On Adobo and Anxiety

A meal at Savannah’s only Filipino eatery becomes a second-generation identity crisis.

by Anthony Christian Ocampo

My Lyft driver asks if I’m sure I typed in the right address. And then asks again.

I’m not certain that the four-unit shopping plaza off East Derenne Avenue is my destination. Could this be the hub for Savannah’s small Filipino population?

I am in the city for a weeklong conference for writers of color. The row of small shops is set back from the street and a few miles away from the historic district. I’m guessing few tourists come here. I nervously check the plaza sign and register that it houses a Caribbean restaurant and a bakery. Then, my eye falls on the eight-ray sun and three stars, familiar symbols of the Philippine flag.

I’ve arrived at Savannah Filipino Authentic Cuisine, the city’s first and only Filipino restaurant since 2011.

Every time I try a Filipino restaurant, I wrestle with its authenticity, as if no-cooking me could ever qualify as a connoisseur. Yes, I’m a sociologist and an expert on Filipino American communities, but sometimes I wonder if I’m projecting anxieties about my own identity. I grew up in a Filipino American family and neighborhood in California, but I’ve never actually lived in the Philippines.

The front of Savannah Filipino Authentic Cuisine.

The first thing I notice is the row of balikbayan boxes—thigh-high cardboard care packages stuffed with clothing, nonperishable food, and home goods. I know them well: Filipino immigrants like my parents send them to loved ones back home. Shelves overflow with corn chips, polvorón shortbread, dried mangoes, and Philippine-brand snacks. I see the stack of Filipino periodicals, whose ink smudges on fingers more messily than American newsprint.

Stenciled on white poster board, the menu has just four options: adobo drenched in vinegar and soy sauce, pancit noodles, lumpia rolls, and inasal (barbecue chicken marinated in citrus and vinegar). These are Filipino gateway dishes—the kind we bring to potlucks with non-Filipino coworkers who know nothing about our cuisine. I settle on the chicken adobo and approach the counter.

Owner Rose Malunes emerges from the kitchen, sporting a bright red baker’s cap. A registered nurse who arrived in Savannah in the early 1980s, she was part of the first wave of Filipino professional immigrants to come to Georgia after the watershed 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. After twenty-seven years in nursing, she went part-time and opened the restaurant with her husband, Fred.

She doesn’t attend to me immediately, which I don’t mind. Having grown up around Filipina matriarchs who ran everything from households to hospitals, I’m accustomed to the “I’ve got shit to do right this second, but trust, I will get to you” demeanor I see in the way Rose moves. It gives me time to study a small whiteboard to the left of the register where daily specials are written, dishes only Filipinos or those intimately acquainted with our food would know.

Fried bangus. Milkfish.

Dinuguan. Pork stewed in blood.

Halo-halo. A mishmash of beans, gelatin, flan, and rice crisps over shaved ice, drenched with evaporated milk, and topped with purple ube ice cream. So colorful and decadent.

I consider switching my order to signal to Rose that I’m not one of those—God forbid—Americanized Filipinos. But to be honest, I’ve avoided eating dinuguan most of my life. The only time I ever ate it was when I met my partner’s sister for the first time and I was still trying to prove myself to his family. I stick to the adobo.

“Hey, darling. What would you like?” Rose asks.

I internally debate whether to respond in English or Tagalog. I’m generally uneasy speaking my parents’ ancestral language, except when I’m drunk.

“Boneless ba po ang bangus?” I finally say. I ask using “po,” the term of respect used reserved for Filipino elders. Later, I recount this story to my mom, and she tells me I placed the “po” in the wrong place. I’m retroactively embarrassed.

I consider switching my order to signal to Rose that I’m not one of those—God forbid—Americanized Filipinos.

If Rose notices, she doesn’t let on. To my relief and surprise, she expresses her appreciation that I’m even speaking Tagalog, considering the vast majority of American-born Filipinos don’t. As she takes my order, she asks me The Question: “Where are you from?”

For Asian Americans, this question, when it comes from a white person, lands as a racial microaggression, an inquiry that makes them feel like outsiders. Never American. Not American enough.

