I first heard of Amy Besa and Chef Romy Dorotan while listening to the podcast Exploring Filipino Kitchens by the talented Nastasha Alli (give it a listen!). I was immediately taken by Amy’s knowledge of Filipino food history, her deep respect for Filipino farmers, and her call to action: that we must do our part to preserve Philippine-grown ingredients and share the stories contained within our food.
Amy and her husband Chef Romy are the founders behind the celebrated restaurants Cendrillon, and its later manifestation the Purple Yam in New York City and the Purple Yam Malate in Manila. They also wrote the amazing book, Memories of Philippine Kitchens, which is at once a Filipino cookbook and a collection of childhood memories. I loved it instantly.
So it was a great surprise when we found out they were coming to Toronto for a North American food tour called Hidden Flavours of the Philippine Kitchen. They, along with two chefs from Purple Yam Malate, had flown in from Manila to showcase native ingredients from the Philippines. On Sunday night, they held an exclusive meet-and-greet featuring local entrepreneurs and chefs from Toronto’s Filipino food scene, as well as members of the Philippine consulate. To our delight, Jérôme and I were invited. You can bet we jumped at the opportunity!
It was a Sunday evening and we arrived to an unassuming condo complex. As soon as we got off the elevators to the rooftop, we walked into a simple but elegant room that was full of people. And food. There was a long rectangular table in the middle of the room, upon which were small plates and glass bottles laid out with a myriad of food items scattered onto them. Fresh cashews, fragrant vinegars, an assortment of aromatic honeys, chunks of dark cacao, and gooey, gelatinous foods I couldn’t recognize. The presentation was simple and unassuming, laid bare on the table with the name of the foods scrawled on small pieces of paper. From the onset, the message was clear: tonight, the flavours will do all the talking.
The long table with small plates and glass bottles laid out with a myriad of food items - Photo credit @mjeatstoronto
You see, they weren’t here just to show off ingredients. The tour is part of a bigger push to revive interest in Philippine-grown foods and save them from extinction. Amy and Chef Romy want to inspire chefs and food entrepreneurs in North America to rediscover the ingredients of their homelands, and incorporate them into cuisines here.
“By using these ingredients, we generate commercial value for them. And when we do that, we help to preserve them.” Miss Besa said.
It’s just like the problem in the Philippines’ weaving communities; if people aren't buying Filipino weaves and crafts, then artisans will stop making them and those traditions will be lost forever. From a food perspective, this means we could lose ingredients that are uniquely ours as Filipinos in favour of more mainstream ingredients. We’re already seeing this happen, as younger generations of farmers are leaving their family farms to find work in the cities.
Amy began to talk about Filipino food in general, and the movement that’s taken hold within North America.
“People ask if Filipino food is just a trend, and I say no,” she says. “But if we want it to be here to stay, then we can’t just do what’s trendy. We have to focus on what’s ours and our heritage, and that means our ingredients. And that also means our farmers,” Amy says to nods around the room.
She then spoke about the honey that she brought all the way from Philippines. That since honey tastes like what the bees feed on, then the honey from the Philippines will taste completely different from what we're used to in North America. She spoke of this beautiful concept of terroir, and how the same bees who pollinated the coffee flowers of a specific variety of beans from Negros Oriental also created the same honey. That we could bring together coffee and honey that didn’t just share the same region. They came from the same forest and were touched by the exact same colony of bees. How insane is that?!
Raw Wild Honey from the Philippines - Photo credit @mjeatstoronto
We finally got to sample the ingredients on the table, and I felt like a kid in a candy store. I’m a honey fiend and am hugely passionate about supporting Ontario bee farmers, so I went straight for the honeys. There was one from Abra that started off sweet and quickly developed a strong aftertaste which Amy herself described as “funky”. Another had a strong hint of lavender despite there being no lavender for the bees to feed on. My favourite was the stingless bee honey from the Visayas. It had a subtle tang which mixed delicately with the taste of sweet, a hint of sugar so delicate it dissipated quickly from your tongue and kept you wanting more. I tasted a variety of vinegars, including a mother vinegar, which was the source to ferment other vinegars (don’t ask me how it works). It was delicious, a dark maroon with a jelly-like texture that was sour, slightly sweet, but also salty (despite there being no salt added).
We tasted mini mangoes, sweet and bitter chocolates, and a coconut chutney full of surprises. There were even heirloom rice varieties; heirloom meaning this rice grain was passed down from one generation of farmers to the next, being kept within families. The night was an explosive mix and meld of flavours and textures that brought alive the richness and diversity of Filipino cuisine. All made with Filipino ingredients.
Pajo (mini) Mangoes - Photo credit @mjeatstoronto
Earlier that evening, Amy Besa shared her commitment to sustainability and her passion for supporting the small producers. The honey, for example, was sourced in a way that did not harm the bees and the sourcing was timed so the bees didn't starve. We had a beautiful Arabica bean coffee from Bukidnon that was elegantly smooth despite being equally strong. Amy shared with me how supporting local farmers was a must, regardless of price. “I paid $40 per pound for this coffee!” She said with a wicked laugh.
Amy Besa from Purple Yam. Photo credit @Mjeatstoronto
During the night, I couldn’t help but think about the movement that was being born here. How no less than ten years ago, no one would have ever imagined Filipino cuisine as worthy of fine dining. And now a slew of hip Filipino restaurants are opening up in Toronto, and even Loblaws is releasing their PC brand of Filipino adobo sauce. Jérôme and I have always taken inspiration from the Filipino food movement and used that as our guide. How can we make a similar movement happen around Philippine-made goods? Will we one day be able to celebrate our Filipino weavers, bag makers, and designers the same way we celebrate our chefs, or our entertainers? What will it take to make this shift happen?
Sometimes, Jérôme and I get discouraged when we share our hopes with other people, especially with other Filipinos. Many people write us off, or they don’t seem to grasp what we’re talking about. Filipino craftsmanship? Weaves? Filipino fashion? Even when I shared my thoughts with others on Sunday night, I was met with a few blank stares and glazed eyes.
But I imagine leaders like Amy Besa and Chef Romy, and even Toronto’s own restaurateur Les Sabilano (founder of La Mesa and Lasa) who were at the start of the Filipino food revolution, and the barriers they had to overcome and continue to break through. And I take inspiration in the people and the stories who come before us, because by appreciating our past, we find our way to our future.
Cambio Market' team with the wonderful Amy Besa!