How Christy Cunanan Is Using Filipino Ice Cream To Fuel A Conversation

Interview With A Trailblazer: How Christy Cunanan Is Using Filipino Ice Cream To Fuel A Conversation

A few weeks ago, we were asked to be speakers at PH Time Is Now, an event in Toronto bringing together global Filipino leaders. It was there that we met Christy Cunanan; California resident, proud Filipina, and founder of Cheeri Cheeri ice cream (a name that accurately captures just how cheerful Christy’s personality is).

Christy and I initially began chatting about something simple like food, but our conversation immediately went deep. She began sharing stories about her grandparents and her dreams. And it was then that I realized the power of a medium.

With Cheeri Cheeri, Christy uses something simple and easy like ice cream to dive into deeper topics about identity, heritage, family, and pride. And though we have yet to try Cheeri Cheeri’s delicious treats ourselves (*hint hint* come to Canada!) we just had to share Christy’s and Cheeri Cheeri’s story with you all.

    1. What inspired you on your journey towards creating Cheeri Cheeri Ice Cream?

    My Lolo and my Lola, are my most cherished role models! They surrounded me in an environment where I was encouraged to deepen my relationship with the "Pilipin@" part of my Pilipin@-American identity, especially since I was born and raised in Los Angeles, CA.  Though they were from Philippines and only lived with us in LA until I turned 5, their presence, their words, and their actions allowed me to understand and appreciate their values first hand.  Because of them, I am a proud Pinay and an advocate for giving Philippines the kind of love and representation that my grandparents were able to share with me.

    Cheeri Cheeri makes vegan Filipino ice cream in various flavours!Cheeri Cheeri makes vegan Filipino ice cream in flavours that remind you of your childhood. From top to clockwise: Buko Pandan, Pomelo sorbet, Abukado, Calamansi

    As for the journey of Cheeri Cheeri, it was about 5 years ago when I started to wonder, "How many others have such great role models like them?" or more importantly, "How many Pilipin@ hyphens DO NOT have someone to connect to that could help bridge their heart, mind, and soul to a place like Philippines (a place that could easily be overlooked as the faraway place thats "foreign")?"  They developed my strong connection to our family and to the motherland all through sensory experiences. Their style of education made sure to include Philippine history, stories of mythical creatures, stories of their lives, and careful break downs of how and why things were done a certain way. I was in awe as a toddler learning all this. I have yet to feel that same kind of impression and attentiveness in any other spaces since, so it is something I definitely value and seek!

    That is why I created Cheeri Cheeri. Cheeri Cheeri grants me the opportunity and pleasure of making sure I never lose them (Lolo & Lola), their stories, or their relatable approach. They were my definition/ personification of "Philippines". Because of this,  I wanted to share the Philippines that my Lolo and Lola so beautifully symbolized, captured, and passed on to me. To share Philippines so that it was impressionable and easily accessible meant that we had to be very intentional with our medium of choice. My family (and business fam) ultimately decided that the best contender was....

    2. Why ice cream specifically? And why vegan?

    5 years ago, I also made the effort to visit my Lolo and Lola in Pampanga, Philippines (1-2 times a year). Part of our time together was dedicated to me practicing making my Lolo and Lola's favorite barrio dishes (which were 10 + recipes). The goal was that my cooking attempts could revive their feelings of what "home" feels like for them. I quickly found out that if you are going to make something right (and to the barrio's delight), it takes patience as well as the honest feedback from the people that bring life and memory into those dishes.
    I realized that the more I started to hone on a single medium, that it became important for me to identify WHO I was making this ice cream for and what message I wanted curious tasters to take with them. Figuring out the "Who" made me reflect on past conversations with peers regarding Pilipin@ food. I can easily point to moments (even from this week) where people would quickly refuse to try my (aka "our") Pilipin@ food despite all of the ingredients being familiar and commonplace in the US. Seeing that this cycle kept happening, I wanted to find the best medium to help challenge that kind of behavior in both Pilipin@ and non-Pilipin@ communities. 

