When I was growing up in Northern California — where Filipino migrant farm workers started settling in the 1920s, and which today is home to one of the country’s largest populations of Filipino-Americans — the scent of rice, still steamy and warm in the rice cooker, was the steady backdrop to my days. It was so constant from one house to the next, so dependable, that’s how I knew: Wherever I found myself, I was home.
In a Filipino house, there is always food, more food than you could ever eat, stacked in the refrigerator, edge-to-edge on the counter and simmering on the stove. My brothers and sisters and I came home from school to giant pots of , a soup that’s sour enough only if you gasp a little at the first spoonful, and , an earthy rice porridge brightened by a squeeze of calamansi — a native citrus that looks like a mini orange but tastes closer to a lime — plucked from the tree in our backyard.
My mom cooked all of this at the start of each week, before she headed off to her day job at IBM. She has roots in Pampanga, which I found out later in life is rightly called the culinary capital of the Philippines; people rave about the vividness of the ingredients there, and the imagination with which they’re deployed. Food is my mom’s birthright, and I’m lucky that she passed that on to me.
But when I moved to New York and started cooking professionally, the dishes I made were far removed from my childhood: Italian Bolognese, French terrines. I deveined countless lobes of foie gras with a jeweler’s tweezer. This was sophisticated food, I was taught; this was cuisine.
I didn’t know then that the food I grew up with was also complex and layered, refined over centuries and demanding meticulous technique. Once I was on my own, I cooked it by feel, reaching for the distinctive notes of sour and salt, remembering how we kids used to help my mom make dinner when she got home from work, while my dad was pulling the night shift as a manager at McDonald’s.
Because there were so many of us — I’m the second youngest of six — when we were home, we rarely sat down at the dining table to eat. Instead, we ate where we talked, gathered around the counter or cross-legged at the coffee table, our plates anointed by the ever-ready bottle of sawsawan, a homemade tincture of spiced vinegar, with whole garlic cloves steeping. (Condiments are practically compulsory in Filipino food. You could even say that the diner plays as big a role as the chef, seasoning each dish to taste.)
Not until five years ago, when I was preparing to open the New York outpost of San Francisco’s Mission Chinese Food, did I finally get an official cooking lesson from my lola, my mom’s mom. And I mean official: She said firmly, “You’re an executive chef now,” meaning I was finally worthy of her secrets.
My lola, a former pharmacist who tended African violets in her retirement, was the one my mom and my aunts deferred to in the kitchen. Before a party, she cooked all week. It was part of her love language. At her funeral last spring — she died at age 100 — every eulogy was an incantation of the bounty she’d fed us all our lives, from steak exalted by soy sauce and a sunny kiss of calamansi, to Christmas ensaymadas, sweet butter-soaked rolls thatched with queso de bola, a red-skinned Edam cheese.
Her most prized dish was chicken relleno, reserved for the grandest festivities. She had never revealed the recipe to anyone, which strained some friendships.
The day I learned to make chicken relleno, my lola laid out two cutting boards and a set of battered but carefully sharpened knives. Wearing a shower cap over her head, she deboned the chicken with her tiny hands so fast, I had to double-check what parts were left. Her embutido — the pork and sausage stuffing to be sewn up inside the chicken — required the technical precision of a French farce (finely puréed meat). Later, at a culinary conference, I watched a demonstration by the French chef Jacques Pépin and realized that my lola was making galantine.
That was the first time I took a real look at the mechanics behind the food of my childhood. My mom emailed me her recipe archive, a 40-page document that included multiple takes on single dishes, culled from her sisters and my lola. Not all of them were complete or correct as written — certain ingredients and methods simply went unmentioned, taken for granted, part of the heritage of life in the Philippines, where those details would’ve been communal knowledge.
When The Times asked me for 10 recipes that speak to the heart of Filipino cuisine, I went back through my mom’s collection and consulted old cookbooks drawing from other regions of the Philippines. Like generations of Filipino cooks before me, I’ve adapted these recipes to my taste, knowing that not everyone may approve. My lola looked slightly askance at the chicken relleno I made for Mission Chinese Food — but she was tickled that I called it Josefina’s House Special Chicken and sold it for $75.
There sadly isn’t room here to include some of my favorite comfort foods, like monggo, a mung-bean stew lush with melted pork fat, or the deep-fried meatballs called bola-bola that I used to make for my roommates when I was nostalgic for home. Truly, this list is just a beginning, for me as much as for you: The Philippines is an archipelago of more than 7,600 islands, and each region has a claim to culinary glory.
It might surprise you how familiar some of the ingredients are. Filipino food is a centuries-long tangle of Eastern and Western traditions, from early exchanges with Chinese traders to the reign of the Spanish conquistadors. Given our colonial past, we share as much culinary kinship with Latin America as with our Southeast Asian neighbors. Butter and cheese are happily and amply applied. So is ketchup, although we add our own twist: bananas. (It’s magic.)
My parents’ story, like that of many Filipino immigrants, also unites East and West. My dad is from Batangas, but my mom met him halfway across the world, in the Netherlands, where she was on tour with the Filipino national folk dance troupe. He’d hitchhiked across Europe and ended up a pageboy at the Philippine Embassy at The Hague.