Adobong lechon manok adapted by Jacqueline Chio-Lauri from a recipe by Luisa Brimble • Photo by Rezel Kealoha

With the holiday season upon us, family feasts, gathering with friends, and eating more than we usually do are in the forecast for many people. For those who are conscious of their health, know that with some wholesome adjustments, it is possible to still indulge in our favorite foods without sacrificing their essence and flavors.

We Cook Filipino, a new cookbook released by Tuttle Publishing on October 24, 2023, shows us that by being mindful of the ingredients we use, we can continue to enjoy the traditional foods we grew up eating — which over the years, and depending on the cook, may have transformed into overly rich, fatty, salty and sugary dishes. We Cook Filipino features 51 mouthwatering recipes from 36 Filipino culinary innovators that are “from the heart” and “good for the heart.” The book also includes heartwarming personal stories to nourish our spirit.

Compiled and edited by UK-based Jacqueline Chio-Lauri, who also edited the cookbook anthology The New Filipino Kitchen, We Cook Filipino offers a heart-healthy approach to beloved Filipino classic favorites like fresh lumpia, warm pinakbet salad (roasted vegetable salad with bagoong-calamansi citronette), adobong lechon manok (roast chicken adobo), inasal sisig (grilled chicken hash), semi-vegan kare-kare (roasted pumpkin and veggies with peanut coconut sauce), and other provisions that are iconic in Filipino cuisine. Recipes for scrumptious desserts such as the Filipino cakes pichi-pichi, espasol and tibok-tibok are also provided.   

Contributors include Filipino food personalities and chefs from various parts of the world like Carlo Lamagna of Magna Kusina in Portland, Oregon, AC Boral of Baba’s House Kitchen in Oakland, California, Margarita Manzke of Sari Sari Store in Los Angeles, California, Ria Dolly Barbosa of Peso Neighborhood and Lumpia Bar in Honolulu, Hawaii, Paolo Mendoza of Karenderya in New York, New York, Jeremy Villanueva of Romulo Café in London, England, Marvin Braceros of YUM – Taste of the Philippines in Milan, Italy, Roger Asakil Joya of the Michelin-starred Sabi Omakase in Stavanger, Norway, Francis Sibal of CZ Ranch in Tarlac, Philippines, and more.

While heart disease is prevalent in Filipino communities (high blood pressure, unhealthy diets high in sodium and trans fats, smoking, lack of physical activity and obesity are factors), cardiovascular diseases — the leading cause of death globally — are preventable and healthy eating is key to a healthy life. 

Vegetables in the shape of a heart • Photo courtesy of Jacqueline Chio-Lauri

Here, We Cook Filipino’s editor Jacqueline Chio-Lauri shares how the book materialized and how she hopes the cookbook will help change the narrative about Filipino cuisine.

Joann Natalia Aquino: How did the idea to do a Filipino cookbook featuring heart-healthy recipes come about?

Jacqueline Chio-Lauri: When I was living in Norway, where there is a big-ish Filipino community, it perplexed me why there were so many Thai restaurants and not one Filipino restaurant. I went on an investigation spree, asking Norwegians and Filipino-Norwegians why. One answer I received was this: “Heart disease, and other diseases, are almost an epidemic in the Philippines. There is reason to believe that this is due to the food, lack of vegetables in the diet, and over-salting and over-sweetening.” This is not a fair conclusion, of course. I’d find out that gastro diplomacy has something to do with it years later.

This was a hard pill for me to swallow. You see, I was raised by my lola, a home economics teacher before and after the war. When I was growing up, she always stressed the importance of eating right. And she practiced what she taught us because she cooked for our family. The words “balanced diet” were like the gospel of the day, every day. I don’t remember one meal when there wasn’t a vegetable dish and fresh fruits on the table. I’m sure this was not a practice unique to my family, but common in other Filipino families as well, so I reached out to men and women in the diaspora worldwide and invited them to submit their stories and recipes that are not only delicious, but good for the heart too.

Anyhow, the comment I received above drove me to investigate further. I read studies that state that cardiovascular diseases are more prevalent among Filipino Americans than other communities. Long story short, it led to the creation of this book We Cook Filipino and a collaboration with Dr. Youssef Roman, et al. from the Virginia Commonwealth University and the publication of an academic paper about health disparities among Filipino Americans, to bring about culturally appropriate health interventions.

I think there is a need for We Cook Filipino. It is one of the few, if not the only Filipino cookbook that is grounded in both health and culture. It has the same personal storytelling and recipe format as my first book, The New Filipino Kitchen. But besides presenting the extraordinary food culture of the Philippines, it also highlights Filipino dishes and ingredients that are inherently healthy and suggests a healthier approach to cooking many of our Filipino favorites. Filipino food is hardly represented in healthy eating, which may give the false impression that it is not healthy. I hope the book will help change the narrative.

