Growing up, I loved Filipino food. I mean, I had to: it’s all my mom made. I loved the way the house smelled like oil and sugar and vegetables. It was wonderful. Aesthetically, I paid no mind to the bland, lack of color in the dishes, as Filipino food tends to be varying hues of brown. Ultimately, it was comforting to eat.
And then middle school came and with it, all of the pressure to fit in. I swore off Filipino culture; I was Americanized. I hated the brown eggrolls, the beige noodles, the burnt sienna barbecue skewers. I preferred instead the Rainbow Brite colors of McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Hot Pockets. I didn’t want to be different at the end of the day. The food my mom made at home set me apart and for a 13 year old, this was intolerable.
Fast forward to now. A mini-family reunion a while ago reintroduced me to the foods of my childhood. At a time when I want nothing but good, honest food (sans over-processing, high fructose corn syrup and the like), I can’t get enough of the flavors I so callously ignored in my youth.
Take, for instance, lumpia, the Pinoy version of egg rolls: A simple mix of protein (pork or beef usually; my mom uses turkey), celery, carrots and onions wrapped in gossamer-thin rice paper and deep-fried to a golden brown. It’s almost childlike in its simplicity, and yet that is precisely why it is so comforting. The delicate crunch is a time warp to third grade when I brought lumpia to share with the class on my birthday while the other kids brought cupcakes. A simple meal at home always paired the egg rolls with a heaping portion of rice and chili-sauce, sometimes banana ketchup.
Another dish I wrote off but have since rekindled my love for is kare-kare, a stew that is a staple dish in many households. Made with a thick peanut sauce and featuring meat like goat, tripe or–most commonly–oxtail, it is often made for large family gatherings and the holidays. Many household serve it with bagoong, a salty, dried shrimp paste, on the side for added flavor. As fall ramps up, I begin to crave this hearty stew, rich with eggplant, bok choy and string beans. Like lumpia, it is grounding and reminds me of the food traditions on which I was raised: hearty, flavorful fare, lovingly prepared by Mom.