No matter where in the world we migrate, we Filipinos seem to define ourselves by what we eat. There are dozens of Buzzfeed articles, as well as pre-2010s Xanga and email forward chains, on “how Filipino you are.” All of these mention food. But when I asked my friends about cheese pimiento, some of them seemed confused and others did not. It wasn’t the resounding “yes” when, say, adobo or ube ice cream is mentioned. For those who said no, it got tense, like I was putting them on the spot, asking: “What kind of Filipinx American are you—the kind who ate strikingly sweet pimiento sandwiches growing up, or the kind who did not?”
Generations of Filipinos remember the simple after-school pimiento sandwich for merienda, the meal between tanghalian (lunch) and hapunan (dinner). On trips to the Philippines, I remember my lola or my mother eating them (my lolo had the typical high cholesterol, and my father was health-conscious after getting into weightlifting in the 80s). My cousins and the rest of my family would shred the Kraft cheese from a can, or if it was after Christmas, queso de bola—Edam cheese in that unmistakable red wax. Mix in some white sugar with mayonnaise, and spread the unmelted cheese salad on bread slices with their edges cut off.
(By the way, don’t get it confused with pimento cheese, the caviar of the South. In whatever foodway existed between the Philippines and America during colonization, the “i” that dropped in the Southern version stayed in ours, and pimiento peppers became optional.)
I must have eaten them, too, I think; this is according to the unreliable memories of a young Fil-Am kid who immigrated to New York City over 30 years ago, mind you. I can see the plates being served to me—that’s how we showed love in my family, making food for one another. My lola must have served it to me, because she took care of me while both my parents worked. I know I did not make it myself, because I can’t remember having that intuitive taste that separates a regular cheese (American) sandwich with a sweet Filipino cheese pimiento.
Even though not every Fil-Am I talked to about pimiento had tasted it, it provided an opportunity us to have a dialogue about who we are and where we came from. We talked about other sweet-savory Filipino food, like ensaymada (sweet baked rolls with shredded cheese), or spaghetti that combines canned Vienna sausages with banana ketchup and white sugar. We even eat chocolate rice pudding with fried dilis, anchovies, or whatever dried salty small fish is available.
So many Filipino-Americans in the diaspora question how strong our connection is to the motherland, define ourselves by that closeness or distance. This causes pressure for Filipinx Americans to prove an allegiance to “traditional” cuisine. I struggled with this when developing this recipe. For example, when I decided to add fried garlic as a topping to the cheese, my friend Roseminda objected. “You’re doing too much!”
But I realized I needed to stop putting pressure on myself to recreate my lola’s exact pimiento recipe, one I only faintly remembered, and simply reach for that perfect spot between sweet and savory—a measure I recognize from other Filipino foods I love. My lola would want me to honor the food she made—the exact ingredients aren’t as important as the love that goes into reimagining her recipe.
My own personal style as a home cook matches a craving for childhood snacks with availability of ingredients, and what kind of palate I have as an adult. That’s how this recipe ended up being served on a baguette, with honey and garlic. I stopped judging myself on what others might deem to be Filipino enough. There are so many ways of making any Filipino dish (7,000 islands will offer that multiverse of options). So I gave permission to myself, as I hope others in the diaspora learning to cook for themselves will do, to define my own taste of home.
- 2 cups Dutch gouda cheese, shredded
- 3 teaspoons creamed honey, up to 4 tsp. for a sweeter taste
- 1 cup mayonnaise (1/2-3/4 cup if it's of a chunkier consistency)
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- Long French baguette (about 12 inches)
- 5 garlic cloves
- 2 tablespoons cooking oil