Vegetable representation matters
By Angela Garbes, guest contributor
One of my favorite foods was—and still is—sinigang, a soup traditionally rendered sour with tamarind or kalamansi. We ate it often when I was growing up; for convenience my parents always used Knorr seasoning packets to flavor the water they boiled pork neck bones in, packets that originated from my grandparent’s supermarket in Pampanga, dozens of them layered into the suitcases that accompanied them on their return flights to the United States.
The vegetables my mom and dad added to my childhood sinigang reflected what was available to them in small-town Pennsylvania in the 1980s: tiny round red radishes dropped into the pot whole; scraggly, brown-tipped bunches of watercress; boxes of frozen Birds Eye pre-cut okra, vivid green slices suspended in icy blocks like glacial fossils. I remember the frozen rectangles dropped unceremoniously into the pot just before serving, the white okra seeds (firm, like tiny eyeballs) and slime commingling with the simmering broth, making it viscous. My parents ladled the sinigang into a bowl of rice for me, and I’d immediately douse it with juice from the plastic yellow ReaLemon bottle shaped like the fruit, and fish sauce to make it saltier and bracingly sour.
For most of my adult life—I’d say up until about 10 years ago—I didn’t cook much Filipino food. I did a lot of cooking, though. I roasted chickens, learned to make chilaquiles, iceberg wedge salads with homemade blue cheese dressing, radicchio risotto, posole. I made all kinds of soups: lentil, potato leek, farro, kale and sausage ribollita, avgolemono, gazpacho. But I didn’t dare attempt longtime favorites such as sinigang, tinola, tom kha or pho. I became a confident cook in my 20s, except where Filipino and Southeast Asian dishes close to my heart were concerned. To be fair I did make pancit and congee regularly, but only on specific occasions: pancit for friends’ birthdays, congee when my spouse or I was sick.
I told myself I didn’t need to learn to make pho or tom kha—after all, you can get excellent versions of these soups all over Seattle, pretty cheaply at that. I told other people I didn’t need to learn to make sinigang or bulalo—after all, I could get the best versions, made by my mother and father, at their house, just 20 minutes away. All of these things are true, of course, but they also hide the truth, which I am still figuring out, which goes something like: these dishes are so important to me that I didn’t dare learn how to make them for fear that I would mess them up; that the world of food is so vast and inspiring and I’m fortunate to be able to turn away from cuisines close to me and learn from other places; that, for years, on some level I bought into the idea that my “humble, ethnic” food—“cheap eats” served at “holes in the wall” in “off the beaten track” neighborhoods—was less important than French or Italian cuisine and I understood what I should really be paying attention to, especially if I wanted to write professionally about food (which I did).
I make Filipino food often now. My sinigang is soured with the kalamansi juice that I get from the heavy box of kalamansi that my Tita Baby sends from her tree in West Covina, and which we painstakingly squeeze and drain and freeze. Pancit, kalbi, pad thai, congee and bibimbap are in regular family meal rotation. The shift was deliberate, though I can’t point to one clear reason why. It goes something like: I got pregnant and started thinking about what foods I would pass down to my child the way my parents did to me, every year I feel myself and my parents getting older and I want to make good use of our time together, I’ve done a lot of work to value myself and my Asian-ness and Filipinx culture properly and I get more curious about all of this with each passing day, I made friends with people who love to cook and our group chat is almost entirely dedicated to planning our next elaborate meal (and we now have a tradition—five years strong? the pandemic has scrambled time—of hosting these families on Christmas Eve and cooking a Noche Buena feast that always begins with fresh-fried lumpia), I moved to a neighborhood with a Filipino market down the street that stocks at least 12 kinds of greens—yu choy, gai lan, kang kong, camote, malunggay—and fresh okra.
And, most recently, I joined the CSA program of Kamayan Farm, a Filipinx-owned flower and vegetable farm that is part of Second Generation Seeds, which Kamayan owner Ari de Leña describes as “a collective of Asian American growers, inviting our community to reclaim the narrative around Asian crops and their foodways.” This is our first season with Kamayan and with every new batch of vegetables I pick up, I have found myself increasingly astounded and emotional.
