Globe-trotting Filipina chef Yana Gilbuena shows how to dig into the food of the Philippines — fingers first — wherever you live.
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Luisa Brimble
| Credit: Luisa Brimble

About Yana

Yana Gilbuena is a Filipina immigrant cook, author, and traveler who has brought regional Filipino cuisine to all 50 American states and 11 other countries over the past six years through Salo Series, a succession of pop-up kamayan (eat-with-your-hands) dinners.

Her work celebrates culinary traditions in the Philippines, adapting favorite Filipino dishes with seasonal ingredients from wherever she happens to be. Yana now calls San Francisco home, but you're more likely to find her traveling the world, working to spread her love of kamayan dining and Filipino food to all seven continents. Follow her (mis)adventures on Instagram at @saloseries.

Filipino Food Means Home to Me

I have left many homes — my first home in the Philippines, my adopted homes of New York and San Francisco, and the dozens of homes I've stayed in during more than six years of nomadic food tours. Throughout my wanderings, this thought kept me grounded: As long as I have my food, home is where I am, wherever I choose to be.

yana at the market
Credit: Luisa Brimble

As a cook, I like to say that I am ancestrally taught. My lola, my titas, and our cook got me into the kitchen at a very young age. Cooking was not just a necessity for survival but also an integral part of Filipino life — from daily meals to big family gatherings to village fiestas. It was skill, craft, and innovation combined, and it flowed from them and our ancestors to me.

So what is Filipino food? Put simply: It's what you'd get if Asian, Spanish, and American food had a baby. It also reflects our history as indigenous islanders who drew ingredients and influences from our Chinese, Malay, Japanese, Arab, and Indian neighbors and settlers; the flavors we adopted from Mexico and parts of South America, due in part to the spice and silk trade; plus ingredients and dishes we "Filipinized" from colonizers like Spain, Portugal, Britain, and America.

coconut bowls
Credit: Luisa Brimble

The flavors produced by this multicultural food baby are sweet, salty, tangy, bitter, sour, funky, spicy, and every combination of those tastes that you can imagine! Because of our Asian influences and island location, fresh seafood and fermented fish sauce are staples. Vinegar has been in our cuisine since precolonial times. (We had adobo before the Spaniards named it that.) Sweet and tangy flavors come from the abundance of tropical fruits like tamarind, guava, pineapple, jackfruit, and the unique Philippine lime, calamansi. And we like a little heat, too.

filipino food
Credit: Carson Downing

What's more, Filipino food is best eaten with your hands. It might seem uncivilized to some, but there's an ancient wisdom and etiquette to kamayan (hands-on) dining. When you try it, you'll see it's intuitive, sensual, and only natural. Our fingertips are sensitive—loaded with nerve endings. If you don't use them to eat, you miss out on a whole other dimension of your food.

Filipino food also tastes best when you eat it with others, whether as a family or a community. Filipinos never dine alone. Heck, we never even cook for less than four! A true Filipino feast is more than a shared table or shared food. It's a delicious shared experience. That's why I choose to do communal kamayan dinners, where we connect with the food — and with each other.

For more, check out the essential ingredients you'll find in the Filipino kitchen, along with a few key substitutions when you're in a pinch.

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This article originally appeared in the February/March 2020 issue of Allrecipes Magazine.