How I Reclaimed Filipino Food After Finding Out I Was Allergic to It

June 21, 2018

My whole life, there was always a bottle of soy sauce on the dinner table. Anytime you wanted an extra sprinkle of umami, it was ready and available for consumption. Growing up with a Filipino mom, when I was hungry and wanted a snack, the go-to was a bowl of white rice and soy sauce. And in my family it wasn't just any soy sauce—it was always Silver Swan.

“Soy sauce is eternal,” says South Korean nun Jeong Kwan. “It is life itself.”

She couldn’t be more right.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

Pancit, bistek, lumpia, most of the dipping sauces. Obviously adobo is marinated in soy sauce. When you’re Filipino, soy sauce is eternal, it is life, it’s in everything. If it’s not in a dish, it’s added later, at the dinner table, as a seasoning. Where salt and pepper shakers are ubiquitous to the American table, the Filipino table has soy sauce.

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But as I got older, I started seeing symptoms whenever I ate soy sauce: stomach aches, puffy skin, eczema. Over time, the reactions got worse. It went from stomach aches and eczema to fibromyalgia, headaches, and joint pain. Through process of elimination, I was able to trace the reactions back to my soy intake. Years later, I would officially get diagnosed with a rare immunological disorder called Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS), which means I’m allergic to a great many things: mushrooms, matcha, most dairy, sometimes fermented things, sometimes shellfish, soy.

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Top Comment:
“Worcestershire sauce, at any rate the Lea & Perrins brand, contains neither soy nor gluten, and would make a delicious alternative to soy sauce. It has been a ubiquitous seasoning and condiment at our house for generations, and I can vouch for the fact that it will stand up with the rest of the best when it comes to umami. ”
— la G.

I was confused. I’d been eating tofu, pancit, adobo—Filipino food laden with soy—my whole life. How could I be allergic to it?

You’d be surprised at how many products at the grocery store contain soy: the majority of prepackaged, frozen, and processed foods; bagged grocery bread, pita, wraps, crackers, hummus, ice cream, granola bars, mayonnaise, marinades, sauces, cereals, and cookies; all vegetable oil. I had to stop shopping at Trader Joe’s completely because everything there is laced with soybean oil! Even potato chips (again, the oil). I challenge you to go to the grocery and start reading labels from the soy-free perspective.

Finding out I couldn't eat all these things was hard. But the hardest part, for me, was what it would mean for my kids. How could I share with them the food of my family, the food I was raised on, when I couldn’t even eat it myself?


As a working mother, it didn’t make sense to cook something all four of us couldn’t sit down to enjoy. So we didn’t have Filipino food at home for years, because I had to stop cooking it. But I did my best.

I used to take my kids to the Filipino bakery and just call it a day. I'd take them to the Filipino market and buy them all my favorite treats, like suman and polvorón, and to Filipino restaurants. But restaurant food isn't home food. There's a big difference between going out for a cuisine and cooking it at home, embedding it in your family's daily life and weeknight rotation.

It wasn't until I became a chef that I was able to find my way back to Filipino food. When I started working in New York City restaurants and magazine test kitchens, I learned how to adapt, technically, to my soy allergy because I had to. In my line of work, I cook a ton of things that have soy or miso. Now I know how to balance flavors—and how to replicate them. This gave me the wherewithal to find a new entry point into reclaiming the food of my past and bringing it back into my present. I started reading up on Filipino cooking from blogs, magazines, everywhere. I'd see soy sauce in the ingredients list, and instead of tossing the recipe out, I'd tackle it: "Oh, there's soy here. How do I mimic that flavor note?"

Soy sauce is complex. It's not just salt; it's also umami. So my main question was: How do I compensate for the lack of umami in regular kosher salt? I've learned that there are many, many ways. Fish sauce helps. Seasoned vinegar. Coconut aminos is a kind of magic mimicker (you can get it at Trader Joe’s); people actually use it for Whole30 because soy sauce has gluten.

