By: Abigail Ileto
In the first grade, someone ran into me while I was holding my lunch, sending my rice, spam, and eggs to the floor. It was one of the first times I was embarrassed about my food, and it would not be the last.
Compared to the lunches of my peers, my Filipino food looked and smelled different. While others brought sectioned bags of sandwiches, crackers, and fruit, I brought containers of white rice and chicken smelling of soy sauce and vinegar. I used a spoon and fork, no knife in sight. My food was met with either indifference or offhand comments, unintentionally tinged with early 2000s era judgement of Asians in general. A teacher once said they were happy to see me with food from my culture. It occurred to me that food perhaps held greater significance beyond being a source of nourishment. I saw my lunch as simply last night’s leftovers. My teacher, on the other hand, saw a bold declaration of my ethnicity, as if publicly eating my mother’s cooking was worthy of note. For the most part, no one explicitly ridiculed my food, but on top of shyness and being the only brown girl in my elementary school classes, my food served as another indicator of difference. I wanted to blend in. I wanted blue boxes of Lunchables, ice packs to keep food chilled, and Go-Gurt. Everyone seemed to have Go-Gurt.
The shame and embarrassment I felt for my food, led to negative attitudes towards Filipino culture as a whole. Food is deeply rooted in family and tradition. It holds the history of those that came before us. When we gather to eat, it’s like our relatives, past and present, sit with us at the table. Recipes passed down through generations are so closely intertwined with cultural identity, that by disassociating myself from Filipino food, I denied a part of who I was.
As a child, I helped my mother make fried spring rolls called lumpia, separating square wrappers for her to fill with meat, vegetables, and spices. While wetting the edges of the rolls to seal closed, it was like my extended family was in the room with us. I could imagine titas to my right, cousins to my left, lolas across the table. I imagined countless other families working through the same process – separating wrappers, scooping in the filling, dropping rolls in hot oil. The feeling of togetherness existed when I toasted pandesal and melted butter into the bread. It existed when I unwrapped polvoron from crackling plastic packaging and bit into the crumbly shortbread. It existed when I scooped a bowl of steamed rice or opened a can of Spam. Food was a family affair with those related by blood and cultural association. Over time though, my enjoyment of Filipino food at school was interrupted. It was reflected at home as a stubborn unwillingness to learn how to cook Filipino dishes.
Though I assisted in the kitchen – chopped onions, peeled garlic, stirred the pot – I never learned how to independently make a Filipino dish from scratch. I could fry Spam and put together a plate of Filipino corned beef hash, but the real Filipino food was lost on me. Dishes such as adobo, kare-kare, and sinigang, the kind of food toiled over for hours, boiling broth, browning meat, and stirring sauces – that’s what I missed. That’s what went over my head.
My signature dishes are steak with veg, salmon with veg, really any meat with any veg on a pan. I make cold cut sandwiches, pasta with premade sauces, fried eggs and spinach. I had a phase of green smoothies, avocado toast, and breakfasts of oatmeal, peanut butter, and mixed fruit. Growing up, I idealized “white people food,” and on my own, that’s what I generally make. I’m happy with a foot in both Western and Asian cultures, but over time, it’s as if my Filipino relatives have left the metaphorical table. I wandered further away from my roots and am trying to retrace my steps.
In recent years, Asian food has gained popularity in mainstream culture. I see more places serving sushi, bibimbap, ramen, pho. There are more boba shops than ever. Diets are diversifying, and it’s not about selecting who gets to sit at the table. It’s about expanding it. Like a wedding reception, there’s a buffet in the back with food from all around. There’s an open bar serving green smoothies and buko juice straight from the coconut, a dessert table with cupcakes and halo-halo (look it up). It’s a marriage between two cultures with an ever-expanding family.
If we are what we eat, then at the moment, I am coffee. I am cold cut sandwiches, burgers, and sushi. I am pints of chocolate ice cream cleared in one sitting or two. I am takeout on a Friday night.
When am I Filipino?
I am Filipino with other Filipinos. I am Filipino when I go home and fill up on the food of my childhood. I am Filipino at family parties, Filipino restaurants, food truck festivals from time to time. I don’t, on my own however, buy ingredients for adobo, kare-kare, or sinigang. Rice is disappearing from my diet. In the future, if I don’t cook Filipino food for myself, who will? How will I carry on those family traditions? For so long, I denied that part of my identity, trying to fit into Western culture. I realize now that “fitting” a certain culture isn’t what’s important. I wish I pushed harder to learn Filipino recipes when I was younger, but I won’t berate myself for past mistakes. I’m learning. I’m growing. It’s a process.
I used to wonder if I was Canadian enough or Filipino enough, but it’s not about being “enough” of any one thing. I appreciate that both Western and Asian culture has influenced who I am, and when it comes to food, there’s plenty of room at the table.
Abigail Ileto is a Vancouver-based writer and recent graduate from the University of British Columbia with an affinity for TV and film. She enjoys singing when no one is listening and collecting spiral bound notebooks.