Eat and Remember

The B line dips and climbs above and below an unfamiliar Brooklyn. This Brooklyn departs from my naturalized conception of New York City. Apartment buildings shift into townhouses, which shift into actual houses – the kind with small yards, front porches, mailboxes, and maybe even a driveway. My childhood friend lives in a neighborhood that looks just like this in upstate New York. I’ve spent countless late fall afternoons and hot summer days on her front porch where we would watch the neighborhood come to life; my yellow Volkswagon bug parked on the curb.

This vague familiarity notwithstanding, I was in a new place. My relationship with the borough is limited to the outskirts; the areas that aesthetically resemble my part of Manhattan, the East and Greenwich Village. Williamsburg, Coney Island, DUMBO. That is the Brooklyn I know: kitschy, hip, and often gentrified. Where I was headed was nowhere near any of these neighborhoods, but as I would come to find out, it is simultaneously everywhere all at once.

I was traveling to Ditmas Park. My final destination was 1314 Cortelyou Road where there stands a barely year old restaurant called Purple Yam. Describing the cuisine at Purple Yam is as complicated as describing the identity of its chef and owner, two Filipino immigrants, Romy Dorotan and Amy Besa.

The sidewalk on Cortelyou Road is twice the width of the average sidewalk. The sun hits the ground everywhere, not restricted by the sky-reaching buildings of Manhattan. The neighborhood is eclectic. Within the three block walk from the subway to the restaurant, various shop awnings read Himalayan Sushi and San Remo Pizzeria and Restaurant; The Punta Cana: Dominican Beauty shop is across the street from the Flatbush Food Co-op. And then there’s Purple Yam.

The storefront has a gallery aesthetic; “Purple Yam” runs vertically up the window in orchid-purple letters. The building is painted taupe, its inconspicuousness broken only by the oversized dusty green door.

Amy Besa opened the fifteen-foot door to her restaurant and I immediately identified traces of my maternal grandmother. The two share the same tan, round face and sympathetic, sleepy brown eyes. They both wear their dark hair short and cropped. Amy is small, but not petite.

She invited me in and introduced me to her husband Romy, the chef. She instantly questioned my identity, “So you’re half-Filipino? Have you ever been to the Philippines?”

“No, but I really want to go,” I respond, with a smile. Already, we’ve made a connection through this silent nostalgia for a place we’re both familiar with in different ways.

“Oh you haaave to go,” she said, savoring the sentence.

Romy joked, “Get yourself some nice Cebuano boys. At least three.”

Amy was wearing a brown crewneck sweatshirt and black sweatpants. She looked less like the owner of a venerated restaurant, than a woman welcoming me into her own kitchen. She and her husband opened Purple Yam in November 2009, after closing their Soho restaurant Cendrillon earlier in the year. The move was purely out of convenience; Ditmas Park was not only closer to their home, and the rising real estate costs in Soho made the decision to move only easier. But Cendrillon was not without an established and loyal customer base: in a 2005 review of Cendrillon in the New York Times, famed critic Frank Bruni awarded the establishment two stars, a significant accomplishment for any restaurant, let alone one featuring Filipino cuisine – a cuisine that is unfamiliar to most Americans.

The space was airy; a breeze flowed from the front door through to the open door at the patio where a man was doing some light construction. The lofty space was naturally lit from the sunlight emanating from the floor to ceiling windows at both the front and back of the restaurant. The exposed brick, the mahogany tables, the egg cream colored walls, the bamboo installations – it all felt organic and relaxed.

As she walked me down the length of the railroad style space, she spoke about the restaurant as if I had been there many times before.

“We’re working on the patio. See, we still have the tables from Cendrillon,” she said, motioning to the tables situated along the brick wall. The tables were a gift from a friend over 15 years ago. They wore their age well: the light mahogany wood still shiny and slick, the delicate Asian carvings of stalks and flowers still vibrant.

She offered to brew a fresh pot of coffee, but I declined because I’d had my fill of caffeine for the day. We sat down at one of the tables by the bar, near the entrance to the restaurant, and I mentioned that purple yam (known as ube in the Philippines) is one of my favorite Filipino foods.

“Have you ever had ube ice cream?” she asked me. No, I haven’t. She got up from the table and disappeared into the kitchen. I was suddenly overwhelmed with a smell from the open kitchen, a smell that I’ve smelled so many times in my mother’s kitchen. It was a spicy smell, maybe also soy, and maybe a little tofu: it was the smell of adobo, a staple Filipino dish made with vinegar, spices, and soy sauce used to flavor chicken, vegetables, or fish.

When she reemerged, she was carrying a white, shallow bowl that held two perfectly round scoops of ice cream side-by-side. One was pastel yellow, the other was a light, dusty purple. She disappeared behind me and returned to the table with two spoons. Thinking about that moment now, I would have disliked having to eat the ice cream by myself. I had known Amy Besa for maybe ten minutes, and yet we were already sharing a bowl of ice cream.

