For many Chinese-Filipinos, especially the second and third generation who were born in the Philippines, the Chinese connection can feel tenuous-but if there's one thing that can make that link feel a bit more real, it's most definitely through food.
China Mommy, or Linda Tan Co, got the foodie community abuzz when she first offered her Chinese-Filipino potluck dishes, like her delectable Crabs in Curry Sauce and Special Misua in 2016.
But she-and her son Oliver Co, who helps manage the food business-is the first to admit that her food isn't, in the strictest sense of the word, authentic Chinese. "When it comes to "authentic" Chinese cooking versus localized, we wouldn't know anymore to be honest," shares Oliver. "She never grew up there naman so we wouldn't know."
But in the Filipino food Linda cooks for her family at home, there are still touches of her Hokkien roots. "Adobo is a staple sa bahay namin pero yung normal na adobo ng Filipino is the pork with soy sauce, vinegar, and garlic," says Oliver. "But yung sa amin, nilalagyan namin ng dried lapu-lapu flakes, tokwa, and boiled egg. The presence of the lapu-lapu makes it different kasi may salty-sweet factor." Linda also shares that she loves cooking paksiw na pata, braising the pata in a white, vinegar-based sauce.
Filipino food with a Chinese touch and vice-versa-ask any young Chinoy and they'll tell you they're familiar with it. But in the Co household, Linda also cooked up dishes that Oliver and his siblings soon realized weren't as commonplace as they thought. "Every Sunday, mommy would cook crabs for us," shares Oliver. "It's not something na you would usually get, but for us, parang super normal siya. Akala namin lahat ng Chinese family may ganito. Eh my brother and I, super addicted kami to Facebook. Lagi kaming post ng post tapos may nagcomment na friends na uy, sama naman kami. Invite niyo naman kami [to your dinner]. So that's where we got the idea na ibenta kaya natin 'to?"
While the family was skeptical at first, China Mommy soon became a hit, especially as social media buzz for their Crabs in Curry Sauce and Special Misua grew. "Akala ko before all Chinese families had what we ate on a daily basis," says Oliver. "But after nito, ang daming nagsasabi nang 'Thank you, I haven't tasted this in a very long time. My grandparents used to make it but my parents, never nila inaral or di na sila gumagawa' so wala na silang way to connect to this childhood experience."
Handling a home-based food business was new to the family, but cooking for others wasn't for Linda. Since she first learned how to cook from her parents, she has always been cooking. There was the Ocean Sky Buddhist monastery in Banawe, where Linda served as a head cook for around 10 years ago. "Buddhist monks sila," shares Oliver. "So si mommy, she had to cook vegetarian food. Every Saturday and Sunday may magdo-donate ng gulay so siya, para siyang master chef na parang eto yung available ingredients so eto yung lulutuin natin."
Limited ingredients trained Linda to be creative, and it was at Ocean Sky that she first developed what would soon become one of China Mommy's popular dishes: the Fortune Bags. Named such because they resembled money bags, which were a symbol of good fortune, the first iteration of the dish had a vegetarian filling in tofu-skin bags tied with pandan leaves. Today, China Mommy's Fortune Bags, shares Linda, have pork, shrimp, as well as carrots, beans, cabbage, and squid. "Nilalagyan ko din ng Szechuan [spices] na maalat na matamis," she adds.
Linda also loved cooking up feasts every Sunday and an invitation to the dinner table extended beyond the immediate family. "Sinasabi ko sa mga anak ko na mag-invite kayo ng mga kaibigan," she shares. "Diyan din nag-umpisa [China Mommy]."
As China Mommy grew more popular, not just with the Fil-Chi community but everywhere else, Linda and Oliver soon realized that handling a food business can get quite hectic, especially around Chinese New Year. This meant giving up certain New-Year traditions. "Dati, I remember nagpapapunta si mommy sa bahay nung parang feng shui master nila sa Ocean Sky temple tapos nagde-dress up sila na parang emperors with robes. Tapos may altar kami," shares Oliver. "I remember distinctly sa lumang bahay namin pagbaba ko parang 'woah nasaan na ko' kasi ang daming naka-set up tapos ang taas-taas ng mga table. Puro alay, puro candy, chocolate and [mga niluto] tapos naka-dress up yung mga tao."
As the demand for China Mommy grew, they had to let go of the elaborate celebrations. But their annual Chinese New Year dinner, of course, remained-and the table had dishes that never changed. There was huat kueh, a type of steamed rice flour cake that symbolizes prosperity, and tikoy. There was the whole steamed fish, usually lapu-lapu or apahap (local sea bass), which Linda covered with a sauce of soy sauce, rice wine, and sesame oil. This, too, symbolizes prosperity.
Crabs have always been a staple at the Co household, even before China Mommy. While the curry crabs have always been Linda's signature dish, she also liked frying the crabs. "Mas malalasahan mo siya, na fresh siya," she shares. For her fried crab recipe, Linda drops crabs in hot oil to fry them, then she seasons with salt, pepper, and cornstarch.
Another staple, not just during Chinese New Year, but also on other special occasions is their Special Misua. The recipe, shares Oliver, hasn't really changed from his childhood. First Linda cooks the egg noodles, then the other ingredients: pork, chicken breast, mushroom, hibe, and more. Then, after tossing the two elements together, everything gets topped off with spring onions, scrambled eggs, and roasted peanuts.
Misua, shares Oliver, has always been important to their family: "It's still exactly how we had it noong bata kami. I always remember my dad saying na nung bata pa sila, wala silang money and all. But yung lolo ko, he always made sure na may noodles pag may birthday. So the way mommy cooks it, ganun pa rin."
Being Chinese-Filipino can feel like being adrift between two distinctive identities, never belonging to one or the other. But Chinoys have managed to forge their own identity: Something in-between but also simply theirs. And nothing else showcases this better than Chinese-Filipino food.
Linda whips up dishes that are not only uniquely Chinese-Filipino, but are also distinctively China Mommy. The crabs have always been her signature; the Fortune Bags a keepsake of her time volunteering at the Buddhist temple; the misua recipe a favorite family heirloom. Because there is more to China Mommy beyond being Chinese-Filipino: "Si mommy, if you get to know her or spend time with her, she's really funny," shares Oliver. "Like, she can't speak English really well so we know her as medyo barok. So we thought of the name 'China Mommy' as like a barok version of Cooking Mama. For us, China Mommy reflects her personality. She's Fil-Chi but she's a mom at the same time. And she has her sense of humor."
China Mommy is cooking up a storm again this Chinese New Year. For Filipinos, it could be a tasty introduction to Hokkien-Filipino cooking. For Chinese-Filipinos who've lost touch with their roots, it's a trip back to childhood. For Linda, she's just letting you in on the Sunday family dinner.
For more information, follow China Mommy on Instagram.