In the latest edition of an unusual pop-up series, chef Melissa Miranda learns how to cook — and recreate — a traditional Filipino feast from her parents.
Melissa Miranda, the Filipino-American chef at Bar del Corso, never understood why her mother and grandmother, great cooks both, never wrote down their recipes.
Other immigrant parents didn’t either, she realized.
They never wrote recipes on index cards and assiduously filed them, like those stolid Midwestern Lutheran mothers. They didn’t even use measuring cups. (What would Martha Stewart say?)
Yet far from the notice of Yelp or OpenTable, these immigrants and refugees composed tantalizingly balanced dishes fragrant with exotic spices, and layered with the flavors and umami you won’t find in most mainstream cookbooks.
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Melissa wanted to learn their secrets.
She also worried that these recipes, like a treasured family heirloom, would be lost if they weren’t passed along to the next generation.
Thus was born “No Cookbooks Allowed,” a series of pop-up dinners around Greater Seattle that honor the home cooking of the elders in immigrant communities.
Melissa began the series with three friends: Alan Vu, a Vietnamese-American event planner; and restaurant owners Guitar Srisuthiamorn, a Thai American, and Ronald Kuo, a Chinese American.
Together they have combed the region’s ethnic communities to find gifted home cooks they could watch at work, and ask questions as they made a family meal.
Afterward, Melissa recreates the meal in a pop-up dinner to bring a taste of these underrepresented communities to a more mainstream audience.
They plan to archive and post these recipes online.
These recipes have stories. They open the door a crack and give outsiders a small glimpse into the daily lives of our nation’s immigrants, Melissa said.
“We are losing our culture with younger people not learning how to speak our [native] language and not being interested in the food we are eating,” said Vu, who helped put on the pop-ups at Sugar Hill on Capitol Hill. “The way for us to connect is through food and to be able to share it, not just with our own culture, but everyone.”
No Cookbooks Allowed to date has held pop-ups based on the countryside cooking of a Vietnamese refugee and a Thai auntie; both dinners sold out.
The next pop-up, scheduled for Dec. 3-4, is more personal for Melissa: The cooking is based on the background of her parents, Filipino immigrants who grew up in south King County.
One evening earlier this month, Melissa stood beside her parents, Marlene and Rey, in the kitchen of their house on a cul-de-sac in Maple Valley. She was there to cook alongside them — a test run before the December pop-up.
They practiced a Kamayan, a traditional precolonial feast, a communal meal that’s eaten with bare hands. Mounds of rice are crowned with seafood and meat and spread over banana leaves across a table.
The unintended genius of Kamayan in the 21st century is that once you get your fingers sticky and greasy, you don’t dare reach for your smartphone. You have to — gasp — talk to the person next to you, for hours. It’s forced community, and it’s wonderful.
By 6 p.m. a dozen friends had trickled around the kitchen-island table, all chipping in to help. While the boisterous guests were dicing carrots and onions (and downing shots of tequila or sipping cognac), Marlene pondered why she has never jotted down recipes.
It never occurred to her, she said.
The 64-year-old, who came to the U.S. when she was 26, learned to cook from watching her mother cook, just as her mother before her. It’s the way everyone did it in her hometown, Quezon City, just northeast of Manila.
“We don’t use measuring cups. We taste. It’s very intuitive,” said Marlene, as she cracked two more eggs into the bowl to bind the ground-pork fillings for the lumpia egg rolls.
Here, now, is the story of one Filipino-American family as told through the five dishes they cooked that night (and which will be recreated at the public pop-up).
Dish no. 1: Adobong pusit
When his daughter was growing up, Rey often took Melissa squid jigging, a popular pastime among the Southeast Asian immigrants and refugees who settled in the Puget Sound region. In the dead of winter, father and daughter would get up in the middle of the night, bundled in three layers of clothing, to squid off the pier in Des Moines. The bounty is often used for this squid dish, which is popular in Cavite, Rey’s hometown.
