My life in Canada as an adult can be charted with the help of a few books. Not long after my family moved here in 2007, I came upon a book called “Memories of Philippine Kitchens” by Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan. I found the book – the lone title on Philippine cooking, in a sprawling section of beautifully photographed food books – in a two-storey bookshop in downtown Toronto. I spent the money I had, worth two days of work, and didn’t buy myself anything other than essentials for a month.
When I got a full-time job, I started casually looking up books about Filipino food online. There weren’t many resources available then; a few lists from food bloggers of their favourites, text-only catalogues of titles from Philippine publishers. Then I found an essay written by Doreen Fernandez called “Culture Ingested: Notes of the Indigenization of Philippine Food”. This was where my quest to collect Filipino food books began.
I became obsessed with finding copies of Doreen’s books from my outpost in Canada. Why, I wondered, have I never come across Doreen’s work? I even went to a hotel and restaurant school in the Philippines, where my desire to work in the food industry blossomed – but her name never came up in any of my courses. Should we not have been celebrating our literary treasures?
Slowly, I collected second-hand books that I purchased off eBay (Reynaldo Alejandro’s “The Philippine Cookbook”, a 1980s recipe collection from The Maya Kitchen). I ordered “The Adobo Road Cookbook” by Marvin Gapultos, who owned a Filipino food truck in California before every major city in North America had a Filipino food truck. I learned how to tweak my own recipe for adobo, how to make banana ketchup, how to make a proper Sunday dinner pochero.
When I moved in with my partner – and got a little more bookshelf space – my collection started to grow. For Christmas, my parents gave me “7,000 Islands: A Food Portrait of the Philippines” by Yasmin Newman. (What beautiful photography and styling, I thought!)
I discovered that I could order from a few publishers directly – so in came “Fruits of the Philippines” by Doreen Fernandez and “The Governor General’s Kitchen” by Felice Sta. Maria. (You mean books about food history, traditions and culture – I learned these were called “foodways” – could be written with such poetic, delicious prose?)
Then there was “Country Cooking” by Michaela Fenix, which spurred my desire to travel across the Philippines with the specific goal of sampling regional cuisine. I later learned this made me a “food tourist” – someone whose travel plans revolved primarily around eating what’s local to a destination.
Through The Kitchen Bookstore, I ordered “Cocina Sulipena” by Gene Gonzalez, who brought me into his family’s kitchen from a now-gone town in Pampanga, where the cooking was of incredibly high calibre fit for visiting European royalty.
I ordered “Hikay: The Culinary Heritage of Cebu” by Louella Alix, which made me long for things Filipinos love about their home country – like crisp, succulent lechon, an incredible variety of kakanin, or afternoons spent at some relative’s crowded living room, happily munching on a spread of dishes made with love.
Like stars aligning in a cloudless sky, I realized that there was much, much more about Filipino food to read about, than I ever thought existed.
About Nastasha Alli
Nastasha Alli writes about food culture and hosts a podcast called “Exploring Filipino Kitchens”, where she talks to chefs, home cooks, farmers, educators and everyday people about food in and from the Philippines. Her writing has been featured on Rappler.ph and The Filipino Food Movement. Visit her at nastasha.ca and say hello on Twitter or Instagram!