If you follow food in Seattle, you’ve either heard of—or are a devotee of—Kraken Congee, a pop-up that’s established a cult following over the past couple of years. Now, one of Kraken’s cofounders, Irbille Donia, has just started a new Filipino pop-up called Lahi (“ancestry” in Tagalog), the first of which took place on Monday night at Grub in Queen Anne. Donia is also a cook at Aragona, Jason Stratton’s new Spanish restaurant. Working alongside him at Lahi is his Filipino-American friend and fellow cook at Aragona, Justin Legaspi.
I talked to Donia about his passion for Filipino food—and why it’s so underrepresented not just in Seattle, but nationally. Donia immediately tells me about a recent article on the Public Radio International website—one that stirred up a heated debate among the Filipino and greater Southeast Asian community. It posed the question: If Filipinos are the second largest Asian population in the U.S., why is it so hard to find a really good Filipino restaurant in the United States?
In it, Nicole Ponesca, who runs two Filipino restaurants in New York City, posed the idea that hiya (“shame” in Tagalog) may be an underlying reason. “That’s why [some restaurants] give the ‘white-man menu’ [to customers] because they think they’re not going to like dinuguan, which is a pork-blood stew. But why have shame when the French have boudin noir and the Spanish have morcilla? It is because when you’re colonized over so many years, you don’t value your own culture, even though we have so much pride.”
Like Ponesca, Donia believes that there may be some element of shame responsible for the dearth of Filipino cuisine in the mainstream, and it’s his mission to reverse that through these pop-ups, to embrace the country’s complicated history. “One thing that a lot of people miss out on is that they take a lot of the colonialism to heart and stay away from bridging those cultures. But that’s what makes food really beautiful, the infiltration of cultures. Our goal with Lahi is to bridge the gap, to bring the Spanish influence into it. I used to be a purist myself, but through my own personal journey, I’ve changed.”
That journey includes working in a slew of Seattle’s Spanish restaurants, like Harvest Vine, Olivar (where he did his first Filipino pop-ups more than a year ago under the name Irbille Edibles), and now Aragona, where by learning Spanish dishes, the link between the two cuisines became so apparent to him. Adobo, a vinegary marinade that’s probably the best known Filipino-style food, is “almost like a Spanish escabèche.” For instance, Lahi will serve a revised take on dinuguan (essentially pork blood and lots of offal cooked adobo-style) with pork tongue, using a Spanish escabèche recipe and incorporating some ginger and pork blood but leaving out the liver, heart, and kidneys. Similarly, he’s going to shine a light on sinigang, traditionally a braised pork soup with tamarind paste. “But our twist is serving noodles with it, and longanisia [sweet pork sausage]. We’ll also experiment with using Spanish sherry vinegars instead of just the traditional Filipino cane vinegar.”
For those who might criticize these “white-man”-friendly versions of these dishes, Donia takes some offense. “People say ‘fusion’, but do we call Italian food fusion? I have my own interpretation, and I can take the criticisms. My hope is that people will eat this and then feel more comfortable trying more authentic things later. I grew up in the Philippines, but I’ve lived here for about 14 years. I want to share the culture shock of seeing two different worlds, of being half a generation removed from harvesting rice.”
His biggest critics: his own family. “I live in a household of Filipinos. My grandmother and dad were chefs. They were like, ‘This is not Filipino food.’ But that’s the reaction I wanted from them. They don’t recognize the food at first, but then they taste it, and the flavors and the love are there. And that ends up blowing them away.”
Donia also wants to show people that there’s more to Filipino food than just “street food” and what’s on steam tables. “Why can’t we serve it fresh and have new interpretations?” He points to Revel, where he also worked, as a great example of introducing people to Korean food by “elevating” it. His biggest hero, though, is Iron Chef Morimoto. “He was always bashed for not making ‘authentic’ Japanese food,” though he ultimately did so much to get people excited about that country’s cuisine, Donia says. While he fully admits that street food can be delicious, the lack of full-service Filipino restaurants, like Ponesca’s Mahalaka in New York, bothers him.
In fact, the pop-ups are a lead-in, he tells me, to his own eventual brick-and-mortar Filipino restaurant in Seattle—which he hopes will even introduce people to the tradition of eating with one’s hands and the communal style of everyone picking at the same dish. “One of my favorite memories from back home is the jackfruit trees. As soon as you cut [the jackfruit], it oozes this sticky juice. We’d grease our hands with canola oil and dig right in. It’s like a messy grapefruit breakfast, if you will.” Jackfruit, like its “cousin” durian, is also known for its offensive smell, but its starchy fruit is sweetish, with a flavor often compared to pineapple. While most people know only about this sweet part that surrounds the seed, Donia explains that jackfruit pith is used in Filipino food as a savory element—its slightly bitter, limey flavor balancing out a jackfruit coconut curry, for instance. In fact, cooking with fruit to give a punch of sourness is inherent in the cuisine. Two commonly used fruits are kamais, a hybrid of a mango and an olive, and calamansi—“like if a tangerine and a lime got together and had a baby.”
While it’s those kinds of traditions that Donia believes are obstacles to the mainstreaming of Filipino food, he also sees them as opportunities. He’s fully ready to tackle them, along with another challenge: the food’s inherent homeliness. “It gets a stereotype, that we eat cats and dogs,” he says. “And on top of it, the food isn’t pretty. A lot of it looks muddy; it’s one-pot cookery.” (It’s “Asian soul food,” says a Filipino colleague of mine. “What’s not to love?”) While Donia’s versions will aim to be more appealing aesthetically, he won’t sacrifice flavor. Again, the example of his family is apt: They may not recognize what he serves, but they’re surely going to gobble it up.
In addition to many of the dishes he’s talked about, I ask about dessert, having grown up eating a sublime coconut cake made from a recipe my grandmother brought from the Philippines, where my father grew up. Donia tells me that at the pop-up they’ll have an aerated yam pound cake made à la minute (cooked at the last moment) and served with yam ice cream, burnt coconut, spiced chocolate “dirt,” and candied pistachio (this last is not a traditional ingredient, but a whimsical add-on). I’m thoroughly on board.
True to his word, Donia and his crew indeed brought elevated Filipino food—a five-course meal for $40—to their first pop-up this week. The sinigang was prepared just as he’d described, with a little bundle of glass noodles and bites of sweet pork and corn nuts floating in the tangy tamarind broth, which was poured tableside: a very sophisticated touch. Ditto on the dinuguan: The braised pork tongue in a blood sauce was the highlight of the meal, and came with delicious accompanying bites of pickled sweet peppers, currants, and calamansi tapioca (Donia was right—calamansi does taste just like a marriage of tangerine and lime).
A dish of pinkabet (traditionally mixed vegetables steamed in fish or shrimp sauce) was a deconstructed version, with garlic prawns plated beside tiny pieces of kohlrabi, bitter melon, watercress, and jicama and served with small dots of a fish-sauce reduction. That bitter, savory quality he spoke of shone through, though perhaps a little less sharply than it does in the traditional dish. Kare kare came as a ball of braised beef cheek surrounded by pieces of braised eggplant, kabocha squash, and smears of peanut sauce and shrimp gel.
Dessert was the yam cake he’d promised. The meal was delicious and interesting, if perhaps a tad too beautiful and restrained. I yearned for at least one dish that wasn’t pretty, one of those one-pot meals that are the essence of Filipino food. But Donia is smart in his decision to bring people in with baby steps. As the pop-ups continue (once a month at various dates at Grub), I have a hunch those steps will get bigger and bolder—but won’t sacrifice his signature twists.