The dish is accented with the familiar soy-and-vinegar flavors of Filipino cuisine, simmered in an onion-garlic-tomato base and stir-fried with vermicelli noodles, then topped with pork rinds, key-lime juice and smoked milkfish, for a briny flavor that recalls low tide. Melissa knows this aroma well.
Her parents packed sardines and other “stinky” food in her lunch box. Students teased her mercilessly. “I was so embarrassed,” she said. “Kids can be mean sometimes.” When she was young, she wanted white-people food, to fit in.
Now she seeks out those flavors that once embarrassed her.
“When we talk about preserving culture, a lot of people want to tone down the flavors. It’s important not to do that,” she said. “Use the funky fish sauces and the shrimp pastes.”
Dish no. 2: Lumpia egg roll
The recipe for this Filipino staple has been passed down for generations on her mother’s side of the family. Meat is kneaded and mixed with onions, water chestnut, salt, soy sauce, eggs, Johnny’s Seasoning Salt; then it’s all bound up in lumpia wrappers and fried. For this dish, her grandmother favored pork. Her mother prefers chicken, to lower the guilt ratio for these deep-fried snacks. Melissa insists on pork and shrimp. Fat is flavor, she said.
She also dumped globs of oyster sauce and turned her head to whisper, “It’s the secret ingredient.”
Her mother chimed in that onions and water chestnuts are the underrated stars in lumpia. This debate is never settled.
Over the decades, the hours spent repetitively rolling lumpia has become an important bonding time for the women in the Miranda clan, a chance to sit and talk for hours.
Dish no. 3: Barbecue chicken
For this dish, bone-in meat, both white and dark, is soaked first in ginger, brown sugar, soy sauce, garlic and 7 Up. The pop is a popular marinade in Filipino cooking; citric acid in the soda tenderizes the meat, while the sugar gives it a syrupy tweak and also helps caramelize the skin during cooking.
Melissa scooped up a bit of the marinade and offered it to her mother. Her mother tasted, nodded approvingly. They dunked the chicken into the bowl and soon it was off to Melissa’s father, who manned the Weber grill outside.
In the Miranda household, both parents cook. Like many immigrants, they both worked long hours to make ends meet — Marlene as a registered nurse, Rey as a painter at the shipyard and later for public housing.
Through all the long hours, one household rule was uncompromising: The family cooks and eats together. No television allowed during the meal.
Dish no. 4. Escabeche (Fried fish in sweet-and-sour sauce)
Pompano fish is dusted with flour and sizzled in vegetable oil and then bathed in a sauce with vinegar, sugar, salt, pepper, carrots, onions, ginger, carrots and yellow, red and green peppers.
Fish is a staple in the Miranda household. Rey, an avid fisherman, would take the family perch fishing in Ocean Shores. Afterward he would make his daughter clean and scale the fish. He also showed her how to “break down a chicken.”
She was born in the United States, but he wanted to “teach her life skills” of a Filipino villager, he said.
Dish no. 5: Ginataang alimasag crab dish
The Dungeness crab is simmered in a wok with coconut milk along with mounds of ginger, garlic, onions and chilies that had been sautéed first.
Melissa threw in a wild-card ingredient: a dark shrimp paste. Her mother paused, worried this would ruin the dish. The daughter brought a spoonful of broth to her mother’s mouth for approval. “Oh, that’s good,” Marlene said.
This exchange was so revelatory that, one week later, while watching her daughter cook, Marlene brought up this crab dish again, praising how the paste had added depth of flavor and an umami punch.
Her daughter has taken an old family recipe and made it better for the next generation of Mirandas, her mother said.
“No Cookbooks Allowed” will host two Filipino pop-ups, on Monday, Dec. 3, and Tuesday, Dec. 4, at Sugar Hill, 414 E. Pine St., Seattle, from 6:30-10 p.m. $65 per person. Tickets can be purchased in advance at eventbrite.com (search under “kamayan”).