JNA: How did you choose the contributors for We Cook Filipino?

JCL: All of the book’s contributors wave the Philippine flag wherever they are in the world and whatever it is they do. As diverse as Filipino food is, I wanted to get as wide of a range of perspectives as I could. Contributors of We Cook Filipino are chefs, restaurateurs, food writers, bloggers, podcasters and recipe developers from across the globe (from 10 countries). 24 out of the 36 are based all over the United States. Some have volunteered to participate, some were suggested by others, some were selected by me. Everyone is a trailblazer in their own way.

JNA: What was the criteria for the recipes from the contributors?

JCL: I’ve asked the contributors to submit their stories and recipes for Filipino dishes that are good for the heart. Recipes that follow the recommendation of the American Heart Association for sodium and added sugar limits, avoiding deep-frying and the use of bacon, butter, lard, ghee, margarine and MSG. Recipes that also follow the general recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020 – 2025 to decrease intake of foods higher in sodium and added sugar, and increase our intake of nutrient-dense foods, such as vegetables, legumes, fruits and whole grains. Last but not least, the recipes should heed the universal rule that eating should be pleasurable!

Pichi-pichi, espasol and tibok-tibok from Minerva Manaloto-Lott of the food blog, Foxy Folksy • Photo by Rezel Kealoha

JNA: What was the recipe testing process like for this cookbook?

JCL: Each recipe underwent at least three stages of testing. The first by the contributor who submitted the recipe. I then checked if the recipe met the brief I had given them. If not, I’d ask them to tweak the recipe to meet the requirements. Then I tested each recipe again once or twice and made adjustments, if necessary. Rezel Kealoha, a contributor who cooked, styled and photographed all the recipes in the book tried out the recipes as well. The contributors had at least 2-3 chances to check their final recipes before the manuscript went to print.

JNA: In general, how can favorite Filipino foods like pancit, lumpia and adobo be healthier? 

JCL: First of all, I’m not saying that Filipino favorites like pancit, lumpia and adobo are not healthy. Oversalting, over-sweetening, overuse of fat, and underuse of vegetables happen because of a cook’s unhealthy cooking practices, and not because the cuisine dictates these practices.

On pages 14 to 17, I suggest tips and techniques on how to prepare many of our delicious Filipino favorites without overburdening them with salt, sugar and fat. With pancit, for example, simply increasing the ratio between noodles and vegetables would make it healthier. If you’d like to go further, using low-sodium stock and low-sodium soy sauce or coconut aminos and relying on cooking techniques like salting food at the right time of the cooking process to use less sodium and flavor more and proper guisa or stir-frying techniques to induce caramelization or Maillard reaction that help develop wonderful flavors. Even squeezing acid like calamansi enhances the saltiness and umami of lightly seasoned pancit.

JNA: What is the most challenging for people to change in achieving a heart-healthy eating lifestyle? 

JCL: The mindset. Many people think that, one, there’s no room for Filipino food in one’s heart-healthy eating lifestyle. I hope We Cook Filipino helps bust this notion. Two, that achieving a heart-healthy lifestyle means depriving ourselves completely of the food we love or crave for. I think it’s okay to indulge once in a while and of course in moderation. Depriving ourselves completely of our favorite food is not sustainable and could have adverse effects on your wellness.

If we’re planning to have a dish, like say, crispy pata (deep fried pork trotters), make sure that it’s not the only thing on your plate. Make room for other delicious and heart-healthy dishes as well and make healthier choices for the rest of your meals. Balance is key.

We also have to draw a line between celebratory fare — food we eat once in a while on special occasions or when eating out occasionally, and everyday dishes — food we eat and make at home on a daily basis. I think we should start learning to cook healthier at home and making healthier food choices. There are a lot of traditional Filipino dishes that are healthy, too.

JNA: After releasing the cookbooks, The New Filipino Kitchen (September 2018) and We Cook Filipino (October 2023), what other projects should we look out for from you?

JCL: In April next year, I’m debuting as a picture book author. My next book, Mami King, is for young and young at heart readers, illustrated by Filipino American award-winning children’s book illustrator Kristin Sorra. It is a delicious story about creativity, perseverance, and the coming together of people from all walks of life over bowls of mami noodle soup.

Joann Natalia Aquino is a traveling freelance journalist, a publicist, an arts marketer, and a traditional herbal medicine practitioner. She is a lifelong student of life, mind/body/spirit wellness, plant medicine, indigenous foodways and pre-colonial Philippine traditions. On Instagram: @missaquino.  

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