Besides my family, I did not know many Filipinos growing up. I relied on the experiences I had with my Filipino relatives, especially those related to food, as a window to see and understand my family’s culture.
Nana immigrated to the United States when she was seven; at the time, she spoke Tagalog and three local dialects. Like many immigrants, her father moved the family to offer their children better opportunities. Nana’s parents, my great-grandparents, had a “we are in America now” mindset; they spoke Tagalog to each other, but wanted their children to learn English. This lingual connection to culture was closed for most of my relatives early in their immigration story. Despite
Sy Dragon's Food Story
this American pride, my great-grandparents continued to make delicious Filipino food.
Nana’s diet growing up with immigrant parents was made up of home-cooked Filipino food, and when they could afford it, steak, which grandpa Fernandez would marinate in soy sauce for hours. My mother, Nana’s daughter, grew up in a mostly white suburb. Her diet was made up of Seven-eleven big gulps, Big Macs, and home-cooked Filipino food. My mother and her brothers’ food were influenced both by their Filipina mother and their white American father.
For a few weeks each summer, my mom, my siblings, and I would stay with my great-grandparents in Seaside, California. Their house always smelled of tangy meat. After long days of walking to the Wharf, great-grandpa Fernandez would cook dinners of steak, adobo, and pancit for us. Grandma Fernandez suffered from Alzheimer's and would offer us Lays chips and almond cookies half a dozen times throughout the day. As a kid visiting my great-grandparents, I did not distinguish between Filipino food and the American junk food grandpa Fernandez bought in bulk from Costco. Ube ice cream, lumpia, butterscotch candies, and Pepsi were all in the same category to me; they were all foods that grandma and grandpa Fernandez had!
This childhood conflation was a reflection of the complexity and multiplicity of Filipino culture. There is a tendency to dichotomize what is “white” or “American” versus what is “ethnic,” but this search for something authentic can actually lead us to be superficial. The consumption of American junk food did not make my family less authentically Filipino—it was part of their culture and experience as immigrants. The authenticity came from the fact that these were part of my family’s identity, not just elements of white American culture that my family adopted.
Because identities are informed by food, naturally, these identities change with immigration. Nana was one of the most patriotic people I knew. She by no means “forgot” Filipino culture by being grateful for her life and the opportunities she had because of her family’s immigration. When I think of Nana and her signature dishes, they are chicken adobo, fried rice (made with spam), banana bread, and chocolate rum cake; her tastes were a testament to the blend of foods that encompass Filipina identity.
Sy's Chicken Adobo Recipe
6-8 chicken thighs/legs
About half of a ginger root
Half of a large white onion
⅔ cup rice vinegar
⅓ cup soy sauce
Garlic powder/salt or fresh crushed garlic
Crushed black pepper
Place chicken in a glass container
Coat the chicken with salt and massage the salt into the chicken by hand
Rinse the salt off the chicken (the slimy yellow bits should come off while doing this)
Cut ginger into slices about half an inch thick.
Cover the ginger with a paper towel and gently smash each piece with a hammer (you can also put the ginger in a food processor instead). You should be able to see the fibers of the ginger; the more it is mashed, the more oil will secrete, and more flavor will be released.
Add the smashed ginger into the container with the chicken
Peel the onion and cut half of it into thin slices crossways (about ⅛ of an inch).
Add the onion container with chicken and ginger.
Combine ½ cup rice vinegar and ½ cup soy sauce in a separate cup
Sprinkle chicken mixture with garlic powder and black pepper
Stir the mixture by hand, pour vinegar/soy sauce mixture (the liquid should fill about halfway up the container; stir the mixture again
Cover and leave in the fridge for at least an hour. Flip the chicken 30 minutes after placing it in the fridge so that the chicken is fully marinated on both sides
Preheat a non-stick pan over medium heat for a few minutes, then cook the chicken mixture, gradually adding the sauce, garlic, and onions.
Cook the chicken until brown and sizzling, then flip. Cook all the way through, stirring occasionally. If the chicken sticks, you can add a bit of coconut oil
Remove from pan, add chopped green onion and serve with rice.