Filipino Fat Ass

 Our 6th birthday party, when one cake wasn't enough (shout out to Tita Linda Pastrana for making the cakes!).

Our 6th birthday party, when one cake wasn't enough (shout out to Tita Linda Pastrana for making the cakes!).

Ok I know, the title may be a little harsh. But it’s the truth: Filipinos can really, really eat a lot! It’s always a shock to my non-Filipino friends when they see how much I can eat at a restaurant or party—especially considering my small stature. My sister and I are consistently the last ones eating at the table and always still have room for dessert—a special skill we’ve crowned as The Last Ones Standing. We can continue to eat new dishes or snacks even when we aren’t hungry or had just eaten a meal—a feat that only those with the strongest stomachs can achieve. At my work, every time a new dessert is being sampled by the staff, they automatically give me a plate because they know I will always want to try it and will always enjoy it. One of my co-workers has actually asked me, “How come it seems like Asians can eat more than most people?” Truly, this skill is one of the greatest gifts of being Filipino!

But unlike Takeru Kobayashi and other food competitors who developed an entire science around eating massive quantities of food, I believe that the reason Filipinos can eat so much is simply because our culture is centered around food. In our culture, food doesn’t have much to do with health or nutrition—its purpose is to bring people together and show hospitality towards guests and loved ones. Throughout childhood, food was the epicenter and excitement of our days. Breakfast was eaten together every morning before school with my siblings and whichever parent was home (our parents worked opposite schedules growing up); after school snacks—or merienda—was synonymous with homework; dinners were always home-cooked Filipino dishes with heaping amounts of rice and eaten together at the table; Friday night hang outs with my aunts and cousins were at fast food restaurants or mall food courts; Saturdays were big parties with at least a dozen dishes and desserts; and Sunday meals after church were enjoyed as a family at home or at restaurants. It really is no wonder why my siblings, cousins, and I were all overweight as kids!

 Another birthday party, when someone thought it was a great idea for the whole gang to pose  with the food .

Another birthday party, when someone thought it was a great idea for the whole gang to pose with the food.

Food is also how Filipinos show affection and care towards each other. Even just a small gathering or quick get-together is accompanied with three or four home-cooked dishes, sliced fruit, frozen chicken wings quickly cooked in the oven, chips and snacks from the pantry, Costco cream puffs and ice cream sandwiches grabbed from the freezer, and lots and lots of coffee. I’m always surprised at how quickly my mom and aunts can whip together enough food on a weekday evening when five, ten or fifteen relatives unexpectedly drop by on their way home from work. Moreover, when we were kids, my mom would always ask our friends—right as they walked in the door and no matter what time it was—if they’ve eaten yet, or if they would like something to eat. “No, thank you” or “I’m not hungry” was usually an unacceptable answer, as she’d still warm up Hot Pockets or frozen raviolis and leave them out on the counter just in case we did get hungry. And now, when my friends come over to my house the first thing I ask them is, “Are you hungry?” And just like my mom, I find myself rummaging through my fridge and pantry trying to find something they can at least nibble on. It is always a goal to ensure that my friends have eaten plenty by the time they leave. This obsessive need to feed others is how Filipinos express care and love.

With this strong foundation in food, it’s no surprise that we have a profound love for cooking, Culinary Arts, and the restaurant industry. In my perspective, food is so much more than eating to alleviate hunger. It tells the story of earth’s living things, geographical climates, and seasonal patterns. It’s a creative outlet, an expression of joy, a way to form close bonds with others, and is an essential tool for learning about other cultures’ lifestyles and traditions. I love bringing my non-Filipino friends to a Filipino restaurant and describing the various dishes and memories associated with the dish; or when friends take me to a restaurant of their culture and share stories with me. Food truly breaks barriers and creates conversation that otherwise wouldn't be shared. I built a passion for food over a decade-long journey of enjoying every meal that was prepared for me, every new dish I attempted to cook, every party I attended, and every new restaurant I tried. In the similar way that a young boy or girl builds a treehouse with his parents and wants to become an architect, my background in being a Filipino Fat Ass forged a career in food and hospitality. Unfortunately, even though our love of food continues, there is, of course, a negative side to the colossal appetites that Filipinos carry.

As I mentioned earlier, we were overweight as kids. And when I say were overweight, I mean we were OVERWEIGHT. However, once we hit our teens, we realized that we needed to make a drastic change if we wanted to live healthier lives. Filipino cuisine uses an abundance of pork and animal fats and is very high in sodium. Furthermore, there is not enough fresh, nutritious fruits or vegetables in everyday cooking, and the average amount of white rice that Filipinos eat during the day is very unhealthy. This diet has caused many Filipinos to obtain fat-and-salt-based health problems such as type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. Through this realization, the younger generation has decided to take control of our cuisine and health for the better.

