SALO Series: Traveling Kamayan Around the Globe

December 23, 2016 8:16 am by Karla Ramos

Yana Gibuena’s moveable kamayan feast

Text by Lea Faminiano | Photography by Moyo Oyelola

Ernest Hemingway may have likened Paris to a moveable feast, but he would be hard-pressed to find just one city to represent the modern version being championed by Yana Gilbuena, a woman cooking Filipino cuisine all over the world. A self-taught chef, Gilbuena takes an unconventional approach to the traditional kamayan dinner. Think past towering tables of adobo and lumpia on banana leaves; Gilbuena’s brainchild, the SALO Series, is inspired by “salu-salo” and her dinners represent a way to bridge connections between cultures. At any given SALO dinner you’ll find people coming together and trying Filipino food for the first time.

Gilbuena was born and raised in the Philippines; she grew up in Negros Occidental then spent four years in Manila, which she describes as the “best years of her life”. She came to the U.S. in her early twenties and spent some time in Los Angeles and Brooklyn toying with the idea of becoming a therapist, but a car crash proved to be a life-changing moment.

“I thought to myself – if you had died, what would you have had to show for in your life? I wanted to be something that would really impact people’s lives.” Her immediate thought was finding a connection to food: cooking had always brought her great joy, especially as a child growing up in the Philippines. Despite lacking formal training, she knew she had something unique to offer and decided to dive in head-first. Starting March 2013, Gilbuena began holding quarterly pop-up dinners in Brooklyn as a way to introduce Filipino food to her friends, neighbors, and eventually strangers. Soon enough, the demand for her dinners expanded beyond New Yorkers, and her friends suggested doing a US tour.

“My friends were saying, there are 50 states, 52 weeks in a year, go and figure something out!” So in March 2014,  Gilbuena officially took her newly coined “SALO Series” on the road and hasn’t looked back. The journey has proven to be both rewarding and challenging: sleeping on friend’s couches, splitting all her money between basic living expenses and the next dinner, and cooking everyday is a lifestyle Gilbuena had never before experienced. “I love being able to travel and be free,” she says. “I never thought I would be doing this as my full-time career, I just wanted to explore and see how this goes.”

Before embarking to any given destination, Gilbuena will do research involved with what’s in season in the area. Specialties for the evening may include a crispy tadyang ng baka with beef from a local butcher in Chicago, ensaladang rabanos at dilis with fresh radishes from a Brooklyn greenmarket, or Maryland blue crab for her famous crab fat fried rice. While local ingredients are an important component of each meal, so is representing authentic Filipino flavors. Traditionally, some Filipino dishes have a reputation for being unappetizing to tamer American palates (e.g. dinuguan, sinigang na bangus, balut), but Gilbuena sees these dishes as an opportunity to dive further into the food culture of the islands. Knowledge of Philippine food, let alone Philippine culture, is limited in many places in the US and through her kamayan feasts, Gilbuena is determined to expand both palates and minds.

Food is often noted as the way to one’s heart, but Gilbuena also hopes to use it as a vehicle to change the way Filipinos are viewed and how Filipino-Americans view themselves. “I think a lot of Phil-Ams grew up with the mindset that we should not be proud of our culture. Being part of a certain community, wanting to fit in, I get it – but we need to embrace ourselves.” Gilbuena’s support for her heritage stems beyond education at the dinner table; when Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, she also began donating proceeds from her dinners to the victims. She believes wholeheartedly the SALO experience can help break Filipino stereotypes and urge Filipino-Americans to embrace their roots.

While the 50-state SALO Series tour is now over, Gilbuena isn’t even close to being finished. At the time of this writing, the SALO Series has traveled across both North and South America. Gilbuena’s dream is to travel through all seven continents, holding pop-ups in as many cities as she can. Her ambitious mission has already garnered a steady following of fans. “People will offer their cafes and restaurants to host a dinner… there will even be people offering their backyards, houses, rooftops, churches…I really appreciate all of that. It helps me continue to believe there is so much good in this world.” Generosity and hospitality are two qualities Filipinos have always been known for, and through SALO Series, Gilbuena has been able to both experience and demonstrate these two values. For Gilbuena, success will not come in an award or formal recognition; she won’t stop until she’s trekked across every city of the world – and even then, we’d still have to see what’s next.

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