Filipino food may be slowly gaining the status of a full-blown trend. In recent years, the late Anthony Bourdain has professed his love for the cuisine.
Many Filipino spots from all over the country have amassed steady followings and critical acclaim—think Señor Sisig here in the Bay, Eggslut in LA, Maharlika in NYC, and Bad Saint in DC. To many Filipinxs, the cuisine has always been nudging at the mainstream, but has never really quite made it. One thing for sure is that the cuisine has been around the Bay Area for a long time, and for most of the last century it has existed on the margins. But the history of the Bay Area is closely intertwined with that of Filipinx America. Growing up Filipino in the Bay, one joke I remember hearing amongst my cousins is that Karl the fog wasn’t actually fog, but steam coming from the rice cookers of the Filipino kitchens in Daly City.
Starting in the late 19th century, when the Philippines formally became a US colony, the Bay Area quickly grew into a hub for Filipinx immigrants. As newly minted US nationals, Filipinxs jumped at the chance to chase their own American dreams. The Bay was the gateway to farm jobs in the Central Valley, where labor was high in demand—and Filipinos were quick to provide. It’s no surprise that Stockton quickly became home to a Little Manila, which in its heyday had the largest concentration of Filipinxs outside of the Philippines. As this SF Examiner article reveals, until the 1970s, San Francisco was once home to a small yet thriving Manilatown along Kearny Street between Bush and Jackson. While the area is no longer recognizable as a Filipinotown, organizations like Manilatown Heritage Foundation fight to keep that history visible. Today, Daly City remains home to one of the largest Filipinx populations in the country—and smaller Filipinx communities scattered from San Mateo to Union City keep the Bay Area as one of the capitals of Filipinx American life.
If food is the gateway to a culture, the Filipino restaurants of the Bay Area are firmly ensconced in tradition, familial ties, and memories. It’s not just the names that are difficult to pronounce to a tongue unfamiliar with the various dialects of the archipelago—the dishes themselves are encoded with complex memories of the homeland, migration, and assimilation not always easily understood by those who don’t carry that past. While many popular Pinoy food spots in the Bay Area are branded as fusion, reinterpreted, or elevated Filipino cuisine, the mom and pop restaurants continue to offer Filipinx communities delicious comfort food and the authentic cuisine of their childhoods.
On the other hand, modern Filipino Californian fare can easily be found in downtown areas and trendy districts—and can be appreciated by anyone with an appetite to try something new. Often casually called “fusion,” not all modern Filipino American food is best classified under that label. Take Filipino food popup project Pinoy Heritage—they much prefer the term “evolution.” Perhaps they’re onto something; the word “fusion” does create the illusion of strict borders between cultures. Influences from various cultures have always shaped Filipino food. As chef Francis Ang from Pinoy Heritage pointed out to me, foods that are usually perceived as essential Filipino fare—lumpia, pancit, kaldereta—are heavily influenced by culinary practices from China and Spain. Today, the Bay is as formative to modern Filipinx American identity as Chinese and Spanish settlers once were to the inhabitants of the archipelago. Many of the popular spots that exist today are envisioned and created by second, third, and fourth generation Filipinx Americans, who spotlight the food they grew up with by riffing on the traditional dishes while highlighting local California produce. It’s still as Filipinx ever. Modern, fusion, or elevated—this family of cuisines shares certain resemblance: a dedication to multiculturalism, and a goal of sharing and community. I imagine these restaurants as conduits towards an ideal world where kids can bring danggit and sinigang to school without worrying about what their friends think.
More than anything, the current conversation around Filipino food in the Bay is attached to deeply vivid, personal memories. I asked several Bay Area based Filipinx/Filipinx American movers and shakers—two chefs, a business owner, an artist/activist, a photographer, and a musician—to guide you into their own little worlds of Filipino food through their stories and favorite local spots.
