next?” I asked Dr. Garong.

AG: Actually, Nastasha, it’s my dream to continue the isotopic analysis and to reveal more of the resources.

NA: In addition to building a body of research on ancient Filipinos and how they lived, this stable isotopic analysis…

AG: It can also reveal environmental situations or conditions.

NA: …in other words, it gives us information about what the country’s climate and geography used to be like. And combined with modern day research, this helps scientists better understand how to tackle the big questions that we face today, like how climate change affects farming, fishing, and everyday life in the Philippines.

AG: Hopefully I can still continue doing this in the future. There are still other sites that can be explored with this kind of research. At the moment, I’m still working with other burial sites in Negros and still working, with understanding the funerary practice in the Philippines during prehistoric times.

There’s still a lot to study about the practices of burying our loved ones and other analysis that can be done, like ancient DNA, that’s also one of my dreams.

NA: And working on ancient DNA, I just discovered, is an actual thing.


My warmest thanks to Dr. Ame Garong for speaking with us for this interview and answering all the questions I had about the Ancient Filipino Diet. I hope you learned as much as I did in the process of researching for this episode.

Music for this episode is by David Szestay, that’s his music you hear in the opening and closing credits of the show, “Gillicuddy” and “Blue Dot Sessions.” Visit to hear from these artists and more.

My special thanks to Rajiv at “The Kitchen Bookstore” for connecting me with Dr. Garong. If you’d like to get a copy of “Ancient Filipino Diet,” visit and head over to their Filipiniana section to order. They’ve got some amazing titles.

Finally, if you’ve come this far, I do wanna ask you a favor. I would really, really appreciate a short review on iTunes. That helps me reach more listeners and in turn, gets more people get to hear about these awesome stories of food in and from the Philippines.

As always visit or find “Exploring Filipino Kitchens” on Facebook for updates.

See you next month at maraming salamat – thank you, for listening.

Where Does Philippine Coffee Grow? Episode Transcript

This is a transcript of Episode 01: “Where Does Philippine Coffee Grow?” (Click the episode link for the audio!)


Welcome to Exploring Filipino Kitchens! I’m your host, Nastasha Alli.

Today on the show, I want to welcome everyone to the first episode of Exploring Filipino Kitchens. We’re looking forward to getting this podcast ready and sharing these interviews with everyone. Today we’re going to talk to three people in the Philippine coffee industry.

00:31 Neil Binayao of Hineleban Coffee

First person we’re talking to is Neil Binayao. He’s the farm manager at Tuminugan Farms where Hineleban coffee is grown. When I learned that their particular coffee, Hineleban, had this thing there you could trace on Google Maps where your tree was planted, I thought this was a fantastic idea to apply the Philippine coffee. So when I decided to go to Mindanao, I made it a point to visit.
Here’s some clips from the morning I spent at Tuminugan Farms, which I can’t imagine having done any other way.

[Sound of dried coffee beans] That’s the sound that gets me. Every time I hear that clip, I’m immediately transported back into the foothills of Mount Kitanglad in Bukidnon, in the interior of Mindanao. It does that to me because I remember just hearing those dried beans as you ran your fingers across them.

One thing that I really found interesting with this visit was how Neil was explaining their concept for a transformational business partnership between the company and the farmers who grow the coffee.

“The term we coin for that is transformational business partnership. It’s not a buyer-grower relationship where, if your crops fail, I’ll look for another source. [Rather] It’s a partnership, and it’s based on transparency. The farmers know what’s going on, the costs involved, and from field preparation down to harvest, nandun yung mga technicians namin in the field [we have technicians present at the field]. Our technicians are all IPs (indigenous persons). They know the dialect, so they’re not strangers, actually.”

That’s an important thing to note. Generally, economic growth has been a bit hard for locals to adapt to because there’s a lot else going on in their communities. As we’ll hear from Neil, having a technician in the field who is a recognized IP or indigenous person, really builds the trust needed between farmers and the company that’s helping them gron and distribute their coffee.

But before I jump too far ahead, let’s go back a little bit. Where am I? I’m in the foothills of Mount Dulang-Dulang in Bukidnon, a province of Mindanao. The farm itself is located past a big field of pineapples. I woke up in the morning, opened the windows, and saw this beautiful mountain range with rows and rows of pineapples as far as the eye could see. It’s such a fantastic place and such a fantastic way to begin this story and this exploration into what the relationship is between the food that’s grown on the land and the people who live on that land.

So, Neil picks me up from the place where I’m staying. We hop on his jeep and drive through the plantation of pineapples. Things were a bit dry, there’s definitely a drought in the region. It hasn’t rained for four, five months at that point.

You can still see there’s a lot of life, and the coffee farm itself was pretty nondescript. You go into a gated area and you got trees growing along both sides of the road there.

NB: “What we have here on my right is the varietal trial area for Arabica coffee. Ideally, Arabica – for the best quality – should be grown in areas 1,000 meters and up, above sea level. [For] new plantings, we’ve restricted our plantings to areas 1,200 meters and up. We figured it’s not worth the effort to invest or expand in lower elevations because coffee reports have shown that it’s only 1,200 and up that really bring up the superior qualities of this Arabica variety.”

