My introduction to Yana Gilbuena, creator and chef of SALO, wasn’t during one of her Filipino pop-up dinners in Brooklyn, or even during our interview, which included the preparation and consumption of kare-kare, a peanut-saucy stew with oxtail.
We met on Craigslist.
I was searching for a room in Greenpoint in 2009-ish, and answered Gilbuena’s listing. The “room” was actually one-fourth of another room, divided by a shower curtain.
I opted to prolong my search.
A native of the Phillipines, Gilbuena started SALO, which derives from “salu-salo,” or “gathering,” in Brooklyn in 2013. Her pop-up dinners — usually five courses — are informal, featuring traditional Filipino dishes consumed on banana leaves without utensils.
“These dinners are a celebration of home,” Gilbuena says, de-shelling peanuts. “Filipino food is all about connections, conversations and communions. I say this because the nature of our food is made to stimulate all these.”
On March 3, Gilbuena will continue to spread home with the SALO Project, a 50-week, cross-country series of Filipino dinners with Feastly. She’ll also donate a portion of each pop-up to NAFCON (National Alliance for Filipino Concerns) for victims of Typhoon Haiyan.
Before her departure, though, Gilbuena is hosting a pop-up dinner tonight at the Greenpoint Reformed Church. You can see the full menu here.
Here’s what she has to say about SALO and the upcoming tour:
Niko Krommydas: How did SALO start?
Yana Gilbuena: I had felt for a long time that Filipino food wasn’t being fully represented in the United States — especially some of the more uncommon dishes. There are a lot of Filipino communities scattered around the country — I like to say we’re like wild mushrooms — but our food isn’t as prevalent as some others. If I ever craved something from back home, I had to make it myself. That’s what pushed me to start it.
NK: Where exactly was home?
YG: I was born in Bacolod City, Negros Occidental and raised in Iloilo City, Panay. Both are in the Visayas region, basically in the middle. I moved to Los Angeles when I was 20, a fresh graduate from the university.
NK: And you started SALO in Brooklyn?
YG: Yeah. I had moved to Brooklyn after LA and started it in March of 2013. I did the first few dinners in Bushwick and Greenpoint. It started as a quarterly thing because, at the time, I had a full-time job and didn’t really have the time to do something regularly. But when I got laid off, I decided, “Let’s really do this.” That’s when I did dinners in some cities on the West Coast, like LA, San Francisco and Seattle. That’s also what prompted me to start the SALO Project. It felt like perfect timing to see the country and expose people to Filipino cuisine.
NK: How would you exactly describe Filipino cuisine?
YG: It’s built on simplicity — our main spices are soy sauce, vinegar, sugar and pepper. The food also really reflects our history — the influences of the traders and colonizers equally affected the indigenous cuisine. Like lumpia (deep fried spring rolls), and pancit (noodles). These are both Chinese, but we adapted it to suit our environment and palate.
NK: What’s the preparation like for a dinner? Is everything readily available?
YG: Yes and no. It takes about three full days to get ingredients and prep, but you also have to secure the space in advance, get out the invites and spread the word. I keep it to about 20 people for each one. If I’m in New York, I’ll usually go to Chinatown for ingredients because not every supermarket has bok choy, Chinese eggplants, water spinach or fresh seaweed. But for the SALO Project, I want to try to incorporate a lot of local stuff from that particular area, because I might not find, say, bitter gourd in South Dakota. But that’s okay. I want to be challenged with different stuff. Someone in Texas already has some bison for me, actually.
NK: Are you already preparing for the project?
YG: A little bit. We’re starting in Florida, and I have the first month planned. I’m traveling with my friend, Cassandra Sicre. She’s a filmmaker, and she’ll be documenting the whole thing. We’re traveling mostly by Greyhound and Amtrak, and I won’t have much more than my backpack and my knives. I’m also partnering up with Feastly. They’ll be providing the platform where people can find me and signup for my dinners.
NK: What are some dishes you’ll be cooking?
YG: I’ll definitely do kare-kare, which is what we’re having now, lumpia and adobo, a dish that involves marinating and braising the meat in soy sauce, vinegar and garlic. Adobo is prepared differently in each of the three regions, and our version is sweeter because we have sugar plantations everywhere. I’ll also be doing batchoy, a Filipino version of ramen specifically from my city, Iloilo, and cake made with cassava root (yucca) and coconut milk. I have to say, too, that rice is the medium that brings all Filipino dishes together. It’s like a palate cleanser.
NK: How is each dinner going to be set up?
YG: It’s always going to be five courses for $50. I didn’t want to make it too expensive and deter people from attending. It’s all about having that community atmosphere. The dinners will be posted on Feastly, so it’s easy for me to track my diners and set up the menu there. As for the actual setup, all the food is served on banana leaves and everyone eats with their hands. My grandmother was very formal, but we had helpers, and when I would eat with them — they came from the deeper provinces of the Philippines —they encouraged me to eat with my hands. I remember it was just so much more fun to do it that way. That’s how me and my friends would eat, especially when we’d dine in the eateries by the seaside.
NK: You were raised by your grandmother?
YG: And my aunt. They both raised me, and they’re both gone now. That was one of our ways of bonding together. We’d spend the entire day in the kitchen. This project is an homage to them, I guess.
NK: Do you still have any family there?
YG: Not anymore. But I do want to say that everything that happened with Typhoon Haiyan is very close to my heart. I’m donating 30 percent of each dinner to NAFCON, who set up a typhoon relief program. It’s won’t be much, but it’s something I want to do.