An Ilonggo feast, served on banana leaves. Salo Project.
I guess the universe wanted me to learn more about Filipino cuisine. Or at least Yana Gilbuena did. She reached out to tell me about her ambitious Salo Project, for which the chef has been touring the entire US, setting up scores of pop-up meals built around dishes from her native Iloilo province on Panay, an island roughly near the center of the 7,000 composing the Philippine archipelago.
The year-long tour was rounding third base by time she brought it to San Diego, her first in a handful of stops throughout California before completing her fifty-state jaunt in Hawaii. Salo roughly translates as "gathering" or "get together" in Tagalog, and part of the idea behind Gilbuena's mission to was that people would dine family style in a way customary to the Ilonggo, while raising money to build a new school on their typhoon-stricken island.
She collected 50-dollar reservations through the website EatFeastly.com, which specializes in facilitating such pop-up dining events. Kitchen Logic, a teaching kitchen in Chula Vista, hosted the pop-up. Assisting with preparation was Filipino Kitchen, another Filipino culinary group that hosts slightly less traditional pop-up meals here and around the state.
They covered long dining tables with banana leaves and served dishes directly onto the leaves for guests to eat and serve with our hands. After lining up to wash said hands, the two dozen of us dug in, scooping handfuls of coconut rice, roasted garlic and picked fruits and vegetables from the center of the table along with a host of meaty entrees.
I'd like to point out – these weren't what I'd typically call finger foods. For example, the kansi dish featured roasted bone marrow, requiring you to really dig into the bone with your fingers to scrape out the fatty flesh. Then there's botchoy, which Gilbueana describes as "the Ilonggo's version of ramen." While this was served in a bowl, the absence of spoons meant we grabbed the noodles, mushrooms, tripe and liver with our hands, and slurped the mixed-meat bone broth directly.
The lengua estofado featured slices of beef tongue served under a thick, tangy tomato stew, while the ginataang sweetbreads featured a mix of organ meats drenched in spicy coconut sauce. As you've probably gleaned by now, this wasn't vegetarian-friendly, and decidedly not for the reserved eater. While I didn't encounter any ingredients I haven't eaten before, I'm pretty sure I added points towards my foodie badge by trying everything presented.
The vast majority of other guests were first or second generation Filipino-American, some with a degree of separation or two from Gilbuena, others embracing the chance for an authentic meal comparable to their mothers' recipes, or there to share the experience with friends. Gilbuena says that one of her chief aims with this project is to share her culture through food and expose diners to Filipino dishes beyond lumpia and adobo. Mission accomplished, for me at least, and she says Salo has brought together memorable meals in such places as Alaska, Louisiana and South Dakota, where Filipino restaurants are harder to find than in the rest of the country.
Even here the cuisine's not prevalent, especially in a style specific to an island 200 miles southeast of Manila. I found it illuminating to join a friendly couple-dozen San Diegans chatting over the meal, sharing beer and wine, swapping stories and gaining a little insight into how a distinct culture approaches food. I actually might start checking out the Feastly site to watch for similar opportunities. As for Yana Gilbuena, when the Salo Project finishes in the US, her eyes are set on Canada, then South America, and eventually Europe.