Bringing people together with food, film
“Food brings us all together,” remarked San Diego City Councilman Chris Cate in front of a crowd of about 300 people inside the San Diego Natural History Museum’s theater.
And, that was certainly the case on Monday night during the Ulam: Film & Fest presented by the Pacific Arts Movement, which sold out in mere hours after the event was posted online. Those gathered were waiting to view a screening of the film Ulam: Main Dish before moving to the dining room where 15 local chefs had prepared a hands-on, kamayan-style Filipino meal.
The event was part of the eighth annual San Diego Asian Film Festival Spring Showcase, which kicked off on April 19 and runs through Thursday. An encore screening of the film took place Tuesday night.
In Ulam (which translates to “main dish” in Tagalog), director and writer Alexandra Cuerdo, who briefly attended UC San Diego during her college journey, and her team captured Filipino-American chefs and restaurateurs from New York and Los Angeles who are rooted in the growth and evolution of the culture’s food.
Interviews included a look at such topics as crab mentality, microagressions, the effects of colonialism and the need for support from the Filipino community and, of course, food, lots of food.
“Filipinos love to support success,” said chef Alvin Cailan (Eggslut in Los Angeles and AMBOY in NYC), who was featured throughout the documentary.
But, interview after interview showed that it hasn’t always been so cut and dry when it comes to carrying on a successful Filipino restaurant. Many of the chefs talked to the point of family and how memories of growing up with traditional foods can be a major roadblock when it comes to the dining and Filipino communities.
A press release ahead of the film screening read, “Food is our history, and the history of the Filipino people is complex. … we must discuss what divides us, to find what unites us.”
From the documentary to the following kamayan dinner (a traditional family-style meal served atop a banana leaf spread across the table where diners eat without utensils), it was clear that the unity aspect was a central focus of the evening.
In the post-screening Q&A session with the production team, Cuerdo (whose father was the producer of the movie and also in attendance) gushed about her excitement for the dinner, pleased to see 15 local Filipino-American chefs come together to create the meal.
The more than 300 movie-viewers made their way into the lower level of the Natural History Museum where carefully and creatively placed food was spread out among numerous tables. If you hadn’t come with family, those seated around you soon became family.
With wet naps at the ready and a winding snake of sticky rice to use as a “utensil,” guests dug in to such traditional dishes as mechado, a beef short rib stewed with soy sauce, bell pepper, patis, tomato and peas (prepared by chef Marcus Twilegar of Parq) and seafood ginataan with mussels, coconut milk, kabocha squash, chinese long beans and red mustard frill (prepared by Tara Monsod of Tender Greens in Mission Valley).
For dessert, a sweet standout was the ube bibingka made with rice flour, ube, sugar, coconut milk, coconut wrapped in banana leaves (prepared by chef DJ Tangalin of Bivouac Ciderworks, and who was PACIFIC’s leading chef in the 2017 Chain of Gourmand).
“Filipino cuisine is having its moment because timing is everything. The kids that grew up here are now finding themselves inspired to create a connection with their homeland’s food,” Tangalin told The San Diego Union-Tribune ahead of the event. “When you grow up in another country, one of the links you have with your parents and grandparents is food.
The memories of the food of our parents and grandparents are then passed down through us to share with our children and our friends. Though the ingredients and recipes used may not be ‘authentic’ or ‘traditional,’ the people who taste it can feel that it’s cooking that is coming from the heart.”
As the chefs took the stage to introduce themselves and talk about each dish, it was a clear indication that the guests knew each person involved was cooking with pride and heart when a swarm of aunties, lolos and batas surrounded them, each aching to get a picture of the group.
Councilman Cate couldn’t have kicked off the night in a more fitting way, because it really was the food that brought everyone together in a big way.
“I’ve not heard of a 300-person kamayan outside of the Philippines, so Guiness Book, here we come,” said Cuerdo.
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