A Global Filipino TCK in New York (A Q&A with The Errant Diner)

“Migrant” has been bumped off from our Filipino food anthology’s title. Originally titled The Migrant Filipino Kitchen, our forthcoming book is retitled to The New Filipino Kitchen: Stories and Recipes from around the Globe. Though I wasn’t thrilled about the decision at first, the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that dropping “migrant” is a good move.

TheNFKcover (PaoloEspanola)In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, France President Emmanuel Macron was asked what gave him the courage to go against the trend of nationalism or anti-globalization. He looked Christiane straight in the eye and said, “Because I know the outcome of this trend—it’s war.”

Philippine patriotism and nationalism spurred me to dedicate years of my life to this book. I don’t believe these sentiments of mine and the anthology itself can lead to war. However, I realized what the word “migrant” in the title could evoke in the present political context. Like pushing a hot button, it could fire up you-vs.-us or non-migrant-vs.-migrant emotions, when on the

ContributingAuthors
Coming in September 2018

contrary, the book is about inclusiveness. It’s about embracing our differences and celebrating our alikeness—regardless of our food beginnings. Come to think of it, isn’t that the essence, too, of Filipino food?

Yes, we are part of the Philippines and yes, like everyone else, we are also part of something bigger— the world. Paolo Payofelin Espanola, one of the book’s contributing authors, a third culture kid (TCK) living in New York, embodies this spirit beautifully in our Q & A. Paolo’s blog, The Errant Diner with the tagline “Break Bread, Break Boundaries” is one of the few blogs I enjoy reading. Read on and you’ll see why.

MFB: How do you answer the question, “Where are you from?”

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Little Paolo with Guakong

PE: Whenever I get asked where I’m from, I usually reply that it’s a difficult question without a short answer.  I’m Chinese-Filipino (apparently with a sprinkling of Vietnamese), born and raised in Saudi Arabia but educated in the US from High School onwards.  My last name literally translates to: “Spanish” in Spanish and my middle name was purchased from a Filipino during the years when the Chinese weren’t exactly treated warmly in the Philippines (my Guakong, grandfather, held the  “Chua” surname).  My parents were from opposite sides of the spectrum: He was a poor farm boy born to a rambunctious family from a rural town called Antique prone to short-sightedly spending college tuitions on loud, village-wide feasts.  She, on the other hand, was a fair city girl who came from a conservative and frugal immigrant Chinese clan that did not tolerate loud conversations at the dining table.  

Growing up in Saudi Arabia made me painfully aware of my own thoughts and of an oppressive boredom seeing as pretty much everything from racy movies (the kissing scene in Spiderman was censored for us) to pork to nightclubs were illegal, leaving most of us with nothing but our own imaginations.  At the same time, I was blissfully unaware of discrimination and many of the problems we face in America today as I grew up in an extremely diverse and accepting environment.  Most saw Saudi Arabia as a barren desert full of terrorists but we had cheap, flavorful food, even cheaper gas, and long, walkable coastlines with people from all over the world.  

The priest of our “underground” church (the practice of non-Islamic religions was also illegal) recruited me to his alma mater, a hilltop seminary in rural Wisconsin and so I went from 110 degree deserts to a 20 degree farmland.  College in equally frigid Minnesota followed and then a move to the city of (un)broken dreams: New York.

 MFB: You started your blog, The Errant Diner out of rebellion. Tell us more.

ErrantDinerPE: I’ve been writing for a long time and was the weirdo who loved answering essay questions on exams and other long-form assignments .  However, I never saw my writing as something that could exist outside of academia, mistakenly thinking that any writing that wasn’t homework was trivial and best reserved for the creatives.  The blog though, was born after years of anger finally cracked through during my days as an Accountant staring at Excel sheets until 2 AM for days on end.  I was mad that, ever since I was a kid, it seemed like I never had any power over my choices.  Between a controlling father, an equally controlling boarding school full of Catholic guilt, and a restrictive immigration environment here in the US, I hated how many of my decisions were not mine to make, especially what I could pursue as a career.  And so, in the middle of an especially busy project, I started the blog as a way to regain some control (at the cost of sleep).  I settled on ErrantDiner as I initially focused on the acts of cooking and eating and “Wandering” seemed like an apt description for my approach to life.  

I wrote about restaurants I had visited, recipes I had tried, and a few random musings and navel-gazings.  It has since shifted towards the exploration of our connections, identities, and thoughts through the language of food.  

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Photo and Recipe of Scallop and Monkfish Kinilaw: The Errant Diner

MFB: What’s it like for you to live in New York?

PE: Living in NYC is still an unexplainable dream.  I had moved here on a whim during an exit interview for a college internship (I blurted out “New York” when asked where I wanted to begin my career for reasons I have yet to discover).  It’s easy to walk down a street, hear a dozen different languages, and eat food from around the world.  In that way, New York and Saudi Arabia are more alike than people think.  However, unlike Saudi Arabia’s ennui-filled deserts, New York is a jungle full of distractions; both can cause their own sort of insanity.  One can spend anything from pennies to fortunes just dining here at places that range from soul-filled mom-and-pop shops to garish do-it-for-the-Instagram “food” temples.  You can spend years exploring just one cuisine or traveling the whole world through your takeout hankerings.  New York is everything and simultaneously nothing, a patchwork of immigrant cuisines and homegrown trends.

