One restaurant’s quest to popularize Filipino cuisine.
BY: David Sax
It’s lunchtime at the St. Clair West location of FV Foods, and the strollers are creating a mini–traffic jam near the cash. A television blasts sensational news headlines from across the Philippines in a mixture of English and Tagalog, while pop radio hits compete for volume. Noime Laguer, the location manager, is busy dishing out lunches for the crowd, ladling servings of sweet-and-sour tamarind and braised-pork singong soup into Styrofoam bowls and stacking containers of pancit—rice noodles, vegetables and pork stir-fry cooked in soy sauce—three high on the counter.
Though the women ordering are all Filipino, the children in the strollers are not. This is, after all, the heart of Wychwood Park, and the customers today are largely caregivers and nannies bringing their charges with them for lunch. A stray arm reaches out of one stroller towards a rack of packaged sweets. “Puto! Puto!” the kid begs, pointing to a purple rice cake. The nanny happily buys it and soon the child is gumming on the little puto cake, smiling ear to ear.
If only getting the rest of the city to embrace Filipino foods was so easy. Despite the fact that Filipinos are one of the largest ethnic groups in Toronto, and they’ve had a presence here for half a century, Filipino cuisine remains largely a mystery to Torontonians. There are over 100,000 Filipinos in Toronto and another 100,000 in the GTA. Canada-wide, the Philippines was the number-one source of immigration last year, and the fastest growing.
But for some reason, while most of us in this city know our sashimi from our paneer, few of us outside the Filipino community could correctly tell a chicken adobo from a lechon, let alone pinakbet (okra, long beans, bitter melon and eggplant stewed with shrimp paste).
Melchor Albudin Galeon (known to all as Mel) intends to change that. He came to Toronto in 1998 as part of an official Philippine government delegation to the Canadian National Exhibition, and never left. A cook, baker and restaurateur back home, he taught ballroom dancing for a year before meeting and falling in love with his partner, Flor Vendiola. Identifying a lack of Filipino baked goods in the community, they started FV foods in a Scarborough apartment. Today, they have five locations around the city.
For many of FV Foods’ patrons, the restaurant serves as a lifeline back to home. Many Filipinos come to Toronto to work as caregivers—either in hospitals, nursing homes or private houses. In recent years, Filipino neighbourhoods in North York, Scarborough and Mississauga have formed around those workplaces. As for the cuisine, “No one in our community tried to appeal to other people,” says Galeon, whose goal is to make Filipino cuisine as popular as Thai. “We put different branches in different areas, even if there are not a lot of Filipinos, like on St. Clair.”
Even so, only 20 per cent of FV food’s customers aren’t Filipino. “I’m not sure why,” says Galeon. “Filipino food is very delicious. It’s a combination of Chinese and Spanish flavours.”
Still, its similiarities to those cuisines (including Spanish-influenced empanadas and pan de leche) aren’t nearly as persuasive as the originality and vibrancy of Filipino cooking. Strong flavours and fresh vegetables like bok choy, baby carrots and whole okra mingle with rich cuts of meat, like a side dish of stewed, creamy mung beans with spinach and bits of crispy pork. Also excellent is FV’s expertly fried fish doused in shrimp paste and soy sauce.
Unlike most other Asian cuisines, Filipino cooking prizes sweets as highly as mains. There are innumerable breads, cakes, biscuits and rice-based treats, from traditional tropical favourites—like sticky rice or cassava root steamed in a banana leaf—to multicoloured breads, cakes and desserts with amazing names like Broken Glass, Halo-halo and Food for the God. The best might be the rice kebob: a wooden skewer with four hunks of hot, chewy sweet rice, coated in melted brown sugar.
“Many Filipino caregivers and nannies are live-in,” says Galeon, “and they’re not allowed to cook Phillipine foods in the houses of their employers. So when they go out for lunch, even with the babies in the strollers, we want to reach them.” And, he admits, the babies, too. After spending much of their childhoods in the care of their nannies, they might grow up feeling as attached to the singsong staccato of Tagalog and the sweet taste of a purple puto cake as they are to their own mothers’ cooking. There’s hope yet.