Vegan Filipino Food Vendor Plans to Expand

Reina Montenegro, former owner of vegan Filipino restaurant Nick’s on Grand, has struck out on her own as Chef Reina, packaging dishes such as a plant-based Kaldereta (Filipino pot roast) at a commissary kitchen in Daly City. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

Vegan Filipino food?  When I first heard about vegan Filipino food almost 9 years ago, I was really skeptical.  But the restaurant  chain Nick’s thrived for a long time, and during this Pandemic, owner Reina Montenegro has rebranded the Nick’s restaurant line as Chef ReinaIn this interview with the Mercury News, she talks about how she became vegan, how she successfully adapted Filipino food, and how she plans to expand her brand.

Montenegro says that she became vegan for health reasons, and given the fatty meaty meals that many Filipinos eat and their generally poor health as a result, and I am not surprised. At home, we drastically changed what we eat when Number One Son and Number Two Son were training  for cross country in high school.  As a result, we do not eat much Filipino food.   Montenegro missed those unhealthy but tasty dishes and created meatless versions of such classics as Tocino.  I love Tocino, but definitely not a good thing to eat frequently.  A quick search yield a couple of sites dedicated toward Filipino vegan food, and PETA even has a an article on vegan Filipino recipes.

I have tried other Asian cuisines that do traditional dishes using simulations of meat, and I found myself preferring dishes that started out as vegetarian and building on the ingredients rather than trying to imitate something else.  I never got around to trying Nick’s, and I don’t know of any Filipino restaurants near me in the South Bay that serve vegan versions.  Looking forward to trying her new rebranded line and her retail products when they become more available or whenever the pandemic ends – which ever come first.



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In Praise of Spam: Prose, a Play, and a Poem

Spam, Eggs, and Rice. That was a familiar and comforting meal when I was a kid, and I still feel that way today. While Spam has been condemned as the epitomy of unhealthy processed food, I recently learned about an article, a play, and a poem singing its praises.  What has Spam done to earn such accolades?  In many ways, as Eric Kim writes here, eating Spam is part of an experience that for Asian Americans of many different ethnic backgrounds is fundamental to their identity.

While I knew about (and love) Spam Musubi, I didn’t know about how widespread the love of Spam is across Asian American and even Pacific Islander communities.  Kim talks about Korean communities use of it.  In the comments to his article (definitely worth checking out), Pacific Islanders talk about eating it.   I already knew that many Filipino Americans like myself love it, and what many Spam loving Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have in common is a history of interaction with American Military.   Not only do Asians Americans  and Pacific Islanders reminisce about Spam, but other people who have a common history of eating spam as a cheap food when they were struggling to get by.

Kim’s article mentions an Asian American play that uses Spam as a central theme, called Specially Processed American Me.   About Jaime Sunwoo’s play:

Specially Processed American Me by Jaime Sunwoo is a surreal autobiographical performance using SPAM, the canned meat, as a portal into her Asian American upbringing and her family’s experiences of the Korean War. It investigates SPAM’s legacy in the military, its significance in the Asia-Pacific, and its influence on Asian cuisine through music, shadowplay, and cooking. Oscillating wildly between absurd humor and sober tragedy, Specially Processed American Me is a thought-provoking exploration of one of America’s most misunderstood foods.

Sunwoo has hosted workshops associated with the play, where people talk about food and stories over a shared meal of Spam.  You can even submit a story about Spam on her website.

The comments of Kim’s article also have a pointer by a poem called Spam by Roberto Ascalon.  It starts with the following:

My father’s love

is a fried Spam sandwich.

I never have had a fried Spam sandwich, but as so many Asian American parents express their love through food rather and don’t say “I love you” explicitly, this opening line resonated for me.

Why does Spam seem to resonate so well with Asian Americans?  I think it is the shared experience among so many Asian Americans – a food that is well regarded by family and home culture but is embarrassing to reveal to outside mainstream Americans.  It is also the shared experience of a cheap affordable food from the days of being a struggling, immigrant family trying to make it in America.  To find out more, I suggest you check out Kim’s article as well as Roberto Ascalon’s poem and the website for Sunwoo’s play.  I would love to go to one of her workshops to eat and talk about Spam whenever plays and workshops can be held again in person.

(photo credit:  Open Food Facts under CC3)

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8mm Review: A Sugar and Spice Holiday

With nowhere to go on yet another night of the COVID-19 lockdown, The Wife and I settled in to watch the first Lifetime movie with Asian American leads.  As we rarely watch the Lifetime channel, I decided to keep my expectations low.  That was a good thing, as A Sugar & Spice Holiday is like a mooncake – some good points, some bad points, some will like it, and some will not.