NA: “Where we at now?”

NB: “We are at 840 meters only. It would still grow, it would still bear fruit, but quality, the flavor won’t be there, and we’ve found that there’s a higher incidence of pest and diseases at lower elevations. It’s really a high-elevation crop. Because Hineleban Foundation’s main goal is restoration and protection of the rainforest, this is why this package is one of the livelihood components.”

Neil just mentioned something about the reforestation efforts. The foundation is trying to assist in terms of getting the locals to benefit from the resources of the land and use the land more sustainably. What we’re going to listen to next is his description of why it’s important to help the locals understand the role that they play as caretakers of the land.

“We acknowledge the fact that we cannot go into reforestation if the people are hungry.”

If people have no food on the table, Neil says, it’s hard for them to understand…

“…why we have to protect the forest, why we shouldn’t shoot the Philippine eagle that comes to your house looking for food.”

That bit about the Philippine eagle? That also stuck with me, because later on in my journey, I came across two Danish bird watchers. They were in the Philippines to look for the Philippine eagle, to spot it, and they were just aghast like, “why would anyone shoot such a majestic bird?” I understand where they’re coming from, but hearing it directly from Neil, many families have very limited financial resources. So I see where the desperation to hunt an endangered bird for food comes in. It’s a strange case of food insecurity in an environment, where there are literally acres of land around.

As we’re walking, Neil stoops down and pulls a bulb from the ground, brushes it off a little bit. It’s fresh turmeric. It was such a bright, vibrant orange. The smell was like lemongrass – just the freshest, earthy but also kind of herbal smell. He was talking about how turmeric used to be very much incorporated into the indigenous diet, but these days locals have lost the taste for it, along with the knowledge of preparing a lot of what’s around them too. It really brings home the point that, if we want to continue to have those food traditions passed on in the future, even if we don’t directly have a way of practicing them because we don’t live in that region…there’s no way we can’t tell these stories.

So next we’re talking about how coffee is grown in this particular area – what it used to be back in the 60s and 70s when coffee production was at a high in this region, and what it’s like now.

“Traditional, commercial crop production would maximize every square inch available of the soil, like pineapples, right up to the roadsides. Because the measure there is productivity by unit of land, productivity by hectare. Now that also requires a lot of fertilizers, because…”

… the soil is stressed, depleted of nutrients, and suffers from overcrowding.

“So we spread out the population, we minimized it. The original design was the traditional commercial design of four thousand plants per hectare. So we reduced that by half, and that translates to bigger yield per tree. So the unit now is ‘per tree.’ We found that, with the low maintenance cost, bigger yield per tree…”

…the question about population density gets neutralized…

NB: “And since the coffee as a livelihood component is designed as a family-operated farm, it’s limited to one-fourth hectare per farmer-beneficiary, so that’s 250 plants per beneficiary.”

NA: “Which you found has been manageable, na kaya talaga nila [that they are really able to do it].”

NB: “Yes, manageable.”

As we’re walking through the farm, I noticed that in between the rows of trees, there were these vine-like crawling plants that are planted in between the rows. So I asked Neil what they’re about.

“I mentioned earlier that sustainable technology that we’re introducing to the farmers through the use of this plant right here. As a legume, it’s capable of taking oxygen from the atmosphere, storing it in its plant tissue. At this stage, there’s still nitrogen in the stems and leaves. When it’s about 1.5 meters high from the ground and the shoots are still green, we cut it and place it as mulch. When you do that, the nitrogen would leech back into the soil. That’s your fertilization. This is backed by laboratory analysis. It shows that calliandra is able to support one cropping cycle of coffee.”

Next, we hop back into the jeep and drive a bit more…

“These are Robusta plants on the left. Before, Robusta was very popular in the country. A lot of farmers were growing it, but, I think in the 1980s the prices in the world market went down to ridiculously low prices, so most of the farmers cut down their coffee trees, rented out the land to Del Monte.”

That’s just one of the challenges they faced here. Not being paid enough to grow coffee means that farmers turned to a cash crop that’s guaranteed to have a buyer. In these parts, it’s Del Monte. Next time you pick up a can of pineapples, note that this land is where they’re grown.

I asked Neil about what’s paramount next.

“What the farmers lack is, one: access to the market. Second is quality control, consistency and quality, consistency in volume, process management. Those are things that corporations like our mother company are really good at, modesty aside.”

But as for every kind of challenge, there are benefits to it. At Hineleban…

“We link the Arabica farmer directly with the market. The result is, we pay about 300% higher than what they would normal get for a trader. The trader would buy green beans at about ₱4-6 per kilo. We’re buying it at ₱18.50 per kilo. If quality improves, then the demand will go up, price will go up, and we could give back more to the farmer.”

And isn’t that what we want all along? Under this model of production, the Hineleban Foundation aims to help farming families get the most out of the work they put in, resulting in a better quality of coffee that’s harvested, processed, and packaged for sale.

The jeeps pulls up to a low building, with short concrete structures to its side.

“From the field, you have a window of ten hours, no more.”

That’s ten hours from when the coffee cherries are picked from the trees and sent to the first stage of processing.

“The next stage after it’s sorted by size is sorting for defects, still manual. The defects are taken out.”

