Paolo Española is the writerly, philosophical and culinary creative who dabbles in blogging, catering and pop-up dinner-throwing under the moniker The Errant Diner. With no professional culinary training, Paolo balks at being called Chef, despite the fact that he seems to fit his own definition of the term: he cooks not merely to feed people, but to provide educational, transformative experiences that leave diners with a changed mindset.
Paolo’s background is kaleidoscopic: he spent his childhood in Saudi Arabia, his adolescence in a seminary in rural Wisconsin and his college years in Minnesota before finally settling in the concrete jungle of New York. You'll find us reunited with him there for our Filipino history-themed pop-up dinner, on Independence Day, June 12, at Court Tree in Brooklyn.
In this edition of Pinoy Food for the Soul, Paolo recalls mealtimes with both the Filipino and Chinese sides of his family.
Sarahlynn of Filipino Kitchen: What is your favorite Filipino food memory? Tell us about that.
Paolo: It’s so hard. There’s so many...
The first one is when we celebrated New Year’s with my Chinese side of the family. This is really a tale of two families. This is my Chinese side and then it’s my Filipino side. Because they both eat Filipino food. I think people would argue, "No, your Chinese side ate Chinese food!" But the food they ate you wouldn’t find in China. You’d only find it in Chinatowns in the Philippines. What makes that less Filipino?
So New Year’s, the extended family gets together and there’s all these traditions. You light the incense for the ancestors, you have to eat circular things and there’s certain dishes that are always present. They got paella but it’s made of sticky rice. Seeing the lineage extend is really cool because you have these super strict grandparents who mellowed out because the nieces and nephews and granddaughters are like this loud, boisterous bunch. So seeing the progression in generations while eating food that extends far beyond my grandparents is really cool. Living in Saudi, I lived only with my mom, my dad, and my brother, whereas most people know their grandparents and I barely see them. So when we get together it’s kind of very surreal.
The second one is when we were at a beach on my Filipino side and they were gathering. Everyone brought their pots of food made from home, and did a pig roast and the pig is roasted on a washing machine, a deconstructed washing machine. It’s so bizarre. They take away the casing and they use the central turning systems, stick a pipe on it, and set it to low spin, so you roast a pig using a washing machine turned on its side. It’s hilarious. Anyway, we show up on this beach and we’re just all eating, again with the grandfather down, but this time it’s like, people are loud. They were always party animals to begin with so it’s definitely a stark contrast from the more subdued Chinese side.
But the point is even though their cultures are so far apart, it’s the same. The families eat together. That’s why most of my favorite food memories are centered around this idea of community, ‘cause the Arabs do the same thing. I’ve gone to Indian houses. Same thing. Maybe I’m naive when I really think that food is gonna save the world, because if people realize, dude, they ALL sit down with fam, they ALL talk about the same things, they ALL have the same hopes and fears. The only reason I’m telling you these stories is you asked Filipino food, but if you were to ask me what’s your favorite food memory, they’re ALL gonna be the same. It’s usually going to some family and seeing all these generations and it’s exactly the same. So I would say those two are my favorite food memories ‘cause they’re both sides of my family.
Sarahlynn: Aw, that’s cool. I can totally picture the thing with the pig roast because I have an uncle here in Chicago who’s a mechanic and he did something, it might have been a washing machine too, I’m not really sure, but it kinda looks like a jalopy. It’s gears and things, and he uses that for when he roasts goats and stuff, but he does that in his garage, like, motor oil, like a commercial garage in the back!
Paolo: Yeah, for sure, you know what I’m talking about. It’s ghetto-ass, we’ve gone on with the times, but we’re still doing this old school cooking with the fam. It’s mad cool, it’s mad cool.
Sarahlynn: Oh for sure. And you were talking about the paella. I haven’t really eaten with a lot of Tsinoy families. What’s typical eating at New Year’s Eve?
Paolo: Yeah, Christian New Year’s Eve. It wasn’t Chinese New Year, but I think we ate the same food, they just don’t do it at home for Chinese New Year. So the one at home is half they buy stuff and then some stuff they make. ‘Cause man, they’re business owners. They can cook but they’re like, man, I’m so tired, let’s just order! The food is steamed buns that you put pork in, there’s pancit, there’s paella, which is a yellow sticky rice, stuff with chicken. It’s food you’d find at dim sum spots. There’s chop suey. It’s almost a Filipino party where you see all of the menudos and asados and stuff in silver trays, but Chinese food.
Sarahlynn: Those are nice memories, to have everybody at the table. I happen to agree with you. I think food is gonna change everything. I mean, it’s just tied up into everything. I feel like if people go back to that, just eating together, I feel like there’s so many things we can get around and through and stuff.
Paolo: There was a research study written, a while back, a couple decades ago, about hummus. It broke down the origins and culture of hummus now between Palestine and Israel, who started it and what its difference is. And I’m like, dude, if y’all just realized that you both have this shared dish, you could’ve both been proud of it and said, "We’re more similar than we think!" You know what I mean? You see people today like, "Real Filipino adobo shouldn’t have coconut milk or cream." Uh, OK, you just said that a third of the Philippines doesn’t cook Filipino food then. You know what I mean? Why all these differences? If y’all just say, "Man, that’s how you cook it? That’s cool! At least we share adobo," then nobody’d be fighting!