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MFB:What’s the Filipino food scene there like?

PE: Still young in my opinion though not in terms of years seeing as there are many veterans who’ve been quietly celebrating our cuisine.  The masses are now familiar with our adobos and pansits but we have yet to fully dive into regionality as we see with Chinese cuisine or cooking styles as we do with Japanese.  The flavors are there and, as with many other places where Filipino Food is present, the cuisine has its share of debate amongst the purists, the boundary-pushers, the mis-educated, and everyone in between.  Food – and one coming from such a diverse place as the Philippines – is after all a deeply personal part of our lives but there’s lots of room for us to grow and eat together.

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PORK BELLY ADOBO with CHICHARRON and MONGGO with BLACK TRUFFLE CREAM (Photo Credit: Paolo Espanola)

MFB: You said that food can be used to solve most of the world’s problems and one day. How so? 

PE: While in Lisbon, I stayed at a hostel where the owner’s mother cooked every night’s meal.  At her table sat people of all ages, colors, beliefs, and budgets…and yet, they all shared that meal with a sense of love and compassion despite the language barriers.  It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.  

I think it truly begins first with the human act of dining and breaking bread.  Food is indeed our universal language and one can find connections between just about anyone hidden in plain sight on our plates.  Food makes our shared human history evident, sensory, and memorable and is a far more emotional experience than debating news bytes ad nauseam.  As cooks – many of our cooks are regular people who hold day jobs by the way –  we try to weave in universal experiences into the menu with the hope that, through the entire dining experience, people realize that our problems are largely illusory and self-created.  Imagine if everyone who were taught to hate each other sat down through a meal and realized that the person across from them was their brother/sister?  I honestly think we wouldn’t have half the fights we have today.  

We need to examine our stories, find it in our food, but most importantly, break bread together…sans cellphones. 

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Harlem Rooftop (Photo Credit: The Errant Diner)

MFB: Any ongoing or upcoming Filipino food pop-ups/podcasts/projects?

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PE: Specifically Filipino no as I don’t think any of my projects have been such (I myself can hardly be considered a “pure” Pinoy).  However, most of my projects have hints of this.  Most of our dinners feature parts of my upbringing in a Chinese-Filipino household or memories of travels back “home”.  Many of our podcast guests are Filipino or cook Filipino food.  My writings talk about it too so you can say there’s a thread of Pinoy running through it all by virtue of circumstance though my POV extends beyond just Filipino.  

For those specifically interested in the Filipino aspects, I’d suggest following us on social media and subscribing to our newsletter on our website for upcoming dinners and definitely subscribing to our Podcast, Hidden Apron Radio. 

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MFB:Do you regret embarking on the more “profitable” and “immigrant-approved” education/work in accounting? Why or why not?

PE:  I don’t do much regretting to be honest (though yes there’s still a hint of childish bitterness left) since I wouldn’t be who I am today without the summation of all prior experiences.  But I do wonder from time to time what my life would be like if I was fully supported in my dreams.  I can’t blame my parents though as they both went through economic hardship, uncertainty, and living abroad and so would naturally be more conservative in their approach.  At the very least, my Accounting skills have made us masters at using Excel to plan and ensured that we haven’t lost a single cent since we first launched.

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MFB: If or when you have children of your own, would you nudge or push them to take the “right” profession? Why or why not?

PE: With regards to children, I would take the same approach with them as I do on the topic of giving “advice”.  I really do believe I have no right to nudge or offer any advice as there really is no right or wrong path (it is thinking that makes it so).  I can simply offer my experiences, ask good/better questions to get them to think differently, but ultimately, it’s their responsibility to write their own stories.  Reading a completely new story is far more preferable for the world than reading a sequel of mine wouldn’t you agree? 

MFB: What Filipino dish have you recreated that you have the most affinity for? Why?

PE: As clichéd as it sounds: adobo.  It was one of the first things I learned to make and many happy memories are tied with my cooking adobo: cold winter nights with college friends, student club meetings, simple dinners with a significant other, introducing Filipino food to newbies, bringing that distinct smell as I moved through life’s many phases.  I’m not particularly “proud” of my dishes (they’ve existed long before I got my hands on them)…but as a lover of stories, the adobo holds the most meaning for me. 

TheFilling
Photo & Recipe: The Errant Diner

Connect with Paolo Espanola:

Blog: The Errant Diner

Instagram: @errant_diner

Twitter: @errant_diner

Facebook: The Errant Diner

By Jacqueline Chio-Lauri
Compiler, Contributing Author and Editor
The New Filipino Kitchen – a 2017 Sunshot Prose Finalist Prize Winner
My Food Beginnings: Bringing people together through food and stories

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