I came across Tikim at the age of twenty-one, a daughter of immigrants navigating the uncertain waters of identity. As a survival mechanism, some Filipino immigrants like my parents became adept at assimilation, at the cost of language and culture. Our family’s embrace of all things “American” had not guaranteed a sense of belonging. Neither had assimilation completely erased all traces of Filipino-ness, particularly in the kitchen. The scent of garlic permeated every corner of our house, and we ate bangus with sawsawan at least as often as macaroni and cheese. Although I grew up in a caring household, I yearned for something I could not name. Rather than bridging two worlds, I felt unmoored.
Hungry to learn about our roots, I delved into stories spanning homeland and diaspora. Alongside other second- and third-generation Filipino Americans, I searched for answers within our community’s histories of struggle and resilience. We dived into the Philippine-American War, the People Power movement, and the rise of the United Farm Workers. We eagerly stumbled through beginning Tagalog courses. Yet, it was within the pages of Filipino cookbooks—and Doreen’s food writing—that the seemingly disparate pieces clicked. A revelation reverberated in my body, and I recognized what I had been hungry for all along.
Food is our most intimate link to place, memory, and language. It is a visceral archive of survival. In Tikim, food is celebrated for good flavor—and for its memories of resilience. Of sinigang, Doreen wrote: “Only one who has experienced sinigang can tell the exact pitch of sourness that is perfection. Or the precise difference between souring by sampaloc and souring by kamias.”1 As someone whose experience was limited to instant sinigang packets, fresh kamias was an unknown treasure. Yet while reading, I craved the sensation of our mouth-puckering origins. Doreen had the gift of allowing us, her readers, to taste the unknown with our imagination, and turn the unfamiliar into the familial. Tikim’s nuanced descriptions were both earthy and sublime. Its pages hinted at a vast map of flavors, meaning and memory. As a guidebook, it took me somewhere I hadn’t realized I wanted to go.
Tikim is a book about food, but also so much more. Its pages evoked the luminous possibilities of a living culture. While Doreen’s writing is an homage to flavor, even more so, it is a testament to the people whose hands make our food. Here, the keepers of culinary knowledge were not limited to high-end chefs or food critics. Rather, her research turned to ordinary people—the fisherfolk and street vendors, home cooks and farmers—as valued practitioners who carry this knowledge forward. Even without contemporary descriptors like farm-to-table, local or seasonal, Tikim also reflected an ecological ethos. What may now be called “sustainability” connects back to the oldest strands of our cultural DNA. “Filipino cooking has, at base, a simplicity of method that comes from earth wisdom,” wrote Doreen.2 Likewise, Filipino identity is also earth based—a people shaped by land and sea.
Perhaps one of Tikim’s most profound lessons was the framing of power. Centuries of colonization by Spain and the United States were often used as the starting point for narratives of Filipino history and identity. Doreen asserted a rich precolonial history, and a dynamic culture that encoded Malay, Arab, Indian, Chinese, and Mexican influences into its cuisine. While colonization brought devastating losses, foods reflected a history of struggle across the centuries, and the indigenizing of ingredients to sustain family and community. As esteemed food historian Amy Besa summarizes, within Filipino cuisine one can still find the “food that was always ours” and “food that was borrowed and made our own.”3 We can reimagine the story of the colonized as one with agency.
While Tikim transported me thousands of miles away to an island homeland, it also mapped onto worlds I already lived in. In California and Hawai’i, I finally understood the miracle of kalamansi, malunggay, and ampalaya grown by local farmers—the bittersweet history of labor and migrations that pulled seeds and people across the Pacific. And I was struck by the contrast between the vibrant freshness of Filipino cuisine and a rich agrarian heritage, with its negative stereotypes as greasy, fatty, and absent of vegetables. I sought out ways Filipino Americans could return to the foundations of our food, and join a larger movement to reclaim ancestral diets and counter the effects of an industrialized Western food system.
Tikim helped me forge a path that continues today. As an educator, I’ve witnessed how food invites deeper conversations, and serves an entry point for students of all backgrounds and cultures. Young Filipino Americans, in particular, are eager to share family food memories. Yet many inevitably bring up the modern, diet-related chronic diseases now pervasive in our community. They hear damaging messages that pit the foods of culture against “good” nutrition. When they look for resources on healthy foods, they deserve to see themselves and their community reflected. Tikim is an important reminder of the power of representation. As we unpack the layers of history, we can find healing through a collective remembrance of taste, and take pride in the culinary intelligence of our ancestors.
