The Filipino Food Movement is in full throttle with The Salo Project, an ambitious goal of covering all 50 states in 50 weeks serving regional Filipino cuisine through underground pop-up dinners.
Yes, that was quite a mouthful.
The main goal of this project is to create and raise awareness of Filipino cuisine and to highlight Filipino food by focusing on the flavors of its three main regions: Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.
“Filipino cuisine has been an underdog compared to our Asian neighbors. My quest to bring Filipino food to all 50 states is to broaden people’s palate and bring to light a new cultural social dining experiment experience,” said Yana Gilbuena, a self-taught chef and the moving force behind the project.
Yana started Salo back in March 2013. She says she is well way beyond her goal.
What started as a quarterly pop-up dinner has evolved into a national weekly event, something that keeps her up at night thinking of dishes to serve and the places she gets to visit on the side.
“I got laid off from work and I thought this was the perfect opportunity to pursue what really made me happy,” Yana said when asked why she was chasing this dream.
Salo is a derivative of the word “Salu-salo” meaning big party or gathering. Salo, with accent on the second syllable and a different inflection, may mean “catch”.
“Hence, my tagline: to catch and to gather,” she shared.
Sponsored by Feastly, The Salo Project aims to encourage the adventurous to experience the other side of the (usual and conventional) dining experience. Salo dinners bring together a group of culinarily curious strangers around a common table and encouraged to abandon the standard way of eating, through the absence of tableware.
Yes, salo dinners are done kamayan-style, banana leaves and all.
Kamayan means to eat with one’s hands. Food is served on banana leaves with no utensils, heaped in a pile in the middle of the table and everyone sits around and digs in.
“I believe food tastes so much better when your taste buds are coupled with your tactile senses and you are sharing the experience with other people. There’s a direct relationship with the food and its consumers,” Yana explained.
On a larger scale, Yana hopes that this project will be able to heighten the value of passionate home cooks. “Julia Child brought over her passion for French cuisine to America and encouraged people to cook more. I aim to do the same, but with Filipino cuisine,” she said.
The road to making Salo a reality was tough and a little rocky.
Yana gave up her lease in New York, sold all her belongings and whittled it down to one backpack, her knives and a bicycle. Her good friend, Cassandra Sicre, a filmmaker and producer, is with her for the entire year’s worth of adventure to document every moment from start to completion.
Yana was toying with the idea for about 2 months, because a lot of her friends have their own pop-up supper clubs. The underground pop-up dining scene has become really popular, and in her opinion, it needed a cultural injection.
For the official tour, Yana has been to 4 states, with the District of Columbia as her fifth stop. Her first four stops (as of press time) were Key West, Florida; Charleston, South Carolina; Raleigh, North Carolina and Virginia Beach, Virginia.
“It’s been very interesting to see the reception of Filipino food and also to see similiarities with American dishes that are regional,” Yana explained. She plans to use local and seasonal ingredients for her regional Filipino dishes.
She also plans to string the 50 states through public transportation, using Amtrak and Greyhound. She said she has poured her heart and soul into creating a doable schedule and after about six weeks on the road, she is on track.
“I am happy to have been blessed with amazing friends and people who are kind,” she said.
Through her network of friends, and friends of friends, she was able to identify point persons in almost every leg of the trip.
On an average, about 20 people attend the pop-up dinners, except for Washington, DC where 80 people joined.
Yana’s menu will depend on what’s available locally and in season in each state they are visiting and it always consists of three dishes that come from the three main regions of the Philippines.
“I will be compiling state-specific recipes and making a mini-cookbook for each state. This will help the diners to recreate the dishes from the dinner with the ingredients that they have locally,” she added.
In Washington, DC for example, she served gising gising (Ground pork and Green beans in Coconut milk) for appetizer, chicken halang halang (Chicken stewed in thai Chilies and Coconut cream), pata tim (slow-braised pork leg), and agos-os (Filipino version of tamales, made with sweet potato and pork rolled in banana leaves) for the main courses and for dessert, bingka (Ilonggo version of the traditional bibingka or rice cake).