Then we take a walk back outside.

“It’s at this stage, that sound it makes, almost ready na ’to [this is almost ready].”

To me it sounds a bit heavier, but frankly at this point, I just want to run my hands over the beans, again and again.

“You noticed, may mga pulp na natitira [there’s still pulp remaining], but since it already went to the mucilage remover, wala na ring mucilage [the mucilage is no longer present]. It doesn’t really affect the color anymore.”

“It goes into storage in this form. Pamilyar ka na siguro [You may already be familiar with this], this is the parchment side, then you have the silver skin. First the machine removes the parchment and then polishes it. Then, you’re left with the green bean.”

What I noticed at this point is that, each of the beds that have green coffee drying on them, has a little white board with some dates, some places written on them. So I asked Neil what those were about.

“This is from Dihian – the name of the place – harvested February 10, processed February 10, 6:00 pm. Depulped the same day. Once through the demucilager for 30 minutes, started, placed near in the racks at 8:00 pm, bed 321D. That’s what we have to go for, per area, per elevation, and once they’re placed in sacks, it’s by area.”

That’s how they can track which tree your coffee came from. With the GPS coordinates that they’ve previously recorded, they can tell you exactly what tree your coffee was grown on.

“Time will come that traceability will be be on a ‘per farmer’ basis. We have really outstanding farmers, with really outstanding coffee.”

So if you get the opportunity to try Hineleban coffee, or any local Philippine coffee, for that matter, please go and try some!

Back inside the building…

NA: “So what are we looking at right here?”

NB: “This is the roasting room. This is the most critical step in the processing. If you make a mistake here, that’s it.”

Finally, we stepped into the storage room.

“If there’s a demand, we’re going to roast. And the next step would be through this machine.”

We hopped back into Neil’s jeep and drive around for a few more minutes, going through the area. The farm really is beautiful and it’s such a perfect morning that day. The sky’s blue with no clouds to be seen, and the sunlight gives you this warm hug that I sorely miss now that it’s winter in Toronto.

We drive around a little bit more and head into the main offices for Hineleban coffee where we sit down for a cup. Neil and I chat about what he’s doing, and what his life’s like at the farm.

“I also work to rehabilitate raptors (and other endangered birds), I did that yesterday. We were going to release it but decided it was not yet that ready.”

Oh and by the way? What I failed to mention was that, when I first met Neil that morning, his entire right arm was covered in bandages. I asked him why, and he says that a couple of days ago, they had to go back out to fight a forest fire. Again, droughts’ been set heavily in this area for a while now. Despite that, he powers through. Apart from being a forest firefighter, he’s also an amazing wildlife photographer. He shows me some shots from his phone.

NB: “This is Mount Dulang-dulang. It’s taken from Kitanglad.”

NA: “It’s a beautiful shot.”

NB: “It’s beautiful, but if you look closely, there are patches being burned out. Actually, it should be old forest.”

NA: “Covered by trees here?”

NB: “And this is where headwaters are, in the middle. So, we have to do something about these slopes. In the same manner that the fire slowly crept up, you could design your planting in such as way that it would march down on its own.”

NA: “Eventually.”

NB: “Naturally. It’ll take years, but have to do something about it now. If you want to keep having your coffee, then you have to do something about the mountains. No mountain, no rain. No rain, no coffee.”

And if I had to summarize the lessons I learned from my visit to Tuminugan farm that morning, that last sentence from Neil pretty much sums it up. No mountains, no rain. No rain, no coffee. It’s an ecological system that has its own ways and has its own manner, and if we don’t respect it, we lose it. And that is a detriment to Philippine coffee as a whole.

18:09 Pacita “Chit” Juan

The next person we’re talking to is Pacita “Chit” Juan. So how did I first come across Chit? To be honest, not until I got to Toronto. I was in the public library, researching some books about coffee, when I first started getting really interested in this subject a couple of years ago. I came across a book called “Barako: The Big Bean.” It obviously struck a chord with me, because then I wondered, what’s a book about Barako doing in a public library in one of the largest cities in North America?

So I took it out, brought it home with me, read about the Barako bean in a way that I had never even thought twice about before. Which surprised me, because when I was growing up in the Philippines, the only coffees I knew – until I hit about thirteen or fourteen – was the 3-in-1 Nescafé kind that you would find wholesale in groceries or in little sachets at the corner store.

Now that I was in Toronto, I was learning about this particular kind of coffee that excelled really well in the Philippines. So when I decided to do an episode about coffee, I knew I had to talk to Chit.

We’re talking about what’s led her to where she is today as co-chair of the Philippine Coffee Board, an organization that provides technical assistance and credit programs for coffee farmers, and as well as founding the Philippine Chapter of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance.

Chit’s been also instrumental with driving Slow Food Philippines, the local chapter of Carlo Petrini’s Slow Food Movement – based in Italy – that advocates for preserving local foods and food traditions in the spirit of celebrating good, clean, and fair food.

Here’s Chit…

“I’ve always been an entrepreneur. After college, I had the opportunity to do several startups. You call them startups now in the millennial age. [But] During that time, it’s just a business idea, like, my friends and I had a little coffee shop outside campus. After that, we would always do business. I ask my friends what business can we do. You know when you’re young, when you’re in your 20s, you feel like you can work 24×7. Other friends and I set up a coffee chain. We really just started as a café called Figaro in 1993. We grew to about 70 stores.”