    It was 2 years ago where we discovered nothing was more fit for the job than ice cream, nobody says no to ice cream!

    Each of Cheeri Cheeris' Filipino ice cream flavors hopes to capture Philippines as you once remembered!Each of Cheeri Cheeris' Filipino ice cream flavors hopes to capture Philippines as you once remembered!

    As for why our flavors are vegan?

    While I was deep in learning and experimenting with how to make ice cream, my family was hit hard with many unexpected health problems which all compounded together around December of 2017. The onset of diabetes and the pervasiveness of cancer affected our closest loved ones and prompted a quick and drastic change to our diets. We all became vegan at one point to support each other, so naturally, the same happened for our ice cream. When we shared our vegan flavors, we experienced an overwhelming appreciation for the shift, which cemented our belief of how special this ice cream is and how it can be special for other families beyond our own Cunanan household. Before we knew it, many vegans/non-vegans and Pilipin@s/non-Pilipin@s quickly started to exchange conversations, stories, and excitement of anything Pilipin@ at our pop ups events!

    3. You once said that you want people to go beyond just tasting food, and instead connect with the people behind it. What do you mean by that?

    I know that I eat a ton of Thai food and Vietnamese food because its so delicious...but  I can also confidently say that my over indulgence hasn't led me to having a greater understanding about the people or culture of Thailand or Vietnam. It takes curiosity and it takes engaging with the people to truly expand our world view through food...not just with food being the only developed connection to a region. As owner of Cheeri Cheeri, I wanted to take an active part in shaping the conversations toward being a positive representation for people and their values first. It will be a dream come true when people can say with empathy and excitement that they love the people just as much if not more than the food itself. When the world includes the faces and the values of the people, it is at that point when people have truly connected in a more relatable way.

    We especially hope that for the generations that grow up far away from the motherland, that we can help contribute/inform that void with a meaningful treat that allows people to relate yet celebrate the unique differences they have. When you grow up wondering "what does it mean to be Pilipin@" or second guessing "am I Pilipin@ enough?" what matters most at that time is knowing that you have others that accept you (whether they are Pilipin@ or not). Cheeri Cheeri wants to show you that the community altogether is willing to show up and support a traditionally marginalized identity.

    It is with the growing Cheeri Cheeri community that together as a diverse yet very Pilipin@ group, we all can continue to encourage questions, discovery, and stories to be shared and exchanged...but all of that starts with investing and putting the spotlight on the people that have always been there (versus a food trend).

    4. Every aspect of Cheeri Cheeri is so intentional and driven by stories. What’s a particular ingredient you use that evokes really strong memories for you?

    Calamansi will always be one that is very special to me because it was the first tangible home-grown produce that my Lolo took the time to explain to me its Pilipin@ quality and its specialness in being able to thrive far away from Philippine soil. He planted the trees in the backyard, so even to this day it (the fruit or the tree itself) is a beautiful reminder that I am sharing my Lolo with others as well as the feelings from that moment with him as a toddler.

    Cheeri Cheer's vegan-friendly langka (otherwise known as jackfruit) ice cream topped with thin crunchy banana chips 🍌Cheeri Cheer's vegan-friendly langka (otherwise known as jackfruit) ice cream topped with thin crunchy banana chips 🍌

    Another flavor I love of ours is Taho! Last year was the hardest year for our family. Our Lolo was in the hospital, so we all spent many nights sleeping over and praying that he would get better. Every 5:00am we would step outside the hospital eagerly listening for the loud calls from a Taho vendor yelling, "Tahooooo". It was the best pick-me-up because it was Lolo's favorite street dessert to get for me and my younger sister. Lolo knew bringing us taho brings a smile to our faces, so the times that we were able to get it for him and share it with him at the hospital allowed for us to bring a moment of happiness from the outside ...inside to our handsome Lolo. It is these thoughtful and characteristically Pilipin@ moments that are beautiful and important to continue to share.

