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.
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.
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?
NO SOY SAUCE HERE!
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.
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