That chain was one of the first in Manila to really advocate for the Barako bean, and one of the first times I remember seeing a coffee shop, in a mall of all places, that featured a local Philippine product.

“I’ve always been a sales person. I love looking at what attributes something has for me to sell it. And that brings me to, for example, the Barako. The Barako has always been one of the coffees produced here in the country. However, because the biggest buyer in the country before was Nestlé, Nestlé buys Robusta.”

And that’s an important point in telling the story of Philippine coffee. Who were the buyers, and who were the farmers actually producing this coffee for?

“Barako is probably just 2-3% of total production. Total production of the Philippines is 90% Robusta and the 10% is split among the three other varieties: Arabica, Liberica, and Excelsa. And so, if you are selling – let’s say big volumes – if you add the Barako and Excelsa, people wouldn’t know that it’s not 100% Robusta. Because 90% production is Robusta, when you sell to Nestlé, they won’t be able to tell if there’s .01% Barako in there. Because of that, people just kept selling it in volume with Barako, Excelsa, and Robusta combined.”

Okay, so to back up and give you a little bit of context here…what’s happening is that, because Nestlé purchased Robusta beans from farmers in wholesale volumes, Nestlé has no way to know that all of the beans they were buying were indeed Robusta. And so, farmers who traditionally had grown Barako were now switching over to Robusta so they could have a consistent yield and consistent buyer for their coffee.

The point is, pretty much because demand for Barako beans tanked and nobody was buying them, Barako beans just fell off the map.

“Maybe about 1996 or 97, I did an informal market research where I had an airpot of Barako, and an airpot of Robusta. I talked to the man on the street, and he actually preferred the Barako. Except he can’t find it, because everything is mixed with Robusta, remember?”

“So, I had the flash of an idea, and we launched the ‘Save The Barako Movement.’ It made farmers sort the big bean, which is the Barako, from the Robusta, and we paid them higher for it.”

Again, circling back to the origins of the story and that coffee is really all about the farmers…

“We launched this campaign that this variety may soon die because what farmers were doing was that they were cutting the Barako trees to replace them with Robusta, because nobody was buying the Barako, anyway.”

“So what we needed to do was to inform the farmers that there is a market for Barako. We defined what Barako is. It’s not just a generic name for a brewed coffee, which was what it was coming to be.”

“Barako is a variety. Barako takes the name from the wild boar, according to Batangueños, because they can stand alone. Barako for us means ‘macho,’ in the colloquial language. And so a strong cup of coffee can be drank by somebody who felt macho.”

“Anyway, there’s a lot of legends, there’s a lot of anecdotes. So what we did is we went seriously into saving the Barako. After we did that, we started also tree-planting from 1999, all the way to the time I left Figaro. We were planting Barako every year.”

“So that made people aware: ‘Oh Barako, yes we gotta save it. Oh yeah, this tasted like Barako.’ And there’s this buzz, and we could sell it higher, making the farmers now plant more Barako.”

“To this day, there is that consciousness and the price of Barako that has remained high, almost as high as Arabica.”

And therein lies the power of great research and telling a good story the right way.

“We thought that to really nail the campaign, we should write a book about it. So I co-wrote the book in 2005 with Dr. Mojica. I’m not a scientist, I’m not a farmer, I’m just a coffee lover. So, we wrote it, and with his research, we collected Barakos from all over the country.”

“Now, Barako still has a demand globally. It may have a fruity taste. Some people even say it’s like jackfruit. Barako is best when it’s aged one to two years. It’s fermented and then it’s kept dry at 12% moisture or less in vacuum packs, and it’s not roasted until after it’s aged.”

So obviously I wasn’t a Barako drinker growing up, but I do remember visits to Batangas where the Barako is widely grown, having some, and remembering that it was a really strong, really bold coffee.

“So what else about the Barako? It’s still in high demand. We have a Barako germplasm collection in Cavite State University, so if you come around again, you could drop by and see it. It’s being taken cared of by the National Coffee Research Center, housed in Indang, Cavite.”

“Barako is a different flavor, so there is no grading system for it so far. The only grading system that the Coffee Quality Institute has is for the “Q” or the Arabica, and the Robusta. So for the Barako, I guess it’s either you like it or you don’t. It’s not like it has to score 80 points or something like that. Any Barako I have, somebody will buy it. It’s that good!”

I wish I could get Barako. I’d love it if one of the specialty coffee roasters in Toronto stocked them. There’s so many around. But even in the Philippines…

“I hope you know by now that our consumption is more than our production. This is why there have been imports from Vietnam, especially on Barako. There’s very little we can get, and so even London wants it. I have so many inquiries everyday.”

“You know the market, they always want something new. They want something rare. They’re always looking for a product that they can sell that’s new. I think, to them, Barako is still new.”

“So, as we continue, what we do is, instead of selling the beans, we propagated it faster, so that people have access to the planting material. Because you have a choice, when you pick the fruit – you either make it into another tree, or you just drink it.”

