Not Your Mom’s Cooking, but Kuya’s Cooking: Culinary Neo-Tradition and the Immigrant Experience

A neo-traditional Filipino catering business feeding Filipino-food- first-timers.

I come from a long line of wives and mothers whose special talent was to measure with their eyes and fingers. The sangkap (ingredients) and ways of cooking are a coalition of cultural shortcuts, learned experience, and a certain kind of cohesive awareness – of knowing when to take the adobo out when it smelled just right, and measuring the rice-water ratio by using the first fold of your middle finger. You could call this generational – having some mystical, oceanic undertones of your ancestors whispering in your ears, of what spices to put and how much – for your food to taste like home.

But, to say that the culinary intuition is generational is an understatement. I realized this sentiment soon enough – when I took a whole day to get to know first-gen immigrant Aldrin Agas, and others I encountered in the greater- Boston area.

Aldrin is the chef/owner of Kuya’s Cooking – a byproduct of his culinary passion, and the hope to bring representation of Filipino food to Boston.

Both his parents (hailing from the northern Philippine province of Pangasinan) moved with dreams of opportunity in the land of the free. With his father being a cook for the U.S. Navy during the 1980s, the culinary life rubbed off into  Aldrin’s love for cooking. A few years later, the impact of food would lead Aldrin to shift his career path from pre-med to hospitality.

Kuya (ku·ya, /ˈko͞oyə/) the honorific used to call an older brother was the root word of the name Kuya’s Cooking. A welcoming, warm, and hearty name for food you can call home. Chef Aldrin does his best to embody his home, but not in textbook ways.

Whilst common Filipino empanadas require minced potatoes and hashed meat filled to the pastry’s brim, Aldrin incorporates soupy yet tender picadillos in his. Its rich juice does not cancel out the crust’s structure, but complements it – softening its interior and maintains its exterior texture. 

Your typical adobo would consist of loose broth mixed equal  amounts of soy sauce and white vinegar, with a mind’s amount of salt, sugar, and spices. The pork would be cut in a cubed fashion – for ease of eating. Aldrin emphasizes the importance of  surface area for his adobo – thin and ergonomically-dimensioned slices to marinate the meat. And instead of the soy sauce-vinegar soup of the home-cooked adobo, Aldrin thickens this concept into a sauce to enrich the tenderness of the sliced pork. Though lime-calamansi wings are not in the palette of traditional Filipino cuisine, its incorporation of a non-native Filipino flavor and the familiar acid kick proved that the zest of both can work together.How kind of Aldrin’s ancestors to whisper to him such an awesome, genius recipe for chicken wings.

Somehow, the ancestral whisperings do not always invite themselves in snug kitchens, sometimes there is an absence of it. Homesickness – with no other possible words to describe it. What remedy is there when your mother and the karinderya (food stall) lady are oceans and continents away? 

I used to think that this curse only befalls the zeroth generation immigrants such as myself – who decided to move to the U.S. for a period of time, chasing dreams too far from home. But, it befalls those who have never had a taste of home too.

I asked Aldrin if he knew how to speak Filipino. His parents never taught him how. He thought he didn’t feel the need to speak Filipino when he’s already in the States.The same narrative goes upon meeting and conversing with his friends from his time at Yale. Though with an obvious non-native accent, the very sound of “Kamusta ka?” (How are you?) had a tone fit for home.

“Our parents never taught us how to speak in Filipino…” a first-gen Filipino immigrant and a regular of Kuya’s Cooking, told me, “Now you have a whole generation of Filipino (immigrant) kids who are now adults, and want to learn how to speak the language!”

To study abroad and to have grown up speaking the mother tongue – knowing all the different Filipino terms I used here, and so much more – it never occurred to me to be as big of a privilege before I encountered Kuya’s Cooking. To have been so familiar with home, and what is away from it, is a big deal to those that have only been given the taste of one. Circumstances are a banquet of experiences, and there is grief at both ends of a table. But, the truth remains that there is a table: and there is food.

Food allows us to connect with one another no matter where we are situated in the world – may it be in the Philippines where Filipino food is an everyday blessing, or in the Northeast where Filipino food is a rarity. But, to say that the only reason why we have this food is because we pass recipes from one generation to another is an understatement. Culture, in food and language, is passed because we chose to pass it on – we choose to strive for home, represent it, and to share it. Much like Aldrin and all other first-generation immigrants holding their home, we all make decisions to uphold something that is both dear to ourselves and passed on to one another – may it be language, or a neo-traditional rendering of your mom’s adobo.

Cover photo courtesy of KuyasCooking


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