But between Filipino strangers, it signals a desire to connect, to see if your story is like my story. I know Rose isn’t asking about where I live; she is asking me where in the Philippines my parents are from. With this question, I feel more at home.

I try at first to muscle my answer out in Tagalog, but revert to English.

“My dad’s family is from Cavite. My mom’s from Sariaya.” Before migrating, they lived mostly in Manila, but these are the provinces their families are from, both a few hours’ drive away from the capital.

Rose shares that she’s from Iloilo. She senses my knowledge of Philippine geography is lacking and tells me it’s in the southern islands.

“Would you like anything else?”

I tend to avoid sugary drinks, but I spot a drink dispenser with a juice I immediately recognize as kalamansi. It’s a walnut-sized fruit that’s like a cross between a lemon, a lime, and an orange. I was introduced to it when I was six, during my first visit to the Philippines. I remember how my Philippine-born cousins referred to me as “Merkano,” which sent me crying to my mom. Drinking kalamansi juice made me feel more Filipino than American. It still does today.

Restaurateur Rose Malunes outside her Filipino restaurant, Savannah Filipino Authentic Cuisine.

Ten minutes pass, and Rose brings me a to-go container with a couple of pieces of lumpia on the house. I inhale half my food before realizing I forgot to take a photo for the ’gram.

Rose tells me not to hesitate if I need anything, but customers are trickling in, mostly for takeout. Two friends, a Filipino and African American man, dine in. The Filipino man spends most of his meal proudly explaining everything about the Philippines he can to his friend, starting with the food on the plate and then his own migration history. Intermittently, he turns his gaze to Rose, standing attentively at the counter, and she fills in any gaps about Filipino food or culture that he may have missed. In this moment, it clicks: Savannah Filipino Authentic Cuisine is as much a classroom as it is a restaurant—even for us Filipinos. Here I was listening to two Filipino immigrants explaining to a black Southerner how their birth country was colonized by their adopted one. A moment predicated on a shared connection to U.S. empire.

Before I leave, I let Rose know I have a few more days left in Savannah, and that I’ll try to come back with some of my writer friends. In Filipino culture, it’s customary for people who are about to part ways to promise a future hangout, even if there’s no expectation it will actually materialize. It’s considered rude not to, even if both parties know it probably won’t happen. As it turns out, Rose doesn’t play like that.

“What’s your favorite Filipino food?”

“Palabok.” The one dish I always request for my birthday. Noodles mixed with shrimp sauce, decorated with grilled shrimp and hard-boiled eggs, topped with crushed chicharrón. Flavor and texture for days.

“I’ll make that for you.”

“Oh my goodness, no, you don’t have to.”

“No, it’s okay. Bring your friends on Friday. And take my number.”

“What’s your last name?”

“Just put ‘Tita Rose.’” Auntie Rose.

I can’t stand up my new auntie.

Rose was born in 1960, fourteen years after the Philippines gained independence from the United States. Her mother operated a sari-sari store in the central market of Iloilo, selling everything from seasonal fruits and vegetables to shampoo and cigarettes. From age six to the end of nursing school, she worked at her mother’s store, where Rose says she developed entrepreneurial acumen.

“I have been exposed to all the business side,” she says, noting that several aunts and cousins also owned businesses in the same market. “I guess that’s the reason why even when I [was] a nurse, I still want to do some business.”

Just as thousands of other dutiful Filipina daughters had done, Rose was convinced by her family to pursue nursing, guaranteeing their golden ticket to upward mobility—a green card to work in the United States. As Catherine Ceniza Choy, professor of ethnic studies at the University of California-Berkeley, points out in her book Empire of Care, Philippine nursing schools have churned out a seemingly endless supply of workers since the first academies were established during the U.S. colonial period. Due to their training and English proficiency, they are perfectly groomed to fill labor shortages in U.S. hospitals. A recent report by the Migration Policy Institute found that 30 percent of foreign-born nurses in the United States come from the Philippines.

In 1984, with a cohort of fifteen Filipina nurse recruits, Rose boarded a plane to Georgia. The weather and pace of life in Savannah were not too different from Iloilo. Getting used to the American diet was harder. Her first meal upon arrival was a Shoney’s dinner courtesy of the hospital administrator.

