Many first-generation Filipino Americans, or even Filipinos who grew up in the U.S., may find they have more in common with American culture than their parent's culture. When it comes to food, though, many of the traditions and customs carry over from generation to generation, regardless of where the person lives.
Like me, author, entrepreneur, and Filipino food pioneer Nicole Ponseca barely speaks the main language, Tagalog. But Ponseca — who is best known for her New York restaurants Jeepney and Tita Baby's, its new outposts in Miami, and her cookbook I Am a Filipino: And This Is How We Cook — found food helped her connect with her father.
"I couldn't string a sentence together if you paid me, and it is through food that my father and I were able to connect," Ponseca said. "I understood what he was saying when he told me bagoong (fermented shrimp paste) is salty but delicious. I understood what he meant when he said something is masarap (delicious) by doing a different technique or adding a different
spice or condiment. His detail in teaching me about Filipino food really connected us together as father and daughter, as a family."
The first foods that children eat will often come from their parents' home recipes. Not only do those flavor profiles become familiar to them, but it helps root children with their heritage and pass on a little bit of what their parents know.
"The taste and the feel of the food is innate in me already, because I was born and raised in the Philippines," my mom, Erlinda Castillo, explained. "I grew up eating these foods. I grew up seeing these foods, the ingredients of the food I cannot get here, and stuff like that. It really does draw back it's inside me, it's not something that's tangible. It just reminds me of where I came from."
The traditional Filipino greeting asks people how they are, and then usually is immediately followed by "Kumain ka na ba?," which translates to "Have you eaten?"
Food is also a way for Filipinos to show love to everyone, including strangers. Even though he moved to the U.S. when he was five or six, Big Papas Tapas NYC executive chef and co-owner Derek Manguiat still keeps up that tradition. If you enter his home, you can expect to be offered something to drink and something to eat, even if you're the cable guy.
"I don't care if I just met you. It's you're in my home, you're a guest," he said. "So if I welcome you into my home then that means the full package. So I was like, 'Do you want to eat? Do you want to take a nap? Whatever it is you want to do! My house is your house.'"
Manguiat now tries to share his hospitality through his Filipino food breakfast pop-up, which serves traditional dishes with a twist. His beef tapas has additional teriyaki flavoring and comes with a typical fried egg and garlic rice. He also has a chopped cheese-silog, which takes the bodega favorite chopped cheese dish and adds it to a bed of garlic rice with a fried egg. Both are served with pickled papaya.
"I call it New YoPino," he said. "New York Filipinos have a very distinct culture of our own."
Ponseca, who is trying to share Filipino culture through popularizing its cuisine, also is modernizing recipes for the masses. After starting her career in advertising and realizing that most brands catered to either white and, on rare occasions, Black customers, she sought ways to raise the profile of Filipinos. Food became a vehicle to share more of herself with others.
"I've been in this game for almost 20 years, and I find it hard to find any culture that isn't connected to their history, to their families through food," she said. "Everyone does it. Italians, they love their food. Israelis, they love their food, Koreans. So Filipinos don't have a trademark on that connection, but I do think that it's through food that we've learned more about ourselves."
Nicole's recipe for Kinilaw is below.
Nicole Ponseca's Kinilaw
Kinilaw is a seafood dish cured in liquid heat that is the oldest documented recipe in the Philippines. Similar to a ceviche, the raw fish is cooked through acid. But in this case, Filipinos use vinegar.
"It springboards the flavor profile that really defines what the Filipino cuisine is maasim, which translates to English as sour," Ponseca explained.
(Recipe as provided by Nicole Ponseca. Serves 2-3)
1 lb. Tuna (fresh or frozen)Vinegar (Recommended brand: Suka Pinakurat) 4 ½ oz. of coconut milk1/2 of a medium red onion, chopped2 Tbsp. fresh ginger, chopped
2 lime leaves, chopped
⅓ of a bittermelon, seeded and minced
3 baby bell peppers, chopped
1 jalapeño or 2 serrano chilis, chopped
Olive oil3 Persian cucumbers, chopped
2 Tbsp. turmeric, chopped
Total cook time: 25 minutes
1. Cut your tuna into cubes. Put it in a bowl and pour vinegar over it. It should be enough to cook it, so cover the cubes at least halfway. Let it sit for 10 minutes in the vinegar, then flip each piece over and let it sit for another 10 minutes. This will be a rare consistency*, so if you prefer a more cooked fish you can leave it in the vinegar for up to two hours total.
*Consuming raw or undercooked meats, poultry, seafood, shellfish or eggs may increase your risk of foodborne illness.
2. In a separate bowl, add your onion, ginger, and lime leaves to your coconut milk. Add a dash of fish sauce to taste and mix.
3. In another bowl, mix your bittermelon, olive oil, japaleño/serrano chilis, and bell peppers, as well as cilantro and fish sauce to taste to make a relish.
4. Toast your turmeric in some olive oil to create turmeric-flavored oil.
5. Remove your tuna from the vinegar and place it on a separate plate.
6. Add the coconut milk mixture to the remaining vinegar, and mix it together. Add it slowly to control the viscosity and flavor. Pour the coconut milk and vinegar mixture over the tuna.
7. Add the cucumber and the bittermelon relish to the plate. Drizzle the turmeric oil on top. Place individual cilantro leaves as a garnish.