This winter break I’m bringing home two suitcases: one full of clothes, one empty.
I’ll fill the empty one with frozen Filipino food like sapin-sapin (layered glutinous rice and coconut dessert), Mama Sita’s special Filipino marinades, silvanas (two frozen cashew-meringue wafers with buttercream filling), and the rest of my favorite Filipino foods that I can only get in my home country. Hopefully, this food suitcase will last me through the next few months of being 8,422 miles away from the Philippines.
I’ve been packing my food suitcase every winter break for the past three years.
Of all the culture shocks and homesick woes I suffered my first year at college, the one that surprised me the most was missing my culture’s food. In a Hidden Brain episode, psychologist Paul Rozin says, “Food is not just nutrition that goes in your mouth or even pleasant sensations that go with it. It connects to your whole life, and it’s really a very important part of performing your culture and experiencing your culture.”
One night in freshman year, I forced my then-boyfriend to fry fishball for me in the Little Building common kitchen. I was craving Filipino street food but terrified of burning oil. A lot of my friends didn’t like it, but I didn’t care. The only person whose opinion I cared about was my then-boyfriend. And he liked it.
Food is my love language and biggest deal-breaker. I didn’t care when I dated a guy who went to a System Of A Down concert in Arizona, but I swipe left on vegans or vegetarians. Some of my friends are vegetarians and I don’t mind that. But almost all of Filipino cuisine has meat in it, like sinigang na baboy (sour pork soup), adobo (meat marinated in vinegar and soy sauce) and tocino (sweet cured pork). I strongly prefer dating someone I won’t have any limitations to introducing these dishes.
In an article by TED Ideas, Jennifer Berg, director of graduate food studies at New York University, said food is the last vestige of culture that people shed when they’re separated from their mother culture.
“There’s some aspects of maternal culture that you’ll lose right away,” she said. “First is how you dress, because if you want to blend in or be part of a larger mainstream culture, the things that are the most visible are the ones that you let go. With food, it’s something you’re engaging in hopefully three times a day, and so there are more opportunities to connect to memory and family and place. It’s the hardest to give up.”
Last summer, my current boyfriend and I went on a road trip to New York. I was so excited to finally eat, and have him try, fried chicken from Jollibee, an international Filipino fast food restaurant. When we finally stopped at one on our drive back to Boston, he said he didn’t really like it. I felt like he was rejecting me, not just my culture’s food. We had a heated discussion about it, and he told me he thinks I only like it because it’s part of my culture.
Jay Van Bavel, a social psychologist at New York University, and his colleagues released a study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. They discovered that the stronger one’s sense of identity, the more likely they will enjoy the food associated with it. One possible explanation is that familiar foods are self-affirming and inherently thought of as good.
My boyfriend may have had an accurate point, but regardless, I love Filipino food.
Rozin interviewed people, asking what their favorite meals are. One participant cited a Hardee’s Frisco burger combo meal he ordered as his first meal out of prison.
“It’s context,” Rozin said. “It’s a release from bad eating, so the contrast is so important there.”
The Emerson dining hall isn’t exactly prison food, but the complete contrast of being exposed to only Western food for 12 months made me really excited to finally eat authentic food from Asia. For my birthday celebration, my family and I are going to a Japanese buffet in the Philippines—I can’t wait to eat soft shell crab rolls.
In a study from Bournemouth University, researchers found that food played a central role in building and maintaining social relationships for international students. The giving and receiving of food also sealed a special bond through accepting one’s diversity.
JnJ Turo-Turo is the only affordable and authentic Filipino restaurant in Boston. My friend and I rode until the end of the Red Line, then took the 215 bus to the restaurant. It took us an hour, but it warmed my heart when I found myself teaching her how to eat a whole fried fish.
I’m grateful that I eventually found some friends and a partner who love Filipino food as much as me. My boyfriend may not really like Jollibee, but he did drive us to JnJ Turo-Turo once. He also really loves sapin-sapin, my favorite Filipino snack. People don’t usually like it. It means a lot to me that he does.