On She Goes

A Taste of Home: Finding Filipino Food in New Zealand

For immigrants like me, finding food from my motherland is like finding home.

Rina Diane Caballar
Rina Diane Caballar
November 1, 2017
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On a cold Friday afternoon, Wellington’s Capital Market was bustling with warmth and energy. Exposed ceiling beams, aluminum lighting fixtures, and concrete floors gave the space an industrial feel. There were long, brown wooden tables paired with colorful stools, and smaller square tables with black, metal-backed chairs were scattered around the area. The food court was filled with hungry diners surveying dishes served by various food stalls with cuisines like Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Armenian, Japanese, and more. I went straight to Smokin’ BBQ and Grill, a food stall serving Filipino dishes. I knew I’d find the taste of home I was yearning for in the dishes they served—adobo, pork boiled in a marinade of soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, and garlic; monggo, sautéed mung beans; and kare-kare, a peanut sauce stew of oxtail and tripe. I ordered the adobo on a bed of steaming white rice and reveled in the taste of Filipino food in this New Zealand city. For immigrants like me, finding food from my motherland is like finding home.

Wellington Harbor.
photo by Rina Diane Caballar

Adobo was a staple dish in our household growing up in Baguio, a city in northern Philippines. My mother cooked it the traditional way, but used chicken instead of pork. Mama combined the chicken with a mixture of crushed garlic, soy sauce, a hint of vinegar, a pinch of sugar, a few peppercorns, and some bay leaves. She brought them all to a slow boil until the sauce reduced, forming an oily glaze. On most days, she served it with fried potatoes on the side. On other days, there were quail eggs or fried tofu.

I still remember the pungent garlic smell, the sweetness of the soy sauce, and the tender chicken that soaked in all the flavors. This was the adobo I grew up with, the adobo I eventually learned to cook, and the adobo I loved. Now that I was in windy Wellington, New Zealand, it was the ulam—the main dish—I craved the most, the dish I looked forward to cooking and eating.  

For immigrants like me, finding food from my motherland is like finding home.

My husband and I escaped the heat and chaos of Manila in the hopes of settling down in Wellington. As New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington embodies all things south: it’s the world’s southernmost capital city, located in the Southern Hemisphere at the southwestern tip of the country’s North Island. Wellington’s exposure to strong westerly winds blowing through Cook Strait lends to its nickname of “windy Welly.” Despite the winds, Wellington brought me a calm I never found in Manila. Maybe it was the sloping and winding roads leading to the rolling hills of the suburbs, or the large trees in various shades of green swaying with the wind. Or maybe because it was quiet enough to hear the peculiar sounds of birds chirping, hushed conversations, and sidewalk footsteps. Whatever it was, Wellington was the refreshing start we needed.

I felt a longing for these flavors, but underneath it all was a longing for home.

Filipino food was available only in a handful of cafés in the city center, which was a 40-minute bus ride from our rental place. So my craving for Filipino dishes had to be abated by trying to make them at home. Within a few months of our arrival, I failed at my first attempt to cook adobo. The cooking process was simple enough, and I knew I would find all the ingredients I needed. I settled for the soy sauce and vinegar they had at the supermarket, but the flavors weren’t right.

Homemade adobo, a staple Filipino dish.
photo by Rina Diane Caballar

I was used to the sweet and salty balance of Filipino toyo (soy sauce) and the mild sourness of Filipino suka (vinegar). What I got instead was vinegar that was too sour and soy sauce that was too strong, overpowering the garlic and erasing any hint of sweetness from the sugar. I wanted to re-create the flavors of home, but it didn’t taste like home at all. I felt a longing for these flavors, but underneath it all was a longing for home. I missed my family and friends. I missed the feeling of knowing streets like the back of my hand. I missed the feeling of recognizing faces and names and places. I missed the feeling of being accustomed to everything and not questioning whether I was doing things right according to another country’s culture. Migrating somewhere new can be exciting, but it can also be confusing and challenging. Leaving your old home behind brings you an immense yearning that may never really go away.

Fortunately, we heard about a store selling Filipino goods. We were hopeful that they stocked our trusty toyo and suka brands.

Visiting the Filipino store was like entering a large sari-sari store, a variety store found in neighborhoods across the Philippines. It felt comforting to step into a place that reminded me so much of home, its familiarity providing temporary solace from my homesickness. There were shelves stocked with instant noodles, Filipino-brand de lata (canned goods), and even Mang Tomas pork liver sauce, a famous dip for lechon (roasted suckling pig) and just about anything meaty and greasy. I found my soy sauce and vinegar brands conveniently packed together on a bottom shelf—the perfect combination to get the adobo flavor right.

I wanted to remind myself of where I came from; I didn’t want to ever forget.

Cooking the adobo for a second time with the toyo and suka brands I bought was a success—I got the balance of sweet, salty, and sour I was looking for. But it also got me thinking: Why was I so insistent on getting the flavors right? Why couldn’t I settle for ingredients that were readily available but altered the taste of my beloved Filipino dish?

Cooking a dish from my home country was so important to me because it gave me a sense of belonging in this otherwise foreign land. I wanted to remind myself of where I came from; I didn’t want to ever forget. As the late cultural historian and celebrated Filipina author Doreen Fernandez wrote, “This is quite naturally the cuisine in the heartland of the Filipin[a], the one [s]he longs for when [s]he is away, the one [s]he finds comforting. It is part of [her] ethos.”

I hope to pass on the tradition of cooking adobo to future generations and remind them that home is not just a place. Home is also embodied in the food we eat, the ingredients we use, and our persistence in perfecting its flavors.