Alexa Alfaro was in the fifth grade the last time she spent a summer visiting her father’s family in the Philippines. There, she experienced the rich, vibrant colors and flavors of her father's childhood: starchy, preternaturally violet roots of ube; the inky, roasted umber of dinuguan, a hearty stew made with rich offal and pig’s blood, spiked with fiery chili peppers and sharp vinegar. Then, she returned home to Milwaukee, where Filipino food—outside of her own home, at least—was more or less unheard of.
Years later, she and her brother Matt decided to bring something new to their home city. They wanted to introduce Milwaukee to the flavors of the Philippines. In 2014 they did just that, opening a food truck called Meat on the Street,the first Filipino food purveyor in Milwaukee.
Before Alfaro opened her food truck in 2014, if she wanted to go to a Filipino restaurant, she had to drive 80 miles, to Madison. In her struggle to find the familiar flavors of her father’s home, she saw an opportunity to bring Filipino food to her own city. But in the “land of steak and potatoes,” she says, her truck’s first two years were rocky.
Alfaro encountered many people who bristled at the mention of a cuisine so unfamiliar to them. “People would come up to us and say ‘I don't like Filipino food,’” she recalls. Talking more with these potential customers, it became clear to Alfaro that many of them had never actually tasted Filipino food, but had negative preconceptions of it. “Even though my brother and I [are] German and Italian from my mom’s side [of the family], we have darker skin,” she explains. “People would assume that our food was spicy because we didn’t look obviously Caucasian.”
Alfaro persisted despite the challenges, working 14- to 16-hour days while building a social media following and gaining the attention of locals. She and her brother also leveraged food trends to their advantage, creating their own takes on dishes that would feel familiar to locals. They launched a weekly Taco Tuesday using longganisa, a Filipino-style sausage, in place of chorizo. Bistek beef marinated with soy sauce and calamansi, a citrus native to the Philippines, took the place of carne asada.
Slowly, Alfaro’s work paid off. She now has a growing clientele of loyal, vocal customers who serve as ambassadors for Meat on the Street. Though she celebrated Meat on the Street’s fifth anniversary in June, she knows some locals still view the truck's offerings with some trepidation. Conversely, she also hears the occasional claim that her food is “inauthentic.”
Authenticity is a particularly tricky term to define when it comes to Filipino food. Waves of colonization and migration have changed and reshaped the face of Filipino food time and again. By the time Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan landed on the islands now known as the Philippines in 1521, they were already home to thousands of years of rich cooking traditions that called on taro, yams, and millet, along with chicken, seafood, carabao, and other wild game readily available on the islands. Arab traders came in the 9th century, carrying spices such as cloves and black pepper along the Silk Road, and the 16th century saw the first influx of Chinese merchants, who fused their cooking techniques with Filipino ones, creating the precursors to dishes such as egg roll-like lumpia and various noodle-based pancits.
Magellan brought crops from Central and South America, including avocado, guava, and ruby-red annatto. The Spanish language also came to be adopted to describe a variety of dishes, one of the most famous being adobo, which is now used to describe the technique of stewing foods in vinegar.
So many years of trade, migration, and colonization shaped a cuisine unapologetic in its use of bold flavors, funky ingredients, and bright colors.
Cooks living far from the islands often have limited access to many of these most central ingredients, and must adapt and reimagine recipes. This lack of access has led many, like Alfaro, to new ways of cooking and sharing their cuisine, taking it upon themselves to introduce diners to their own visions of modern Filipino cooking, using the ingredients available to them, pulling from their own family recipes and stories in the process. “I’m cooking food that is, from my experience and perspective, from my father who taught me how to make Filipino food,” says Alfaro. “I work my ass off for this business, and I want to push the culture forward.”
Like Alfaro, many overseas Filipino workers, known as "OFWs," reshape their Filipino cooking to fit a foreign country's cultural norms, the availability of certain products, and the tastes of locals.
“I don’t really advertise that I cook Filipino food, but there was a time when I would say I make OFW food,” says Paolo Espanola, the co-founder of the culinary collective Hidden Apron. Saudi Arabia-born and -raised, Espanola currently lives in New York City. His parents are two of the millions who make up the overseas Filipino diaspora, one of the largest in the world. For Espanola, who is of Chinese-Filipino descent, childhood memories of Filipino food are not exactly romantic—he doesn’t recount wistful stories of family feasts, or hold on to recipes rooted in sentiment.
Espanola grew up eating his mom’s pancit Molo, which gets its eponymous name from the Molo district of Iloilo in the Philippines. Pancit Molo is typically made with pork-stuffed wonton dumplings, which are suspended in a robust pork-based broth and topped with verdant specks of scallion or ginger. Despite how delicious pancit Molo can be, it’s not a dish Espanola has the fondest memories of. Filipino food imports are extremely limited in Saudi Arabia, and the kingdom requires a strict adherence to Islamic customs, even among foreigners. That meant that his mom’s pancit Molo was made with chicken instead of pork, and “couldn’t provide the same lip-smacking qualities,” he reflects in The New Filipino Kitchen: Stories and Recipes from Around the Globe, an anthology of stories and recipes from Filipinos living around the world.
So many other cooks with Filipino heritage, dispersed across the globe, share similar stories. Rowena Dumlao-Giardina, a certified sommelier and writer who runs the food and travel blog Apron and Sneakers, was born and raised in the Philippines, but has called Italy home for 20 years. Homesick and 6,400 miles away from the Philippines in a suburb of Rome, she longed for the flavors and aromas of her homeland. Equipped with some cooking techniques from her Sicilian mother-in-law, and drawing from memories of her childhood, a few notes, and several cookbooks, she set out to do the impossible: grow tropical plants in Italy’s Mediterranean climate. “I had been living in Italy for just a few years during that time and my homesickness was quite strong,” she remembers. “Surrounding myself with a garden full of tropical plants I grew up with would make things smoother for the big transition I was going through”
After several years lovingly caring for her tropically-inclined seedlings, Dumlao-Giardina is now the plant mom to birds of paradise, moringa, guava, calamansi and, perhaps her favorite, banana, its fragrant leaves used to make inihaw na Isda (stuffed fish wrapped in the large leaves and grilled). Even with a small-but-thriving Filipino garden, recreating her favorite Filipino dishes in Italy has taken some creativity and experimentation. Chayote gave way to zucchini in ginisang sayote, chard replaced water spinach in sinigang, colatura di Alici for fish sauce. It was 13 years before Dumlao-Giardina found an Asian market in her Italian suburb. Finally, bitter melon, banana hearts, green papaya, winged beans, and so many other ingredients she couldn’t cultivate in her own garden became available.
While diners hungry for authenticity go in search of meals and recipes rooted in tradition, many Filipino chefs have done away with the concept of authenticity in favor of something more reflective of the lives they live, and the stories they have to share. “I grew up with no pork and our sinigang was made with salmon head and lemon because we couldn't get pork and tamarind,” says Espanola. But those substitutions and replacements didn’t dumb down or ruin his family’s dishes. “What do we mean by Filipino food?” he asks. “If you say [my food] is not authentically Filipino, it's okay. This is my story.”