When Aashi Vel, co-founder of San Francisco-based culinary company Traveling Spoon, first traveled to the Philippines, she was convinced Filipino food was terrible. “I had been so excited to explore the local cuisine and try dishes I couldn’t find at home in the U.S.,” she says. “Instead, I mostly found bland meat and carb-heavy dishes with not a vegetable in sight. It surprised me to find such minimal use of spices and flavors on a tropical Asian island.” She had nearly resigned herself to the fact that maybe the Philippines just wasn’t a destination for good food, until she stepped inside the home of a woman named Nayna. “My mind was instantly changed upon tasting ensaladang talong, a smoky eggplant that Nayna learned to make from her grandmother,” she says. Vel continued to be blown away dish after dish, tasting foods that were nothing like what she saw in restaurants and on the streets of the Philippines. This is why Lawrence and her partner, Stephanie Lawrence, created Traveling Spoon: to connect travelers with authentic food experiences in locals’ homes around the world.
In this case, Traveling Spoon’s mission was crucial: To get a real taste of Filipino food that truly reflects its history, you have to step inside a local home. “After talking with more and more locals, I realized that the colonial history of the Philippines fundamentally altered the country’s cuisine,” she says. “After decades of Spanish and then American influence, many of the local dishes faded from public consumption.” It’s still difficult to find restaurants that serve “authentic” Filipino cuisine in the Philippines. Vel visited local homes throughout Manila to find the best home-cooked food and truly authentic regional Filipino cuisine. Her research resulted in Traveling Spoon’s new program in the Philippines, which launches this week. Here, she shares five flavors and dishes that you’ll only find in the homes of locals.
1. Calamansi drink
“Calamansi is also known in the Philippines as a golden lime. The small sour citrus fruit tastes like a cross between a mandarin orange and a lemon. Nayna’s refreshing calamansi drink is made with lemongrass, calamansi juice, lime juice and other tropical ingredients distinctive of the Philippines.”
2. Ensaladang pako (local ferns salad in a calamansi and raw honey dressing)
“Our host, Isi, searched out local markets for the best ferns, tomatoes, and onions to make this dish. It was delightful and refreshing to eat local vegetables in such a creative way.”
3. Ensaladang talong (smoky eggplant with salted duck egg)
“When Nayna was a child she was always shooed out of her grandmother’s kitchen because she ate everything in sight. Over time, she learned to cook her grandmother’s dishes, like this unique eggplant dish. It was like a delicious Filipino baba ghanoush complemented perfectly by a salty umami flavors of the duck egg.”
4. Ginataang hipon sa taba ng talangka (shrimp cooked in crab fat and coconut milk)
“This was one of the single best bites of food I had on my entire four-week travels. The silken-smooth texture of the crab fat was outstanding. An avid cook myself, I had never heard of dishes being cooked in this way before, with the orange fat of the crab rendering the shrimp delightfully succulent. Nayna served the dish with rice and home-made, beer-pickled mangoes.”
5. Calamansi pie
“Calamansi pie is a tangy, creamy, sweet dessert that was made by Isi’s best friend. Think of it as the Filipino version of key-lime pie made with the Philippine’s signature citrus, calamansi limes.”