Kristian is an artist and activist. Born in the Philippines, he and his family immigrated to San Francisco when he was a child; today he calls both nations home. He is one of the leading figures involved in the current revival of the traditional Tagalog script, Baybayin, which was replaced by the Latin alphabet during the Spanish colonial era. Kristian creates calligraphy, murals, and art with Baybayin; however, at the core of this aesthetic and educational practice is capturing identity—whether that is a rooted past or a tangible artifact to pass down to the next generation—and helping others do the same. While he plans to continue advocating for the script and creating art, Baybayin is ultimately a part of a larger conversation. Today, he works with corporations and nonprofits alike, sharing Baybayin and empowering communities to “own their narrative.”
The Dish: Danggit
Danggit (in English, rabbitfish) is native to the island of Cebu. It’s traditionally eaten for breakfast as the salty accompaniment to eggs and rice.
I have lots of memories around fish. When I was a kid, I'd look in the freezer for something to cook and would find ice cream containers. I was always excited that there was ice cream but when I opened it, it was fish. I learned to cook for myself because I was home alone while my parents worked.
I like Danggit, which are these smaller salted, dried fish—I know it’s not popular. One time, when I first got my corporate office job, I had some leftover dangit. I brought it to the office and put it in the microwave. People started saying, “what’s that smell?” I was kinda embarrassed. But later on, I was like, screw this. If someone’s cooking pizza, they don’t care. So you know what? Whatever. And I followed in the footsteps of my Indian coworkers who don’t give a shit. We need to be like them. They live by the microwave. They don’t care if you don’t like the smells. They don’t care if they’re speaking their language and no one understands. Because that’s not their issue, that’s yours.
Pinoy Heritage: Francis
and Dian Ang, Danica Aviles
Born from a fundraiser benefiting the victims of Typhoon Haiyan, Pinoy Heritage is a Filipino food popup restaurant. The Pinoy Heritage team consists of Francis and Dian Ang and Danica Aviles. With a deep knowledge of the diverse regional cuisines in the archipelago, at every popup they exhibit an evolution of traditional Filipino flavors using California produce. Today, Francis and Dian work more on the business side, while Danica is the powerhouse behind the counter. She talked to us about one familiar dish—pancit palabok.
The Dish: Palabok
Palabok is a classic noodle dish often found at Filipino gatherings. As Francis reminded me, it originated from when the first Chinese immigrants settled in the Philippines, bringing their cuisine with them. The orange noodles traditionally get their flavor from a shrimp stock base, and shrimp, chicharon (crispy pork rind) and eggs on top finish off the dish.
As a child, I loved cooking and being in the kitchen. I grew up in the kitchen with my grandma and my mom; my cooking skills came from them. The palabok recipe that I make now evolved through my family. My grandma’s recipe was more traditional, where she would make a stock with the shrimp bones and heads and that would be the base for the palabok. My mom found that it would spoil quickly, so she had to change it. An aunt of ours had a variation on the recipe so my mom integrated that into the new family recipe. Now our base is chicharon, onions and garlic, which doesn’t spoil as easily as a fresh shrimp stock. So that is the recipe that she passed on to me, and that’s what I cook in all the family parties.
I was born in the Philippines, but I grew up here. Since I grew up with my grandma, she forced us to speak Tagalog—which is why I’m also fluent in that. Most kids that immigrate from the Philippines at that young of an age usually lose the language, because your parents force you to speak English all the time so that you can assimilate at school. At home, I was forced to speak Tagalog. Now I’m passing that on to my kids—I try my hardest to speak to them in Tagalog. Now they understand, but they can’t really speak it. But at least they have that advantage of being familiar with the language.
Cafe Colma at Lucky Chances (Colma)
Luke is a photographer and creative director based in San Francisco. He was born and raised in the Mission and Excelsior (where as he recalls, he would often go to school smelling like the fish he frequently ate at home). Since then, he has worked as a local in both New York and Berlin before finding himself back home. He has inherited a love for authentic, quality Filipino food-done-right from his grandmother and mother.
The Dish: Bagoong
“It’s popular across the Philippines, but there’s one particular region where my grandmother is from where they produce a really well-known version of it. It’s not really a dish; it’s a shrimp paste preserve that doubles as a fish sauce and salt. In some dishes, you might not even salt it if you use this because it’s very concentrated.”
