Nastasha Alli: On food, identity and cooking Sinigang from scratch

Community News & Features May 25, 2018 at 4:29 pm
The New Filipino Kitchen book, which will be available in September

The New Filipino Kitchen book, which will be available in September (Photos provided by Nastasha Alli)

By Irish Mae Silvestre
The Philippine Reporter

Growing up, Nastasha Alli, 30, always knew she wanted to be featured in a book.

She’s a voracious reader of books on Filipino cuisine, often having books delivered to her aunt’s home in the Philippines and getting them shipped to Toronto. So it’s no surprise that Alli is a wealth of obscure but interesting facts about Filipino food history.

“The origins of kare-kare is much-debated about and whether it can be traced to the Indian version of curry,” she said. “There is evidence it started from carinderias operated by Filipino women who had married people from the Indian subcontinent.”

It’s hard not to share in Alli’s almost academic level of enthusiasm for Filipino cuisine. She is, after all, the host of the podcast Exploring Filipino Kitchens, a one-woman passion project that she produces, writes, edits and hosts. By day, Alli is a food tour guide for Savour Toronto where she helps food lovers navigate Kensington Market’s eclectic array of cuisines, while sampling arepas and jerk chicken along the way.

“By giving people context to the food they’re eating, it helps them understand the spirit of that food,” she explained.

In addition to being a podcaster and a food tour guide, Alli is also continuing to make her mark as a writer. She’s featured in the upcoming book, The New Filipino Kitchen: Stories and Recipes From Around the Globe. Scheduled for release this September, the book by Jacqueline Choi-Lauri is a compilation of beloved recipes and personal anecdotes from renowned Filipinos such as former White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford and “Food Buddha” Rodelio Aglibot.

“It’s going to be exciting,” said Alli. “I think it’s going to be a snapshot of Filipino food today.”

NASTASHA ALLI

NASTASHA ALLI

The Quest for Identity

It’s not easy being a young and moving to a foreign country.

Alli, who grew up in Manila and studied hotel, restaurant and institution management at De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde, found herself in a strange new city in 2007 when, at the age of 19, she and her family joined her father in Vancouver where he had been working in retail distribution.

Since she was just a few semesters shy of graduating, Alli managed to convince her school to let her finish her co-op program in Vancouver and was promptly hired to work the front desk of a busy hotel airport. “I was like a fish out of water with no idea what to do but I was super enthusiastic,” she recalled. “I really learned on the job. It helped me come out of my shell a bit more. I’m more of an introvert so making small talk with people I was never going to see again helped me develop my confidence.”

After briefly returning to the Philippines to finish her paperwork at school, the family resettled in Toronto where Alli got a job at another hotel. However, after four years, she admitted to feeling “really jaded” and decided to pursue a post-graduate degree in journalism at Centennial College.

“By that point, I was a bit more assertive that I could go to City Hall where I could interview people,” she recalled. “There was no way I could’ve done that before.”

Knowing Alli’s interest in food, a professor suggested that she apply for an internship at Canadian Living magazine where she got accepted as a web editorial intern.

“It was amazing!” said Alli. “I didn’t even know you could do something like that.”

Nastasha Alli interviewing Neil Binayao of Hineleban Farms in Bukidnon, Mindanao in March 2016

Nastasha Alli interviewing Neil Binayao of Hineleban Farms in Bukidnon, Mindanao in March 2016

The internship led to a paid position writing for Fresh Juice, a subscriber-only magazine by Loblaws. One of her favourite assignments was writing about Kozlik’s, a family-owned mustard company that grew its seeds in Canada and used it to make different types of mustard. “That was very formative because I realized there are so many stories like that about Canadian food that you could write about,” she said.

However, the magazine folded and Nastasha found herself feeling deflated and working in the hospitality industry once again. She also recalled getting the flu and craving sinigang and realizing that she had no idea how to make it from scratch.

“I was so angry with myself,” she said. “The only way I knew how to cook sinigang was by using the packet and dumping everything in. How did they cook it before? I had never thought about it.”

Finding a Voice

It was around that time that Alli had started reading books on Filipino cuisine and its history. She also began listening to podcasts like BBC’s The Food Programme and Gravy, which explores southern cuisine. She discovered that Filipino cuisine didn’t have much of a presence in the podcast universe so she decided to create one herself.

“Online, there wasn’t much written about Filipino food,” she said. “It was usually written by an international journalist talking about how Filipino cuisine is ‘the next big thing.’ There’s more to it than what foreign writers have to say so I started the podcast to answer that need for myself.”

Her first episode was recorded during a trip to the Philippines where she interviewed farmers who grew coffee in Tuminugan Farms in Mindanao. One of her favourite episodes was interviewing Dr. Ame Garong, an archeologist for the National Museum of the Philippines and author of the 2013 book, Ancient Filipino Diet.

“That was, legit, my most star-struck moment,” said Alli. “But she was very approachable. Without spoiling the episode, [she explained that] bones found near the coast ate more fish, while bones in the mountain province of Luzon had more animal protein. It was a story of how Filipinos ate before colonizers came and what kind of food was abundant at the time.”

In addition to her food tour, blog, upcoming book and the hours that go towards putting the podcast together, Alli says that the podcast is her creative outlet.

“One of my favourite things about the podcast is that you’re recording people’s voices so it’s like recording oral history,” she said. “And it’s easy for people to connect with food because you eat it – it’s tangible. You can form your opinion on whether you like how it smells or tastes. Food is something that lets you understand your heritage.”

She added that Filipinos have plenty to be proud of when it comes to their cuisine and need to get over the concept of “hiya.”

“I think it’s a matter of time for Filipino cuisine to become mainstream but it has to start with Filipinos themselves understanding how amazing our cuisine is before [sharing it] with others,” she explained. “The more voices there are, it can only get better from there.”

To listen to the podcast, visit www.exploringfilipinokitchens.com. The New Filipino Kitchen: Stories and Recipes From Around the Globe will be available in September and can be pre-ordered on Amazon. For more information on the food tour, visit savourtoronto.com.