Chasing Flavor: A Filipino American Chef’s Search for a Lost Family Recipe

Mau‘i-based chef Sheldon Simeon thought his grandmother’s pork adobo recipe was lost to history. Then he traveled to the Philippines to film an episode of “Family Recipes” and discovered that the recipe was right where his grandmother left it.

Chasing Flavor: A Filipino American Chef’s Search for a Lost Family Recipe

From left: Pork Belly Adobo; Sheldon Simeon forages in Hilo, Hawai‘i

Photos by Kevin J. Miyazaki © 2021, From “Cook Real Hawai’i” by Sheldon Simeon and Garrett Snyder

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There’s nothing like pork adobo in a big silyasi, the Filipino wok.

It’s the national dish of the Philippines—you’ll see from the very north all the way to the south—and it changes a little bit, depending on where it comes from.

My adobo comes from the north. My grandparents grew up in the northern part of the Philippines, in Ilocos Norte. They fished in nearby rivers. They were surrounded by farms and lots of rice paddies. And when they moved to the Big Island [of Hawai‘i] in the 1930s, they planted vegetables from their childhoods in their new gardens, with seeds they hid on their voyage over. And they still cooked Filipino food, so in my family, we’ve cooked adobo for years. We’re still the family that whenever there are large gatherings in the community, we cook adobo.

I grew up on the Big Island on the Hamakua Coast. My fondest memories are helping my dad cook pork adobo for someone’s high school graduation party, someone’s wedding, or a first birthday celebration. It was normal for our family to cook for upwards of 300 to 400 people.

Even just the smell takes me back to that time. Filipino food is always like that—it takes me back home. And that one distinctive smell is adobo simmering in the big silyasi. I love it.

Our favorite way is to make it is with pork belly. It’s always so rich and so meaty and beautiful when it’s braised down slowly. I remember as a kid, we’d marinate our pork overnight. We’d add garlic, and bay leaf, and peppercorns and [then] simmer it in soy sauce. When you pour in the vinegar, it would perfume the air as it’s cooking.

My dad was usually in charge and he took pride in that and in teaching me and my brother. We learned to understand the smell of the marinade. At a certain point, just by smelling it, you know how it is going to taste—and that it’s going to be delicious. You can calculate in your mind what it needs for flavor, just based on the smell of it.

By the time I was born, my grandparents had started to pass the torch and hand over the cooking. A lot of times my grandparents would be sitting on the side, watching my dad and my uncles cook these big batches [of food]. My brother and I were in the thick of it all. We were the little sous chefs. Well, more like the prep boys and “gofers” because we would “go for this” and “go for that.” But we were totally in the mix. That’s why I think eventually, inevitably, my brother and I became chefs.

Later on, in my professional career, I pulled from these memories of growing up. I wanted to express my Filipino heritage in my food. I started to make my own adobo, and that’s when I began talking to my dad about our recipe.

[The recipe] came from my grandma, his mom. She would cook the dish in small portions. When my dad began cooking [adobo], he was influenced by his brothers and uncles. I loved that his recipe evolved and changed. But he’d always talk about how grandma used to make this style of adobo he could just never replicate.

He would explain it: “The soy sauce is a lot more forward. There’s a lot more peppercorn.” He told me the way she boiled everything down produced this beautiful glossy sheen, and I would romanticize about it.

I thought, “OK, that is the adobo I want to have. That’s the adobo I want to learn.” I wish we could’ve pulled [the recipe] out of my grandma but that didn’t happen. Around this time, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and she couldn’t remember too much. So we thought the original recipe was lost.

But then I got to go to the Philippines [for the PBS show Family Recipes] to search for it. I had never been there, nor had my dad. So when I picked adobo as my dish for the show, I wanted to see where my family comes from and to learn the adobo style of their home. I wanted to see and taste how it’s done.

Bundles of freshly harvested rice hanging out to dry in the mountain provinces of the Philippines

Bundles of freshly harvested rice hanging out to dry in the mountain provinces of the Philippines

Photo by N8Allen/Shutterstock

[Soon after,] we fly into Manila. It’s a hustling and bustling city, a city of millions of people with mopeds everywhere, with motorcycles, trucks, and vans. There are street signs, but they’re merely suggestions of where to go. Everyone makes their own chaotic way throughout the city.

We made our way up to Baguio City, in the north of the country, just two or three hours away from where my grandparents are from.

As you drive north from Manila, the crazy honking and sounds of motorcycles and people on the streets start to quiet down, [especially] the further you get away.

City streets turn into mountain roads—it reminded me of the valleys of the Big Island. We drove by rice fields on the side of the road and people drying rice right on top of the roadway. This was the Philippines that I wanted to see.

I couldn’t take my eyes away from the van window. We passed marshes with farmers guiding their water buffalo back and forth, and kids running and playing on the side of the road. And I pictured my grandparents growing up here.