“That’s the jackfruit, try that,” she said as she pointed to the yellow sphere. It was the first time I tasted jackfruit and Amy was shocked.

“Really? You’ve never had jackfruit? And that’s all ube, and we add a little bit of coconut milk,” she said pointing to the purple scoop. In wanting to display some moderation, I took a reserved spoonful, but I immediately recognized the familiar taste.

“That’s the taste that I love,” I said. It was creamy and dully sweet, with a slight grainy texture from the coconut. Ube and coconut pair well, like chocolate and peanut butter. Customers at her restaurant love the ube ice cream so much that some even ask to buy it in bulk to keep a stock at home. Unfortunately, they cannot.

The phone rang, disrupting our conversation, and she got up to answer.

“Eat the ice cream!” she said before she picked up the phone to take a reservation for that evening. “How many people? And your name? Ok, see you tonight.” The restaurant opens for dinner at five on the weekdays and service for the night was drawing near.

She returned to our conversation and jumped right into discussing her and her husband’s book, Memories of Philippine Kitchens (Harry N. Abrams, 2006), a copy of which was displayed on the bar near the entrance. She wanted to avoid writing a traditional cookbook, with carefully constructed recipes and pictures. Instead, she and her husband collected stories, research, and recipes in an attempt to deconstruct and demystify the Filipino-American identity; they wanted to provide an outlet of organized expression on the issue. One of the major stereotypes she wanted to debunk is the superficial understanding that Filipinos are significantly westernized.

“Underneath that is a very alive, vibrant Asian culture that many people do not know how to figure out because it’s so complex. It’s so topsy-turvy, it’s so dynamic, it’s so organic, and just very difficult to describe and put your finger on. Even Filipinos don’t know how to start to describe themselves, their food, their culture.”

Amy decided that the best way to convey such a complex and misunderstood culture would be through memory, specifically food memories, “The utmost definition of poverty is when you have no food memories.” From her native Filipino home, she has memories of her grandmother’s house and fresh baked pan de sal, a salty and sugary Filipino bread roll.

“I was able to experience rural life through my grandparents. In the summer climbing trees; living in houses where the whole backyard is filled with all kinds of fruit that are falling from the trees; cotton trees bursting open; chickens underneath laying eggs. When you’re a child you take it for granted. You think that’s going to be permanent. In my old age now, I just realize that gee, you know, that was something to be treasured.”

In this way, memories also have the potential to be damaging. Amy’s fondest food memory is of the steaming pan de sal on early mornings at her grandparents’ house, “When you taste something so amazing for the first time, your memory really makes it difficult for it to be repeated. Whenever I experience something like that, I just file it and I think, ‘that’s it.’ Don’t ever expect to look for it again. Now we make the pan de sal here with purple yam. We make it into little sandwiches.”

I try to reflect on some of my own food memories and almost all of them involve my mother, who is also a Filipino immigrant. I am a first generation Filipino-American, but I consider myself a prodigal Filipino-American, as I did not come to embrace the culture, my culture, until about a year ago. I never perceived myself as different from my Caucasian friends because I am not different, per se, but I have a culture that until recently, I did not recognize as significant.

In my pre-vegetarian days, my mother used to make a traditional Filipino soup called sinigang. The soup is especially tangy and sour, and is made with a tamarind broth, diced tomatoes, onions, spinach, and fish. My mother happened to make her version with salmon. Even just a whiff of this specifically sour smell conjures up memories of mine and my mother’s tiny apartment kitchen in Belleville, New Jersey. I haven’t had this soup in well over five years; when my mother married her Polish husband, she resisted cooking Filipino food as much. When she would occasionally break out her vinegars and fermented shrimp pastes, she would always begin by apologizing for “the smell.”

My years at college had naturally removed me from my mother’s cooking. Recently, I was craving her sinigang so intensely, that I asked my Filipino roommate if I could have one of her instant sinigang soup packets. I did my best to simulate a vegetarian version of my mother’s soup (chopping tomatoes, dicing onions), but the just-add-water powder resulted in a lackluster grainy brown mess rather than the vibrant pinky-red of my mother’s soup. After only two sips, I knew there was no way for me to finish this inauthentic sinigang; my memory of the dish was too strong for me to enjoy it any other way than besides in my mother’s own kitchen.

When I told Amy this story, she was happy to hear that I could discern the difference between real sinigang and the imitation powder. Amy does not currently have sinigang on the menu, but occasionally Filipinos will call in and request it in advance. Her husband Romy has to go out to buy the fresh tamarind in order to make it authentic.

But Amy was dismayed at my mother apologizing for her food. “I once asked Ray Sokolov this question at a conference, why is Filipino food not mainstream,” Amy said. Ray Sokolov is well versed on the question of cuisine: he is the author of Why We Eat What We Eat (Simon & Schuster, 1993).