We may not keep soy sauce on the table at my house anymore, but that doesn’t mean my pancit bihon isn’t bomb. When I was developing this soy sauce–less pancit, I thought about what was really important to me in the dish. What really transported me back to that little kid who ate pancit with her mother and grandmother was a version with super thin rice noodles and pork. My favorite parts were the bright citrus and sour notes, the texture of perfectly cooked rice noodles, and the freshness of the vegetables. Summer on a plate. In my version, instead of seasoning the broth with soy sauce, I use patis (Filipino fish sauce), which is pungent and sharp and gives my food that umami I'm missing.

I want my children to feel connected to the Philippines because it's where I'm from and, by extension, where they're from. But I used to ask myself, "Are they getting the true, authentic experience?"

The thing is, I think they are. Do you know why? Even my mother cooked a different pancit than my grandmother did. And I may own memories of eating that pancit, and bats crossing the ​Luzon sky at dusk and a great-grandmother who took me on jeepney rides to the local marketplace, but that doesn't make my kids' experiences any less Filipino than mine.

Are you allergic to any foods? How do you deal? Tell us in the comments below.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • imclairee
  • Scout1967
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    Ashley Hull
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imclairee April 27, 2024
Thank you for sharing your story!
It is so hard to deal with eczema. My 4 year old daughter has eczema and she had it when we migrated to Canada. Sleepless nights, scratching here and there, lotions, creams, even anti histamines are not helping. I am so lost. I feel so sad to see my daughter not having enough sleep at night but needs to go to school the next morning. I ended up joining fb eczema groups, tried suggestions and diet is really a major factor for it. Soy sauce, tomatoes, dairy, those are some of the culprits. I am so tired of thinking what food to cook. Until I found your page. Are there any filipino dishes you can suggest to cook? I really appreciate your help!
Scout1967 January 19, 2022
You are a great writer in addition to providing these recipes that are BOMB. Thanks for sharing your stories.
Ashley H. July 2, 2018
Loved reading this! And hearing that I’m not the only one who struggles at the grocery store, or with eating because of a soy allergy! Coconut aminos have become a staple in my kitchen!
la G. June 22, 2018
Worcestershire sauce, at any rate the Lea & Perrins brand, contains neither soy nor gluten, and would make a delicious alternative to soy sauce. It has been a ubiquitous seasoning and condiment at our house for generations, and I can vouch for the fact that it will stand up with the rest of the best when it comes to umami.
Beth June 21, 2018
My titos and titas have told me that Ilocanos (way back, long time ago) don’t use soy sauce in adobo. My son also has a fish/shellfish allergy along with soy, dairy, eggs, nuts, beans & seeds so I make my own mixture of adobo sauce.
Elizabeth S. June 21, 2018
Soy sauce is fermented wheat. LaChoy is fermented corn. There is not necessarily any soy in soy sauce. You have to read labels.

kat3029 June 25, 2018
soy sauce ABSOLUTELY has soy, it's made from fermented soy beans. it does also contain wheat (if you need wheat free, you want to look for tamari), but soy is indeed the key ingredient in soy sauce
Rashda K. June 21, 2018
Love this reclaiming! Have you adapted adobo?
Amelia R. June 21, 2018
I have not! But I've had a soy-free adobo from the restaurant Bad Saint where they use black garlic instead of soy. So good!
Eric K. June 21, 2018
I'd like that recipe, too, please. :)
Ana February 7, 2019
I never use soy sauce in adobo. It’s called adobong puti or white adobo. Salt is used in lieu of soy sauce then just brown the meat separately before putting back in sauce.
Bbj July 29, 2019
The Ilonggo version of chicken or pork adobo skips the soy sauce and uses annatto seeds for flavor. Yellow rice!
boulangere June 21, 2018
I'm allergic to soy as well. It's difficult to eat in restaurants because, as you note, it appears in so many foods. That said, I believe fish sauce should be in the water supply.
Eric K. June 21, 2018
It truly is transmogrifyingly delicious.
maggiesara July 24, 2018
I could pretty much drink Red Boat