That particular bit there relates to some of Chit’s work with the International Women’s Coffee Alliance. The campaign she was really instrumental with helping start was called ‘Pick Red’.

“When you tell the story about women doing the sorting, women who pick only the ripest cherries because men don’t care to pick what’s red and what’s green, they just harvest. It’s the women who do the detailed tasks, and that’s global.”

“So, we launched a program called ‘Pick Red.’ Visually, you must only pick what’s red and ripe, and that’s what we buy. Secondly, we tell them to wash it because you cannot wash green fruits. You can only wash reds. So, washed coffee means all of them were ripe to begin with.”

“However, in some areas where they don’t have water, we can’t let them wash. So, we gave them another tag. We call them ‘naturals.’ So, it’s a matter of segmenting the market. Each producer actually has a niche in the market.”

It may be simple in its task, instructing farmers to only pick ripe, red cherries, so they can get the most out of each tree and the sorters have generally less work to do. But then we’re reminded that sometimes, even basic access to clean water is a real hindrance for farmers in the Philippines.

On the value of coffee, specifically Barako, as Slow Food…

“Slow Food is really about creating biodiversity, and for you to preserve biodiversity, you have to make sure that the other older crops don’t disappear. The way to do that is to list them in the Ark of Taste, so that the whole world knows that there is this variety that we got to save.”

“Locally, you ask consumers to use it. You ask chefs to use it. So in the coffee chain the parallel would be the chefs are the roasters. So, if the farmers know that there is a market for it, then they will continue to produce it. I always believe that the consumer is a co-producer. The education must be throughout the value chain. That the consumer knows why this is in danger, whether it’s coffee, rice, a breed of cattle or breed of pig. Through the chef, who interprets it. And back to the farmer, who continues to grow it.”

So what else about the Barako?

“Okay, so it’s a different flavor and when I brought it to Italy, to Slow Food, I enrolled it in the Ark of Taste, as an endangered species. I brought along some samples, and people loved it. The Italian chefs, they loved it. The Slow Food organizers told us, ‘you have to bring something that is enrolled in the Ark of Taste,’ and so I brought Barako.”

“Although Benguet Arabica was recently also enrolled in the Ark of Taste, because in Benguet, people are not expanding their plantations. Benguet has a very small land area, and it’s really sloping. The trees are old, like 80 years old and older. So, eventually if there are no new farmers, that’s gonna die.”

Listening to these clips really started to get to me. What can we do to save Philippine coffee?

“Really continue to propagate it, cultivate it. So we’re working with Benguet State University, to preserve a collection of the different Arabicas that grow in the Cordillera. They’ve got a lot of what we call cultivars. They have Bourbon, they have Typica, they have San Ramon. These are all collections, just like with Cavite State University, where they have collections of Barako.”

“Since it’s a government facility, I like it that it will never be sold, it will never disappear – I hope – as long as as we continue to support the school system.”

And this is an interesting aspect to coffee production that I would never have thought about. Chit’s gonna talk about why it’s important to find a home for Philippine coffee trees.

“Dealing with the academe is also important for us, because I had some mishaps when we were doing tree-planting. The next year, the land was sold, so they probably will cut the trees. We had to do another thing. So we did ‘Adopt a Farm.’ But Adopt a Farm only had a five-year lifespan, so again, whoever owns it after five years, may destroy the trees. So, we said, ‘okay, if that didn’t work, what we should do is plant in national reserves, like mountainsides and government property.’ So, that’s the way of telling people how to do tree-planting now.”

And this is the current reality that happens not just in the Philippines, but in many other countries where coffee and other crops are slowly just getting phased out of existence because nobody is there to support them.

Despite all that, I still believe there’s something special about Philippine coffee.

“First of all, we’re in a tropical country. Coffee will only grow in the tropics. So that’s within the Tropic of Cancer and Capricorn, and we happen to be within it. There is in the world what you call a ‘coffee belt,’ and that is Southeast Asia, southern India, Africa, Latin America, and Central America.”

I asked what’s being done to promote Philippine coffee.

“Of course in the coffee industry, we know about Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA). We know about CQI…”

That’s the Coffee Quality Institute, the organization that certifies creators for coffee.

“But, it’s expensive to hire them to come here. So what had happened is, there is an organization called ACDI/VOCA. It’s a non-profit composed of – I believe – ex-USDA people who like to do volunteer work and projects around poorer countries. So ACDI/VOCA landed a project called MinPACT. MinPACT centers on three commodities – coffee, cacao, and coconut. Now they feel for a country to better its industries, there has to be almost like an all-knowing group, with regards to coffee standard, etc. So in coffee, they chose the Philippine Coffee Board.”

That’s the organization that Chit is a co-chair of, and whose goals are to provide technical assistance for actually setting up the coffee farms, and providing credit for smallholder coffee farmers.

“We’re a 14-year old non-profit, born out of our desire to keep promoting coffee in the world market even if our production is low, just so people don’t forget us. As a marketer, I feel, even if our production is low, we can sell anything.”

That’s a big thing for promoting Philippine coffee, not just within the Philippines, but in international markets too.

“With the coming of MinPACT, they gave us access to the Coffee Quality Institute’s best teams. We had senior advisor Ted Lingle, visiting trainers, and so we did several classes courtesy of the MinPACT project.”

