Filipina-American entrepreneurs, Sarahlynn Pablo and Natalia Roxas, are creating a larger conversation through food and tradition. They draw inspiration from their childhood memories (both in the United States and Philippines) as well as their drive to celebrate their culture's cuisine, heritage, and people.
How did Filipino Kitchen come to be?
NR: Filipino Kitchen started when Sarahlynn was travel writing. When she wasn’t writing about travel, she was writing about food, more specifically the Filipino food she wanted to cook from her childhood.
SP: I did this to keep up with my writing practice and to keep readers engaged when I was between trips. One recipe in particular on Lugaw--a rice porridge--struck a chord with a lot of my blog’s readers. “Thank you so much for sharing this. I’ve had a nasty cold and cough for three solid weeks, and my body craved this dish. However, we lost our mother last year to cancer, and she is no longer 'a phone call away' to walk me through her recipes. I reached out to my siblings and we each took our best guess as to the ingredients from years of watching our mother prepare the dish on cold winter nights as we grew up. I love the simplicity of your recipe--and it is one I found using 'cooked rice' just as my mother did. Thank you!” None of my other travel service pieces had a deep emotional response from a reader like that. I started to think about food writing seriously as an endeavor to reclaim the narrative of Filipino food from a Filipino-American perspective.
NR: Around this same time, Sarahlynn and I also started rekindling our friendship. We took a trip to Puerto Rico, and worked on a piece for her blog regarding Typhoon Haiyan that devastated the Philippines in 2013.
SP: That piece Natalia mentioned was about the complications of charity work in underdeveloped countries devastated by natural disaster, and how it affected our diaspora community, and how choosing a channel of aid to donate to isn’t as easy as it seems. A difficult piece with lots of nuance to navigate and it was the first piece I consider that we worked on that tied together our parallel Filipino-American experiences, in response to a community crisis.
In addition to working on that piece conceptually, Natalia is a wonderful photographer and writing is more of my strong suit. We both have years of experience organizing in the Filipino community, too, so she was naturally the best person to ask to be my business partner.
Was cooking Filipino food an integral part of your childhood?
NR: It’s interesting. I don’t feel Filipino food was integral to my childhood actually, even though I was born and raised between the Philippines and spending summers in the Bay Area. I had to sneak around to eat Filipino food on the street for my merienda (mid-afternoon snack) because I knew that my mom didn’t want me eating it since Filipino food was not often served on our table at home. Although, the food that I was allowed to have were taho, which is a silken tofu, muscovado sugar syrup and tapioca that is usually served for breakfast, and tulingan (skipjack tuna) brought by family members from Batangas, and then if I am asked what I want for a meal at home I would always ask for tinola.
SP: Definitely. Fresh lumpia with Easter Ham. Empanadas with Thanksgiving turkey. Pancit with all of the Christmas dishes. Filipino food was always on the table for holidays at home in addition to American holiday food. We all ate together and played mahjong afterwards and storytelling and joke cracking happened all night long. Everyday meals, we always had steamed jasmine rice, whether or not the ulam (literal meaning in Tagalog is “dish served with rice”) was a Filipino recipe or a grilled medium rare to rare ribeye (my dad’s favorite to cook and eat!) or hamburger mixed with onion and pan fried. No hamburger buns in our house! Growing up in the Chicago suburbs in the 1980s we never went to eat out at any Filipino restaurants. Very few existed outside the city at that time. So my major experiences with Filipino food growing up were at home in Chicago and at home (where my mom and I would go for a month each summer) in the Philippines with our extended family. I remember being a very picky eater as a kid, so it’s an interesting path that my life has led me to!
What’s your favorite Filipino dish? Can you describe to us what ingredients are in the recipe?
SP: My favorite Filipino dish is sinigang (see-nee-gah-ng). It’s a sour soup, and often given that pucker with tamarind or guava or camias (belimbing). We’ve made ours here in Chicago with lemon, sorrel, or rhubarb, depending on what’s in season. There’s also trusty flavor packets that save some time when I can’t head out to buy fresh produce. I like mine so sour that you kind of wince a little bit when you taste the broth. That way when I add my steamed jasmine rice to it, it’s perfect. The dish can be made with any combination of leafy greens, other vegetables and protein. I prefer to make mine with salmon (heads or filet) or sometimes pork (a cut with a bit of fat on it works nicely); and I add a banana pepper for just a tweak of heat.
NR: My favorite Filipino dish is tinola, a garlic-ginger soup with chicken, papaya, and malunggay leaves (moringa).
The two of you seem to be part of a larger movement of Filipino-Americans who are leading the conversation around Filipino food.
NR: We started Filipino Kitchen because there was a lack of representation on mainstream media about Filipino food. It was constantly written about by non-Filipinos and for the most part, mainstream reporting has lost all the nuances, facts, historical references of the food, or relevance to people in diaspora and at home in the Philippines. Our food has been regarded to be “the next big thing” or “newest trend” and the media outlets seem to forget that we are people, too. We have been in this country way before this was called the United States. We are not just a “trend.”
