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It's All History by Jon Malek

Food and culture

by Jon Malek

I like to keep the readers of this column updated with what I’m working on, whether it’s starting something new or bringing a project to an end. I recently had a short booklet on Filipinos in Canada published by the Canadian Historical Association, which is now available for free to download on the Association’s website. In addition to this project, I have been working on my first book on the history of the Winnipeg Filipino community.

I like to share my work with the community as a means of giving back. I have received many blessings from Winnipeg Filipinos over the years and have made many lasting friendships as a result of my work. Far from being a “parachute researcher,” one who comes into a community, gathers data, publishes their work, and then leaves, I find myself an adopted son of the community, for which I am very grateful and by which I am humbled. I like to contribute what I can, not just through my research but also through community service, such as with the Manitoba Association of Filipino Teachers, Inc.

That is why I am happy to talk about my next research project on Filipino food, history, and identity. In my work on the history of the Philippines and Filipino immigration, food has frequently been present. A lot of my work explores how Filipinos discuss their culture and identity. Food, almost as much as the Filipino language, is often held up as a key marker of that identity.

Food is integral to cultural identity. Because food is such an essential part of one’s life – banal in its everyday nature yet key to some of life’s most important events such as birthdays, weddings, and other celebrations – it becomes intertwined with culture and heritage.

Personally, my relationship to Filipino food has been long and ongoing. When I was first introduced to the cuisine almost twenty years ago, I was living in gastronomic isolation. I ate within a Western palate, shying away from non-Western foods and only venturing to Chinese buffets. But exposure to Filipino cuisine was a source of excitement for me. I was eager to try new dishes, not only because they were so delicious, but because they opened up so many ways to learn about Filipino culture and the Philippines. The cuisine is of course tied to Filipino history, bearing influences from China (pancit, siomai, lugaw), Spain (lechon, flan, empanada), the United States (fried chicken, spaghetti, hamburgers) and other counties (Japan, influencing the dessert halo-halo) on top of the rich indigenous food of the Philippines.

In many ways, Filipino food was familiar to me because it resembled that to which I was accustomed, such as Filipino spaghetti, pork barbeque, or fried chicken. Of course, lumpia and pancit, ever popular dishes at Filipino parties, were familiar to me because of eating in Chinese restaurants here in Winnipeg. But, as with all Filipino foods, despite any outside influences, the flavours and ingredients were distinctly Filipino. I was also eager to try other dishes such as kare-kare, menudo, sinigang, and of course adobo.

As a young adult learning to cook myself, I was keen on asking how dishes were prepared, what sort of ingredients were used, and eventually I began cooking the dishes myself. I am not a natural and am often teased for how devoted I am to using measuring spoons for my ingredients (“Filipinos don’t measure,” as I’m told), but there is a great joy in creating bulalo, Bicol express, linutik, lomi, laing. The day my wife told me I was now responsible for cooking adobo at home was the day I knew she truly enjoyed my cooking.

As I learn new recipes from others, the questions I ask about how a dish is prepared often lead to stories and memories of the Philippines. On one occasion I showed my wife a container of safflower I had just bought, and it ignited a childhood memory of her grandfather in the Philippines. The many stories of life in the Philippines that I have heard share something in common: how intimate one was with the food they prepared. In Winnipeg, if one wants to cook munggo, for example, one must spend a lot of money to get malunggay leaves – and only a very little bit at that – while in the Philippines, one could conceivably pluck them fresh from the yard. Same, too, with sampaloc. I insisted recently on making sinigang without using the broth package and spent quite a bit of money for only a few pods of Sampaloc. It was delicious, though, and more rewarding than the powdered sampaloc.

The process of food preparation is different in many parts of the Philippines than it is here in Canada. So much of food in North America has been industrialized. It is canned, preserved, processed, packaged, frozen and refrozen, and more and more frequently pre-prepared for convenience. Even if we buy produce, we are not really sure how fresh it is or exactly where it is from. Fruit, for example, can be stored for months in cold storage before being shipped to market. And this doesn’t even begin to consider the ethical considerations of how food is produced.

There has been a push in recent years to “buy local,” something which never disappeared in much of the Philippines. Vegetables, a key ingredient in nearly all Filipino dishes, are often collected from one’s garden or backyard. Filipino food, as I’ve come to see it, is naturally adaptive to what is locally available. But, one of my research questions in my new project is how does moving to a place like Winnipeg affect the way Filipinos engage with their culinary heritage? Does not having such ready access to fresh, locally sourced ingredients affect how dishes are made or experienced?

The growth of groceries stores in Winnipeg catering to Filipino and other Asian cuisines is a testament to how important the community has become in the city, but from the early days of the 1970s when the community was young, Filipino groceries were popular businesses in the community, especially in the so-called “Filipino Town” just east of the Health Sciences Centre.

This topic of food, history, and culture may become more common in this column. Currently, I am collecting oral histories and talking with community members about their memories of food, both here and in the Philippines. If you are interested or would like to hear more about the project, please email me at And if you have a family recipe for Adobo you’d like to share, I’d love to hear it!

Jon Malek received his PhD from Western University and currently teaches history at the University of Manitoba. He is working on a book manuscript on the history of the Winnipeg Filipino community.