(Photo credits: Cassandra Sicre & Eileen Zara, Video by SALO Series.)
Cooking in a Filipino kitchen has always been chaotic for me. Oil from the frying short ribs was splattering everywhere, the oven wasn’t heating up fast enough, the person bringing the ice (who was also providing music for the night) was nowhere to be found, and the blender for the Kare-Kare sauce just broke. Remind me again why I took a 24-hour bus ride to Chicago for this?
A few months ago, I had written about Yana Gilbuena, the force behind SALO, the 50-part pop-up dinner series bringing every state a Filipino kamayan-style (eating without the use of utensils) dinner every week. Just recently, I trekked out to Chicago where she held her 19th one to a turnout of almost fifty people (I mean…mainstream media channels have been covering her)! Having made it almost halfway through without being driven insane by the perils of her cross-country travels (ie. monotonous roads, endless McDonald’s, and horror movie-esque rest stops), Yana graciously welcomed me as her sous chef for the day.
Cooking for SALO was an entirely new experience, throwing down at Sweet Tips BBQ, an artist launch pad-cum-BBQ joint owned by modern-day Renaissance Man, Roy (who happens to raise his own cattle too). However, it still felt comfortingly familiar; the banana leaves, the lack of rigid plating conventions, the family atmosphere, and the celebration of the Filipino sport of eating non-stop. It was a hot and humid day made worse by the simultaneous operation of a sizzling griddle for the fried rice, the entire stovetop, and an industrial convection oven. But in between wrapping the milkfish in taro leaves and checking to see if the chicken inasal was done, I got a chance to catch up with Yana and ask how SALO was going.
Errant Diner: It’s Number 19 and you’re finally in the Midwest! With this many under your belt now, what’s been the most surprising or unexpected thing you’ve experienced thus far?
Yana: The enthusiasm and support I’ve gotten hands down! In every state I’ve been to, I’ve had a great turn out and people really showed the love. Not having a permanent location makes it tough but people have been great at sharing their kitchens and couches with me. I didn’t expect for there to be such a positive reaction to SALO.
ED: Is the support mainly from Filipino communities though? I remember you mentioning that it’s sometimes hard getting our own communities involved.
Y: Actually you’re right. I remember an incident where a Filipino community leader flat out told me that Filipinos in his area would probably not support, or were not interested, in the concept SALO stood for. In fact, almost 80% of my diners are not Filipino. It’s strange because the non-Filipinos really buy into it and are willing to try our foods but the reaction from the Filipino communities, while still very positive, isn’t quite the same. I was hanging out with my grandparents in Ohio and when I explained SALO to them, they were pretty surprised and said: “‘te Day, ma-kinamot guid ta ya? ‘Te ang mga Amerikano ya? Basi malaw-ayan sila!” [“Wait…we’re eating with our hands? How about the Americans? They probably won’t like it!”].
ED: Wow…that’s actually consistent with something Nicole Ponseca, of Maharlika in NYC, has mentioned a lot about the Filipino concept of “hiya” [“shame”]. It seems like we’re ashamed of certain aspects of our culinary culture that prevents us from really sharing it don’t you think?
Y: Indeed. However, it’s more so the older generations as the youth really dig it. I’ve actually heard some ask their parents why they never shared this part of our culture with them and that they wish they had known that this was the way we had eaten back home.
ED: I’m sure you’ve seen but…everyone seems to be doing kamayan these days and some would say it could turn into just another gimmick. Thoughts?
Y: Well…someone did mention that kamayan-style was “kitschy” and I can see their point. However, SALO goes beyond the fact that we’re eating with our hands. It’s really about the atmosphere and using food to connect people. Lots of then-strangers who’ve attended a SALO are now friends and if we can somehow use this as a vehicle to spread Filipino culture but also create places for people to build relationships, then why not?
ED: Got it! Everything sounds like it’s going great! How about adjustments? Is there anything about the experience that you’re going to change moving forward?
Y: I think I’m going to start really paying more attention to my portioning. I always end up buying and cooking more than what I need. It’s hard because you need to be flexible but I suppose it’s also in my nature. You know us Pinoys, we’re always afraid we won’t have enough food available. Just look outside, we have at least five guests who weren’t in the original list for who we had to quickly set up a table to serve. Most places would turn them away but that’s not how we do it so yes…I’d like to be more aware but know it’s a difficult task.
ED: I think the chicken’s about just done so last question: if you had any advice for anyone looking to help spread the Filipino culinary culture out there, what would it be?
Y: It’s really simple: if you have an idea, go for it. That’s it. There’s no other way I could put it.
It was really that last part that was deceptively simple. After all, Yana had sold her belongings, given up her lease, and threw caution to the winds in going on this cross-country tour. But looking around, maybe it wasn’t that hard. On one table sat an energetic young lady who had offered Yana a place to crash and happened to know foodies across the country. Across the courtyard was Roy and his family who had opened up the gorgeous space. By the kitchen entrance were representatives from Singha Beer and in the kitchen was Lauren from Feastly who did not hesitate in getting her hands dirty helping out. Add to that the band for the night (Parasitic Twins), photographers, videographers, friends, and fellow rebels who just wanted to help out and you start entertaining the crazy thought that maybe chasing your dreams isn’t that hard after all.
And like all Filipino get-togethers, dinner didn’t really end with dessert as the night grew older with some chill music and more alcohol. I still maintain that throwing down in a Filipino kitchen for a Filipino feast is one of the most chaotic but just like your army of drunken Titos, nosy Titas, and rebellious Pinsans, I’d like to think we wouldn’t have it any other way.