#FilipinoFood Book Reviews: Memories of Philippine Kitchens by Amy Besa & Romy Dorotan

Memories of Philippine Kitchens is more than an indispensable guide to Filipino food; it’s the beacon I follow, time and again, for a bit of spiritual guidance on why the study of Philippine foodways matter.

The cookbook section of a bookstore has always been my happy place. Back in the Philippines I used to lust over books by (a very young) Jamie Oliver, who picnicked in the English countryside with freshly baked scones and homemade jam. I dreamt of the cookbook collection I would someday own – filled with beautifully photographed, relatable stories about food and the people enjoying them – and the life I would have in Canada, living out scenes from the pages of these books.

Reality hardly lives up to our dreams, but I have managed to make some version of this ideal true. With the help of my Filipino food cookbook collection I’ve brought homemade tocino to a summer barbecue, made huge pots of sinigang and tinola destined for freezable meals, baked an eight-layer sans rival cake that was “better than anything my mom made”, according to one guy I used to work with.

I owe much of this to Memories of Philippine Kitchens – the first book about Filipino food that I truly “owned” and embraced as part of my culinary heritage.

You can, indeed, go home again

Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan are the owners of Purple Yam, a restaurant with locations in New York and Manila. A quick Google search provides lots of information on Amy and Romy’s culinary career, so I shall leave that to your perusing, but would like to share a few quotes from one of Amy’s opening essays in the book.

“Filipino food, in order to be better understood and fully appreciated, had to be seen in the context of culture and history,” Amy writes. “My desire to document traditions, to bring Philippine food into the twenty-first century while preserving the strong foundation of our past, led me back home in 2003. I went with open eyes and heart – and my purpose was generously rewarded.”

As I picked up book after book about Philippine cuisine, I found that I asked the same questions Amy and Romy asked of their friends and patrons. “Why did we eat these foods? Where did we get these ingredients and cooking methods that shape our food preferences today? What is authentic and what is borrowed?”

“We tried to find those answers not only in Philippine history and food books, but in the local histories of the towns, provinces and regions where these families are rooted,” Amy continues. “To do justice to all the regions would mean more years of research and, hopefully, more books on the subject.”

A living history of Filipino food

“What does Filipino food look like today?” Amy and Romy ask. “What are families eating? Are they preserving traditional dishes that were eaten a previous generation ago?”

In the same manner they talk about anchoring their research on the food of their generation (Filipinos born in the 1940s-50s), I pose the same questions to the Instagram-driven Filipino food lovers of today. What does Filipino food look like today? What place does it have in the global explosion of “ethnic cuisines” as the inspiration for countless dishes in every type of restaurant imaginable?

The question that nags me most is what place Filipino food has among people who identify as Filipino – and why it’s such a great mystery even amongst those of us who have eaten it our entire lives.

For kids who grew up in the 80s and 90s, either in the Philippines or abroad, one example of a nagging question is: does Lucky Me Pancit Canton count as Filipino food? I say yes, because what I’m personally nostalgic for is the savoury taste imparted by those soy sauce, oil and flavour packets – an amalgamation of American convenience in tear-away packaging and Chinese influence in quick-cooking noodles, perfect as an after-school snack.

It may not be “authentic” Filipino food, but the quest to recreate pancit canton from scratch has encouraged me to learn more about the individual components of this dish – in turn inspiring me to read up on how pancit got to the Philippines in the first place, and better understand why convenience foods were incredibly well-received during the American occupation.

On the cultural roots of Filipino food, Amy and Romy share that “it takes more than a superficial exposure to Filipino cooking to get an overall sense of the cuisine.” Introducing more people to pancit, adobo and lumpia are an excellent start, but for the full picture, I find this next passage sums it up succinctly. “To fully understand and appreciate Filipino food in context,” they write, “one must consider the importance of hospitality and generosity – two of the most universal aspects of Filipino culture.”

