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.

Outdoor food market in Batangas, Philippines

Outdoor food market in Batangas, Philippines

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.