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.
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