(We belonged to another CSA, Local Roots, for over 10 years. It was great. I consider the owners, Siri and Jason, friends and for a couple of wonderful seasons I did a work-share CSA, spending one day a week on the farm with them and their crew picking vegetables, weeding and packing boxes in exchange for vegetables. Like everyone, different farmers have different interests, and at Local Roots, their passion is for Italian vegetables, especially chicory and radicchio. We decided to switch to Kamayan because for the last few years, especially during the pandemic when so many local small businesses closed, we’ve thought longer and harder about which small businesses we want to support. I’ve decided I want, as much as possible, to give direct financial support to my Filipinx peers.)
Over the last two months, we’ve received Chinese celery (thinner, leafier, far less watery than the celery you typically encounter), yukina savoy, snow peas and perilla leaves. And with these vegetables I’ve made the best, sauciest stir-fries of my life (thanks to this recipe shared in the Kamayan newsletter—“velveting” beef has changed my life!) and a bibimbap feast that made both my daughters stand up on their chairs and cheer.
It’s true that I am an easy cry and it’s not entirely unusual for food to bring me to tears, but what really gets me about our CSA is the same feeling I had when my publisher hired Janelle (Quibuyen) to design the cover of my book, when Jia (Tolentino of The New Yorker) reviewed my book, when I got to do tour events with Genevieve Villamora, Mel Miranda, Ligaya Mishan and Jenny Odell. To collaborate and be in conversation with six other Pinay women is a dream that, until recently, I didn’t even know I was allowed to have.
And now, week after week, I get to savor Ari and her crew’s care and legacy work. It means more to me than I am able to describe right now to pick up vegetables with my daughters and talk about what “kamayan” means, the irreplaceable experience and value of doing things with your hands. To practice our Tagalog. To bring home Asian vegetables grown nearby that stir up deep feelings and memories for me and open up new worlds for them.
Seattle resident Angela Garbes is author, most recently, of “Essential Labor” (Harper Wave, $25.99), named a Best Book of 2022 by The New Yorker. This essay was originally published as a newsletter (angelagarbes.substack.com) and is reprinted by permission.
Farming from family heritage
Winter may seem too early to think about produce from local farms, but signups for many CSA programs begin in January. A growing number of farms in the region are offering CSAs connected to the farmer’s family heritage or life experience. They include:
At Bumblebee Farm, Amy White and Katy Bond focus on heirloom vegetables—many of them from the Slow Food Ark of Taste. With Bond’s Chinese ancestry and White’s love of unusual produce, their interests run the gamut. Offerings include Asian favorites such as bok choy, tatsoi, napa cabbage, gai lan, shiso and pea vines, as well as European specialties like broccolo fiolaro, puntarelle, Breton shelling beans, Basque peppers and various chicories.
In the Snoqualmie Valley, Ariana de Leña is honoring her Filipino heritage at Kamayan Farm (kamayan means “with hands” in Tagalog). Her produce includes perilla, gai lan, bittermelon, upo/opo (bottle gourd), yukina savoy, mustard greens, Chinese celery, napa cabbage and Tokyo bekana. The farm is a member of Second Generation Seeds, a collective dedicated to preserving and evolving heritage crops and foodways of the Asian diaspora.
Italian vegetables are a passion at Local Roots Farm, specifically radicchio and chicories. Husband and wife owners Siri Erickson and Jason Salvo developed an affection for these bitter greens—which are often magenta or pink—while spending time in Italy, and have been promoting them ever since. You can find their puntarelle, variegato di castelfranco, rosso di chioggia, and more through their CSA program and at their farm store at 26331 Valley Street, Duvall, WA.
Tuk Muk Farm
Tuk Muk Farm specializes in hard-to-find Asian vegetables, such as shiso, mizuna, daikon radish, burdock, Japanese cucumbers, komatsuna, Thai eggplant, pea shoots and edible chrysanthemum greens (shungiku). Farmer Shawn Miller sells at the Madrona Farmers Market and restaurants as well as the CSA.
Compiled by Sound Consumer contributor Tara Austen Weaver