On Dec. 16, the Baltimore Museum of Art hosts chef and musician Dylan Ubaldo for a Calasag pop-up event. Below is a report from Ubaldo’s Calasag pop-up from earlier this year…
Growing up, Filipino food has always been best served by your family. There were a smattering of small take outs and bodegas that served Filipino food but none were too memorable and none of them certainly were better than my family’s food. Yes, there is obvious bias but that’s what Filipino food is all about. It is, much like other cultural cuisine I would suspect, one of those memories and cynosures of life that is very much intertwined with your heritage and upbringing. So, to me, eating Filipino cuisine outside of our family gatherings has always been a little bit of a disappointment. It’s not that the food isn’t good, it was just that it was never as good (which, admittedly, is a pretty tall task).
However, it seems like Filipino food is finally taking hold as a restaurant concept. I know, I know, this has been predicted for years and years now, but there is Bad Saint, a quaint little 24-seat restaurant in Columbia Heights that was even named the #2 best new restaurant of 2016 by Bon Appetit. D.C. is getting a new one in Kaliwa, Filipino Kitchen in Chicago is getting rave reviews, it’s hard to get a seat at Perla in Philly, and we can’t forget Maharlika and Talde in NYC. There’s even a traveling chef, Yana Gilbuena, who’s made it her mission to travel the country under the name, Salo Series, and spread the gospel about Filipino cuisine.
Despite all these developments, I didn’t think the Filipino food movement would ever reach Baltimore for a variety of reasons—from it’s proximity to D.C. to Baltimore’s reputation for being slow to accept new cuisines (this is changing though!). I mean, Filipino food may have not yet arrived at the shores of Baltimore, but you can certainly see it on the horizon. There was a Kamayan by Chef Gilbuena at R. House and a Calasag pop-up at the Compound, which I attended back in June.
Calasag is a collective of friends, artists, and cooks headed by Chef Dylan Ubaldo. The name comes from a small village in the province of Bulacan where Dylan’s family hails from. It’s about three hours north of Manila and about two hours north of Quezon City, where I was born. A Kamayan, by definition, is a feast that you eat with your hands. It’s usually served on a communal table covered with banana leaves. In Calasag’s pretty handout—which also included the menu, a history of the Philippines, and their bio—they write “A Kamayan gathering is [a] celebration of indigenous heritage in the Pilipinas. It is a reminder that during Spanish and U.S. colonization, eating with your hands was considered savagery and Pilipinos were forced to adapt to eating with utensils.”
While the importance of this is true, most Filipinos these days just think of it as the best kind of backyard communal feast. The lineup for this Kamayan included coconut ube rice (white rice steamed with coconut milk and ube extract), bagoong greenery (baby bok choy and Chinese broccoli sauteed in shrimp paste with cracker nuts and crispy garlic), blue crab lumpia (Filipino egg rolls with Maryland lump crab, ginger, cabbage, and cilantro), chicken adobo (chicken legs and thighs braised in soy sauce and coconut vinegar seasoned with lemongrass, whole peppercorn, and bay leaves), and pinoy BBQ skewers (grilled pork belly and shoulder marinated in banana catsup, calamansi, and soy sauce with bird’s eye chilies).
The food was laid down carefully and intricately: Rice went down first, followed by careful placement of the other dishes. They also served colorful papaya and individual pieces of calamondin (small, tart citrus fruit, kind of like a cross between a tangerine and a kumquat). The food and flavors were spot-on to this balikbayan; I especially enjoyed the ube rice and adobo. The rice was creamy and provided a good base for all the food I was shoveling in my mouth.
I’m used to larger lumpia, but having crab as the sole filling was a great change up. The BBQ skewers evoked some great childhood memories, especially since we could see them cooking it on an open makeshift barbecue drum. The greenery was a welcome addition of vegetables, but I couldn’t find the bagoong (shrimp paste) flavor in the dish and wished that it came through more since it may be one of my favorite things ever.
The meal took almost four hours, but barely felt like it was 30 minutes. At the end of the night, Chef Dylan turned into singer Dylan and the amphitheater became a karaoke soundstage. I was only able to stay for a rousing rendition of Enrique Iglesias’ (half pinoy) ‘Hero,’ an inspiring cover of the Backstreet Boys’ ‘I Want it That Way,’ and a booming ‘Roxanne’ from the Police. Each song brought down the house and created a sea of smiles. If my whole evening consisted of those three karaoke performances, it would’ve been a great night but it wasn’t even the best part.
Overall, I’m not sure I am ready to cede Calasag’s food and flavors over my mother’s but Chef Ubaldo and the rest of Calasag never lost sight of the meaning of Kamayan. They essentially welcomed us into their home and brought a small community together. Filipinos surge with pride at the advent of our food across the country (as I’m sure how people of other cultures have felt when their food became mainstream) because it also introduces Filipino culture as a whole to widespread consciousness with a community of mindful Filipino chefs and their friends leading the way. Calasag’s food was a good representation of Filipino food, but the vibe was much more important. Filipino food and Kamayan aren’t just cuisine—there’s a whole experience to bring to the table.
A version of this review first ran on Leandro’s blog, Food Nomad (foodnomad.net).