“Oh my God, they’re eating grass,” Rose recalls seeing Americans cruising the salad bar. “I don’t think I can eat that one. They are eating grass! They love grass!”

Barely 100 Filipinos lived in Savannah when Rose arrived, but at Candler—the oldest hospital and nursing school in the state—there was a visible community of Filipino nurses, many from the same region of the Philippines as her. Close to a decade would pass before the thought of cooking professionally crossed Rose’s mind. But about the time she got married, in 1991, she started experimenting, selling Filipino food from a pushcart in the hospital wings on her days off. Within an hour, the pushcart would be empty.

After years of double duty, a coworker in the radiology department mentioned having a vacant unit in a shopping plaza he owned—a former pizza parlor that had been abandoned on the heels of the Great Recession. Rose decided to go for it, getting permits, clearing out the building, and enlisting her husband and brother-in-law’s help.

Rose Malunes and her husband, Alfredo, have made what was once an abandoned pizza joint into an eatery that’s part small grocery, classroom, and community meeting place.

The first few years, Rose wasn’t sure the restaurant was going to make it. She had rejected the conventional wisdom of immigrants opening restaurants where a critical mass of their countrymen settled. There was no comfortably established community to keep her business afloat.

“Filipino food is not famous in the South, especially here in Georgia,” Rose says. Beyond cooking, Rose had to play ambassador, educating customers about how Philippine cuisine and culture were influenced by Spain, China, Mexico, and the United States.

“You have to teach them what it is because they don’t know what it is, so you have to introduce it. You have to explain to them, and sometimes you have to let them taste it.”

I research and write about the way Filipino immigrants and their children carve out their place in American society. I think a lot about the way this adaptation process differs by demographic context.

Before arriving in Savannah, I did what I usually do when I travel to a city for the first time: I checked the U.S. Census website to see how many Filipinos live there. Four hundred in 2010. Half that number seven years later. In the census tract where the restaurant is located, where a fifth of Savannahians live, there are just twelve Filipinos. Demographically speaking, the Filipino population in Savannah is negligible.

As a Filipino American, something more powerful than population drew me to the restaurant that week. Sociologists who study immigration don’t usually care about food; they’d rather study education or labor-market outcomes.

Rose and the two hundred Filipino Savannahians are not an aberration in the Filipino American story. They are part of the through line.

But the history of Filipinos on this continent is inextricably linked to foodways. Filipino shrimp farmers arrived on the Gulf Coast in the sixteenth century. In her book Filipinos in Louisiana, the historian Marina Espina writes about the Filipino seamen who deserted their posts on the Spanish trading ships traveling from Manila to Acapulco. About a decade before the Declaration of Independence, they established a community near modern-day New Orleans, in a small fishing village named Saint Malo. Espina’s decades’ worth of research, much of which was washed away during Hurricane Katrina, reminds us that the history of Filipino Americans, and Asian Americans, have roots in the American South.

In this sense, Rose and the two hundred Filipino Savannahians are not an aberration in the Filipino American story. They are part of the through line. And while I am not a Southerner, eating with Tita Rose at her restaurant connects me to this genealogy.

Forty-eight hours later, I’m back at the restaurant with four friends from the conference. All but one, the Filipino writer Meredith Talusan, are either new or relatively new to Filipino cuisine. Fortunately, there’s a poster on the wall near our table that serves as a sort of primer.

“Your palabok is ready,” says Rose, with a familiarity like we’ve known each other for years. “It took me a long time. It’s hard to make palabok.” I worry that I took too much of her time since she’s a one-woman show in the kitchen. But then Meredith says palabok is her favorite dish, too. I feel slightly less embarrassed.

I try speaking Tagalog again. To my surprise, even with an audience of one very fluent Filipino, I succeed.

“Your Tagalog is pretty good,” Meredith says. I catch a look of approval from Rose in my periphery.

For a second, in the middle of Savannah, I feel more Filipino than I’ve ever felt before.

Anthony Christian Ocampo is associate professor of sociology at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona and the author of The Latinos of Asia: How Filipino Americans Break the Rules of Race.

Photos by Stephen B. Morton

SIGN UP FOR THE DIGEST TO RECEIVE GRAVY IN YOUR INBOX.