Conversations on connecting to Filipino culture through cuisine
There are two things Filipino people love most in this world: eating together and singing karaoke. Apoy, a new Filipino restaurant that opened in late September in South Minneapolis, offers both. It also serves as a beacon for Filipino students who have been missing traditional Filipino food, myself included.
The word “apoy” means “fire” in Tagalog (tah-gah-log), the main dialect of the Philippines. Apoy wants you to know on their website that, “If you are pronouncing “Tagalog” as if it’s a schoolyard game you would play with a piece of lumber, you are saying it wrong.”
I talked with some Filipino students about what Filipino food means to them and how cooking and sharing traditional food with others can be a powerful tool to connect with your culture.
“Food is such a big part of [Filipino] culture,” said Zoey Doto, President of the U of M’s Philippine Student Association (PSA). “When we have events we want to be able to have Filipino food but because there aren’t that many restaurants around, we end up having to cook it ourselves.”
Narra Moreen, a Filipina student in the Multiracial Student Union, visited her family in the Philippines this past summer and found herself in the same conundrum. “When I returned, I did my own research on Filipino restaurants here in Minneapolis and I couldn’t find much. The deprivation is so real.”
For many, having to cook their own cultural food has proven to be helpful in bridging a connection to their cultural identities.
“Filipinos have a deep connection with food. It’s a social interaction,” said Jonny Roberts, a member of PSA. “[Cooking Filipino food] is a process that I can share with my friends. I make desserts like cassava cake, ube ice cream, puto, and bibingka. And when I’m sick or feeling down, my roommate always makes arroz caldo.”
Growing up in California, Zoey remembers associating visiting family with eating Filipino food—the two were synonymous. “You’d hear ‘We’re going to tita’s house!’ and you knew that meant one thing: you were about to eat.”
When Zoey moved to the great white state of Minnesota, connecting with her Filipino culture became a challenge. “[Cooking] became a really great way to bond with my mom,” Zoey explained. She would show us how to cook Filipino dishes, like lumpia. Mostly, I think she just wanted to recruit us so she wouldn’t have to roll all of them herself.”
From our conversations on identity and Filipino heritage, a recurring theme emerged: Zoey, Narra, and I are mixed-race Filipina women, and that’s had a significant effect on the way we navigate our culture. We talked about grappling with our “claim” to our Filipino heritage.
“Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I invalidate myself and don’t allow myself to accept that part of my identity because I don’t feel like I’m worthy of it,” said Narra. “When I visited the Philippines this summer, I forgot I was mixed. I didn’t feel half anything… I just felt Filipino.”
“Growing up, because I’m mixed, people would always ask, ‘Well, what are you?’” said Zoey. “When I got to college I realized, ‘Well, I should probably figure that out.’”
Connecting with your culture as a mixed race student on predominantly white campus requires courage to reach out and foster that connection, especially when it often feels easier to deny your heritage.
“To think about all the hardships my family has gone through, what my grandparents did for my mom, what my mom did for me … the more I thought about it, the more it became [about] respect for my heritage,” Zoey said.
Narra and I bonded over our shared love for pancit, a staple Filipino noodle dish we both grew up on. “I think learning to make pancit was the first step for me,” she said.
We talked about how surprisingly emotional that first step can be. Pancit is something I’ve wanted to learn how to make for years now, but I keep finding ways to delay taking that first step.
“I didn’t realize how happy I would be about making pancit until I finally made it. My mom was so proud. I sent it to my grandma, though, and she wasn’t as excited about it. She just sent me a thumbs up emoji.” I laughed because it sounded familiar, the type of lovingly terse response I get from my Filipino grandmother.
I suggested to Narra that we start making pancit every weekend, only half joking. She laughed and then responded seriously, “Let’s make it a thing.”
The act of sharing Filipino food with those you love is really the beating pulse of what Filipino culture and cuisine is all about; it’s about coming together with family, the one you’re born with and the one you create for yourself.
Zoey and Narra talked about their favorite memories connected to Filipino food and, unknowingly, answered identically. They both talked about Kamayan feasts, a Filipino tradition.
“[PSA] threw a Kamayan feast last year,” said Zoey. “You lay banana leaves on one big table, then you get rice, sausage, mango, pancit—any traditional Filipino food really—and lay it on the leaves, no dishes. People stand around the spread and eat it with their hands. It’s the food, the community, and the culture all in one.” (If you haven’t seen this tradition in person, I highly suggest you google a photo —it’s glorious.)
PSA’s Kamayan feast was an open invitation to anyone, regardless of cultural backgrounds. “In Filipino culture, everyone’s family even if you’re not related by blood,” said Zoey.
I went to Apoy with my roommates during its opening week. It was their first time trying Filipino food. We shared steaming plates of lumpia, sisig, and lechon. The restaurant smelled familiar, a fried aroma of pork belly, garlic, and rice. Eating there felt a lot like eating at home, just with different family members—chosen ones.