Over the years, we learned how to eat healthy, what foods to avoid, and how to manage portion control. We also learned the importance of staying active, doing sports, and exercising regularly. The arduous process of changing our food lifestyle was a rough transition. We got so obsessed that at one point we would use a napkin to remove the grease from pizza and french fries, stopped eating lunch at school, kept food journals, only ever drank water, and even forced our dad to eat less rice by hiding the rice cooker after giving him a small portion. It was a surprising change of heart, but one we needed to take so we don’t end up with the same health problems in the future.

Today, we’ve learned the art of moderation: eating healthy most of the week and allowing a cheat day (or two) on the weekends—which is when we uphold the title of Last Ones Standing at social functions, and spurge on multiple rounds of food when visiting home. An important change of lifestyle from childhood is finding ways to making Filipino dishes healthier. How can we introduce less animal fat, more vegetables and legumes, better varieties in cooking techniques, and more sustainable ingredients to traditional dishes? This is a fun, everyday challenge that is catching on (1) amongst Filipinos who still want to eat great food but live a healthier life.

The Filipino Fat Ass will always be a part of us. We will always see food as an essential expression of love, hospitality, and care—and because of that, we will gorge on copious amounts of love-filled dishes when we can. However, understanding the invaluable aspect of food as a nutritional tool for energy, health, and well being has become equally as important. Truly, you can have the best of both worlds.

1 Check out these websites about healthy Filipino food and lifestyle:

The Evolution of Asian Ingredients

When deciding what to make for dinner, one of my favorite go-to Filipino dishes is nilaga. It’s a simple, easy dish to cook and only contains a handful of ingredients: green beans, potatoes, cabbage, onions, and beef chuck. The beef chuck and onions are first boiled in broth for several hours until the beef is fork tender, then the potatoes, green beans, and cabbage are added in waves to maximize their texture and leave some crunch. This savory, aromatic dish is served with rice and a fish sauce-and-lemon dipping sauce for added umami. As a personal ode to childhood, I mash up the potatoes the way my lolo (grandpa) taught me when I was a toddler, mixing it with my rice and topping the concoction with warm broth. It is comfort food like you’d never imagine.

As a child, I always thought the frequency in which my mom made nilaga was due to my siblings’ and my love for the dish. Once I started cooking the dish myself, I realized she actually cooked it out of availability more so than preference. She made it not only because of the simple cooking process (as many Filipino dishes are one-pot dishes), but more importantly because the ingredients are easy to purchase in an American grocery store—the only authentically Asian ingredients are fish sauce and jasmine rice. Luckily, when I turn towards the Asian aisle in an American grocery store I know these ingredients will be there, albeit in much smaller portions than I’m familiar. This low availability of Asian ingredients was why my mom cooked nilaga and other American-friendly dishes more often than putahes with Filipino-based ingredients.

Growing up in northern Virginia in the 1990s, we did not have many Asian, Latino or other ethnic grocery stores. We drove at least 30 minutes to the closest specialty Filipino grocery store in Manassas or Falls Church, places with higher concentrations of Filipinos than our hometown Herndon. Those seldom visits were a real treat: my mom would load the cart with seasoning packets used to make Filipino dishes, fresh vegetables like gabi and sitaw, large bottles of fish sauce, soy sauce and vinegar, and bags of dried fish and squid. On the other hand, my siblings and I piled up on junk food we ate as toddlers in the Philippines, such as Chippy, Clover Chips, Jack and Jill pretzels, polvoron, pastillas, and mango and calamansi juice. No venture would have been complete without lunch at the turo turo restaurants—hot food served cafeteria style—located in the back of the store, where we would get to taste dishes my mom rarely cooked. Overall, those trips were epic for the whole family because our parents felt like they were back in the homeland while my siblings and I learned, honed, and treasured a glimpse of our native culture and cuisine.