“We had an introduction to Q trading. We had a pre-Q course, and, as we speak, we now have our first Q grading exams on-going to hopefully produce an army of coppers from different sectors of the coffee value chain. So from producers, to academe, to retailers, to roasters. We want everyone to speak one language, and that is the quality language.”

I asked Chit more about what having a certified Q graders in the Philippines really means for the advancement of the coffee industry.
“We hope to replicate all these classes and all it takes for CQI to send us their certified instructors. Luckily, some people – even before this program – already took Q classes to become Q graders, for whatever personal reason or business reason.”

“We have a handful in the country. It’s safe to say eight or ten. It’s growing by the month, because you can take Q exams now in China, in Singapore, in Chiang Mai, in Indonesia.”

“So CQI has ICPs or In-Country Partners in almost every coffee-producing country. At the source, you have to teach them already so that you get better quality coffee.”

“80 is the passing grade, and you want coffees that score higher up in the 80s, possibly in the 90s. This gives the roaster an idea of the price that he will pay for. Having this rating system truly helps.”

“Of course with a little caveat, like farmers, they just have to know what good coffee taste like. They don’t need to score it, but they have to know what the scorer or cupper is looking for. He’s looking for clean coffee. Coffee that’s free of defects, free of trash or any other debris from the farm.”

“So that’s all farmers knew. But who was grading Arabica? There was nobody grading Arabica. You would have to get the samples, send it to Japan, send it to some other place.”

“Right now that would be the Philippine Coffee Board’s job, so we can also earn for our sustainability. So we can grade coffee samples. Eventually you can teach more Q graders, so that everybody speaks the same… it’s almost teaching really like a foreign language.”

What’s interesting to me about this particular shift where the Philippine Coffee Board is taking the lead on getting more certified Q graders who are Filipino and based in the Philippines, then you’re introducing the idea that it’s going to be consumer-driven, not in the same way it is with Nestlé where it’s one big corporation. But in this sense more distributed amongst people, because, the more I know about the quality of my coffee, it helps me better understand that I want to support and I want to buy this kind of coffee from Benguet because it has this particular flavor, when the graders are able to teach me as a consumer. I feel that gives Philippine coffee, in general, a better profile because you are getting people to interact with it in a different way.

“Now that the farmers know from the farm level that they can get it to a better quality, then it gives them the bigger margin that used to go to the middleman. So it’s more like fair trade and relationship farming, if you will. There’s a direct relationship between the farmer and the roaster, at least.”

38:12 Carmel Laurino of Kalsada Coffee

I heard some really great news today! The next person we’re talking to is Carmel Laurino, co-founder of a coffee company called Kalsada, which currently operates out of the Philippines, but really was born and bred – if you will – on the Pacific Northwest coast of the United States.

Kalsada just reached their funding goal through Kiva, an online platform that allows a borrower – in this case the Kalsada Coffee Company – to crowdfund a loan that can be repaid over time. They reached their target of $25,000 funded by over 700 lenders in under two months, to purchase fair trade coffee from 290 smallholder farmers in the Philippines.

Carmel is an incredibly interesting person to talk to, because her insights on the process of coffee production – as it currently is in the Philippines – really allows us an inside look into what the reality is for a lot of coffee farmers in the Philippines today.

“My name is Carmel Laurino and I’m the founder of Kalsada Coffee Company. We are a startup. We’ve been around for little over three years and we are working from the farm level to roasting and selling in the local Manila and Philippine markets. We export our coffee right now to Seattle, in my home state of Washington, and roast from there as well.”

So where did the name “Kalsada” comes from?

“In essence, it’s place-based. Why not think about a Filipino word, right? I was just thinking about what this could be. (The word) ‘Kalsada’ really resonated in that a ‘broad’ street could mean so many things to different people. I thought about tracing Philippine coffee from farm to cup, with the different roads it takes to get there, then following that journey of the coffee…and of myself returning to the Philippines. It’s the journey of our entire team creating this. It just fit in multiple levels, that we’re still on this journey together. And it’s just not myself.”

“It really takes the farmer, the consumer, our whole set partners, you listening to this and myself. I thought about the value of that name and what it could mean. I had goosebumps the first time, (when) the farmer said it was like, ‘Oh ma’am, I thought you were coming to build us a road.’ Right? It was really cute. I was like, ‘No! I don’t have money to build you a road.’ But, how does a kalsada – a literal road – ‘make or break it’ for farmers? That’s how their products get to market. It’s really important, a lack of roads.”

“That, in essence, Kalsada – I and our team – is that road from some of these people…I was like, ‘Oh my God! This is a really crazy endeavor.’ I didn’t really think it was gonna be this way.”

“In that aspect, we’re still small. But I think we have big dreams and big goals for the coffees here.”

How can you not get excited by that? That’s amazing! I wanted to find out more, so I asked Carmel about how this all started.

“What started the thinking process for the company was this black-and-white photo of a Filipino coffee company in Pike Place Market. I was doing research as an undergrad at the University of Washington in Seattle, studying with one of the foremost scholars of Philippine history.”

