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Jacqueline Lauri has worked internationally as a restaurateur and food writer for more than a decade, but she said she often struggles with explaining the cuisine of her home country, the Philippines.
“What exactly is Filipino food? As a Filipino, I myself struggle to answer that question,” said Lauri, who is currently based in Norway.
She said that challenge of accurately describing a cuisine that draws from a multitude of countries — including China, Spain, and the U.S. — coupled with what she called "rising anti-immigrant sentiment" around the world, inspired her upcoming cookbook anthology, “The Migrant Filipino Kitchen.”
"To understand it, you need to read through context, you have to experience the food by reading a story that connects to you on a personal level. You need to prepare it, you need to smell it, you need to taste it.”
The collection, scheduled to be released in fall 2018, will feature recipes from chefs — including White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford — food writers, and food enthusiasts of Filipino heritage from various countries, including the U.S., New Zealand, and Norway.
Each recipe will also include a personal story from the contributor, making it a part-cookbook, part-memoir from the Filipino diaspora.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Filipinos constitute the third largest Asian group living in the country, with an estimated population of around 3.8 million. The Philippine Statistics Authority estimated that up to 2.2 million workers of Filipino descent worked outside of the Philippines in 2016.
“For me, food is so much more than something we put in our mouths. It has a lot to do with culture, with identity and, most of all, empathy,” Lauri said. “The book is as much about Filipino people as it is about Filipino food.”
Filipino cuisine is having a moment: This past June, TV host Anthony Bourdain spoke about the cuisine gaining global recognition and said he plans to include sisig, a pork dish, in his upcoming street food center. In 2012, food personality Andrew Zimmern told TODAY that Filipino food was “the next best thing."
But even with this kind of buzz, Lauri faced an uphill battle selling the project. She said she had won over her literary agent with a 100-page book proposal. Publishers, however, were a different story.
“We would hear, ‘We’ll pass,’ and the comments are, ‘I’m not seeing a Filipino cuisine trend coming,’” Lauri said.
Others told her they had tried to rouse interest in Filipino cooking in the past without success and were unsure if they could publish the book on a large scale.
“I didn’t believe what they were saying and, in my opinion, they didn’t really know what they were talking about,” Lauri said. “Maybe I was just far too obsessed about this project, but I knew that it was going to happen.”
She considered self-publishing but found the potential costs of producing a visual-heavy book prohibitive. Eventually, the project found a home at Agate Surrey, a publisher that specializes in niche cookbooks.
Lauri said the book will be accessible to foodies of non-Filipino heritage, who will benefit from the historical and cultural context of the stories accompanying the recipes.
“Collaborative works like this promote inclusiveness. By looking at Filipino food through the perspective of migrants from different parts of the world and different generations, we are saying that each voice and each vantage point matters,” Lauri said.
One of those voices is Joanne Boston, co-director of the Filipino Food Movement, a U.S.-based nonprofit whose mission is to spread awareness about Filipino cuisine. Boston will contribute a recipe for balatong, a mung bean stew, in addition to a story centered on her relationship with her grandparents. She hopes it helps connect other Filipino Americans with their immigrant roots.
“My relatives have told me lots of stories about being in the Philippines, fighting in World War II, having to assimilate to life here in America,” Boston said. “I just want to make sure these stories get told and to show that all the sacrifices our family made when they came to America was for us first-generation Filipino Americans.”
“What exactly is Filipino food? As a Filipino, I myself struggle to answer that question.”
Both Boston and Lauri agree that the cuisine is best experienced versus just read or talked about.
“It would be hard for me to explain what Filipino food is to somebody who has never had it,” said Boston. “I would need examples so that I could say, ‘All right, here’s a dish. Do you taste the chilies? Or what the Chinese brought, the soy sauce? Do you taste the garlic and the onion from the Spanish?’”
“Filipino food is mish-mashed with foreign influences, so one dish can have as many different permutations as probably the number of islands of the archipelago,” said Lauri, referring to the more than 7,000 islands and islets that make up the Philippines.
“That’s why I say it is ineffable," she added. "To understand it, you need to read through context, you have to experience the food by reading a story that connects to you on a personal level. You need to prepare it, you need to smell it, you need to taste it.”