SP: We’re in an age where two Filipina-American women in Chicago can have a platform that can reach Filipinos all around our city and even all around the world. These platforms allow us to be in dialog with one another; it’s a conversation. So that means we can work in collaboration with one another, and support each other’s projects, even from afar. Another aspect I’ll mention--to paraphrase an interview with Chef Alvin Cailan--I think the fact that many of the new crop of FilAm chefs “coming of age” at this time, where they’re old enough to have a good amount of professional experience while also having grown up with Filipino food at home together with the Internet and social media really becoming ubiquitous, have something to do with what people from outside the community and the diaspora may see as a boom. It’s really a renaissance, though; part of waves of Filipinos before us who have championed our food.
What is the Kultura Festival? And when and where is it happening this year?
SP: Kultura is a Filipino food and arts festival that celebrates everything it is to be Filipino-American in Chicago. We have a bevy of FilAm chefs creating their twists on Filipino classic dishes without compromising on the flavor that those of us who know the cuisine expect. You’ll find FilAm djs and performers, who are all well known within the Chicago and international music scenes, giving the room a wonderful party vibe. A line up of FilAm scholars and arts practitioners give talks during the day on how their work relates to Filipino food. FilAm vendors sell art, clothing, accessories, and more. We invite a number of community based partners--non profit organizations who work within the Filipino-American community and the greater Chicagoland community whose missions we strongly align with. This year, our fourth year, we have lots of surprises planned. That’s what Kultura Festival is on the surface--a one day event--but it’s really the culmination of a year’s worth of partnership building and hard work with Filipino American chefs, artists, performers, scholars, and vendors.
NR: We are currently planning for Kultura Festival 2018, and it will still be in the City of Chicago, and it will be held in August. We will let you know the moment we solidify our plans.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of Filipino Kitchen?
NR: The most rewarding aspects of Filipino Kitchen are the relationships we have built in our community. At the risk of sounding cheesy AF, I don’t know what else I would rather do than what we do at FK. Through it all, the heartache, the tears, the laughter, and joy, the relationships/friendships we have built is the most priceless.
In what ways do you hope Filipino Kitchen will grow?
SP: As an entrepreneur, it’s a LOT of hustle. I know that Filipino Kitchen is already bigger than Natalia and me. And our business being community--and social justice--and change -focused, that’s as it should be. For the future I would love that our business sustain ourselves and a team of people to realize the events, programs, partnerships, and storytelling--books, films, and more--that our people, history, and cuisine richly deserve. Natalia and I have already grown so much personally through the work of Filipino Kitchen. We have built many partnerships and friendships, as she mentioned, that I hope continue to grow and to inspire others to do the same. Through our efforts I hope that the Filipino-American community in Chicago and in the Midwest can heal and grow together and thrive. Through our efforts I hope that Filipino-Americans and Filipinos in diaspora and at home can understand more of themselves and their history through our food.
Looking to grab Filipino cuisine close to home? Here are some Natalia and Sarahlynn's favorites!
Muscavado is a Filipino owned restaurant in Bastille that occasionally adds Filipino flavors to their casual breakfast and brunch menu. Le Servan does the same in the 11th, but in an upscale setting for their lunch and dinners.
Lutong Pinoy is the mainstay of the Filipino British dining scene, open for 22 years now from the same family! London has a very strong Filipino supper club and popup dining scene: BBQ Dreamz (food stall in different night markets), maynila (supper club), Pepe’s Kitchen (supper club), The Adobros (supper club).
New York City:
Purple Yam is the classic. We always pay homage to Chef Romy Dorotan when we are in NYC. Kuma Inn or Lumpia Shack if we’re in Manhattan; or anywhere in Queens -- there are a lot of Filipino food places there, that we haven’t even gotten to explore yet but everyone tells us all about it!
Park’s Finest BBQ in Historic Filipino Town, LASA is in DTLA Chinatown, Irenia is in Sta. Ana, Rice&Shine Pop-Ups by Chef AC Boral, Cafe 86 in Pasadena, Rice Bar in DTLA, and Chef Isa Fabro. All of these establishments are highly regarded in the food scene in LA/Southern California.
Bad Saint is regarded as the #2 restaurant in the country, and with all due respect, yes! From the menu that pulls makes no compromises on flavor or breadth of offerings for such a small restaurant, it’s amazing to see this tiny gem of a place capture the attention of our capital and the country. If you have the time to wait in line, it’s definitely worth it. We also like Purple Patch in DC for their food and the community events that Patrice Cleary hosts in their space.
Our stomping grounds! Isla Pilipina and Uncle Mike’s are neighborhood staples, and restaurants we frequent and have worked with before with our popups. Jenivee’s Bakery is relatively new to the scene but has lovely American Occupation era chiffon cakes with flavors like Ube Macapuno and Mango. Popups and farmer’s market staples like Pecking Order Catering; Hapa Chicago (popup); Taste of the Philippines; and our very own Filipino Kitchen, of course!
Chef Cristina Quackenbush heads up a popup (formerly a brick and mortar, hopefully to resurrect soon!) called Milkfish. Another popup called Gata has also recently come to the scene, which we hope to check out!
Chef Roland Calupe heads up a pop-up dining series called The Milagros Project. Ellie Tiglao is opening soon in Somerset, Tanam.