By GJ Sevillano
“Through my family’s many moves to many different cities, I began to connect the dots of my life. Every single dot I connected was a pot…that form[s] a picture of my life, my family, my calling, and my home.”
-Malou Perez-Nievera, Connecting the Pots: Charting Stories and Filipino Recipes to Find Home
“This peek into the cooking pots and lifestyle of some families makes one realize how much culinary wealth hides, grows, and brings pleasure in Philippine homes, where in truth our mother cuisine develops.”
-Doreen G. Fernandez, “Mother Cuisine” in Tikim: Essays on Philippine Food and Culture
While elusive, the embodied culinary performances of self-actualization—the private moments and movements in which the cook slices, stirs, and spices her meals to her satisfaction—are palimpsestically constructed in recipes. Recipes serve as a key genre in which historical subjects have constructed versions and visions of themselves that have exceeded the bounds of normative archives and their print cultures—the “undigested” figures that symbolize everyday forms of cultural resilience.[i] Thus, it is important as we expand our understanding of recipes beyond a mere set of culinary instructions, we must also expand our understanding of the figures that “dance” alongside us as we cook through the culinary repertoires of past, present, and future.[ii]
In the opening narrative to her co-authored cookbook with Ligaya Mishan titled Filipinx: Heritage Recipes from the Diaspora, Angela Dimayuga states that writing recipes and creating the cookbook was a “form of coming home.”[iii] Rather than a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age narrative, Filipinx perhaps can be more accurately called a coming-of-home narrative. Home not only in the sense of where she resides, but a coming-of-home within the Filipino diaspora in northern California, within the kitchen, within herself. This literary device, of grappling with different senses of home and homeland, is a key genre used by diasporic Asian writers. From the refugee narrative to the transnational adoptee narrative, Asian migrants have dealt with issues of home in their writing for some time. Similarly, Dimayuga uses the cookbook as a literary site to showcase herself “as a complete person.”[iv] For Dimayuga, her recipes inform not only the foodways she inhabits, but also the person she has found home in—a diasporic kusinera (chef).
The figure of the diasporic kusinera represents the ideals of the modern Philippine kitchen. Caught in the double binds of Spanish and American postcolonialism; cultural preservation and culinary innovation; belonging and unbelonging; and subjecthood and abjecthood, the diasporic kusinera represents the complexities in which Filipina womanhood is constructed in and beyond the sites of the culinary. Recipes like Vanessa Lorenzo’s “Navy Beans with Chorizo and Tomato Chutney (Habichuelas),” Nicole Ponseca’s “Banana Ketchup Ribs,” and Abi Balingit’s “Adobo Chocolate Chip Cookies” index the culinary creativity of the diasporic kusinera that takes seriously the everyday realities of postcolonial life.[v]
As Denise Cruz argues, “Figures of transpacific Filipinas are still a means of negotiating shifts produced by geopolitical transitions, now manifested not in formal empire of occupation, but in the dynamics of neocolonialism and the global marketplace.”[vi] Important to expanding Philippines’ foodways are cookbooks that recenter minoritized experiences of the culinary realm.[vii] Leland Tabares notes how “misfit professionals” use the narrative device of “coming-to-career narratives” to underscore the ways in which chefs of color, female chefs, and queer chefs utilize the genre of the cookbook to challenge normative notions of culinary professionalism.[viii] Building from this, I argue that the cooking, feeding, and eating Filipina embodied in these cookbooks and recipes materializes the ontoepistemological tensions of the quotidian Philippine diaspora. In other words, Philippine tastemakers must grapple with the afterlives and aftertastes of colonial histories that continue to stricture contemporary diasporic life.
In her genre bending cookbook-cum-autobiography-cum-poetry-collection titled Asian Girl in a Southern World: This is Not Your Mother’s Cookbook, Dalena H. Benavente, narrates the struggles of growing up Filipina in Obion County, Tennessee, one of the least Asian-populated places in the U.S. Benavente states, “It’s not enough to tell the stories. You can’t just read about it, hear about it or imagine it. You can’t because it’s just too much. In order to truly understand these stories that I have to tell, you have to eat them.”[ix] She continues, “I hope my noodles make you laugh, my cake makes you want to hug someone you love, and I hope my sangria makes you want to fight for what you believe in.”[x] For Benavente, the normative literary form of narrative is incomplete without taste. To translate her experience as a diasporic kusinera is incomplete without her recipes and her readers cooking alongside her. The consumption of her autobiography can only be corroborated by the embodied experience of following her recipes, cooking her food, and eating the flavors of her transpacific kitchen.
Benavente ends her cookbook where a lot of other Philippine and Filipino-American cookbooks begin, with a recipe for kinilaw, or as she names her dish, a ceviche of jalapeno peppers, prawn and peach. Kinilaw is a dish “cooked” with acid thought to be one of the longest standing pre-colonization culinary traditions native to the Philippines. Benavente’s version differs slightly in her preference to pre-cook the shrimp before she adds it to the lime juice, onion, jalapeno, and peaches. The blend of these seemingly unrelated surf and turf ingredients formulates the essence of her Filipina-American subjecthood. She states, “It’s the marriage of the prawn and peaches together in one place, much like your feet standing on unfamiliar ground but knowing that there is something about the proximity that seems so right.”[xi]
To cook the recipes and eat the foods of transpacific Philippine kitchens means to directly engage with the kusineras that grapple with the complexities of diasporic life. To taste her cuisine one must simultaneously confront the material realities of postcolonial haunting, global capitalism, and everyday cultural resilience.
[i] Kyla Wazana Tompkins, Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century (New York: New York University Press, 2012).
[ii] Robin Bernstein, “Dances with Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race,” Social Text, Vol. 27, No. 4 (2009): 67-94.
[iii] Angela Dimayuga and Ligaya Mishan, Filipinx: Heritage Recipes from the Diaspora (New York: Abrams, 2021), 10).
[v] For recipes see: Jacqueline Chio-Lauri, ed., The New Filipino Kitchen: Stories and Recipes from around the Globe (Chicago: Surrey Books, 2018), 122-129; Nicole Ponseca and Miguel Trinidad, I Am Filipino: And This is How We Cook (New York: Artisan, 2018), 316-319; Abi Balingit, Mayumu: Filipino American Desserts Remixed (New York: Harvest An Imprint of William Morrow, 2023), 143-145.
[vi] Denise Cruz, Transpacific Femininities: The Making of the Modern Filipina (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 234.
[vii] Francheska Go, “The Next Generation of Filipino Food,” Food Philippines, https://foodphilippines.com/story/the-next-generation-of-filipino-food/#:~:text=Making%20waves%20in%20the%20global,dishes%20like%20adobo%20and%20sinigang.
[viii] Leland Tabares, “Misfit Professionals: Asian American Chefs and Restaurateurs in the Twenty-First Century,” Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 77, No. 2 (Summer 2021): 103-132.
[ix] Dalena H. Benavente, Asian Girl in a Southern World: This is Not Your Mother’s Cookbook (Self-Pub., Dalena H. Benavente, 2016), Introduction.
[xi] Ibid., 232-233.
GJ Sevillano (he/him) is a doctoral candidate in the Department of American Studies at George Washington University. He received his M.A. in American Studies from George Washington University in 2021 and A.B. in Politics and Certificate in American Studies from Princeton University in 2019. He was born and raised in Historic Filipinotown, Los Angeles, CA where his academic curiosity and passion for Filipinx food was cultivated. His writing has been published in Verge: Studies in Global Asias, Ampersand: An American Studies Journal, and Alon: Journal for Filipinx American and Diasporic Studies.