“I was researching more on the dichotomy and the differences of how Filipinos ended up in the Pacific Northwest, and how they were perceived in different circles, in different ways. Both as educated and what folks called as ‘savages.’ We existed in both these spheres, and having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, I was highly interested in both the background and multiplicities of histories of the various immigrations of Filipinos in that region.”

“For me, in particular, my family moved in the early 90s. I was seven at the time. We’re fairly new in terms of first or second generation Filipinos in the United States, there were the deeply-rooted alaskeros and other folks that have come through as nurses, as doctors, and farm workers as well.”

I get her excitement. The idea of uncovering all these histories is such a fascinating topic for me because it allows you to understand a little bit more about yourself as you learn what life is like for a specific community.

“I was super fascinated and I was doing archival work in one of the libraries. And I came upon that picture which had everything and nothing to do with Kalsada now, but was really the starting point of the curiosity that I had. In one photograph, all these questions arose. It’s like ‘Wow! there’s coffee in the Philippines. What does coffee taste like from there?’ If this company had stayed in Pike Place Market, 60 years after that Starbucks also started in Pike Place, right?”

“So would Starbucks have served Filipino coffee? For me, this photo represented who I was as a Filipino-American, a coffee lover from the state of Washington. It was sort of an inquiry with regard to my parents and my history and heritage back in the Philippines. So, in all aspects it represented who I was, and I wanted to explore it.”

“So what was it about the photo that really grabbed you?” I asked.

“I didn’t really care about who the men were in the photo. I was more curious about the coffee and what it would take to get Philippine coffee to Seattle, with the goal and intentions of making sure the farmers were at the forefront.”

“My background as an undergrad was that I did international studies and political science, I minored in human rights. I’ve done some work in the Philippines and gone back and forth. I guess this photo was sort of an entry point to coming back to the Philippines, or opening a coffee shop that could really be anything.”

But before she moved back to the Philippines, Carmel spent some time building a career in Seattle.

“I worked in a law firm. I thought was going to law school. I worked at the Asian-American Museum and really was more part of the Asian-American social justice stuff going on in Seattle.”

“Then I worked at a design firm and really did a 180 where I was in charge of multiple different accounts and we did a lot of ad campaigns. It was just beautiful in the sense that I got super creative and really thought through different marketing campaigns. It eventually informed how I think about Kalsada and what we’re doing.”

“And really, Kalsada in itself, if you think about it, didn’t start off as a coffee company. It was really this exploratory of seemingly disparate things that turned into creating this company. So I had no intentions, at the start, to be at where I was – where I am now.”

“Fast forward to 2010, I came back here and I was on a Fulbright-Hays Language Program. I was here for, I believe three months, and then I stayed for an additional month. My family in Cavite, on a weekend trip, took me to a farm in Amadeo, and that photo again re-appeared in my mind.”

That excitement about Philippine coffee is what’s so infectious about Carmel, talking about Kalsada’s story. I’ve never been that excited myself over a coffee bean!

“I remember tasting it. I grew up in Seattle, so when I tasted coffee from Cavite, it wasn’t anything I wanted to have again. Not that it was bad, it just wasn’t the flavor profile that I was looking for. I was just like, ‘Oh man!’ But instead of thinking ‘that’s it?’ my thought process was more like, this can’t just be it, there’s got to be more! There’s got to be more places to explore, there’s got to be other ways to find the type of coffee I’m looking for.”

“I didn’t grow up here so I didn’t really have the palate of the Barako or what people say is ‘Philippine coffee.’ For me, there was more to be explored in terms of flavor profiles that, in itself could be Philippine coffee. It shouldn’t be pigeon-holed to one taste or one type of bean. How do we get Philippine coffee back on the international stage where it can compete with other origins and can stand alone? It can have a brand and an image that promotes diplomacy, promotes other things outside of coffee.”

“I really see coffee as a starting point in learning more about rural development, differences, and culture around the country, having other people outside of myself really be interested in our country. It’s more like gastrodiplomacy, if you will. I just saw it as a way to introduce the world to the country.”

On the thing that drives Kalsada…

“I started this blog with a mission and vision for Philippine coffee, inviting folks that are also interested coffee lovers with that same ethos that I gravitated towards.”

And one of those people was Lacy Audry, who lived in Paris at the time.

“From there I met Lacy who now is my co-founder. I was looking for someone who could write about the emerging specialty coffee scene, in Paris. We had a blind Skype call and we hit it off. That was something indicative of Kalsada.”

“A lot of it was luck and serendipity, and now it formulated into something concrete. But in the beginning it was very fluid. We were all collectively on the same vision and mission, but trying to still figure it out along the way.”

“My whole point was that, we would inspire someone living in the Philippines and then we would consult from afar, but it ended up that Lacy and I moved to the Philippines in 2013. The first time we ever met in real life was in Manila, which was crazy!”

“I think being a millennial or at the cusp of that, you really want to know and you really want to understand things. And if you don’t trust the systems that are in place now and the reasons why we can’t have Philippine coffee abroad, there has to be something that’s happening on the ground that isn’t working or that isn’t facilitating for it to happen. And for us to really understand that, we had to be here and really interview the farmers and get to know from the bottom-up and learn the grassroots level of how we fit into the picture.”