Some positives:  It was good see to Asian American leads, and especially a love story with an Asian American couple.  There was even a couple with an Asian Male and a non-Asian female.  The Asian American family was not cultureless, and there were references to things that Asian Americans run into like the “where are you from” thing.  The story was sweet and was neatly wrapped up cleanly like a holiday present.

Some negatives:  I thought that Jacky Lai’s character was stereotypical in her drive and general overachievement.   I would have liked to see more of Tzi Ma, and a conceit about his accent was not well executed, in my opinion.  A brief storyline about Lillian Lim’s cooking goes unresolved. Finally, the story was neatly wrapped up cleanly like a holiday present, which made it very predictable.  I told The Wife what I thought would happen at the final contest, and I was exactly right.

I generally think of mooncakes as okay, and similarly, I think that this movie is okay.  This movie is definitely a sign of Asian American entering the mainstream, as it has some of the standard tropes of the other 88 Lifetime Christmas movies.  So if you like Lifetime movies (my smartwatch thought that I was asleep during the time that I watched the movie), you will probably like this movie.   It is currently available for free on Lifetime and you can also rent or buy it from Amazon Prime Video.

(picture courtesy of IMDB/Lifetime Channel)

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Asian American Commercial Watch: Gift Like You Mean It: Shiori

These days, there are a lot more Asian Americans on TV commercials, so it takes  more than having Asians American on a commercial to get me to want to share it.  This Holiday commercial for Etsy, produced by ad agency 72andSunny, struck me because it shows the experience that many Asian Americans have with getting their names mispronounced. Commenters on the video share how they had the same experience.  Despite the disadvantages of having a name that many Americans cannot pronounce, the girl and her family do not change her name to a Western name and instead celebrate it!  Thank you, 72andSunny and Etsy.

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8mm Review: Let It Snow

While the upcoming A Sugar and Spice Holiday movie features Asian Americans, another Christmas movie from last year has two Asian American actors, Anna Akana and Jacob Batalon, as significant characters.  Let It Snow was released in 2019.  I finally got around to seeing this movie and thought I would share my impressions.

photo credit: IMDB

Jacob Batalon plays, Keon, a teenager planning to throw a big party at his house when his parents are out for the holidays.  A snow storm prevents them from leaving, so he needs to find another place for his party, where he plans to feature his DJ skills.  Anna Akana plays Kerry, a love interest in this movie.  The movie shows these two Asian American characters as two regular teenagers in town.  I thought that having Keon be a DJ was a bit stereotypical, but that could be just because I know so many Filipino DJs.

It struck me when watching this movie that it seemed somewhat implausible that a small town in the middle of nowhere would be as diverse as shown.  Was that done as a nod to political correctness?  I think that the movie is aware that people might think of this, and it shows and makes fun of a hyper-diverse, politically correct Holiday pageant.

It may be because I am looking for some Christmas cheer right as my area is starting to lock down again, but I like the movie as a sweet, happy-ending rom-com.  I also liked how while the characters of Keon and Julie (played by Isabela Merced) are show as typical teenagers, they are not devoid of ethnicity, which is shown when they interact with their family. Keon is  definitely Filipino! Let It Snow is not deep or profound, but definitely enjoyable.  I do wish we saw more of Anna Akana’s Kerry.

Let it Snow is based on the novel Let It Snow:  Three Holiday Romances.  You can stream Let It Snow on Netflix.


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Asian Americans Lead in Intent to Get COVID-19 Vaccinations

A friend of mine had posted about this recent Pew Research report on ‘Intent to Get a COVID-19 Vaccine Rises to 60% as Confidence in Research and Development Process Increases.‘  It surprised me that Asians are currently more likely to get the COVID-19 vaccine than any other demographic group, but I imagine this is the case that Asians have the overall highest education of any demographic group as well as income, which also correlates with high intent to get a vaccine.  Also, many doctors, nurses, and other medical workers are Asian American and have felt the effects of the virus and associated racism.

I personally plan on getting the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available, although medical personal and nursing home residents have priority for the first available vaccines in my area. I just got my flu shot the other day. So hopefully, I won’t be catching COVID-19 or the flu anytime soon!

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8Books Review: Chinatown Pretty by Andria Lo and Valerie Luu

Chinatown Pretty by photographer Andria Lo and Valerie Luu is a beautiful tribute to our popos and gunggungs. The book celebrates the street styles of Chinatown’s elders in six major cities: San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and Vancouver.

