When You’re Born In Canada, You Learn How To Be Filipino Through Food

Adobo, lumpia, and halo halo taught me about my culture.
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A serving of adobo with eggs. Recipe comprises chicken braised in soy sauce, vinegar pepper and bay leaves.
A serving of adobo with eggs. Recipe comprises chicken braised in soy sauce, vinegar pepper and bay leaves.

I heard tons of stories about the food second-generation Canadians crave while producing HuffPost Canada's "Born And Raised: Food" podcast.

Besides sharing mouth-watering anecdotes, many talked about how love for their home's cuisine can be traced to childhood memories. I often left interviews with a grumbling stomach and a feeling of nostalgia. The process led to self-reflection about my own cultural cuisine.

The Filipino immigrant population is a big presence in Canada, but is a mostly unseen community. We aren't well-represented in media, culture or politics, but you can tell the Filipino diaspora is alive and well through our love for food: we've recently gotten our first major supermarket in Mississauga, Ont. and the popular Manila-based chain Jollibee plans to open 100 restaurants across the country in the next five years.

Filipino cuisine is trendy across North America now, but that wasn't always the case. When I look back on the meals I grew up with, these dishes were familiar to me and foreign to others. It makes me realize that each has played a personal role in making me proud of my Filipino Canadian identity.

Listen: Our podcast, "Born & Raised: Food," tells stories of food and family from second-gen Canadians. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts.

The difference between being Filipino and being Canadian was obvious at breakfast. While my elementary schools would dole out chocolate milk cartons and tiny cereal boxes in the mornings, on weekends my family feasted on garlicky rice, fried milkfish and links of sweet red sausage called longanisa. Many Saturday mornings were spent sneaking seconds from the fridge or nursing well-deserved bloating from longanisa gluttony. When my grandma immigrated here, she added champorado to our morning repertoire.

Champorado usually satisfied my sweet tooth, but if I wanted more sugar I just needed to wait for merienda, or afternoon snack time. These breaks had me chugging buko juice—a coconut drink—and chowing on turon, bananas fried in spring rolls.

The ultimate merienda treat was halo halo, a.k.a. the reason summertime is cavity season. Halo halo translates to "mix mix," which is exactly what one should do before gulping down this shaved ice treat of evaporated milk, preserved fruit and sweet beans (leche flan, ube ice cream and corn flakes if you're fancy).

I once tried to enjoy halo halo without mixing, because I couldn't stomach the taste of jackfruit. A nearby tita noticed and corrected me.

"Like this," she said, snatching my cup and spoon. I can still remember the hot flush of embarrassment creeping over my cheeks as she swirled for me. But after trying it, the humiliation gave way to bliss; halo halo's delicious harmony had me sheepishly thanking her.

Halo halo is one of the most famous desserts in the Philippines. Its ingredients include white and red beans, gelatin, ube (purple yam) ice cream, flan, shaved ice and coconut.
Halo halo is one of the most famous desserts in the Philippines. Its ingredients include white and red beans, gelatin, ube (purple yam) ice cream, flan, shaved ice and coconut.

Second-hand culture

Second-generation Filipino-Canadians know something is Filipino because others tell us it is.

We discover the right way to talk, act, even consume from those with first-hand experience. I learned quick that to be part of Filipino culture means first-generation community members were essential to my life.

Pancit palabok, a noodle dish with egg, shrimp, garlic, pork rinds, etc.
Pancit palabok, a noodle dish with egg, shrimp, garlic, pork rinds, etc.

In the absence of Filipinos onscreen who could feed my desire for role models, I had real-life, first-generation role models who would literally feed me: many a hot-plate palabok, a shrimpy noodle dish, was ordered from a friendly tita (auntie) at the corner store; calamansi-tenderized BBQ kebabs were served by titos (uncles) behind grills; if I sat down at a wedding, a relative would make sure a heaping plate of pancit, glass noodles with mixed vegetables, ended up on my lap.

All I needed to do to take part in these food traditions was say "Salamat" and pig out. But one tradition I was enlisted to learn was the art of rolling lumpia (spring rolls). East Asian friends in my life have told me childhood stories about folding dumplings. For my family, evenings before big events were spent sitting around the kitchen table and making lumpia shanghai.

The importance of making adobo

Now that I'm older, these dishes aren't as present in my life. I believed that if I wasn't going to Filipino restaurants or visiting my nanay (my mother), these foods and the lessons they taught me would stay in my past.

I decided to try reconnecting by cooking chicken adobo: the unofficial national dish is one of the few with indigenous roots and my nanay's specialty. In pre-colonial times, Filipinos used vinegar to marinate food. Adobo, meaning "marinade" in Spanish, was what Spaniards called the meal when they colonized the country. Its original name was never recorded.

Chicken and pork adobo over rice.
Chicken and pork adobo over rice.

That loss resonates with me on a personal level. Unless I learn how my nanay makes adobo, like its original name, would her recipe face a similar fate?

So, I tried to recreate it, soaking chicken drumsticks in soy sauce and vinegar as per my nanay's instructions over the phone. Spoiler: fire alarms went off so you can imagine how it turned out.

Listen: The author calls their mom to learn how to make adobo chicken. Blog continues below.

I might not be cooking anytime soon, but that kitchen disaster still taught me something. My connection to Filipino food isn't based on how often I get to eat it or how well I can make it. It's a lifelong love that's already shaped me into who I am today. I feel lucky that I get to point to times where my cultural cuisine blessed my weekend with belly-busting, boosted my self-esteem, connected me to first-generation Filipinos, or just tasted really good.

It's easy for Filipinos born in Canada to feel like we are not the experts of our own culture. We don't know our histories. Many of us don't know how to speak Tagalog or the languages our parents speak. But we all know how to eat. I'm hopeful that our growing presence in the food scene means we'll have more opportunities to define ourselves, just like Filipino food from my childhood made me who I am.

CORRECTION - Jan. 7, 2019:An earlier version of this blog misspelled Jollibee.

Born And Raised is an ongoing series by HuffPost Canada that shares the experiences of second-generation Canadians. Part reflection, part storytelling, this series on the children of immigrants explores what it means to be born and raised in Canada. We want to hear your stories — join the conversation on Twitter at #BornandRaised or send us an email at bornandraised@huffpost.com.

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