“So what’s going on at Kalsada these days?” I asked Carmel.

“We’re sort of in that entry level of rethinking our next steps for Kalsada, and that is to reach more smallholder farmers and increase our impact, as well as have a high demand, both locally,and internationally. And we’re in that kind of sticky spot, like ‘okay we can’t grow unless we have more coffee in.’ It’s interesting to be at this stage now, when around the same time just a year ago when we were raising funds.”

“In terms of flavor profiles that we’ve seen, it’s really interesting because we get lumped into being an Asian coffee, and the Asian coffee that people understand and know in the coffee industry is either from Vietnam or from Indonesia. But the coffee history and how the beans traveled to this region is unique and different because for one, we are an archipelago country. Indonesia is as well, but we were colonized by different parts of the world. So, the varietals and how it got placed into each region is unique and different. And our terroir and where we sit in terms of the coffee belt is different at well.”

“For the regions up north, in Benguet, we have some coffees that can be similar to African coffees with floral notes and a bit of a citrusy note. We’ve seen that also in the Bukidnon coffees. It’s great that we’re at the stage where we’re able to find those notes, but also still create what a Philippine flavor profile will be.”

“We’re still doing a lot more with experimentations and processes used on the farm level this year. And we’ve gotten really great feedback from friends in Seattle. We do tastings with our partners in Manila, understanding what their needs and wants are in terms of flavors, so that we can work further… and perhaps change what’s happening on the ground, in the farms.”

Whew! That’s a lot to take in, but at the same time, I’m incredibly happy to hear all of this. It’s really comforting in a way because then you realize that there are so many people out there who have the same goals of preserving a particular food item, and of really trying to get it a stage or trying to get it to a place where people recognize it for what it is.

Next up, I ask Carmel more about a member of the Kalsada team who she’s mentioned a couple of times.
“Tere, who is now our head roaster in Manila but also is in charge of our community building projects up in Benguet, was someone I had met earlier. She’s friend of my sister’s, who was traveling to Cebu and then we went to Siquijor together.”

“Tere speaks Ilocano fluently and is really into adventure. In the early stages, she was like, ‘Oh yeah! I’m doing a tour of Mountain Province,’ and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh! Are you going to Sagada? I really need to go and find coffee.’ So she said ‘Sure! Come along.’ And that’s the story of a lot of folks in Kalsada. It starts off like that, where you’re into coffee and you’re exploring things, and now Tere is still with us three years later, and is Q certified and is roasting in Manila. I’m sure if you asked her that early on, she’s like, ‘I was just supposed to take Carmel to Sagada and translate in Ilocano,’ but you kind of go through this moment and see the connection. Coffee in itself is a really big black hole and there’s so much you can learn and uncover.”

“Tere has been crucial in being able to open a lot of these communities and these interactions, because I myself would not be able to do that. Although I am Filipino, I’m so very much an outsider too to some of these communities. It really needed to be coming from someone that could speak the language they could trust.”

And that’s an important thing to keep in mind when you’re thinking about research – on the ground research, especially when you’re dealing with people’s livelihoods.

“Lacy and I were also aware of where we stand and the privileges we have. Whatever we were building, whatever we were creating, it also needed to come from a local perspective. We have a lot of international knowledge and resources that we’ve seen in the world, outside of this context. We have a duality in perspective, especially myself having ties to the Philippines, but, we knew that having someone – Tere – and some locals involved would really inform us of these cultural nuances and perspectives that we wouldn’t be able to fully understand. And each location, each area is going to be unique and different.”

After all, the Philippines has over 7,000 islands. That’s a lot of places where you can plant different kinds of coffee trees at different altitudes.

“And it’s fun, like I think the curiosity got the best of me and I think now it’s honing down a lot of these things that were thrown at me that I picked up and threw back out. It’s aligning them with a proper business structure, so that we can sustain ourselves and our growing team, and get the coffees to market. Like we have that initial stage where we go ‘Wheee!’ and had a lot of cool things happen. And now, it’s kind of time (to slow down). To grow Kalsada, getting down to business and asking a bunch of folks and Googling things.”

“Even myself, I didn’t have anything to do with coffee prior to moving to the Philippines except that I drank a lot of coffee. Probably, it was both the best and worst idea to jump into this head on. Given this context…we knew we could really build something that may have not existed prior, because we didn’t know what it should be. We didn’t have anything else to refer to.”

So I guess that ending’s kind of reflective of what I was thinking about when I wanted to tackle this topic about Philippine coffee. We covered so much today, from learning about the farmers in the foothills of Bukidnon to what Pacita Juan does on behalf of Philippine farmers in advocating for them and getting roasters certified so that we can raise the status of Filipino graders and the status of the coffee beans produced by farmers in the Philippines. Then moving on to Carmel who’s kind of taken a different approach to achieving the same goal that Neil and Chit and every person who’s involved in Philippine coffee has.

To get it to a really great quality, get it to market, get people talking about it, and most importantly, tasting it.


Theme music for this episode is by David Szestay, Gillicuddy, and Eric and Magill. Please visit for more information, and subscribe to iTunes or your favorite podcast app.

Thank you sincerely for listening, and I hope to see you again soon!