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.

Filipino Food as a Trend

We’re kind of mad.  No, actually, we’re really mad.  Filipino food has been considered the “cool new thing.”  Haven’t heard about it?  Well here you go:

“Every Single Food Trend That's Been Predicted for 2017: No. 28 Filipino Food” - Eater

“Have you heard that Filipino food is a big trend this year?  2017 seems poised to be the year you can bet on Filipino food.” - Bloomberg

“Food Network Kitchen Foretells the Trends to Look For in 2017: It’s all about adobo. Don’t know much about lumpia, longganisa, calamansi or kinilaw? In 2017, you may learn.” - Food Network

“Trend Watch: Filipino Food Heats Up: Long overshadowed by other Southeast Asian cuisines, Filipino food finally moves to the forefront.” - National Geographic

“Celebrity chef and TV host Anthony Bourdain has a soft spot for pork sisig, which he believes will lead the charge in Filipino cuisine's rising international recognition.” - CNN

Surely the recognition Filipino food has been receiving is great—why does this make us mad? Because a cuisine that has been developing for centuries, rich in indigenous ingredients and other cultural influences, and eaten by millions of people everyday should not be considered a trend, or the hot new thing.  

A trend usually refers to a spike in popularity for a period of time, but does not have longevity.  This terminology is the wrong description for what is really going on. For decades, Filipino American families have been cooking Filipino food, opening local restaurants and small stores, and sharing the cuisine with non-Filipino friends. Ask anyone who has a close Filipino friend about their knowledge of the cuisine, and chances are you'll hear many stories about lumpia presented in school during international days and pancit brought to potlucks.  Just because the cuisine only recently became noticed by mainstream food critics, media, and celebrity chefs does not make it more valuable compared to last year, or the year before, or the decades before when immigrants first introduced Filipino cuisine to this country.  

To consider our cuisine a “trend of 2017” is like placing it among the ranks of the Atkins or Paleo diet, low-carb, juice cleanses, wheatgrass shots, cronuts, unicorn frappuccinos, and other food crazes.  We are grateful that food writers, the media, and celebrity chefs are beginning to notice the wonders of Filipino flavors and the pioneers who pushed our cuisine to the forefront, but please keep the trendy vibe out of it.  To consider that Filipino cuisine—or any ethnic cuisine for that matter—is only cool now is disrespectful.

Filipino cuisine is hundreds of years old, influenced and developed over time by the many peoples that have landed in its soils and by the bountiful ingredients that grow there.  Every dish in our cuisine comes with a story about the region it's from, the cultures it's influenced by, the climates, plants, and animals that grow and live there, and an understanding of the importance of food bringing people together.  

For example, the Spanish rule over Philippines from the 1500s to late 1800s inspired many tomato-based dishes such as kaldereta, menudo, and afritada. Tomatoes, having originally come from the new world, was introduced to the Philippines by the Spanish(1). Filipinos also created their own versions of classic Spanish dishes, such as empanada and paella. Furthermore, many of our dishes are influenced by the Chinese because they settled in and traded with the Philippines as part of their trade routes, planting deep roots in culture, lifestyle, and cuisine long before the Spanish even arrived(2). As a result, we learned and developed noodle-based dishes and hearty soups such as palabok, pancit, la paz batchoy, molo and mami. We also borrowed steamed buns (siopao), egg rolls (lumpia), and dumplings (siomai) from the Chinese.One of the best examples of cultural melding in our cuisine is a dish from the Chinese but with a Spanish name: Arroz caldo.This rice porridge with chicken, ginger, and fish sauce—sometimes called lugaw—is an exact replica of congee but was given a Spanish name to lure the colonizers into local restaurants called panciterias(3). Though Spanish and Chinese have the biggest influences on Filipino cuisine, we also borrowed dishes and techniques from Mexican, Arabic, Vietnamese and Thai, Malaysian and Polynesian, and American(4). It is truly a melting pot cuisine that continues to develop and adapt to suit the needs of its people—that is another reason it is so incredibly delicious and unique!

Other aspects that influence Filipino cuisine is the country's humid climate and island environment.  Our cuisine’s love of vinegar and soy sauce originated from the need to preserve dishes in the very hot climate.  These two ingredients not only add tons of flavor to meats and vegetables, they also hold important preserving qualities that help food last longer.  Congruently, Filipino cuisine portrays many methods for food preservation—especially for fish and seafoods such as dried and smoked fish (tinapa), dried squid (pusit), fermented fish and shrimp pastes (bagoong), and small fishes preserved in oil (tuyo).  Moreover, our use of coconut milk in many dishes is not meant to satisfy the dairy-free, lactose-intolerant, or vegan eaters in America.  It is used because coconut trees are rich in the tropical climate.  Coconut, along with rice, is one of the most abundant ingredients in the Philippines, which is why Filipinos use them for both savory and sweet dishes.  Because climate and environment play a large role in the cuisine, Filipino food has changed much over the years.  Dishes have significantly developed from the days when our ancestors didn't have refrigeration to present day when we are finding new ways to combine local with international ingredients.

Another misconception of Filipino dining is kamayan, which has become very popular in America—dare I say even a trend. This term translates to "eating with your hands,” which is a common practice among Filipinos. In contrast, the dining tradition of laying out meats, fish, vegetables, and rice on long communal tables covered with banana leaves is actually called boodle fight. This style of eating was first introduced in the Philippine Military Academy then gradually spread to communities throughout the Philippines(5). It’s a dining style that is important in Filipino culture because it exemplifies how Filipinos use food as a means to bring together families, friends, neighbors, and communities. Boodle fight takes hours to prepare and needs the help of many hands. Both kamayan and boodle fights illustrate the significance of food-related rituals in daily and celebratory Filipino life.

Having just come from a visit to the Philippines, I can finally say that I now truly understand the origins and purpose of this delicious cuisine. The trip has forever changed my perspective on truly authentic Filipino cuisine versus how it's being portrayed in America and other Western countries. It was so important to experience where we came from and the origins of our cuisine because it ensued a deep understanding and appreciation of my identity, and left me with a yearning to learn more. To the Filipino chefs: we urge you to do the same. Visit your homeland and truly explore the flavors in their natural state. Don’t just make Filipino food based off the latest American trends, or create dishes because other chefs are making them. Learn how dishes vary based on regions and climate. Cook with and eat from street vendors, local restaurateurs, and innovative chefs living in the Philippines. How can we best share this rich culture with the world if we are not truly immersed in it ourselves?

We need to understand that the cuisine will be appreciated in its native form.  Don't feel mahinhin [shy] to use traditional ingredients, spices and flavors as they were created by our families and ancestors.  Use proper names and correct terminology. Share the dishes with pride. Do it right and well.  Let’s take advantage of this newly received attention to prove that Filipino food isn't just a trend—it's here to stay.


On the plus side, a trend is also defined as “a general direction in which something is developing or changing.” Filipino food has definitely taken a new direction for the better. This in large part is due to two major shifts in society: the growth of globalization, diversity, and travel; and the increasing number of young Filipino chefs with professional culinary experiences willing to take risks and become entrepreneurs. This growing change is not only in context to Filipino food—many ethnic foods are becoming more frequently enjoyed and recognized all over the world for the same reasons. This impact in growing cultural tolerance and diversity is an homage to the millions of immigrants in this country that are unashamed to share their culture with the world. I only wish that writers and media influences refrained from calling this growing change in the food culture a trend and instead focus on truly understanding the dishes and how culture shapes these ethnic cuisines.