Is culinary snobbery for real in Italy? Mamma mia! If you ask me, I’d say yes in a heartbeat. I’ve experienced it firsthand. My mother-in-law is Italian! Although I’ve never lived in Italy, we’ve visited at least once every year for the past 18 years.
One time, we were at my in-laws on my son’s birthday, so I volunteered to make the birthday cake – strawberry shortcake, his favorite. After the birthday song was sung and birthday candles blown, I cut into the three alternating layers of sponge and strawberry with cream cake and served everyone, including my dear suocera (mother-in-law), a slice.
I immediately sensed her hesitation. She examined the cake with skepticism before she mustered the courage to dig in. She forked a tiny morsel into her mouth.
Nose turned up, she pushed her plate of cake away. Her verdict? “Nauseante”, meaning nauseating. If I didn’t see my son and husband, who are also Italians by the way, but the kinds who don’t live in Italy, devour their pieces of cake with gusto, I probably would have burst into tears.
Don’t get me wrong. My mother-in-law is not a snob. She is a wonderful, humble lady who slaves over in the kitchen and waits on her family on hand and foot. But when it comes to food, she is a tough one to please. And while she doesn’t represent the entire Italian public, I’m sure she’s not the only one in Italy, who regards anything foreign-made, meaning any food prepared by someone who lives from 30 miles away and further, with utmost suspicion.
My point? For a Filipina to break into food in Italy is probably as difficult as scaling the legendary summit of Monte Bianco. That is why I was so thrilled when I found out about Rome-based Rowena Dumlao-Giardina, an accomplished Filipina food and travel writer, recipe developer and food photographer, who’s making her mark in Italy.
Rowena is the lady behind Apron and Sneakers, a blog about cooking and travelling in and beyond Italy. How is her blog different from others in Italy? Hers has two doors open to two worlds of cuisines: Asian or Filipino inspired cuisine and Italian cuisine.
On Apron and Sneakers, Rowena shares her experiences visiting wineries, restaurants and hotels. She attributes the success of her blog to the wide scope of categories she tackles, which sparks the interest of her audience. Likewise, her photography is a strong magnet to her work.
My Food Beginnings was not the first to notice Rowena’s flourishing career. She’s been interviewed and featured in both Italian and international sites and magazines, such as Juan in EU.
Her work takes her far and beyond the confines of her own home. In August 2015, she, together with other media people, were invited to spend a day at ALMA Scuola Internazionale di Cucina Italiana, the world’s leading international training center for Italian Cuisine, directed by Italian Master Chef Gualtiero Marchesi. During this visit, she stayed in the kitchens and classrooms with the other students and was also one of the judges of the school’s culinary competition that awarded the winning student a scholarship.
Rowena(left) at ALMA Culinary School
Outside of Italy, she participated in press tours and events in Georgia, Bulgaria,Turkey, Spain and the Netherlands. In the Hague, she was invited to a dinner event to promote Philippine cuisine with Purple Yam owners Chef Romy Dorotan and Amy Besa at the residence of Ambassador Jaime Victor Badillo Ledda of the Philippine Embassy in the Netherlands.
Rowena with Ambassador Ledda
When Rowena is not traveling, she works at home full-time, creating recipes, cooking them and photographing what she has cooked.
The daughter of Nimfa B. Dumlao, originally from Marinduque and the late Capt. Ramon S. Dumlao, originally from Tarlac, Rowena grew up in the Southern part of Metro Manila.
Capt. Dumlao, Rowena’s father, was a pilot for the UN. He died while on duty in Angola. After her father’s tragic passing in 1999, Rowena travelled alone to Europe for a much needed soul searching. With nothing more than her worldly needs in a backpack and a eurail pass, she journeyed across Europe for a month and a half, starting from Madrid. It was at the Madrid train station outbound to Lisbon where Rowena met her future husband, who was also then a traveler.
“It was the beginning of a wonderful journey all over Europe. We would meet in some cities and amazingly, make a lifelong commitment. I moved to Italy in the same year,” she reminisces.
How She Got Started in Food and with Apron and Sneakers
Like many Filipinos in the Philippines, Rowena grew up without minding the kitchen and what went on in that part of the house.
“There was always someone who took care of the food and it always arrived on the table. I did have an interest in cooking but when I tried to follow some western recipes, I just had to give up,” said Rowena. “Most ingredients were difficult to find in the Philippines at that time.”
In Italy, without the comfort of help she was used to at home, Rowena realized how inadequate her cooking skills were. Fortunately, her mother-in-law, whom she described as “having the Sicilian genes of an incredible cook”, took her under her wing in the kitchen until her first-born child arrived.
