Food for Thought: the Connection Between Cuisine and Culture

Dear Asian Youth,


The fragrant smell of roasting pork belly (lechon) permeates the air, seeping into every nook and cranny. An aromatic blend of soy sauce (toyo) and vinegar (suka) simmers on the stovetop along with a myriad of spices, forming a savory stew. A faint spattering of all-purpose flour and a tottering pile of golden peels remains on the kitchen counter, leftover scraps from baking a layered mango cake. I sit at the kitchen table and scoop spoonfuls of meat filling into individual wrappers, helping my mother roll her lauded egg rolls (lumpiang shanghai). This is the most hectic our kitchen has ever been, but all Filipinos know that any good party requires an endless array of delicious, authentic cuisine.


In the 90s, my parents travelled halfway across the world to the “land of opportunity,” searching for a new life. They voluntarily left the place they called home for a strange land, choosing to forego the security of belonging, of being part of the majority rather than the minority. Their darker skin and accented tongue–previously universal amongst the residents of the Philippines–now distinguished them as immigrants. Although the process of assimilation was made easier by a strong support system (i.e. several friends who had decided to move to the States a few years prior), my parents were oftentimes homesick for a place they chose to leave. While they were no longer in the Philippines, they could bring the faintest bit of their old home to their new home through food.


Born in America, I had vastly different experiences. At first glance, people in the United States look at me and categorize me as yet another Asian. Outwardly, my features are glaringly, decidedly not that of my Caucasian peers–my brown skin, black hair, petite stature, and wide face are much different from the norm. However, I dress, talk, and act like an “American.” When I visited the Philippines at ten years old, I was shocked. For the first time, I was surrounded by people with the same brown skin, black hair, petite stature, and wide face. However, I quickly realized that although I may appear Filipino through my features, I am absolutely, completely, thoroughly white-washed. I don’t know Tagalog, save for the most rudimentary words and phrases. The struggles I face on a day-to-day basis are radically different than those of my cousins from the so-called “Motherland.” The slang I use, the clothes I wear, the shows I watch, and the books I read are all different from my Filipino counterparts. I felt like an imposter–in both the land I was raised and the land where my parents were raised. I often found myself wondering: Where do I belong? Who am I?


Food grounds me. Just as it is an avenue that connects my parents to the home they left, it is a medium through which I can connect to the home where I never lived. To me, comfort food doesn’t lie in mac and cheese, beef chili, or chicken pot pie, but rather, in kaldereta, ukoy, and kare kare. Even the way I eat my food–either with my fingers or with a fork in my left and a spoon in my right–signifies that I am more than just “American.” Additionally, food-centered traditions like pancit for long life on birthday celebrations and twelve (or more) round fruits on New Year’s take root in my Filipino heritage (although the latter has Chinese origins). On that fateful trip to the Philippines, I found that I could still share in the communal experience of eating with friends and family.


For me, food is so much more than a necessary component to human survival–so much more than a means to achieve a satiated stomach. My mother is an amazing cook, with generations of family recipes at her culinary arsenal. As a child, I woke up to breakfasts such as champorado and longganisa, I went to school swinging my lunch box stuffed with adobo and white rice, and I came home to dinners like sinigang and chicken tinola. These meals I grew up eating took time, labor, and love. I had no hankering, no desire to give up my mother’s home-cooked meals in favor of sodium-filled, cholesterol-laden fast food; why ingest a Wendy’s Frosty if I could mix together halo-halo? Why consume a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder if I had pancit palabok at home? Why chow down on a Taco Bell Crunchwrap Supreme if I could do the same with lechon kawali?


The practice of eating a shared, collective meal opened the door to understanding more about my culture. As the years have progressed, my mother has taught me her culinary ways. I graduated from simply eating the meals set at the table to learning how to operate the trusty family rice cooker, harvesting calamansi and mango and papaya from my Lolo’s (Grandfather’s) garden, making simple sweets such as flan, yema, and polvoron, and forming dozens and dozens of siomai and lumpia. With each additional hour spent in the kitchen, I’ve been exposed to more than just various spices and family recipes; I’ve learned history–the unique flavor of each dish, the fruits and vegetables native to the Southeast Asian archipelago, and the technique used to create each recipe is something unique to only the Philippines. I’ve experienced (not just learned about) the food my mother and her own mother grew up eating–three generations of women, savoring and sharing in one collective meal.


One of my favorite Filipino desserts is halo-halo–a delightful blend of shaved ice and evaporated milk, sweetened beans and saccharine fruit, ube ice cream and creamy leche flan, and other assorted toppings. Halo-halo’s literal translation is “mix-mix”: only once each individual ingredient combines in a sweet synchronization of flavor can it be fully enjoyed. I like to think of myself in terms of this refreshing dessert; just as this heavenly amalgamation is served in layers, my varying and unique life experiences have shaped the person I am today. Much like this complex treat, I am a person composed of contradictions and dualities: even though I was born in the United States, I am just as Filipino as I am American. Just like halo-halo as a whole tastes better than the sum of its parts, I am a person made better by my connection to both the Land of Opportunity and the Pearl of the Orient Seas.


- Justine Torres