One of the first things we did when we got to Baguio City was to go to the market. Thousands of people were milling around the stalls filled with vegetables, from the ground to the ceiling. It was strawberry season, so there were rows and rows of strawberries in all these different booths.

I saw all the things that were growing in my grandparents’ backyard back in Hawai‘i: talong [a type of eggplant], bitter melon, bitter gourds, squashes, and pumpkins. [I saw] all these different types of long beans, cabbages, and malunggay [a leafy vegetable]—all these things that grew in their garden.

In another section, there were butchers with longganisa, Filipino sausage. One booth had sausage hanging down like eight feet. Strands of these sausages went down [the market] for at least 50 yards—curtains of longganisa just hanging down.

Baguio City, Philippines: Colorful meat sausages, locally known as longganisas, are on display at the Baguio Public Market.

Baguio City, Philippines: Colorful meat sausages, locally known as longganisas, are on display at the Baguio Public Market.

Photo by Kizel Cotiw-an/Shutterstock

The next day, we went to a restaurant where we met chef Nick. He’s a legendary local chef from the same region as my grandparents, Ilocos Norte. And he drove all the way to Baguio City to cook alongside us.

He showed us how to make bagnat, this deep-fried pork belly that is very special to the region. He also cooked us pinapaitan, which is a bitter stew made from offal of the cow, so there is tripe, and liver, and all of that good stuff. It’s one of the most intense soups that you’ll ever taste. And then the crowning jewel to finish it all up was pork adobo.

He had all of the ingredients laid out: pork belly, garlic, bay leaf, some peppercorn, soy sauce, and vinegars. Exactly what we would use back home.

But then he started to cook. And that’s when it forever changed the way I looked at adobo. Instead of marinating it as we did, he began to slowly cook the pork belly in its own fat, rendering it down in the big silyasi. Then he added the sauce while he was frying, and it became this dark, crazy color that I’d never seen before.

Instantly, something clicked in my mind. I thought, “Is this really happening? Is this the recipe that I’ve been searching for—the one my dad talks about?” When my dad reminisced about this lost recipe, he’d talk about the soy sauce and the sheen of [the sauce]. As chef Nick cooked it down, I tasted it. The flavors were different from what I was accustomed to, but they mimicked the story that my dad talks about [when he talks about] my grandmother’s adobo: soy sauce forward–and that beautiful sheen.

It was the best adobo I’ve ever tasted. I felt as if I was my dad as a kid, eating my grandmother’s adobo, discovering this food for the first time again.

And all I could think about was “I can’t wait to go back home and cook this for my father.” I needed to know if this was truly it. But somewhere in my heart, I knew that it had to be: This was the recipe we were searching for.

The Waipi‘o Valley on the Big Island of Hawai‘i, where Sheldon grew up

The Waipi‘o Valley on the Big Island of Hawai‘i, where Sheldon grew up

Photo by Martin Zangerl/Unsplash

[Later,] when I visit my dad on the Big Island, the recipe unveiling takes place in our garage. That’s where we normally would cook adobo growing up. And I get to use something special: the silyasi, the wok my grandparents gave to my father. It’s nearly 80 years old and it must have cooked thousands of pounds of adobo. My dad watches carefully, looking over my shoulder and nodding. He’s quiet at first, but after that first bite, I see his eyes light up. I remember my hair standing up just watching his reaction. He said, “This is the style that grandma used to make.”

The recipe was back in our family.

Now when I cook for friends and family, I use this recipe. It’s not on the menu at my restaurant [Tin Roof] regularly. But when it is, I have to make huge batches of it because it’s become very, very popular. And I love that I always get to tell this story of how it evolved.

It’s so crazy to think about how that one recipe changed and evolved over 30 years, and now it’s come full circle. That’s how I think about food and recipes: Food is meant to evolve. And it does, a lot of times for the better. A lot of times it’s just by necessity.

Some recipes get lost because of evolution. I was just fortunate to be able to retrieve mine and capture the memory in full color and vibrance. —as told to Angela Johnston

Sheldon Simeon is a two-time Top Chef finalist, owner of the Mau‘i-based restaurant Tin Roof, and author of the cookbook Cook Real Hawai‘i (March 2021, Clarkson Potter).

Listen to Sheldon share his tale on the podcast

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Born in Hilo, Chef Sheldon Simeon acquired his love for cooking from his parents. His path led from Hilo High to the Culinary Institute of the Pacific onto an internship at Walt Disney World. Upon returning to Hawaii, Simeon attended Maui Culinary Academy. He competed on season 10 of Top Chef in Seattle where he finished as a finalist and won the coveted “Fan Favorite” title. After serving as the executive chef at Maui’s Mala Wailea and MiGRANT, he was named in Hawaii Magazine’s Top 5 Best Hawaiian Chefs of 2014 and voted FOOD & WINE Magazine’s 2014 People’s Best New Chef for the Pacific & Northwest. Earlier this year, Simeon opened Tin Roof, a mom and pop eatery in Kahului.