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Bringing the Filipino taste to European kitchens

Bringing the Filipino taste to European kitchens

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Food blogger and entrepreneur Raf Antonio is determined to bring Filipino food to the European kitchen, including bagoong.

Within one year after the Covid-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill, Rhafael Antonio was busier than ever. He managed to sign a cookbook deal, developed more than 20 Filipino products for sale in Europe, came out with a Filipino food box, and signed two exclusive contracts with a big food manufacturer while maintaining a full-time job in a multinational company.

“We are proud of you! You are always working hard and usually tired, but you still managed to come up with something new,” commented one of his followers, his mother-in-law in one of his Instagram posts.

Antonio is the creator of the Instagram account @tastecrib, a food blog that was born out of the need to make something useful of the extra time that pandemic has gifted him. Originally a personal food account, Tastecrib has evolved into a platform where Antonio shares recipes and easy baking techniques to almost nine thousand followers. Tastecrib is also the brand selling baking kits with made-to-measure ingredients for baked delights like cupcakes, cookies, and muffins.

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“When you are starting a business, you always have to boot strap your business and to combine that with a full-time job, a husband, family and social responsibilities, is very challenging. People think it´s just a photo, but behind that photo is a lot of time and effort,” said Antonio, who spoke to me online from his home office in Lelystad, the Netherlands. 

Juggling a corporate career and a successful side business has not been easy. To help him manage his social media presence, Antonio has enlisted the help of her sister who lives in the Philippines. He continuously draws inspiration from his family back home and relies on his husband to whisk him away from his hectic schedule so that he can still relax and avoid a burn out. 

Together with Asian food store Asian Food Lovers, Antonio recently came out with the first Filipino food box, a meal box comparable to Hello Fresh, that allows customers to make four Filipino dishes using the ingredients curated in the box.  

Rhafael Antonio, 37 was born in Las Pinas, but grew up in Sta Rosa Nueva Ecija, in a traditional Filipino household surrounded by an extended family, including three grandmothers. His love for cooking was inspired by her grandmother, who he remembers was the one always cooking for the family. Their family lived comfortably enough to afford to help his cousins to go to school but not too well off to go on regular vacations like his classmates. 

Young Rhaf would also collect the recipes at the back of Del Monte canned products, going as far as asking the neighbors for their discarded tins so that he could have the recipes. However, his first and biggest lesson in cooking came from his Home Economics teacher, after cracking the yoke when he was flipping the eggs which was supposed to be cooked sunny side up.

“My teacher said that in cooking eggs, or in making food, it is really up to you how you want to do it. The kitchen is yours. Do it however you want to do it. There is nothing wrong if you want to flip your sunny side up.”

Antonio migrated to Calagary, Canada after a stressful stint in the outsourcing industry in the Philippines. He worked as a gardener for the first few months, although he knew nothing about it. Eventually he got a job as a customer agent in a petroleum company, and not long after met his Dutch Canadian husband, Sander. On their first date, they went to a Filipino restaurant where he introduced him to dinuguan, kare-kare and pinakbet and 24 hours later, he decided that he was the one and he agreed to move to the Netherlands with him in 2016.


Pandemic project

At the beginning of his journey as a food blogger, Antonio was already satisfied sharing and posting on Instagram food that he was cooking and baking. When people started asking for his recipes, he thought it might be a good opportunity to introduce baking to people struggling with getting the measurements and techniques right. Tastecrib was born.

For someone who did not grow up with an oven, Antonio’s foray into baking was born out of boredom and curiosity to try new things. While growing up in the Philippines, his idea of baking was making puto (fluffly rice cakes) in a steamer.

But at home in the Netherlands, Antonio owns an oven, and he researched and experimented with his new cooking tool until he was able to come up with the most delightful baked goodies, which he shared online to his followers.

“When I started baking, the problem for me was the measuring part. When a recipe says one cup of flour, is it a compact or a loose cup? How fluffy is fluffy enough? Those are the things that I struggled with so I thought there might be a business opportunity here. I started making baking kits with pre-measured ingredients like sugar, flour, chocolates, which you just need to mix. They came with a recipe with precise instructions like how long they should be mixing, because in baking overmixing is where a lot of people fail.”

After a year of trial and error, Antonio was already confident enough with his baking skills that he began applying the lessons his old H.E. teacher taught him.

“Recipes are good but when I am cooking, I don’t measure a lot. I just go with how I like to do things and I think that’s where your creativity will come out as well. With baking, at the beginning you really must be measuring ingredients accurately, but after you get the hang of it, you can already tell if your mix needs more liquid or flour or predict the outcome just by looking at the consistency or the texture.”

His little baking experiment eventually landed him bigger projects, including recipe creation for a new Filipino meat product brand in the Netherlands called Pinoy Kitchen Europe.

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Becoming a food ambassador

Despite a hectic year, Antonio is not slowing down. His list of upcoming projects includes a Filipino cookbook, which will be written in Dutch and released in the Netherlands and Belgium. And although he eased into his role unplanned, Antonio’s goal of bringing the Filipino food in the European kitchen and food map is only just beginning.

“I think it is high time that Filipino cuisine was recognized in Europe. Our cuisine is so unique, it is a fusion of a lot of cultures which makes it more special. I think it is the original fusion food. When I moved here, there was only one Pinoy restaurant in The Hague, and now, there are three or more. You can see the increasing interest in Europe, not only with the sale and availability of many Filipino food products but also the presence of Filipino restaurants like Jollibee. I think Filipino food will be the next big thing when it comes to Asian food in Europe. And the Filipino cuisine deserves it.”

But he is also aware that hurdles are inevitable based from his experience in developing recipes for Pinoy Kitchen and Asian Food Lovers. Introducing an exotic taste like bagoong, a key ingredient he insisted on including in his Filipino box, can be a hit or miss, but he is willing to put hard work and energy into it.

Fellow Filipinos also has a role to play in bringing Filipino cuisine in the Europen food map. Antonio advises that a simple gesture of offering or preparing simple Pinoy food like pandesal with coco jam to non-Filipino friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, already makes a big impact not just in creating awareness but also helping the companies and people trying to put the Filipino food in the European food palate. 

His biggest dream however is to put up a small café selling Filipino baked products.

“The pandemic gave me more time to evaluate (my life) outside the corporate world. Corporate work is not something I want to do for the rest of my life. I want to start something on my own. I always tell my husband if I have my small Filipino cafe where I can serve coffee and Filipino food, I’ll quit my corporate job.”

For now, he is already satisfied by contributing to making Filipino food more popular. 

What I love most (about being a food ambassador) is the fact that you can actually bring Filipino food to each and every home easily. I love cooking for my friends, especially those who helped me when I was still new in the Netherlands, but I cannot cook for everyone. This Filipino food box is my way of actually helping them cook Filipino food,’ Antonio proudly said.

Originally published in the Autumn/Winter Issue 2021 of The Filipino Expat Magazine.
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