Identity Bites, Part I: Lumpia

Monday, November 3, 2008 12 comments
This is the first in a series about food and ethnic identity, from a Filipina-American's perspective. Read Part II and Part III, too!

I think of identity as an egg roll - a savory mix of ingredients held together by a delicate wrapper to form a unique entity. In my case, that wrapper is my Filipina heritage (which would make me a lumpia roll) and it envelopes a lifetime of experiences straddling two cultures. But when it's stretched thin, my identity is in danger of falling apart.

I was born in the Philippines but grew up in Canada and the US, and during my childhood, the only faces which reflected my own ethnicity were those of my family and a few friends. My parents were determined to instill in me and my sisters a deep pride in our culture, so they spoke to us in Tagalog, served Filipino dishes and celebrated holidays with a Pinoy touch. I remember the electric parol Papa special-ordered from the Philippines, which he proudly displayed every Christmas in the front window of our house in Virginia. I also recall that at the time, I was a snotty, self-absorbed teen and what today is a cherished memory of a beautiful Filipino craft was back then a gargantuanly garish beacon that blared "Strange Asian People Live Here!"

What I wouldn't give for that lantern now. For the past 15 years, I've lived in places where Asians of any ethnicity are so scarce that in some areas, we're still referred to as 'Orientals'. Far from my family and the customs and traditions that reinforced my connection to a distant birthplace, I sometimes feel as if the 'Filipina' in this Filipina-American is fading. I can't even speak Tagalog anymore, except for a few random words related to food and eating. But that's exactly where I've found the answer to my melancholy state: when I eat Filipino food, I feel more like a Filipina.

Now, my husband and I make annual visits to my sisters in Southern California where the large Filipino-American population offers countless opportunity for consuming à la Pinay. And what glorious food - adobos, ginataans, sinigangs, oh my! Pancit here and puto there before finishing with flan-topped halo-halo. I eat my fill and then I eat some more, stuffing myself with memories to keep me sated until the next visit. When we return home to Minnesota, I feel different (okay, 10 lbs heavier is different but it's not what I mean). It's as if the equilibrium between the two cultures that I love has been restored and I am again comfortable with myself as a Filipina and an American.

How did this connection between food and identity develop? Why is it so powerful, at least for me? I wanted to know if others feel the same affinity so I decided to conduct a thoroughly unscientific, not-so-random survey of a very small sample of Fil-Ams (relatives who are obligated by family honor to humor me) and ask them about their thoughts on food and identity. I then shared their responses with two eminent scholars of food and immigration history at the University of Minnesota for their assessment. Survey said . . . 

. . . to be continued.

Mama's Lumpia
This recipe is courtesy of my mother, the formidable Mrs. Myrna V., whose exacting standards in the kitchen are infamous in our family. Yes, Mama, I'm using enough shrimps. No, Mama, I won't overdo the garlic . . .

Makes 6-9 rolls

Never wrapped a lumpia before? Check out my slideshow tutorial below for tips!

1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup onion, finely chopped
8 raw shrimp, peeled and finely chopped
1/3 cup carrots, shredded or julienned 
1/3 cup bean sprouts (mongo), washed and roots pinched off
1 cup cabbage, chopped thinly as for cole slaw 
salt and pepper to taste
optional: 1/2 tsp patis (fish sauce)

To wrap:
4 fresh green beans, thinly sliced on the diagonal
fresh cilantro
lumpia crepe wrappers (for best results, look for 'lumpia' on the package; Simex brand also offers pre-separated wrappers - great time-savers!)

Dipping sauce:
1/4 cup white vinegar 
1 - 1 1/2 tsps crushed garlic
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper (or to taste)
salt to taste

To prepare filling:

1. Heat 1-2 Tbps of oil in a wok or sauté pan and add garlic and onions. Cook just until soft, taking care not to overly brown the garlic.

2. Add finely chopped shrimp and stir fry until opaque.
3. Add carrots, bean sprouts, and cabbage and stir fry until vegetables are just cooked but still firm.
4. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Use patis for a slightly more pungent flavor. Soy sauce may be used but is not recommended as it turns the filling a brownish color.
5. Using a slotted spoon, transfer cooked filling to a shallow plate to cool. Drain the juices from the filling as much as possible - excess moisture is a lumpia wrapper's worst enemy!

To wrap lumpia:

1. Lay out wrapper/crepe and place 1 - 1 1/2 Tbsps of filling on the bottom third, leaving about 1" on either side.
2. Top with sliced green beans and cilantro, then fold the bottom edge over the filling, tucking under firmly.
3. Fold over the side edges, making sure they are straight all the way up.
4. Gently but firmly, roll the lumpia all the way to the top. Moisten the top edge with water to seal the lumpia completely. It's important that the wrapper has no tears, holes or other openings as the lumpia could break apart during frying.
5. Repeat with remaining fillings. 

To fry:
1. In a large sauté or fry pan, heat enough oil to cover the lumpia halfway - about 1/2"; to test for readiness, dip a corner of the lumpia - if it sizzles, it's ready!
2. Arrange lumpia in the pan so that they are not crowded and fry until golden brown; turn over once until other side is also golden brown.
3. Remove from pan and place in a colander or plate lined with paper towels to absorb excess oil.
4. Serve with dipping sauce.

Best way to eat lumpia: bite off one end and spoon dipping sauce into opening. Enjoy!

Slideshow Tutorial: How to Wrap and Fry Lumpia!


  • Anonymous said...

    I really enjoyed this post and I'm looking forward to the part 2. Since moving abroad I've become so interested in these topics and the experiences others have with cultural identity especially when it involves food.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    I'm glad you like it, Lori! I think that we all take our cultural identity for granted when we are comfortably immersed in it but take us out of that comfort zone and suddenly we realize how it can actually help to define us. Food not only helps us re-connect to our culture, it also introduces us to others, and vice versa.

    Stay tuned - I'll be posting the next part soon!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Did you like it, ioyces? My mother had to show me step-by-step because all the fillings were flopping out on my first attempts. Hopefully, it's helpful to first-time lumpia-wrappers!

  • Anonymous said...

    Hey Trace. Love the blog! Have you tried your mom's lumpia shanghai recipe? Awesome. Actually it's not your mom's but, she got it from some foodie over has cilantro and banana peppers. Looking forward to your next entry. Don't eat dirt.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Thanks, Dr. Jay! I haven't tried her recipe - just Mel's which was more the traditional kind. But I'm going to make the banana turones that your mom showed me how to make the last time we were in Cali. Don't worry - no dirt for this noodle!

  • Kiezie said...

    I love this post. And I love how we all have similar yet different experiences. I am from the US but grew up in Brazil and Holland, which I still consider home in many ways, and while I don't remember all of the languages, the food stays with me and influences so much of what I make. Thanks for a great post, it was really neat to read.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    ChefBliss - Thank you! It was really this issue of food and identity that started me on the path of studying the cultural aspects of food and writing about it! And it's been amazing to see and read how it resonates with so many of us even though our actual experiences may differ. But food really is a universal act that bridges time, distance and cultures.


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