Though the specialty Filipino stores were farther away, there was a closer general Asian store called Apsara. Unlike HMart, Lotte, or other American-sized oriental grocery stores today, Apsara was extremely small with five shelves squeezed together in about a 300 square foot space. At this store, my mom would settle for the Chinese, Thai, and Cambodian replacements of Filipino ingredients to create partially authentic dishes. Similar to the Filipino grocery stores, my siblings and I would raid the junk food aisles to buy Yan Yan and shrimp crackers—satisfying substitutes to the Filipino snacks we craved. Before heading back home, we would visit the nearby Latino grocery store to buy $1 gallons of the sugar-induced, “fruit juice” Tampico and to buy whole tilapia, bangus (milk fish), and pampano—which back in the day our mom had to scale, clean, and debone all on her own, something I always dreaded learning when I become an adult. We shopped at the Asian and Latino stores as frequently if not more often than the American grocery store because—as part of the immigrant generation—my parents just did not know how to cook with American ingredients found in Giant, Harris Teeter, or Safeway.

Luckily, these memories are now in the past. Today, when I want to dabble in Filipino cuisine, the nearest Asian grocery store is 10 minutes away and is as big as its American counterparts. Additionally, there are at least 3-4 other ethnic grocery stores within the next few towns and dozens more within a 20-mile radius. One trip will satisfy the purchases for Filipino junk food, spices and cooking sauces, vegetables and fruits, meat and seafood (already gutted, scaled, and cleaned!), as well as other Asian ingredients I've learned to experiment with because of their availability. On occasion, I go to Asian grocery stores with my Chinese or Korean friends, and we educate each other about ingredients used in our cultures’ cuisines and the types of flavors we prefer based on our upbringing (Filipinos love sour, Koreans love spicy, Japanese people love umami). Because of this, I’ve been able to expand my repertoire of dishes to Korean, Japanese, Thai, and Chinese along with a larger collection of Filipino ones. However, what puts the biggest smile on my face is seeing non-Asians shop at these grocery stores, bringing recipes and cookbooks with them to scour the aisles for fish sauce, gochujang, soy sauce, sriracha and rice noodles. It’s truly a feat the 7-year-old me would have never imagined!

The relevance of this evolving trend has not surpassed me. The slow rise in popularity of ethnic grocery stores was the catalyst to the rising significance of ethnic food culture in the Washington, DC area—especially for restaurants. With increased availability and awareness of Asian grocery stores, booming popularity of Asian cuisine also increased. In the past, if Asian restaurateurs wanted to open businesses, there were only a few places to buy ingredients. Today, there are purveyors who specialize in bringing Asian ingredients to restaurants in this area, and even local farmers who cater to requests for galangal, ginger, lemongrass, and much more. Chefs are continuously enhancing the presence of Asian dishes, ingredients, cooking techniques, and flavors into our local palettes.

As evidence of this growing presence, Tom Sietsma’s recently released Fall Dining Guide 2017 of the Washington Post Magazine features four Asian restaurants in the Top 10. Moreover, our city now has the Filipino Food Movement, Lao Food Movement, national attention of Asian restaurants and chefs by the biggest food-focused media companies, and dozens of respectable pop-ups all over the city highlighting authentic Asian cuisine.

This ubiquity has even inspired American chefs to incorporate Asian ingredients into their own cuisine. Having worked at one of the most popular fine dining restaurants in the city, I will never forget how proud I felt walking into the dry-stock room and seeing the exact same bottles of fish sauce and cans of coconut milk that have stocked my home pantry for the last 20 years! Our chefs would experiment with new dishes, ingredients, and presentations based on Asian culture. I strongly believe one of the reasons this restaurant is so successful and known for their creativity is because of their culturally diverse menu—they are continually gaining inspiration from all types of cuisines that run the gamut from street food, home cooked meals, hole-in-the-wall joints, to fine dining. It’s like Andrew Zimmerman on a four-star scale!

Another example of American chefs incorporating Asian cuisine into their menu was the Asian Tasting Menu at another fine dining restaurant in which I worked. The menu consisted of numerous Asian dishes including Filipino, Thai, Korean, and Indian. Here I was, working in a well-known, award-winning restaurant and I was describing dishes to guests that I grew up eating as a child! To the other servers, memorizing the ingredients and describing these dishes was the most daunting task; but to me it was the easiest and most enjoyable. Pronunciations of dishes, names of ingredients and how they were used, the description of dipping sauces and how to use them was a headache to learn for my co-workers but a walk-in-the-park for me.

When I was a little 7-year-old girl growing up in the Washington, DC and Northern Virginia area, I couldn’t have imagined all the changes that were to come to my hometown. This area is one of many American cities that have grown tremendously, most only within the past 5-10 years. We’ve added a never-ending supply of new luxury condos and apartments, shopping centers, a new metro line, better roads, and dozens upon dozens of new restaurants. Having witnessed the change has been incredible—but seeing what this change has done to add diversity and cultural acceptance into our city is monumental.