As a mother, it was time for Rowena to hold the reigns in the kitchen. The years of training with her mother-in-law paid off. She prepared her son’s food from scratch. Nothing artificial. Nothing processed. It was, therefore, her maternal love that got her started in food.
Apron and Sneakers was a product of her cooking for her kids. At some point, her son became a very picky eater and with the birth of their second child, she had to be creative to make her kids interested in eating. She started photographing the food she prepared and posted them on Facebook. After continuous prodding by her friends to start a blog, she finally took the plunge in 2011.
On Filipino Food
Rowena describes Filipino food as a particularly unique cuisine with influences from Spanish, Chinese and Malay cuisines. At least, that’s how she recalls it was some twenty years ago when American influence had not overtaken the real essence of Filipino gastronomy. When people asked her about our cuisine, she’d say it is a rich cuisine of seafood, vegetables and meat (mostly pork), that are usually grilled on fire or cooked with coconut milk accompanied with rice, the Philippine staple, and different kinds of dipping sauces.
Filipino food in Rome
“Filipino food is still a mystery among Italians,” confirms Rowena.
She knows just a couple of establishments serving Filipino food and they cater mostly, if not exclusively, to the Filipino palate. Popularity-wise, it cannot be compared to Chinese and Japanese, which dominates the Asian cuisine market in Italy.
“I think there is a big need to open more Filipino restaurants with an Italian- friendlier approach to the cuisine, something that can bridge the gap between Filipinos and non-Filipinos,” says Rowena.
Advice for aspiring bloggers
There are three things in Rowena’s must list for blogging: passion, determination and patience.
“Love for what you’re doing transmits to your writing, which becomes a natural flow of words coming straight from your heart. If you are determined about what you started, you won’t easily give up. And of course, patience – don’t think that as soon as you start blogging, opportunities will start clamoring on your door. It takes time and patience. Blogging works for others and it doesn’t for some,” advises Rowena.
Her Filipino-based Recipes
- Rowena bring elements of Filipino cuisine into many of the recipes she develops. Examples are:
Avocado, Green Tea and Almond Ice Candies
Coconut Granita with Mango Sauce
Creme Caramel With Cinnamon and Brandy Sauce
Her Recipe and Story Behind the Recipe (An excerpt from Apron and Sneakers )
Ensaladang Lato with Grilled Shrimp Skewers
by Rowena Dumlao-Giardina
After a seafood lunch of orata alla livornese in Eataly, I made my way to the seafood section to buy some shrimp to cook for dinner. As I was checking the array of oysters from Brittany, France, my eyes landed on a big container of alghe (seaweed) beside them. I went closer and was transfixed for a full minute. My mind raced back to my childhood, remembering fond memories of Sunday lunches in my grandparents’ house.
Sundays were special and when we had seafood, my grandmother made sure that we had seaweed grapes or lato salad as a side dish. I shared the love of this salad with my grandfather. Almost everyone ate it but not everyone was as crazy about it as the two of us. Maybe because seaweed grapes looked like bunches of minute grapes that I had grown attracted to or perhaps it’s because it was served as a salad mixed with onions & tomatoes and dressed with vinegar. Whatever the reason is, it remained high on my list. This salad was soon forgotten after my grandfather died when I was 12 and the Sunday lunches became lesser and lesser until my father’s family completely dwindled. The Sunday get-togethers abruptly stopped along with this salad. I never saw the seaweed grape salad on our table again.
Photo by Rowena Dumlao-Giardina
Sea Asparagus Salad with Grilled Shrimp Skewers Recipe
- 200 g. sea asparagus
- 1/2 Tropea onion (any red onion is fine), rings
- cherry tomatoes, halved
- 1 lemon rind
- black sesame seeds
- extra virgin olive oil
- Barolo wine vinegar (or use any vinegar you have)
- 8 – 10 shrimp, deveined and shelled
- fresh basil leaves
- Clean the sea asparagus with water. Take away the parts that are brownish. Set aside.
- Boil some water in a big saucepan. Prepare a big bowl that can accommodate the sea asparagus with ice and water. When the water boils, add some salt and blanch the sea asparagus for 3 minutes. Take them with a slotted spoon and transfer them to the bowl of ice and water. Make sure that they are submerged in the water. This way, you trap the color and freshness of the sea asparagus. Once cold, drain well.
- Transfer the sea asparagus to a serving bowl. Add the tomatoes & onions. Sprinkle with the sesame seeds & lemon rind. Dress with extra virgin olive oil, vinegar & salt.
- Grill the shrimp on a griddle. Put 4 – 5 in a skewer, alternating with the halved tomatoes & basil.
- Serve the skewers on top of the salad.
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