This gastronomic experience was something the diners loved, and as one participant posted on Feastly’s website said, “Let me put it this way: Days later I’m still thinking about that dinner on Sunday. Every single dish was amazing, and I can think of no better way to be introduced to Filipino cuisine.”
Not the usual Filipino dishes
“I’ve avoided making adobo, pancit and lumpia,” she remarked.
“I think the biggest challenge is to get the word out and to get people interested. Since it’s Filipino food, not everyone knows about it and are skeptical, but the ones who do go are the ones that you would want as diners anyway,” Yana said.
Yana is from Iloilo and in college, she attended the University of the Philippines in Diliman, where she met fellow students coming from all parts of the country. She was also a dormer and a mountaineer so she was exposed to all these dishes that she has never even heard of before.
She took up Psychology and graduated in 2004, the same year when she moved to the United States. She stayed in Los Angeles for seven years until she moved to New York in 2011.
Yana learned how to cook when she was young.
“I was a hyperactive only child so they had to keep me busy. They had me go to the kitchen and help our cook,” she said.
Yana also has an aunt who loved to cook so the kitchen sessions became their way of bonding together. “I was her sous chef,” she said.
Back in LA, she began to rekindle her love affair with cooking when she got tired of dining out and got a little frustrated with food not tasting the way she wanted it to be. The next best thing? She and her friends had dinner parties where they all made the dishes they ate.
And just like that, a self-proclaimed self-made chef was born.
Asked about her favorite dishes to make, she exclaimed, “I love making sisig!”
She made sisig with a pig’s head in South Carolina and it was such a great experience for her that she did it again in Virginia.
“Everyone loved it! I made it Mang Jimmy’s style with mayo and I made it hella spicy,” she added. “For some it was nothing because they are used to different pigs’ parts like in the south. The surprise came with the different flavor profile.”Mang Jimmy’s is a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Diliman and it is famous for its sizzling sisig.
She also loves making kinilaw, a dish very natural to where she grew up, along the coast of Iloilo where fresh seafood is always bountiful.
As her culinary journey progresses, Yana is able to meet a cross-section of the American society and learn about how Filipino cuisine is more often than not, wrongly perceived.
“They think it’s either Chinese, or something weird,” she shared laughing. “I mean I kinda blame Fear Factor and the Bizarre Food show.”
There are areas where she met people who know the basics of Filipino cuisine and they tell her.
“[For some] They already think they know Filipino food by just adobo, pancit and lumpia. They always ask me…sooo Filipino food… what are you serving, adobo?” she said.
Asked about how she felt after finishing her first month on the road, Yana replied, “After the four states, I can say that I feel relief that my work there was done. I’m just happy that people enjoyed the food. They got some education during their meal.”
She is also rethinking her initial policy of not cooking the three most famous Filipino dishes mentioned, specially in America’s heartland, the deep south, where exposure to Filipino cuisine is between nil to the barest minimum.
“I’m also reserving adobo, pancit and lumpia for like when I’m out of dishes to make,” she said.
“I think it has room to grow. Our flavors are exquisite and exotic, a great mix of eastern and western flavors and it’s headed to a beautiful place,” Yana said, in response to our question on where Filipino cuisine in America is today.
Looking forward, Yana is excited to see the rest of America. She is thrilled that she will be able to see Alaska (“Just because it’s so foreign to me and also mainly because I am curious what ingredients I might find there”) and middle America (“because I’m curious to see how people will receive Filipino food”).
After a year is another reason she is looking forward: a month-long trip to the Philippines to recharge and eat all the authentic and unique Filipino dishes the country has to offer.
(The Salo Project will make a pitstop in Jersey City, NJ on May 3; Long Island City, New York on May 11; New Haven, Connecticut on May 18; Providence and Rhode Island on May 25.
(NYNJ May 2, 2014 LifeEASTyle Magazine pg.2)