“Because it’s a secret. People keep it to themselves. People think that Americans will not accept that. We give up bagoong (a fermented fish sauce) because it smells sour,” Amy said, reiterating Ray’s answer. Ironically, Amy tells me that the diners who are unfamiliar with, and brave enough to try the bagoong, love the bagoong.

However, Purple Yam has not been without its share of bad press, the majority of which surprisingly comes from fellow Filipinos. When Purple Yam first opened in November, it was getting a lot of press from the local Ditmas Park blog as well as from the big names in New York publicity including New York Magazine, Time Out New York, and the New York Times. A woman on the Ditmas Park blog was particularly outraged by all the positive attention to the newly opened restaurant and claimed that all Filipinos hated Purple Yam. It turned out that the women had never even eaten at Amy’s restaurant.

“‘How dare they charge those prices,’ these people say. They think charging that much for Asian fusion is crazy. (She rolls her eyes at the phrase “Asian fusion”). Like, I don’t give a shit anymore what these people think, I’m just going to do what I want. This is what I want to do until I retire. It’s a free country, it’s a capitalist country,” Amy said. Asian fusion is a complicated phrase to apply to the cuisine at Purple Yam. The phrase has a slight negative connotation, an implied laziness at invention and dynamism. Purple Yam is a Filipino restaurant in many respects, but it also transcends being categorized as a single ethnicity; its menu features traditional Korean dishes such as kimchi (fermented, pickled cabbage) and bibimbap (coconut rice topped with steamed vegetables and served with a spicy ketchup).

The prices for an entree-sized dish range from $6 to $17 (the menu is not divided into a traditional menu of appetizer, entrée, dessert; instead it’s organized based on main ingredient, pig, vegetable, etc.). The ube ice cream is $2 a scoop.

During Cendrillon’s early years, a Filipino woman was eating dinner by herself and taking up more than one table. Amy noticed that she had all of her food out at once and questioned the waitress, “I got mad at the waitress. What’s going on with that table, why does she have all of her food out at the same time? Why didn’t you put out the appetizer first, the main later. The waitress said, ‘that’s what she wanted.’”

The diner called Amy over and said she had a complaint: she ordered leche flan, a traditional Filipino dessert, but it had yet to come out.

“I’m like ‘you just started! We’ll give it to you when you’re done.’” Amy expresses her incredulity by cocking her head to the side and scrunching her face, similar to a kid confronted with a problem. Amy pointed to a spot on the table, “She said, ‘No I want it right here so that when I’m eating I can see it.’”

Amy and I laugh at the ridiculousness of this woman’s demands, but we were both familiar with this situation; Filipinos are very visual eaters. They like to see all their food at once, including their dessert.

“As soon as they sit they ask, ‘Can I look at the dessert menu?’ They work backwards. ‘I want this therefore I’m going to eat this.’ It’s so fabulous, you know?” Amy said.

It is fabulous. Although Amy will not be handing out dessert menus first for every customer, she says she uses the restaurant as a kind of “social experiment,” where she realizes things about her culture in relation to others. Filipinos are very particular about their food, but they will always share their food because it is an extension of themselves, Amy said. I think back to my mother and realize the significance of Amy’s statement. My mother always offers me her food. Even as a vegetarian, she is perpetually encouraging me to take some of her food, which inevitably includes pork or fish. It’s not that she forgets my ethical restraints, but it’s through this offering that she expresses her love.

“In the Philippines, even the poorest person, if they’re eating a tiny, teeny weenie bit of food and you walk into the room, the first thing they will say is, ‘Let’s eat.’ It’s just so beautiful, isn’t it?” Amy said.

“You have to look at the intangibles that go with it. To me Filipino food is the most delicious food in the world because, and I say this all the time, I say it is always cooked with love, and it’s shared and presented with hospitality and generosity. I know it sounds corny, but those are the intangibles that if you try to understand Filipino food without those three, love, hospitality, generosity, you will never get it. I find that every day.”

I left Purple Yam with the image of the jackfruit and ube ice cream melting and merging into one another. That was the first time I tried jackfruit and I will forever associate that flavor with my conversation with Amy Besa. In talking about our mothers and grandmothers, she and I exchanged memories of our home kitchens; her memories of a native Philippine kitchen juxtaposed against mine of a displaced, diasporic kitchen.

I shared in her nostalgia for a past that is not mine, but simultaneously my own. I have no memories of my ethnicity; my Filipino identity ends at the dinner table, but this is also where it begins. In eating Filipino food, I experience a form of culinary nostalgia similar to Amy’s and any immigrant’s longing for their homeland. I enter into an imagined community, forging imagined relationships with people whom I don’t know personally, but with whom I know I am sharing a nostalgic experience.

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