Interview With a Trailblazer: Nastasha Alli on Filipino Food, History and Movement Building
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We spoke with Nastasha Alli, writer and creator of the podcast Exploring Filipino Kitchens where she talks about Filipino food, history, culture, and travel. Nastasha will soon be published in the book The New Filipino Kitchen alongside Filipino chefs and other key figures in the Filipino food community. Over the last few years, she's become a go-to resource for all things Filipino food, and has led several initiatives and community events to share the beauty and diversity of Filipino cuisine in all its shapes, forms, and flavours.
Nastasha recipe testing her version of Pancit Palabok for the My Food Beginnings Filipino Food Anthology Project
1) First, tell us a little about yourself. Who IS Nastasha Alli and where does your passion for Filipino food come from?
I started writing about Filipino food literally at a feverish pace. I had the flu one winter, just before I finished journalism school, and felt like nothing in the world could make me feel better than a bowl of sinigang, piping hot and soured with tamarinds, filled with chunks of pork belly, kangkong (water spinach) and gabi (white taro) like my dad used to make it. I’m sure the cold medication played a part, but I felt delirious and kinda irritated that it was proving such a challenge to get this bowl of soup. Could I not make it myself? I didn’t want to trek out to the Asian grocery in a snowstorm, though there was a Loblaws nearby... but how exactly would you make sinigang, from scratch, anyway?
That’s when I realized I knew nothing about something that meant a lot to me. I wanted to know how sinigang was traditionally prepared, why certain vegetables go into it, how using different fruits native to the Philippines affected its sourness. What did people living outside the country use as a souring agent? Why was it sometimes made with salmon and flavoured with miso? So many questions came with my craving for Filipino food!
2) Tell us about the inspiration behind Exploring Filipino Kitchens. What do you hope to accomplish?
I’ve had the idea for Exploring Filipino Kitchens in my head for awhile – I started by writing these long blog posts about things like dragonfruit growers in the Philippines and why corned beef became so popular. I had endless discussions online with people who talked about regional variations of adobo and why some people make it with soy sauce and some without. Basically, I was really interested in how Filipino food, as we know it, came to be. In my digging I came across the study of “foodways”, which is a term used in social sciences to describe how food intersects with history, traditions and culture. I thought, yes, that perfectly sums up what I’m so curious about!
So I started the podcast to answer those questions. It is and will remain very personal – with every episode, my goal is to “explore Filipino kitchens” a little bit more, with people I interview and places I visit. Learning about my food culture, I found, really helped me learn about myself. How we cook and consume the dishes we love, whether “traditional” or not, are all tied to our personal experiences growing up...which in turn shape our identities, our worldview, and how we carry out our lives. And because Filipinos are everywhere in the world, our stories carry such a distinct flavour – I felt many of those stories needed telling!
I also wanted to cover as many viewpoints as possible – that means not just the trendy stuff that people in North America are “discovering” (i.e. ube desserts) but also things like what the farming and fishing industries in the Philippines look like today. Food as a subject opens up avenues to talk about pretty much everything under the sun – good and bad – and I’m excited to learn as much as I can and share what I find out.
#TBT to this epic, wonderful spread of dishes from Cagayan de Oro's Kagay-Anon Restaurant. Pictured clockwise from top left is an intensely garlicky, incredibly meaty ostrich salpicao, locally-grown crocodile sisig, tender ostrich tapa, seared crododile tenderloin, halaan shellfish in a clear, gingery broth, farm-fresh vegetable pinakbet and barbecued ostrich. Lami!
3) Creating anything for the public – whether it's art work, a blog, a podcast, or a business – is a frightening and vulnerable experience. What was it like for you in the early days when you were starting out and putting yourself out there? Was it scary? Did you have doubts about whether people would care, or if it was important?
To be honest, like many other people starting something new...I’ve kinda just been winging it and going along with what happens! Ha ha. Very “fly by the seat of my pants” stuff. But that doesn’t mean there’s hardly any work going on behind the scenes – it’s the total opposite. There are days when I wonder why I spend so much time reading research material, weekends when I’d rather be cycling or visiting a friend instead of editing endless hours of interviews.
But I like throwing myself into this not just because I enjoy talking about food...but because I feel that writing (on my blog and as a freelancer) helps contribute to the overall story of Filipino food and what it means for people, whether you’re a Instagram-loving “foodie” or a recent immigrant juggling two jobs, for whom chicken adobo and steamed rice is a staple meal not just because it’s easy to make but provides your kids with lasting ties to your “home” culture.
I didn’t know whether I’d get answers to my cold emails (especially those I sent to some of the Philippines’ foremost culinary experts and authors!). I didn’t know if people would find my questions worth their time and I had no clue about how to cut and normalize audio files, let alone record and produce entire podcast episodes. It was totally scary! But cheesy as it sounds, I just had to do it - so I did. In my head I visualized having an episode list with a range of topics so wide that anyone with some interest in Filipino food would find something to listen to!
4) The Filipino food movement has come a long way, but there's still further to go! What are the next barriers we need to overcome as a community to ensure Filipino food receives the attention it deserves?
I truly believe that allowing a plethora of diverse voices to reach a global audience is key. Like you guys say, there’s so much talent in the Philippines and within the Filipino community worldwide – but we need to show our support! A real “movement” can only happen with people working together to show the diversity and depth of Philippine cuisine – like food producers in the Philippines (such as the artisanal sea salt makers of Pangasinan province) who deliver to chefs taking Filipino food in new directions (like private dining clubs in New York City).
A snap from the #DishingUpToronto event which featured Filipino food history talks in various Filipino food establishments in Toronto. Can you spot our co-founder Jerome?
5) You get to interview a lot of interesting people on your podcast. Who is one person who's left a particularly strong impression on you?
My interview with Dr. Ame Garong, an archaeologist and researcher for the National Museum of the Philippines was relatively short but incredibly interesting. I think it’s because I had no idea what it would be like to talk with an archaeologist! Her book, called Ancient Filipino Diet, is a landmark in food history – and her story about a pebble is my favourite so far.
6) What's a Filipino dish you love, but that doesn't get enough attention?
Longganisa sausages, hands down. Someday, I really want to make a travel documentary of all the regional sausages in the Philippines!
7) Let's spread the love! Which are some of your favourite Filipino brands?
I love my AKABA messenger bag, matches my favourite blue Tilley hat (I am Filipino-Canadian after all!). On a recent trip, I stocked up on Theo and Philo chocolates, Don Papa rum, Kalsada coffee, and Calaboo butter (made of delicious carabao milk like you wouldn’t believe!).
8) You've always got a lot of projects on the go! What are you most excited about right now?
I am currently working with a social enterprise called MAD Travel to help make “adventures that matter” more accessible for people visiting the country.
9) What's something you wish more people knew about the Philippines?
It really doesn’t take much to book a flight to Manila and join a tour you’re interested in. There are many passionate guides who will show you the best of their communities and culture!
A visit to the ancestral lands of an indigenous Aeta community in Zambales with ethical travel company MAD TRAVEL.