“I went to my Filipino friend’s baby shower this weekend,” a colleague of mine, who is Korean American, once said to me. “Man, that kid looked Asian!”
Despite their great numbers in the United States, Filipinos have not yet made a clear impression on the American mind at large, and even other Asian Americans may sometimes think they are somehow Latin American or Polynesian. The complexity of their identity no doubt confuses us: they are a people who often natively speak three very different languages (Tagalog, English, and Spanish), and may very well speak other Philippine languages in addition. They are superbly open to foreign influences of all kinds, and have absorbed culture from China, Singapore, Thailand, and Spain and the United States.
Of course, I know that even this is a simplification. Those 7,000 islands harbor a lot of diversity, and the “they” that we think of in the United States probably does not capture much of it. “They” were converted to Christianity in the days of Magellan, and have rejected most of the beliefs and practices of the pre-Christian era. Interestingly, though, the Ilongots of the mountains of Luzon, like many other peoples in the Austronesian sphere, practiced headhunting well into the twentieth century.
It is possible to taste a little of the diversity of the Philippines in Queens. An immigrant from the Bicol Region, a group of islands southeast of Luzon, opened Papa’s Kitchen—a restaurant serving Bicol dishes—in Woodside a few years ago. I went tonight.
Papa’s Kitchen is a tiny space with painted brick walls. A chalkboard menu hangs over the counter, lending the restaurant the ambience of a coffee shop. There are probably four tables on a regular night; tonight, two of them were pushed together to accommodate a large party of Filipina women out to celebrate a birthday. My meal was accompanied by a constant patter of conversation in Tagalog, English, and Spanish.
I ordered Laing, which seemed to please the waiter immensely. He soon came to my table beaming with a large banana leaf cut in a circle. Then he brought the Laing, a bowl of dark green vegetable matter.
To be precise, Laing is made of taro leaves cooked in coconut milk with a little shrimp base, and spiced with hot chilies. I soon understood why the waiter was so pleased. He was soon agreeing with me that, yes, it really is quite good. It is spicy, rich, and creamy. It brings to mind Indian saag, but the coconut milk makes a pronounced contribution.
The TV hanging over the entrance was tuned to America’s Got Talent when I came in. But before I left, they turned this show off and brought a microphone to the birthday girl for karaoke. She sang with surprising range and control. Talent indeed.
65-40 Woodside Avenue
Woodside, NY 11377
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