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Credit: Photo: Neal Santos; Food Styling: Amelia Rampe

“Our Flavors Are Strong, Funky, Sour, and Salty:” Amelia Rampe’s Journey to Bring Filipinx Food to Her Table

published Oct 27, 2020
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In September 2020, the words “Filipinx” and “Pinxy” were added to Dictionary.com. As a child of the Philippine diaspora, I’ve always kind of rejected the masculine and feminine “o” and “a” that our Spanish colonizers bestowed upon us. As a feminist, I don’t appreciate that “Filipino” was the overreaching word for all things from the Philippines, and I also felt that using “o” or “a” was unfair for gender-fluid and non-binary folx. 

Filipinx is a word mostly used by children of the Philippines diaspora. Rather than separate us by gender, it includes every person. The word “Philippines” was also given to us by Spanish colonizers, and I recently learned that indigenous Filipinos refer to each other by the region they’re from. For example, my family would be called Visayan because we originally hail from Visayas, in the central part of the archipelago. Throughout this recipe package, I may toggle in and out of x, o, and a because of where it lies in my memory bank or how that specific person identifies. However you choose to identify, I support you, without judgment.

Credit: Neal Santos

The Diverse Cuisine of the Philippines

The Filipinx community is the second largest Asian community in the United States, and it’s difficult to use blanket descriptions to describe the cuisine. With over 7,000 islands in the Philippines, the food varies from region to region — the food you find in the mountain province is not the same as the food you find in the south. The Philippines is located next to Malaysia, so you see many similarities to that cuisine. The oldest Chinatown in the world is found in Manila, so you see lots of Chinese influence in our food as well. Plus, it’s a country that has been colonized by the Spanish, Japanese, and Americans — you can see that impact in how Filipinos eat as well. 

Growing up in the U.S, I saw many other kinds of Asian restaurants — my family frequently ate Chinese, Japanese, and Thai food — but I could only find Filipino restaurants in Filipino neighborhoods. They were usually buffet-style, never sit-down-and-order-style restaurants. It bothered me. How could the people who brought beloved adobo to the world not get the sit-down treatment? Why was our cuisine relegated to buffets in just our neighborhoods? Why weren’t we everywhere like Chinese restaurants? I’m very happy to see the recent uptick in Flipinx restaurants — not only their existence, but also the fact they’re finally getting the recognition and accolades they deserve.

Credit: Photo: Neal Santos; Food Styling: Amelia Rampe

My Introduction to Filipinx Food

Growing up Asian and specifically Filipinx in the U.S. means you have to put up with a lot of ignorant commentary about food. My childhood is filled with memories of people challenging my food, calling it gross or smelly. And if I have to hear one more comment about eating dogs, I’ll scream. Our food was not created to placate a Western palate. Our flavors are strong, funky, sour, and salty. They challenge the blander flavor profiles you find in the white-dominated American food scene, and I’m particularly proud of that fact. You can always tell who approaches cuisine with an open mind — they likely love the cuisine of the Philippines.

I was lucky enough to spend part of my childhood living in the Philippines. I moved back to the United States when I was 5. I grew up in Southern California where white blonde ladies were celebrated not only in the media but also in the hierarchy at school. Just like any impressionable young person trying to fit into a new culture, I slowly let my culture go. I became more American. My mom, married to a white man, rarely cooked our food (although her lumpia is my favorite). We mostly only ate our cuisine — the party standards lumpia, pancit, and adobo — on holidays. It was rarely part of our weekly repertoire.

In high school I lived with my father, who was also married to a Filipina; her mother also lived with us. Inay (mother in Tagalog) was my step-mom’s mother. She would cook Filipino food all the time. It was the first time in my life that I ate my cuisine not just on the holidays, but as a normal part of our week. It was through her that I ate lugaw (or arroz caldo) for dinner, and it was her who would whip up a pot of sinigang (tamarind stew) on a Wednesday night. Thanks to Inay, we ate Filipino food just like any other American family ate hamburgers. 

Credit: Photo: Neal Santos; Food Styling: Amelia Rampe

Bringing the Flavors of the Philippines Home

Now that I’m older and have a family of my own, Filipinx food is how I share my culture with my family. I went back to the Philippines in 2019 for an extended trip to continue to educate myself not only about our food, but also about my culture as well. I returned transformed. I witnessed the class disparity and intense energy in the air that comes with it. There’s a lot of poverty in the Philippines, and people work very hard to make ends meet — adults and children alike. My people have been through so much (multiple colonizations, war, concentration camps) and through it all they are strong, spirited, and move through the world singing. No joke — everywhere I went, people were singing and sometimes we would all sing together. We can all learn a lesson of resilience and inner peace from the Philippines. If you’ve ever cooked alongside me, I often sing while I cook. The song of my people lives in my spirit.

Credit: Photo: Amelia Rampe
Market in Olongapo, Philippines

I also came back with new insight into my people’s cuisine. I got to eat food I had only read about. I discovered dishes I had never eaten before. While I admit I don’t know enough (yet!) to cover all the regions of the Philippines (I hardly scratch the surface), I’m excited to share the food that is familiar to me, my family, and my experiences. Most of these dishes I grew up eating in my home on a weeknight, with the exception of one that I discovered while traveling through the Philippines. All of them are masarap — delicious! — and I’m thrilled to share a little of that knowledge here with you. You’ll find my tips for getting them on the table on even the busiest of weeknights scattered throughout.

I want to take a moment to acknowledge Philadelphia-based photographer Neal Santos, who helped me bring the visual experience to life. We spent a few incredible days collaborating on how we wanted to present these recipes. Basically, two Filipinx kids got to nerd out on our vision and we had the best time doing it. A dream come true!

Amelia Rampe’s Weeknight Filipinx Recipes

From a beginners’ guide to lugaw to tips for stocking a Filipinx pantry, here’s Amelia’s collection of recipes and inspiration to make Filipinx food part of your own weeknight cooking. 

1 / 5
How to Make Lugaw
For me and many Filipinx, lugaw is the ultimate comfort food. It’s often served on rainy days and when you’re sick. And even though it’s mostly considered a breakfast food, I’m happy to eat lugaw morning, noon, and night!
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2 / 5
Gising-Gising (Pork Simmered in Coconut Milk and Shrimp Paste)
Gising-gising, which literally translates to “wake-up wake-up,” is not a dish I grew up eating, but I wish I did! It’s packed with spice from chiles and deeply savory bagoong, so it definitely wakes up the senses. It’s part of a family of dishes called ginataan, which translates to food cooked in coconut milk.
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3 / 5
Shrimp and Fish Sinigang (Tamarind Stew)
Sinigang is a tamarind-based stew that really showcases the Flipinx love of sour. I love the broth so much, I always used to go back for seconds of more broth on rice. It’s a comforting feeling to this day.
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4 / 5
Chicken Adobo with Coconut Milk (Adobo sa Gatâ)
In my life, I’ve enjoyed adobo many ways. One of my favorites is adobo infused with coconut milk. There are coconuts all over the Philippines, and in this recipe coconut milk adds a luxurious texture to the broth.
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5 / 5
Bistek
In the Philippines, we love the taste of sour, and bistek is the ultimate celebration of that flavor profile. It’s beef marinated in calamansi juice (or citrus juice, if you can’t find calamansi), soy sauce, chopped garlic, thick sliced onions, and bay leaves, and it really packs a punch.
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