AMY BESA: The Trailblazer

Photo by Neal Oshima.

For those unfamiliar with names in the Fil-Am food scene, Amy Besa and Chef Romy Dorotan are two very big ones. Before there was Maharlika or Jeepney in New York, long before there was a Filipino Food Movement or Filipino fusion food trucks and pop-ups, there was Cendrillon. The native Filipino husband-and-wife duo are the authors of Memories of Philippine Kitchens and owners of Cendrillon (1995-2009 in SoHo) and Purple Yam in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, which opened in 2009 (a second location opened in July 2014 in Malate, Manila). Memories, which is part cookbook, part research, and a celebration of their roots, was the winner of the 2007 IACP Jane Grigson Award for scholarship in the quality of its research and writing, and was a Julia Child First Book Award finalist. Their restaurants have been highly-regarded amongst locals, tourists and the culinary and Fil-Am communities for their celebration of heritage and bringing together of elements from other Asian cuisines and regional flavors and local ingredients. They are also passionate preservationists and emphasize cooking techniques that return to the past and to the land, with Amy having founded the non-profit organization Ang Sariling Atin (Food That Was Always Ours) Culinary Heritage Institute in the Philippines.

—Lisa and Irene Yadao

Q: Where did you each grow up and how did Filipino food fit into your respective childhoods and adulthoods?  

A: Romy grew up in Irosin, Sorsogon. Their little town is very close to the most southern tip of Luzon. A ferry boat will bring you to Samar which is Waray country, already part of the Visayas. This is why Romy’s Bicol is very Bisaya. I am truly a Central Luzon person growing up in Manila, with my mom coming from Zambales and my dad from Tarlac. Tarlac and Zambales are just separated by mountains—Mt. Pinatubo for one. My grandmother was a very good cook, and made many things from scratch, things like patis (fish sauce), bagoong (fermented fish), tapang usa (air dried venison), mango jam (pure mangoes, no sugar), and lots of traditional dishes. Until this day, we still practice some of the quirks we learned from her, like eating bone marrow (from pochero) with hot steaming rice or mashed bananas sprinkled with rock salt. She had a special sawsawan, or dip, for tinapa (smoked bangus) which was made of “suka, patis, and mantika” or vinegar, fish sauce and oil. No one I know does that. But now I see it as an early form of native vinaigrette.

Q: Who were some of the culinary heroes who have shaped your culinary career or your desire to run a restaurant business?

A: As a young teenager growing up in Manila, I was influenced by Cooking with Nora (Nora Daza) and by foreign cookbooks like the Betty Crocker cookbooks. At the time, cookbooks were very utilitarian and there was no need for much design or history, and at the time the concept of a coffee table book for cookbooks still had not yet arrived (to my knowledge, in Manila). In the United States, Romy and I shifted to British food writers like Alan Davidson, Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson. We like the books that are written by Fergus Henderson (Nose to Tail), The River Cafe Cookbook by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers (many decades old but still classic) and Gordon Ramsay’s books. Of course, with regards to the organic movement and cooking from scratch, our American hero has and always will be Alice Waters.

Q: When or how did you come to realize there was a market or a need for your dishes? What did you envision and how have things worked out for you?

A: We really did not approach opening a restaurant in Manhattan in 1995 as a business proposition or fulfilling a market need. We just felt that life was too short and we needed to do what our passions told us to do. It was more important to us that we get to do the things that mattered to us while we were still young and able. Now that we are in our 60s, I realize how lucky we were to be able to do this for the past 20 years. We really did not know what lay ahead of us. It has not made us rich financially, but we are VERY rich in terms of friends, appreciation of culture and food, and the knowledge that we did not waste our lives. For us that is wealth. Many of our customers, even suppliers, have become very close friends.

Q: How is your food received by both the Fil-Am community and non-Filipinos?

A: When we first opened in 1995, many Filipinos were a bit shocked at our approach and our palate. They were used to the usual way dishes have been prepared in the turo turos and in home cooking. Romy’s cooking was more about clean flavors emphasizing the individual flavors of each ingredient while Filipinos like a robust mix of flavorings. I learned a lot of lessons in getting the right compromise between our sensibility and meeting that popular Filipino palate. For me, the best way was to get beloved dishes and prepare them in the best possible way by using quality ingredients and cooking methods that did not compromise the integrity of the dish. Adobo is a vinegar braise so we used high quality natural vinegars (as opposed to factory made ones); sinigang is soup made with sour fruits like guava, tamarind, starfruit, etc. (as opposed to using packaged mixes); and pancit or noodle dishes were made with real noodles (as opposed to fake ones, like “rice noodles” made with cornstarch instead of rice flour). Those who understood what we were aiming for appreciated it, but those who had different expectations were very disappointed. Many of the recipes we used were those handed down to me by my grandmother and we ate those dishes when I was growing up. And it was a surprise to me to be told that they were not Filipino or that we cooked Filipino with a twist. We did not have too many problems with non-Filipinos, especially Europeans, Australians and Japanese who were some of our most loyal customers. Many non-Filipinos came because they had been to the Philippines, and one remarked, “How come I have to come to NYC to eat good Filipino food?”

