Identity Bites, Part II: Empanadobos

Saturday, November 15, 2008 7 comments
This is the (rather tardy) second part in a series about food and ethnic identity, from a Filipina-American's perspective. Read Part I here.

(Photo by Chazzvid on Flickr)
Ready for a lechon feast

When my younger sister Penelope was married a couple of years ago, the centerpiece of her wedding reception feast was lechon (a whole, roast suckling pig). She later said that she specifically chose this dish because no matter how Americanized our family had become, Filipino food such as lechon would always define celebrations. Our older sister Liza agreed: she also equates Pinoy fare with festivity, fun and informality. She admitted that she doesn't normally crave Filipino dishes and rarely cooks it for her husband and children. Nevertheless, she insists on having pancit (noodles) on her birthday because it's both a family and a cultural tradition. For her and Penelope, native food has less to do with identity and more to do with celebration and commensality. I shared their thoughts with Dr. Donna Gabaccia, director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota and the author of We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans

"If you look at immigrant families in the US who have been here for quite some time, you do find a kind of relocation of ethnicity," she said, explaining that subsequent generations have a selection process by which certain dishes are no longer consumed daily and instead become celebratory meals representing special family events. 

At times, those 'special' kindred memories evoked by certain foods are not always about fun and festivity. My cousin, Bernadette, recalled how her late grandmother kicked her out of the kitchen in exasperation shortly after starting to teach her how to cook Filipino food. Her transgression? "Apparently, I wasn't slicing the meat and vegetables properly," she said. Her sister, Marie, told me how she was put off adobo for life. "Every summer when we would go on vacation, my mom or grandma would make a HUGE pot of it and we would eat it for, like, a week. I got sick of it really quick." But then she added, "Now that I am married and have my own household, I don't get to eat at my mom's so much, so when she makes a Filipino dish, it's special for me."

As I listened to my sisters' and cousins' stories, I shared their connection between eating Filipino food and a feeling of closeness to family. But I didn't hear them express the same sense of lost identity that I experience whenever I've gone too long without tasting the flavors of Pinoy cuisine. As it turns out, thinking about who you are may depend on where your are.

Filipino fast-food at a California suburban mall

My sisters live in the Los Angeles area, which has an estimated 300,000 residents of Filipino descent and where all things Pinoy, especially food, are readily available. My cousins were raised in Connecticut but they visited the Philippines often and having both lolas living with them ensured a steady flow of Filipino meals from the kitchen. More importantly, they all live close by and see each other regularly. As a result, explained Dr. Gabaccia, "They don't stop to think about [identity] because they're not separated from it. They don't necessarily think of [food as being Filipino] because they're not taken out of it. It's around them."

In short, my relatives are secure in their Pinay identities because they constantly see themselves reflected in similar faces and live in surroundings that offer access to familiar cultural items. Unfortunately for me, there are less than 10,000 Filipinos in the entire state of Minnesota and only one Pinoy store in the whole Twin Cities metro area. If identity really is reinforced - or diluted - by one's surroundings, I can certainly vouch for it. And so can Mike, younger brother of Bernadette and Marie, who found out firsthand that when it comes to Filipino food, absence can make the stomach growl louder.

To be continued . . . 

Empanadas (meat pies) filled with chicken adobo - a combination so delicious that even Marie might be tempted. The buttery sweetness of puff pastry complements the tanginess of the adobo. This recipe has an easy shortcut for when I need a quick 'identity bite'.

Yields approx. 18 (4-inch) pies

To prepare chicken adobo:

2 Tbsps cooking oil
1 lb boneless breasts or thighs, sliced into strips
2 cloves of garlic, minced 
1 small onion, chopped fine
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/4 cup cider vinegar*
1/4 cup soy sauce*
2-3 bay leaves

*This recipe calls for equal amounts of vinegar and soy sauce but it's easily adjusted depending on your personal preference. I like my adobo with a more vinegar-y bite so I use an approximate ratio of 1.5 : 1 (vinegar : soy sauce). 