What happens when immigrants (and the next generations) adapt traditional cooking to a new home? As I write this, a new wave of Filipino American chefs is in the midst of a culinary revival. The mainstream U.S. media is now casting (positive) attention on the foods of a majority-minority community long “hidden” in plain sight. Some chefs emulate family recipes, while others blend influences even as they bend traditions. All are cooking within a new context, with different ingredients and audiences. Yet we cannot forget that young chefs now in the spotlight stand on the shoulders of earlier generations, who struggled with economic and racially discriminatory barriers yet inscribed their mark onto the food world. I wonder how Doreen—no purist—would have regarded this newest chapter in Filipino food and identity formation. “Food, like language, is a living culture,” she wrote. “The old ways are tested and true, the new ways are not necessarily betrayals, if they are appropriate and result in good food.”4
Beyond the rise of restaurants, there are also powerful examples of communities reclaiming the strength of culture, interweaving food as a tool. In California, the Sama Sama Cooperative runs a summer camp focused on creating learning experiences for mixed and multigenerational Filipino American children. Together, children and adults gather to “restore parts of our culture that have been stripped away by colonization and assimilation.”5 As one of the cooperative’s educators, I have witnessed how families reconnect to identity, nurturing a deep sense of self through language, ecology, the arts, justice—and, of course, food. Each summer, our outdoor kitchen table creaks under the weight of harvest, and the children transform long beans, kalabasa, mustard and tomatoes into lunch. New generations of Filipino American farmers and gardeners are drawn back toward agrarian roots, like Ariana de Leña of Kamayan Farm, who runs a hand-cultivated vegetable and herb farm in Washington dedicated to the survival of culture through food. And thanks to historian Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, writer Gayle Romasanta, and artist Andre Sibayan, Filipino American heroines and heroes will be represented in American children’s literature for the first time. Their book Journey for Justice: the Life of Larry Itliong depicts the fight for a farmworkers union, one of the most pivotal American social movements in history.6 As in Tikim, Filipino foods are truly flavors of the people, keeping memory alive.
While reading Tikim’s stories of abundance, I found myself contemplating the realities of loss. For those of us who may not have the opportunity to learn recipes by family osmosis, we can thank books like these for capturing the flavors of a particular time and place. Yet it is stunning to realize how many edible species and cultural practices (and practitioners) are on the brink of extinction. The passing down of family recipes, the saline sweetness of lato, and the preservation of heritage seeds are increasingly rare.
Tikim invites us along a lifelong journey of reconnecting to cherished foods. And in light of today’s rapidly changing world, it is a call to action. We live in a time of narrowing biodiversity and an industrialized sameness, when both species and traditions are vulnerable to disappearance. We live in an era when the climate and global food system is fractured and hurting, and immense structural changes are needed. “And how much of our history, and our beings, would be lost when these flavors vanish in the mists of the past?” Doreen asks us.7 It’s not enough to simply hope these traditions survive into the future. Just like in generations past, we all have a role to play.
It is human nature to protect what we love. Cultivating appreciation is a first step in stirring the community to take care of what we cherish. Tikim reminds us that heritage is not a relic of the past, but a legacy that belongs in the here and now. It’s planted in the soil, cooked in our kitchens, and nurtured deep within the Filipino soul. When we reach back into our collective roots, we can reimagine a more delicious future.
Doreen Fernandez, Tikim: Essays on Philippine Food and Culture (Pasig, Metro Manila, Philippines: Anvil Publishing Inc., 1994), xii.
Francis Lam, “Filipino food: a cuisine of many influences.” https://www.splendidtable.org/story/filipino-food-a-cuisine-of-many-influences (Accessed on March 1, 2019).
Sama Sama Cooperative. http://samasamacooperative.org (Accessed on February 25, 2019).
“‘Journey for Justice’ children’s book on labor hero Larry Itliong launched.” https://usa.inquirer.net/17562/journey-for-justice-childrens-book-on-labor-hero-larry-itliong-launched (Accessed February 25, 2019).