A 50-state quest to make Filipino food | Bleader

Thursday, November 7, 2013

A 50-state quest to make Filipino food

Posted By on 11.07.13 at 10:47 AM

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Binagoongang baboy, crispy pork belly in shrimp paste

Filipino food has "always been in the background," says Yana Gilbuena. "No one says, hey, let's go out for some Filipino food, like they do for all of our neighboring cuisines, Chinese or Thai or whatever. You don't get this experience unless you have Filipino friends."

Gilbuena, a tall, kind of punked-out Filipina who emigrated to Los Angeles at 20 and now lives in Brooklyn, is stirring a couple of pots on a kitchen stove as she says this. So in fact I am about to have the experience of homemade Filipino food, a kind of preview for the ambitious project she's planning for 2014: to hold a Filipino pop-up in every state in the U.S.

She calls her pop-up series Salo (which makes this dinner "Salo-Ween"), though tonight's really just a party for friends (plus one media guest, me, chosen because she says she liked the eclectic range of things I write about). It's actually being held in the Ravenswood apartment of another pop-up dinner club proprietor, Julia Pham of Relish; Pham, a veteran of The Little Goat and other kitchens, is helping her do prep.

Yana Gilbuena (left) and Julia Pham prepping in Phams kitchen.
  • Michael Gebert
  • Yana Gilbuena (left) and Julia Pham prepping in Pham's kitchen

"Basically, I've been traveling and doing these supper clubs because I wanted to raise awareness of Filipino cuisine. My concentration is on regional Filipino food, stuff you wouldn't get in a restaurant," Gilbuena explains. "It started out as a hobby, because a lot of my friends have been doing pop-ups. I noticed there was no cultural element—no one was doing Filipino pop-ups."

I ask her if she has culinary training. "No, I don't have a background in cooking, I just learned from the helpers we had when I was growing up, and my aunt was also a cook," she replies.

Banana leaf table setting.

You can see that in the food, which has a rustic, non-professional-cook look to it as she dices and fries. It's also pretty strongly suggested by the table setting—the entire table is covered with banana leaves. "We're dining kamayan style," she says. "Normally the food's laid out in the middle of the table on the banana leaves, and everybody just digs in. But we're not a family, so it'll be plated a little different."

By "digs in," she means with our fingers. When the first few dishes are ready, she and Pham come out and plop a dome of garlic fried rice in front of each of us at the table:

Igado (braised pork tenderloin and liver with garlic rice.
  • Michael Gebert
  • Igado: braised pork tenderloin and liver with garlic rice

The meat dishes are piled around it. You grab a hunk of rice with your fingers, then scoop up one of the dishes.

Sinangag (garlic rice) with igado, binagoongang baboy and papisik (chicken in salt and lemongrass).
  • Michael Gebert
  • Sinangag (garlic rice) with igado, binagoongang baboy, and papisik (chicken in salt and lemongrass)

I had asked another Filipino acquaintance of fine dining tastes ahead of time about the menu, and it was obvious that he considered dining kamayan style as kind of kitschy Filipino, like representing American food today by dining chuckwagon style. But any culture's food gets introduced by accentuating its more colorful traditions, and dining with our fingers from a communal table of tropical leaves seems to suit this homespun meal of things learned from aunts and grandmas. It's impossible not to have a good time scooping up this hearty food with a garlicky ball of rice.

By the end, we all have piles of bones and bits, which we just sweep aside for the next and most accomplished course: a rich soup, something like an Asian lobster bisque, made with acorn squash, coconut milk, and whole shrimp, whose black eyes glare from just below its surface. Bizarrely, this means it's the second time that day that I've had Asian squash soup with shrimp in it—I'd had pumpkin congee that morning at Cai in Chinatown. (Winner: the Filipino version.)

So what's with the 50-state tour? "Each weekend I'll do a dinner—menus are going to change depending on where I am," Gilbuena says, because she wants to buy locally and do dishes that people could actually make themselves. "I don't want to serve something like fish that's not available." How is she going to get the word out in 50 different states? "Well, thank you, Facebook and Kickstarter, for the social network," she says. "It's going to be challenging. I don't know people in North Dakota or South Dakota. So far I have like 40 states covered."

But she's finding people who share the ambition to use pop-ups to bring their culture to others—such as Pham, whose supper club Relish was originally about showing off the techniques she'd learned in Chicago fine dining kitchens. Now she's closing Relish down and planning to launch a different one called BABZ ("for Bad Ass Babez in the kitchen," she explains), devoted more to exploring her own Vietnamese food heritage.

The dinner ends with maruya—banana fritters—which are pretty irresistible and also fun to watch as she plops them, like pancakes, directly onto a clean section of banana leaf. The group is full and in a good mood, which bodes well for Gilbuena's 50-state tour, starting in January. But we all have one burning question. How do you clean up after a kamayan meal?

"Oh, it's easy," Gilbuena says. "You just roll the banana leaves up and recycle the whole thing."

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