The recipes

Atchuete oil (annatto seeds steeped in oil with spices) is always in my fridge now, ready for making a batch of longanisa sausages or tocino (sweet-cured pork) any damn time I want. Several variants of adobo, sinigang and kinilaw appear in the book, alongside recipes for kakanin (rice-based delicacies) which include bibingka, puto and suman. I especially like Amy and Romy’s recipe for pancit luglug, also known as pancit palabok – a.k.a. my favourite noodle dish in the world (made with a thick shrimp and achuete-flavoured sauce atop rice noodles, garnished with whole shrimp, tofu, eggs and delicious flakes of smoked fish).

Some recipes are generally novice- and weeknight-friendly, such as the aforementioned adobos or menudo, a diced pork, liver and potato stew. A good number require dedicated time in the kitchen; beef and chorizo empanadas or lumpiang shanghai, for example, take an entire afternoon to prepare (and are great for weekend cooking projects).

Then there are the special occasion dishes, for recipes such as rellenong manok (roast chicken stuffed with eggs, chorizo and an array of vegetables) and Romy’s paella, made with black rice called pirurutong in the Philippines.

What I particularly like about recipes in this book is that:

a) Ingredients are at the forefront – they stress seasonality where they can, reflecting Amy and Romy’s philosophy of cooking with the best you can find
b) Techniques follow Romy’s background in classical French cuisine
c) Preparation methods are consistent, demonstrate the importance of mise en place (not always evident in Filipino cookbooks) and are broken down into logical, achievable steps
d) Substitutions are suggested only when they’re absolutely integral to a dish
e) Lastly, there is always a story involved! And I love them all 🙂

Home cooking across the Philippines

The chapter on “Treasured Family Recipes” is what easily sets Memories of Philippine Kitchens apart from other books about Filipino food – not because it’s the only book to incorporate memoirs into recipes (if anything, Filipinos tend to stretch personal stories into essays, more than simply a recipe header) but because of the volume and diversity of cooks Amy and Romy interview while conducting research into regional Philippine cuisine.

One concept that truly shifted my understanding of Filipino food’s distinct evolution from the cuisines of its Southeast Asian neighbours (such as Thailand, Indonesia and Myanmar/Burma) is best explained in this paragraph: “In the Philippines, by contrast, where there are no royal households, many culinary traditions originated in the homes of elite, landed families.” Where I would have previously questioned the inclusion of recipes from families of an upper class and known socio-political power (thinking “these aren’t everyday recipes, who has the money and resources to make these?”) I now view them as a part of the whole story – necessary, as court cuisines were in Europe during the Middle Ages, to developing an established “regional cuisine” that people in the middle classes strived to emulate.

From the Arayats in Pampanga (whose specialty is bringhe, a dish of glutinous rice and chicken flavoured with turmeric and coconut milk that arrives as a toasted golden dome on the table) to the Syquia family of Ilocos Sur (where pipian is an heirloom recipe of chicken thickened with toasted rice and spices, including dried epazote leaves found only in the region), Amy and Romy take us on a whirlwind tour of the Philippines – by no means definitive of all regional cuisines, but contributing to the collective knowledge gained by documenting these culinary traditions, before they disappear completely.

I loved learning about the town of Dingras in Ilocos Norte, where huge rice granaries meant special kakanin (such as tupig and patupat) were a must-have for visitors; about Sagay in Negros Occidental, where Amy recalls a lunch they had on a sandbar in the middle of the ocean with “a profligate amount of seafood” prepared by kinilaw master Enting Lobaton; about Irosin in Sorsogon, Romy’s hometown, where his brother called on 16 barangay captains to help “seek out classic Irosin dishes and reproduce them using traditional methods”.

“Food is a major part of Romy’s memories,” Amy shares. “I was eager to see and taste the linusak (a dessert of mashed saba bananas, sweet potatoes, coconut and sugar) and sinapot (another dessert of layered bananas coated in a rice flour batter, fried atop a cacao leaf) of his youth…which he always talked about.”

Afterword

There is so much more in this book to cover! If you haven’t yet added Memories of Philippine Kitchens to your list, I highly recommend visiting your bookstore for a copy, or ordering one online. Someday, I hope to visit Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan in both of their Purple Yam kitchens, to share the experience of a Filipino meal brought to life by a deep love of what is ours – for what is “Ang Sariling Atin”.

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