1.  Heat oil in a sauté pan or small pot on medium heat. Add  garlic and onions, and sauté until soft.
2.  Add chicken strips and cook just until lightly browned.
3.  Add pepper, vinegar, soy sauce and bay leaves, and bring to a gentle simmer.
4.  Cover and continue simmering on low heat, stirring occasionally, until liquid is reduced and meat is fully cooked and tender. If chicken is too dry, add a bit of water to moisten.
5.  Turn off heat and shred chicken in the pot or transfer to cutting board to shred finely.

Shortcut:  Use a roasted chicken from your favorite grocery deli! Remove meat from bones and discard the skin, then cut into small bite sized pieces. Throw all ingredients together into a pot or pan and follow steps 4-5.

To prepare the empanadas:

1 pkg (2 sheets) puff pastry, thawed
2 egg whites
Biscuit or round cookie cutter, drinking glass or anything that will cut 3.5" to 4" diameter rounds in the dough

Preheat oven to 375°

1.  Lay out thawed pastry on a lightly floured surface; sprinkle 1 tsp of flour on top and with a rolling pin, flatten and stretch out the dough a little bit. 
2.  Cut out rounds from the dough and place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper or a Silpat.
3.  Spoon about 1 Tbsp of shredded adobo onto center of a dough round. Lightly moisten edges with water and fold in half.
4.  Firmly press edges closed with a fork then brush the top with egg white.
5.  Bake for 15-18 minutes or until pastry is golden. Serve warm. 


  • Anonymous said...

    Definitely much food for thought in that post!

    When I lived in the States, though the food and drink was perhaps not a million miles from what I might have had at home in Ireland, there were still some things that could not be gotten easily and had a definite association of home and,
    yes, identity too, I think.

    I cannot tell you how excited I got one day when, in a tiny cafe in Potrero Hill in San Francisco, I spied a box of (quintessentially Irish) Barrys Tea Bags, which had clearly been imported in someones suitcase. Drinking that tea was something special, maybe because the drinking of a cup of tea is such a ritual at home, and it evoked the taste and memory of that in a way that a cup of Liptons never could!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts! Finding those little reminders, like the tea, is certainly akin to stumbling across buried treasure.

    BTW, I was hooked on Barry's during our trip to Ireland last year. So far, I've found it at only one store near home. Regrettably, they do not offer black and white puddings, my other acquired addiction [sigh].

  • Giff said...

    thoughtful post this! I think food and identity are often very intertwined, even if it is just an occasional thing. You made me think of my Jewish friends who are not incredibly religious, but they exercise and bond with their cultural identity quite often through food choices, celebrations and cooking practices.

  • Anonymous said...

    For me I judge cultures by their eating choices and how they prepare their food. Food has much more meaning than something you need to fulfill your biological needs. It is how we cherish life and bond with others.

    BTW, I always love lechon. My husband always bought one for his office's parties - they said the really fancy ones are the ones from Manila, prepared with herbs inside. Never had a chance to try that out.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Giff - thanks for you comment! Food has this amazing ability to tease out connections and memories that we don't even realize exist. Descendants of immigrants from several generations ago may not think of themselves as having an 'ethnic' or cultural identity now but participating in traditional foodways is often the spark to remind them that their family history is indeed unique and multicultural.

    Jun - thank you as well for your input! The universality of food is, as you say, not just about nourishment but also commensality. The act of cooking and eating as a group reinforces existing bonds but it also creates new ones. I've never been to many of the countries whose cuisines I enjoy; until I do, the foods I eat help me lay the groundwork to understanding those cultures, as you've pointed out, through their food and foodways which can reveal everything from religion and social structure to their geography and natural resources.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Eric - I love them, too! This was a way for me to get a fix quickly but Filipino-style empanadas uses a more substantial pastry and the filling is a mix of sweet and savory, such as ground pork or beef with finely diced potatoes and raisins (at least, that's what I remember from childhood)!


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