    5. Can you tell us about your process of creating a new Cheeri Cheeri flavour? How do you decide what flavours to launch?

    Flavor creation is a very personal process. I first ask myself  "what are the most cherished memories I have of me and my family together where we were extremely happy"? then I reflect some more and ask "How can that specific dish provide further insight to their story, region, celebrations, or their seasonal specialties?"

    When we test a flavor, I have friends and new visitors (from varying generations) give me insight on what their experience was like engaging with the flavor. My team knows that a flavor is ready to launch when we hear validation from many Pilipin@s saying, "This reminds me of home" or "This makes me think of _____".

    Christy Cunanan was inspired by her lolo and lola (grandparents) to share what they taught her in ice cream formChristy Cunanan was inspired by her lolo and lola (grandparents) to share what they taught her in ice cream form.

    From the very beginning, I wanted to make sure that the ice cream isn't just crafted with just me (and my family) in mind, but that we get the opinions of cross generational Pilipin@s first. Especially if our ice cream is meant to show pride of being Pilipin@, then we have to be mindful of representing as many regions and experiences as thoughtfully as we can. Hopefully we can help all to discover or revive what Philippines means to them and their family!

    6. As a Filipino-American yourself, how do you hope to change the Filipino food landscape?

    I hope Cheeri Cheeri  impacts the food landscape in such a way where the conversation about anything Pilipin@ doesn't just start and end with food. I can't wait for our Pin@y pride to stem from within  and THEN have the food be an extension of that self love.

    It has been common for me to hear from my peers, "I am a bad Pilipin@. I don't speak the language, I never been to the Philippines, I don't really like or eat too much of our food".  I keep thinking about how that perspective could have benefitted from having a growing Pin@y presence growing up or connection with someone like my Lolo or Lola. We definitely want to address with our ice cream that It may be hard to understand for yourself, but please always know that you are always  "Pilipin@ enough" (regardless of the qualities just stated beforehand).

    Being Pilipin@ is a gift, not something that has to be earned, and we hope that by making flavors that are easily identifiable by your Tit@s/Lol@s/and Parents, that we can stimulate natural moments that invite the presence of more stories with the Pilipin@ perspective and sharing of more intimate and beautiful family exchanges around a treat that is bound to make everyone happy.

    7. What’s your biggest hope for Cheeri Cheeri?

    Cheeri Cheeri Flavour Favourite: Filipino Fruit Salad!Cheeri Cheeri hopes to use ice cream as a medium to inspire Filipino Americans to reconnect with their roots, while introducing Filipino culture and pride to non-Filipinos in the wider community.

    Simply put, I hope for all to know how important and valued they are.  As Pin@ys, we sometimes may not feel that or we may feel something valuable is missing. Our family ensured that we loved each other and most of all loved ourselves and our beautiful identity (hyphenated or not). This product was possible because of the love of a family and their culture, and we hope you know that that connection we have as a family is being extended and shared with you all so that you too can take part in the love and support.

    Gelaine Santiago

    Gelaine Santiago

    Gelaine is a social entrepreneur, an online storyteller, and a passionate advocate for diversity and ethics in business. She’s the co-founder of Cambio & Co., an e-commerce fashion company working with Filipino artisans to celebrate Filipino craftsmanship, culture, and heritage. Gelaine is also one of the founders of Sinta & Co., the world’s first conscious Filipino wedding boutique. She was named one of RBC’s Top 25 Canadian Immigrants of 2019. Find her on Instagram @gelainesantiago and

    1 comment

    • Marr

      This piece was so meaningful. I felt so much warmth & pride reading it & just feeling the authenticity. Prayers to your family & mabuhay from Texas :)

    Leave a comment

    Please note, comments must be approved before they are published