Each city gets its own section with a brief introduction and then a series of photographic profiles. Readers get pictures of each of the featured individuals or couples, including close-ups of particularly unique items, and then each includes a title, the location spotted, and a brief story. Often these describe the fabrics or fashion elements that caught the authors’ eyes (silk, velvet, patterns abound), but just as often they include charming tidbits from their conversations. Good as the info on street style might be, it’s these latter bits that really hooked me. Reflections on life (family, immigration, war, the secret to living a long life … read the book to find out), that familiar resistance to sharing much personal information, color commentary from daughters and fathers and wives and sons. (“As for his style, we liked his pink aviators and his petite pompadour, which his daughter refers to as his ‘curry puff.'”) They are little windows into everyday lives.

Even aside from reading Chinatown Pretty, I’ve been thinking a lot about our elders in this pandemic season when loneliness and isolation are so common. My own popo stayed in her apartment when the coronavirus first broke out, then ventured outside as the situation improved, but now again is isolating by herself. I’m grateful that she has remained healthy and has folks who call her regularly (honestly, she probably has more friends than I have). But I know not everyone is so fortunate. It’s one of the reasons I so admire the work of a new Chinatown group aiding elders in New York where I live. Formed in March, Heart of Dinner aims to end isolation and hunger among Asian American low-income home bound elders. They deliver meals and groceries in beautifully-illustrated paper bags each with a note (check out their Instagram for so many amazing examples and to learn more about their inspiring work).

So I’ve been taking this #GivingTuesday to think about our elders — celebrating their fashion choices and supporting organizations that feed, nourish, and care for them.

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Asian American Frozen Foods: Trader Joe’s ‘Bulgogi Beef Fried Rice With Kimchi’

I was at Trader Joe’s a week or so ago and saw  this new frozen meal available -‘Bulgogi Beef Fried Rice With Kimchi’:

“Translated directly from Korean, bulgogi is a compound word that simply means “fire-meat.” Literal translations aside, bulgogi has an even greater significance as a beloved staple of Korean cuisine. Typically made by marinating thinly sliced beef in a mixture of soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, and spices, then grilling it over an open flame, bulgogi is tender, filling, and above all, phenomenally flavorful.

Trader Joe’s Bulgogi Beef Fried Rice with Kimchi pays tribute to this bastion of barbecue by pairing it with chopped veggies and tangy kimchi, all together in a deliciously seasoned fried rice. With minimal prep (just a combined five minutes in the microwave or a few minutes in a hot skillet will do the trick), our Korean-inspired Bulgogi Beef Fried Rice becomes a delightfully savory side dish or basis for a wide variety of rice bowls—we like it with scrambled egg and a drizzle of TJ’s Chili Onion Crunch, ourselves.

And since this is Trader Joe’s, that can only mean one thing: it’s a tremendous value. We’re selling 16-ounce bags of Bulgogi Beef Fried Rice with Kimchi for the unbeatable price of $4.99, every day. Look for it in our freezers.”

The meal was easy to prepare – basically just place the ingredients in a frying pan and cook for about 5 minutes or so.

Taste-wise, not bad.  I don’t think it is as good as Trader Joe’s ‘Spicy Thai Shrimp Fried Rice’ – which I’ve reviewed as well here.

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A Disney Filipino Christmas Ad is Making People Cry All Around the World

Disney Europe is probably the last organization that I’d expect to distribute a commercial that would become viral for Filipinos in the US and all over the world, but people ranging from The Wife to the head of the Filipino Affinity group at work shared their video with me.  Even Number One Son had seen it before I did.  When I looked into it, I found that the commercial has more behind it than just a shameless attempt to sell Disney merchandise.

Grandmother and granddaughter with Mickey Mouse dollThe commercial originated as part of a Disney UK fundraiser for the Make-a-Wish foundation.  A share of the money from sales of the vintage Mickey Mouse doll (you can see it on the right) goes to the foundation.  You might not think that there are many Filipinos in the UK, but my cousin worked there, and Filipinos make up a disproportionate number of the UK health workers that have died from COVID-19.  If it isn’t obvious to you, “Lola” written on the card in the commercial means Grandmother in Tagalog.  The star lantern is a traditional Filipino Christmas lantern called a Parol.

The UK singer Griff, who performs Love is a Compass, the featured song of the commercial, is an interesting part of this story.  Perhaps I am giving Disney too much credit for being clever about its choices, but Disney picked a singer who looks Filipino! She is actually Chinese and Jamaican.  You can see her perform the song in the video below.  Proceeds from downloads of the song also go to the UK Make-a-Wish foundation.

