Can you imagine life without Filipino food? As a Filipino expat living in Kenya, where Pinoy food is not readily available, our columnist Agatha Verdadero has learned to embrace the local cuisine, which paved the way to explore more African cultures and greater new friendships.
When I moved to Kenya, I promised myself not to crave too much for things from home. I had done a research trip the year before, so I had steeled myself for what I could and couldn’t have from supermarket shelves. To ease into life in Nairobi, I brought a balikbayan box of Pinoy goodies including packets of mixes for champorado, tocino, sinigang, three large glass jars of spicy bagoong covered in bubble wrap, bottles of Datu Puti vinegar and soy sauce and other packed Filipino ingredients.
Foodstuff wasn’t the only items I brought. Together with my books, I also included my brand of shampoo and conditioners, and common Filipino muscle rub like Omega Pain Killer and Efficascent Oil. Once my supplies emptied, I was going to live with whatever was available in Nairobi.
Doing what Kenyans do in Kenya
Within a year or so, they were gone, and I allowed myself to do as Kenyans do when in Kenya. That’s not to say that I suddenly became a fan of their staple, ugali and sukuma wiki (stiff maize meal porridge and sauteed collard greens), but I didn’t shy away from eating mongo stew with chapati instead of rice or chunky beef stew with spaghetti.
Unlike nations populated by a significant number of Filipinos, Kenya didn’t have a single Filipino store. There were less than a thousand Filipino expats in Kenya, and we were too small a market to be catered to. While it had a few Asian markets back in 2002, they were primarily Indian. Still, I was thankful that they were even there. Sometimes, I did manage to score a punnet of fresh tamarinds from one of them, which I promptly boiled to make my sinigang base.
Decades ago, there was once a TV ad of a woman sweating it out in the kitchen to boil, pound, squeeze, and filter sampalok to make the sour broth until Knorr came to save the day. My situation became the “before” model of that commercial.
Aisles for “ethnic” food
Around 2010 the Chinese started arriving in historic waves, to construct highways in partnership with the government and establish new businesses. It didn’t take long before supermarkets began to create aisles for “ethnic” food. They started stocking up on a broader variety of soy sauce. Instead of just the regular dark mushroom soy sauce that I used for years to make adobo, they added varieties like light soy sauce and sodium-free soy sauce. Other sauces like fish and oyster followed. It didn’t take long for the Chinese community to establish a so-called Chinatown in the Kilimani area of Nairobi. While most of these products were made in China, I wasn’t one to complain. I sometimes preferred their rice vinegar for my adobo to apple cider vinegar or––gasp––balsamic vinegar.
South Korea introduced the super-spicy ramyeon to Kenyan palates. I even had a random sighting once of pancit packages, genuinely made in the Philippines. Still, not everything was available. I couldn’t just saunter over to a regular store and ask for pig’s blood and innards. I couldn’t have any kind of puto because malagkit was not available in any of the supermarkets I patronized.
Of course, trust fellow Filipinos to find a way. In the rare times I attended embassy gatherings, I was able to enjoy a bowl of dinuguan seemingly from out of nowhere. I was tempted to ask where they sourced the ingredients from, but I never did. I didn’t want to create an insatiable craving for myself that couldn’t be easily satisfied on an ordinary day.
It might sound a bit foolish that I stubbornly stuck to the promise I made to myself in the early days. With global deliveries and international friends visiting regularly, Pinoy food isn’t out-of-reach. I’m not saying that I never asked for token pasalubongs sometimes; I just kept things to a minimum without pressure on anyone. I was ecstatic when they were there; I was still happy when they were absent.
Exploring different cultures
Meanwhile, by suppressing my Pinoy food cravings, I was able to broaden my tastes, explore different cultures, and meet new friends. I became a fan of Ethiopian cuisine because of an Amharic neighbour who shared with me his mother’s homecooked dishes flown in from Addis Ababa. From that point on, I ate it at least every fortnight. I never said no to a nyama choma (roasted meat) invitation, which wasn’t just the term for the main food gracing the table but a typical Friday night social gathering where Kenyans enjoy a bottle of Tusker or White Cap beer to end the work week.
There are at least two Kenyans I know who can also cook adobo with their eyes closed, after I taught them. So, while I do miss other Filipino food every now and then, I’m glad that their absence has given me an opportunity to connect with friends from other ethnicities and to enjoy the simple joys of whatever is readily available to share right there on the dining table.
This article was previously published in TFEM Autumn/Winter Issue 2021.
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Agatha Verdadero is a writer and editor from Nairobi, Kenya. She finished her MFA in Creative Writing at De La Salle University Manila (with high distinction) and her BA Humanities at University of the Philippines Diliman (cum laude). While not immersed in her work or playing with her fur baby Sam, she does extreme adventures in the wild