Interview: Angelo B Perez
1. Tell us about yourself and where you are from. Have you ever left it? Did you grow up there or anywhere else?
My mom and uncles came from Quezon City, Philippines to Chicago in 1996. Her older sisters came in previous decades, first through nurse recruitment programs and gradually by petition. I was the youngest of my generation to be born in the U.S., and as my mom’s only kid, raised truly by the village of aunts, uncles, grandparents, and godparents that came before. On the northside of Chicago, I was never far from Fil-am and other immigrant communities; and my friends growing up were mostly first and second generation children of Asia. We’d bond over our cultures, the differences and similarities, the struggle of maintaining two tongues, dance, and of course, food.
Before moving to Minnesota, I did a gap year studying at Beijing Language and Culture University to culminate four years of high school Chinese. I’ve also studied abroad on and off for shorter, month to two-month long periods, in Japan.
2. What does home mean to you? Do you have a strong connection with it?
It’s pretty cheesy, but home is honestly where the heart is; and where you’ve left your heart with others. My heart will always be in Chicago, but it’s also with my housemates at Goodrich Ave, with my host families in Shiga and Gunma, at a pig farm in Sichuan, and in FAM (Filipino Association at Mac) meetings. At the end of the day, it’s about the people you connect with.
3. What part of home do you miss the most while you are on campus? Were you able to build a ‘home’ in Macalester whether it be with other students, teachers, faculty or anything else? What’s the best/worst experience of ‘home’ you have had so far on campus?
Language, and with that, inside knowledge to broader cultural systems (or your own made up systems) is such a game changer. For example, sometimes, the urge to speak a heavily beifang-accented Chinglish with my high school best friend turned gap year partner is unavoidable. Doing so when we reunite, or over social media and facetime has transporative powers and though we aren’t physically in Beijing, we’re able to channel the energy of our time and experiences by speaking in Chinglish with each other.
I’m currently involved in a Macalester home-building project with FAM. I helped start the group as a first-year, and seeing us grow is one of the greatest joys of my college career. Today, FAM is the most diverse it’s ever been; we represent so many different domestic, international, mixed, and regional Filipino identities, and we’ve extended this family to an even broader audience of dancers and event-goers. A recent memorable experience of ‘home’ as it relates to language is sharing tsismis (gossip) in Tagalog with other members of the group in the Cultural House - probably the first time it’s ever been done in that space.
4. For a lot of people food is a big part of home, what are some of your favorite traditional dishes? When do you like to eat them and what makes them special to you? And is there a unique process for making these dishes?
Sinigang is, to me, the most homey Filipino dish out there. And growing up in the Midwest, my memories with this tamarind accented soup are strongest in the cold and dark winter, when after a long day of school, sports and dance practice keeps me out until 8 in the evening but I know I have a bowl waiting for me at home. I’ll outline the recipe for Sinigang na Baboy (Pork Sinigang) below:
In very little oil, cook various cuts of pork (pieces with bone in them, like riblets, are the best!) to let the meat release its natural juice. In this step we can add cooking wine or mirin, and even some cane sugar to negate the porky smell. Once the meat has browned nicely, add thick cuts of onion and tomato, and cook until the tomatoes are fairly crushed. Adding a bit of salt in this step will help. Next, top off the pot with water and let everything simmer. Scoop out the scum if it accumulates. While the soup is simmering, add vegetables according to their level of hardness. Taro should go first. Veggies like okra, banana peppers, or long beans can go after. Before adding leafy greens, you can flavor the soup with a little soy sauce or fish sauce, but the most important ingredient is the tamarind mix. Ubiquitous is the Knorr brand Sinigang mix -- I have yet to experiment with dissolving my own tamarind paste from the fruit itself, which is the most traditional (but sadly, uncommon) way to flavor Sinigang. A good rule of thumb to abide by is the sourer, the better. Finally, add the leaves. I stand by mustard greens in giving the best flavor to a Sinigang.
5. Do you think a traditional dish would hold the same meaning to you if it was made with American ingredients? And would it taste the same?
We Macalester students are pretty lucky to live in the Twin Cities with access to a world of ingredients at immigrant-run grocery stores. Local Hmong and other South-East Asian farmers are especially to thank for the availability of many Asian vegetables and herbs. I believe it’s important that these stores continue sustainably expanding their inventories, which will only increase opportunities to recreate dishes in the most authentic way possible. But switching out ingredients for what’s available is an integral part of redefining culture in the diaspora (and I’d argue a display of culinary genius!). The power of substitutes for helping families sustain links to a ‘homeland’ wherever that may be cannot and should not be discounted. Going beyond diaspora culture, adapting to the environment is pure human nature. We are always moving, and always changing. Food may taste different, but the meanings and spirit of the food stay the same.
6. We heard that you have an Instagram dedicated to food, would you like to tell us more about it and what you express through it?
I created @kasabotecooks as a personal depository of recipes I enjoy making. Sometimes, these recipes are directly copied from YouTubers, and other times I source them from people I meet. I’ve definitely used the account as a shortcut to remembering recipes when I cook them again. You may have noticed that I include no measurements in my posts; this is partly due to the structural limits of an instagram caption, and partly due to my strong belief that cooking is an art where one must work towards mastery of their own senses, and understanding of the ingredients. I also really like taking pictures, so a dedicated instagram seemed like a good excuse to post more.
So far, the account has actually helped me open communication with some really cool people. In my post about Muu Som, I wanted to honor my experience at a restaurant in DC that absolutely blew me away. Muu Som is a harder recipe since it involves creating an environment for fermenting meat. With sources few and far between, I put my fermentation limit to two weeks in the fridge. But after being dissatisfied with my result (the dish wasn’t naturally sour enough), I decided to email the head chef and co-owner of the restaurant. To my surprise, he emailed me back (!!!), suggesting that next time I try fermenting the meat at room temperature for up to three weeks! I hope this account continues bringing me closer to a broader chef and amateur homecook community.