We created Timpla to further the knowledge and popularity of Filipino food in Washington, DC and showcase that it can be as elegant, thoughtful, and complex as any French, Italian, or Japanese dish. We wanted to elevate, highlight, and be proud of those weird-smelling, funny-tasting Asian ingredients. To our delight, we are one in an entire movement of chefs and restaurateurs all moving in the same direction.

Confessions of a Woman in the Industry

At Timpla we are very open about our love of food and being part of the restaurant industry. It's a rewarding field where co-workers are your closest friends, you pretty much get paid to have fun, and you become part of incredibly memorable experiences. However, there is an important and relevant issue that does not get enough attention: the negative "gentlemen's club" culture of the restaurant industry.  

As a woman working in the industry for many years, I became accustomed to the negative culture of harassment, cat calls, and gossip of this male-dominant field, and even grew to think “It is what it is; everyone has aspects to their jobs that they don’t like.” Only recently did I reach an epiphany that my obstacles must represent just one of the hundreds or thousands of stories that women in the industry experience.

The restaurant industry is known for being male-dominant, both in the kitchen as chefs, prep cooks, line cooks, food runners and dishwashers and in the front-of-the-house as servers, bartenders, managers, and sommeliers. Although there has been a great increase in female chefs and overall female representation, there is still a huge gap. In addition to—or as a result of—this male-dominance, it is a very explicit culture with no human resources department—or any outlet really—to help filter behavior and mannerisms. As a woman, this has been one of the biggest problems I have had to face.

For almost 10 years, I have worked in a range of restaurants from diners to casual to fine dining, from traditional to modern. Throughout these 10 years and within all the different restaurants, one thing has remained constant: the inappropriate behavior and harassment from some men.  It is definitely not all men—in fact, many of my past and current male co-workers have been good friends and some even more than friends. However, there is that remaining constant where I’ve had to face uncomfortable situations and not known who I could turn to in order to solve the issue.

There are a whole slew of harassments I’ve dealt with over the years: from being cat-called “beautiful” or “cutie” every time I walk by a particular person; to trying to ignore all the eyes and hard gazes when I walk through the kitchen; to hearing snide remarks about me in a different language and simply pretending I don’t understand; to knowing a code name exists for women who are considered attractive at work. These are realities that I’ve faced many times over, and have just told myself to ignore them and be the bigger person.  

Unfortunately, my story is not unique. I’ve had female co-workers adjust their work schedule or quit because of the tension between them and a male co-worker. I had a manager who never fired an employee despite multiple sexual harassment claims against him because that employee was his best friend. I’ve heard the guys in the kitchen constantly give snide and crude remarks to the person I was dating about me, trying to push his buttons. I’ve even seen one of my female co-workers punch a manager in the stomach because she was so fed up hearing the kitchen guys jokingly telling her to take her clothes off, while the manager only further provoked them instead of trying to stop it. Furthermore, we’ve all experienced trying to discuss our problems with managers to no real result, conclusion, or change. To my personal dismay, it has become something I have accepted as just part of the job—something I just need to toughen up and accept.

In order to continue moving forward, a real effort has to be made towards improving the treatment of women and to making them feel comfortable about addressing a problem. I personally think the first steps to making a permanent change is for the leaders to truly set an example. The male managers, especially executive and sous chefs, need to set an example instead of falling prey to the gossip and inappropriate behaviors that are constantly going on around them. To say they are not aware of this is an insult. It simply means you are not paying attention or don’t care. The staff of any well-respected restaurant will look up to, admire, and replicate the leader’s behaviors. It will truly make a difference if these leaders set the example to respect all employees as if they were family. One person standing up in one instance for equal treatment will make all the difference to create a better work environment for the future. I strongly believe there are plenty of good men who will gladly stand up when they see or hear someone being treated inappropriately.    

I know the industry. I know some people may read this and think I am just complaining; or if I can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen. But it’s not about “toughness”—it’s about allowing a person to excel in his or her job without feeling threatened, insecure, or uncomfortable. It’s about creating a positive work environment for an industry that future generations will want to be a part of. It’s about letting people who have good things to contribute actually contribute them. And it’s about calling out the people who have behaved inappropriately to no consequence.  

Hopefully, if I am able to change the perspective of just one male manager or chef, or help prevent at least one more inappropriate situation towards a female in the restaurant industry, then F*it—let the haters talk because my mission will be fulfilled.