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25 | The Quiet is Loud and old Filipino restaurants

Creating my own version of Filipinoness

Deadmedia shares monthly peeks behind the scenes, writing updates, and creativity thoughts from SF/F author Samantha Garner. Learn more here.

Hi everyone,

There’s an old-school style of Filipino restaurant called “turo-turo1 .” The name is an example of classic Filipino word reduplicating, and stems from the word for pointing at something. The typical feature was their cafeteria-style presentation, all food laid out in warming trays that you would point at and someone would dish up for you.

I didn’t know this style of restaurant had a name at the time—I just learned it recently. To me, they were always just “Filipino restaurants,” and my family’s usual one was in a Filipino store called Oriental Market near Dundas and Hurontario in Mississauga, now long gone. Restaurants like this always made me feel a mix of contentment and confusion. I was excited to have my favourite food, but also intimidated by the context I lacked for much of it. I would stand in front of the glass separating me from the food, looking at the names of each dish written there, wondering what some of them were.

Back then, Filipino restaurants were usually there for other Filipinos, the curious, or those who had good knowledge of its cuisine—good enough to look at just the name of a dish and know what was in it. It took a long time for Filipino food to go mainstream2 , despite how sizeable the community was when I was a kid in the ‘80s, and how much it grew since then. In a way, I was happy when the restaurant experience became more accessible. It was intensely weird for me to be a half-Filipino person who grew up eating Filipino food nearly every day at home but who was also grateful for menus finally showing up in Filipino restaurants.

The Quiet is Loud, and Rosalie’s

In The Quiet is Loud, there’s a 2005 chapter where Freya and her dad visit Rosalie’s, a new Filipino restaurant in Kelowna.

Rosalie’s was very small. When they first walked in, the front door nearly smacked into a display of Filipino grocery items for sale: soft pandesal buns, packets of spice mixes for kare-kare and afritada and caldereta, bags of Nagaraya cracker nuts—the garlic ones were Freya’s favourite. There were even some Filipino cookbooks, likely for the benefit of any non-Filipino customers who might wander in.

A woman smiled at them from behind a one-sided buffet area where several trays of food steamed promisingly. It smelled incredible.

Even though it’s a fictional restaurant, much of it came from life: the displays of grocery items and the name of Rosalie herself (a Filipino childhood friend), for example. But perhaps the most impactful thing that came from life was the particular alienation I always felt in those delicious-smelling, cozy, lovely restaurants.

Freya’s experiences with her cultures largely follow mine, but that’s not true of her father Brian and my own father. My dad was born in the Philippines and immigrated to Toronto when he was a baby (22), but Brian’s family immigrated to Winnipeg when he was a baby (literally). This idea of Brian not knowing the Philippines firsthand and feeling disoriented in his own way was something that always interested me. So I gave him and Freya a little moment of shared solidarity and acceptance, displayed in a simple request for pancit in a Filipino restaurant:

[Rosalie] smiled again and pointed at the tray Freya was considering. “Pancit palabok,” she said. “It’s noodles with ground pork and shrimp sauce. Pancit is traditional Filipino noodles.”

Freya looked up at her. “Thank you. Dad makes pancit all the time, but he makes pancit bihon usually. I’ll have the palabok, please.”

Dad looked at Freya, proud, grateful. “Same for me please.”

I did have Filipinos around me as a kid, but my dad’s experience of Filipinoness was my main influence. And of course, one person can’t teach you everything. Through no fault of my dad’s, I grew up with a strange chip on my shoulder around asking questions about Filipino things, especially to strangers or within earshot of strangers. Freya was like me in this way. When I wrote that scene I felt her bristle at Rosalie’s assumption that Freya didn’t know what pancit was, but also the subsequent relief at not having to ask what the palabok version was. Brian was a bihon guy through and through. He never made any other kind.

Creating my own version of Filipinoness

Rosalie’s differed from Oriental Market in its size and decor:

They ate in silence for a few minutes. Freya wasn’t sure if she liked the pancit palabok. It was too rich, too saucy, at least compared to Dad’s bihon, which he’d spent years perfecting. Still, she felt pleased as she looked around at the small restaurant, at the wooden knife and fork hanging on the wall next to them, the paintings of palm trees and mountains, the photograph of women in bright yellow dresses performing a folk dance.

“What’s that called again?” she asked Dad, gesturing to the photograph. “That dance they’re doing.”

Dad had shown her videos online once. Two people kneel on the ground facing each other, each holding a long bamboo pole. They tap and slide the poles rhythmically and rapidly, while barefoot people dance, stepping and turning between the poles before they can clap their ankles. She’d always thought of it like double dutch, but more badass.

His expression softened and he said in a quiet voice. “Tinikling3 . My lola used to do that.”

I think this decor was inspired by another turo-turo restaurant I’d been to once or twice . In any case, I wanted to restructure the Oriental Market of my memory, change it from what was essentially a grocery store with an eating area inside. I wanted my own version of Filipinoness, which to me means many things. In this case: warmth, comfort, a wooden knife and fork on the wall, paintings and photographs of a distant tropical land where generations of my ancestors had lived. I wanted to construct that link as if to remind myself it was real. I wasn’t disconnected.

I suppose I was influenced by Kazuo Ishiguro creating his own version of Japan, one that could be saved in a book before it disappeared forever. I wanted to create a very specific type of childhood experience, a Filipino experience, a diaspora experience, one in which I felt connected and isolated in equal measure, and one that I look back on with more fondness than I ever expected.

You can probably tell that the picture at the top of this post wasn’t taken in a restaurant; it’s from a wonderful Filipino picnic I attended a couple of years ago, a birthday party for a friend’s child (side note: eating hot Filipino food in a park is another core memory of mine that I love). Strangely, I’ve never taken a proper photo of Oriental Market or anywhere like it. Thanks to my photo archives I know I went there in 2009 when I was in town from Calgary. I took two photos: one of my plate of food, and one of the building across the street, which had some sort of construction machinery on the roof. My parents and husband and I stood in the parking lot and watched it work for a while. It looked to be breaking the building apart bit by bit. That’s the only thing I remember about that visit to Oriental Market. I don’t know if I ever went back. Was that the last time?4

Hell yeah look at that bihon

PS, Footnotes:

1 If you want to learn more about turo-turo restaurants and even see what they looked like, check out this Eater article by Emily Joy Meneses.
2 There are several interesting reasons why it took so long for Filipino food to go mainstream, despite our large population in Canada and especially in the US, where Filipinos were the second-largest Asian-American group for a long time. Check out this interesting LA Times article about it, from around the time the restaurant shift started happening.
3Here’s a video of tinikling. Isn’t it just the most badass thing you’ve ever seen?
4 Turo-turo restaurants aren’t exactly gone! At one of my favourites, Berto’s in Mississauga, you order at the counter where they have the traditional warming trays out. But! There is a menu!

Thanks for reading Deadmedia today, and leave a comment to let me know what you thought!

Talk soon,
-Sg.

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