My aunt has eight kids, my other uncle has twelve, so it was kind of a wild situation—you had all these children running over the place, but my sister and I were these super quiet, chill kids. All the elders in the family used to invite both of us to have dinner with all of the other old people. We were also pretty picky. They would be eating all the stuff they made for them, but my sister and I would be left with a bowl of white rice with this glob of pink shrimp paste on top. I always thought bagoong was a standalone food when I was a kid. Like cereal. Peanut butter and jelly, bagoong and rice. Later, I actually started to understand that it’s actually super complex; it’s this super sophisticated way of not having to use salt. It’s wild smart—just to use this pickled tiny shrimp to flavor things.
My grandparents, starting in ‘89, would come back and forth between San Francisco and the Philippines every six months. Whenever they would come back they would bring all this stuff. My grandma was famous in the community for being the person who could get away with smuggling bangus (milkfish), bagoong, homemade fish sauce, and jars of green papaya salad. She would actually bring pounds of dried fish with her. She would pretend she couldn’t speak English and always request wheelchair service, so she had the appearance of just being this old lady. We would get home, unpack all the goodies, and all night, my father and my aunts would be hanging dried fish on the porch from the clothesline. It was such a great way to grow up. There was all this excitement when the entire family went to pick up the grandparents from the airport. There would be at least two Balikbayan boxes (large cardboard boxes) full of stuff, and then all the illegal fish and shrimp paste on her person or in her purse. Legit smuggling grandma. That’s one of my fondest memories of her. She was so straight in every other way in her life—very devout Catholic, hosted all the prayers at the house, life-sized traveling Jesus statue that would come between her province and North America.
Since Luke chose to spotlight a condiment, one dish that he loves which features bagoong is Pinakbet. It’s a dish that he’s found is consistently pretty good, no matter where in the world you decide to get Filipino food.
Pinoy Heritage - although they don’t always serve pinakbet, Luke recommends PH in general.
Born in Tacloban City, Philippines, Ruby immigrated to the East Bay at a young age. Growing up here in the Bay, she was surrounded by Filipino culture as well as the smooth flow of nineties hip-hop. Rap has been her chosen medium since she was a teenager. In her music, she combines English and Filipino dialects (Tagalog and Waray), deftly crafting powerful spoken word. Many of her songs are about family and community, and reference her own cultural background of growing up Pinay in America. She is currently working on her second album.
The Dish: Sinigang
Sinigang is a meat and vegetable stew which is easily recognizable by its clear, sour broth. This dish usually features pork—Ruby mentioned often eating a beef version—as well as vegetables like okra. Tamarind is commonly used to give sinigang its signature tartness.
My mom cooked sinigang pretty frequently during my childhood, especially during the wintertime and around the holidays. When I think about connections to my culture and my roots, sinigang is always on the top of that list. The way it’s prepared, with the spices and the slow cooking, are the base of traditional cooking methods. The flavors remind me of home. No matter where I’ve tried the dish, it’s always reminded me of eating my mom’s cooking at home, or going back to the Philippines and eating my grandma’s version. Even if everyone prepares sinigang a little differently, the dish always has a familiar, consistent taste in all the places I’ve had it. In general, the recipe for sinigang is a lot more strict than other Filipino dishes, like adobo, for example.
Every time it was summer vacation, or the holidays, we’d try to go back home. My grandma would prepare sinigang every time we’d go visit Tacloban City. That dish makes me think not only of my grandma and my mom, but also of my cousins, my uncles and my aunts who would also be in the kitchen back in the Philippines. The Filipino family is so communal; everyone would be in the kitchen, and all hands were there to help prepare the food. We all sat down together to eat as well. Growing up here in the United States, life was always very fast paced. Oftentimes I felt like I was very far away from home. Sinigang brought me back to those moments of community, where I was reminded of where I came from and who my family was.
FOB Kitchen (Oakland) - When Ruby’s friends from Manila visited her in the Bay, she took them to this spot when they were craving Filipino food. The sinigang here is the best they’ve ever tasted!
Sofia is a Bay Area native currently attending Wesleyan University. She can usually be found browsing in a bookstore or hunting for her next iced matcha latte.