Continue reading

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25-year-old Alex Lee is California’s youngest, 1st Openly Bisexual State Legislator

While going through the local election results last week, I was surprised to learn of Alex Lee:

“History was made Tuesday in Santa Clara County where South Bay voters elected the youngest state legislator in eight decades. Democrat Alex Lee, 25, won the 25th District Assembly race and will also become California’s first openly bisexual state lawmaker.

“I have the distinction and responsibility to be a lot of firsts in California,” Lee said. “I’m the first openly bisexual state legislator in California, the youngest Asian-American state legislator and first Gen-Z state legislator. That is an immense responsibility to make sure that more young people and more progressives are elected after me to break and shatter those records.”

Lee grew up in Milpitas and San Jose, graduated from Milpitas High School and later, from UC Davis, where he studied communications and political science and served as student body president.

He interned for former Congressman Mike Honda, and later worked for State Senator Henry Stern, according to Lee’s campaign website.

He then went on to work for Assemblyman Evan Low, who, at the time of his election, was the youngest Asian American legislator in the Assembly.

I personally know Assemblyman Evan Low (though to be honest, I didn’t even know he was running for re-election – he won), so I am surprised I have not met Alex Lee.  If I have, I’ve long forgotten.

It’s really amazing what Lee has accomplished at such a young age! Congratulations to Lee, and I hope to meet him in the near future.


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Young Kim and Michelle Steel Join Marilyn Strickland as First Korean American Women Elected to US Congress

Young Kim

Young Kim and Michelle Steel

Young Kim and Michelle Steel will join Marilyn Strickland as the first Korean American women elected to the US Congress.  In that earlier post, we mentioned that Young Kim was in a tight race that had not yet been called.  Republican Kim beat out Democratic incumbent Gil Cisneros in a close race for California’s 39th congressional district. We also missed Michelle Steel, another Republican who also beat out a Democratic incumbent for California’s 48th congressional district.

Congratulations to Representative Kim and Representative Steel!

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Record Asian American Turnout in Early Analysis of 2020 Election

Source: TargetSmart

One of the reasons why I’ve been involved in politics and civically engaged since 2004 and why I blog about such issues since 2007 in the Asian American community is because since 2007 is because I saw a lack of involvement.

Traditionally, Asian Americans have had the least voting turnout of any demographic group. I don’t know if that is still the case in 2020, we’ll have to wait for the final electorate analysis. While following the national and local election results last week, I was delighted to read that Asian American turnout was fantastic. Early polling analysis on November 2nd (the day before the election) from polling firm TargetSmart on early voting (absentee, mail in ballots) stated:

But broadly, the biggest surges in turnout are coming from Asian American voters, who have exceeded their total 2016 vote in every single southern and sunbelt presidential battleground state already.

…Consider this data regarding the current early vote electorate as compared to the final overall 2016 electorate in presidential battleground states: … Asian American voters are at 1.8%, while they accounted for 1.2% of 2016’s total vote

The CEO of TargetSmart on November 6th had tweeted:

“While we’re waiting for “the official call”, I wanted to share some really impressive stats around AAPI participation in this election, because the numbers are truly remarkable.

First, in presidential battlegrounds, 19% more AAPI voters cast a ballot in the early vote than voted in entirety in the 2016 election. The only other group to see their early vote exceed their 2016 total turnout was Latino voters, albeit by a narrower margin.

Nationally, 5% more AAPI voters cast a ballot than voted in the entirety of the 2016 election.

In every single battleground state, AAPI voters saw a bigger percent increase in votes cast, relative to ’16, than any other group.

In Georgia, AAPI early voters exceeded their total 2016 turnout by 57%. 30,473 voted for the first time in their life, and 61,829 didn’t vote in 2016.”

These are really some amazing early numbers! I also saw these interesting TargetSmart numbers posted via Instagram by AAPI Progressive Action:

From the early exit polls:

“The NBC News Exit Poll of early and Election Day voters indicated that 63 percent of Asian American voters across the country voted for Biden. A minority of the group voted for Trump, at 31 percent. Janelle Wong, senior researcher at the data and policy nonprofit AAPI Data, said the results track with the behavior she has observed during the election cycle. … Data from the 2016 election cycle indicate that in 2016, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton got 65 percent of Asian American votes, while Trump got 27 percent.”

Despite this data, I consider the gold standard for post-election analysis for a presidential campaign for Asian Americans is the National Asian American Survey.  That takes many months to publish, and I look forward to seeing the results, which I will share here.


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