Q: What trends are you noticing with Filipino food here in the states, whether it’s a dish that’s gaining popularity or chefs trying new twists on old traditions?

A: I think that there is a healthy influx of young Filipino chefs that feel “unleashed” or liberated. Whereas before there was the tyranny of “authenticity,” now they can let go of all their creative energies. My message and advise to the ones I know and those who ask my advice:  Be yourself and use the best ingredients you can find. That’s the challenge, always go beyond what you know, search out good things from the environment and hone your cooking skills to release the flavors inherent in your ingredients. Your goal is to communicate to the diner what is so good about what you are cooking through your own sensibilities and personalities. I notice a lot of spring rolls (lumpia), adobo, sisig (chopped and deep fried pig cheeks, snout and ears), halo halo, ice cream flavors, barbecue, etc. More need to be discovered. That’s the challenge. They now have to break loose from their own perceptions of the market limitations.

Q: In America, we’re used to seeing other Asian foods on menus across the country, yet there hasn’t been that same kind of accessibility to Filipino food. But now there seems to be a growing number of restaurants, food trucks, pop-ups featuring Filipino cuisine. What can this shift be attributed to?

A: It’s really more a growing pride in one’s food and culture. There’s a growing confidence among Filipinos that our food is world-class and can come equally to the international table. There are also more Filipino chefs with solid skills and more Filipinos knowledgeable about the restaurant business, having a level of comfort with the mainstream cuisines. I had predicted it would take about five years from the time we opened Purple Yam in Brooklyn in 2009, but it started to bubble up around 2013. A major factor is the influx of Filipino Americans in the mix. For many Fil-Ams, food was a way they could connect with their roots and they were proud to be Filipinos. It was a very healthy attitude. They were Americans, therefore mainstream, but they had an added asset—their homeland, history and culture.

Q: What is one dish you feel best represents the Philippines and why?

A: Actually there are three dishes which are not just dishes, but are cooking methods: adobo, sinigang and kinilaw (our version of ceviche). They are the three legs on which Philippine food stands. They are all united by the use of souring agents. There are three main sources for sourness: vinegars, sour fruits and leaves, and citrus juices (kalamansi, dayap, dalandan, etc,). When I traveled the Philippines to research for my book, I saw these dishes or cooking methods in all regions of the country and they were cooked and eaten by all levels of society. Rich and poor alike will eat all three. And each region defines each dish/cooking method, depending on the ingredients they find in their environment. The taste of sourness defines Philippine food. This sourness, its sources and how they are used, can fill up volumes and still need to be discovered and documented. That’s how we will discover how rich this cuisine is. Most of it is hidden because the people in the rural areas do not make much of it and do not think they are special. It will have to be our task to awaken Filipinos everywhere that we are rich in nature’s gifts that feed our cuisine and our people.

Chicken Tinola 

Yield: Serves 4 to 6

2 tablespoons canola oil
1/3 cup chopped onion
One 1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and julienned
4 garlic cloves, crushed
1 stewing chicken, cut into pieces
2 tablespoons fish sauce, plus more to taste
1 small green papaya, peeled, seeded, and sliced ½-inch thick
1 cup fresh or frozen sili (chile) leaves (available in Asian markets), or substitute watercress or water spinach
½ cup malunggay leaves (optional)

1. In a large saucepan over medium heat, warm the oil. Add the onions, ginger, and garlic and sauté until softened, about 5 minutes.
2. Add the chicken pieces and fish sauce and cook, stirring, until the chicken is well coated with oil, 1 to
2 minutes. Add 8 cups of water, raise the heat, and bring to boil. Reduce the heat and simmer Chicken uncovered, adding the papaya when the chicken is almost tender, 30 to 40 minutes total. Stir in the sili
and malunggay leaves, if using. Cook until heated through and wilted if fresh. Season with fish sauce, to


From Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan’s book Memories of Philippine Kitchens  

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OtM logosThis story is a part of Off the Menu: Asian America, a multimedia project between the Center for Asian American Media and KQED, featuring a one-hour PBS primetime special by award-winning filmmaker Grace Lee (American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs), original stories and web content.