Filipinos Redefine Comfort Food As Online Businesses Take Off During Pandemic

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Collage: VICE / Images: Courtesy of the writer and subjects

Over six months of pandemic restrictions in the Philippines decimated its restaurant scene, but they also helped amateur chefs rediscover their inner foodie and whip up dishes for a captive audience online.

From traditional favourites with a new twist to classic baked goods, a hodgepodge of offerings are served up daily on Facebook and Instagram accounts, where enterprising sellers coming from different careers fill orders, dispatch deliveries or simply send comfort food to friends.

“I used to bake in college, it was a hobby of mine, but I didn’t have the time especially during the last years of college and when I started working a corporate job,” said Alex Ledesma, who lives in Manila and has a background in marketing. “So I really started baking again during quarantine because there really wasn’t a lot to do anyways.”

Her first recipe was inspired by remembering a sweet creamy delight she had tried on a family trip to Spain a year ago. The Basque-inspired burnt cheesecake she served up at her parents’ birthday party became an instant hit, with relatives, and soon friends, inundating her with orders. She decided to make it a full-time job and started La Crema Manila, which now sells six different varieties through Instagram. Ledesma has seen consistent growth with average sales of over 50 cheesecakes a weekend and just over 90 on holidays like Mother’s and Father’s Day.

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La Crema Manila’s Original Burnt Cheesecake. Photo: Courtesy of Alex Ledesma

“It is something I want to ride the momentum on because it’s really doing well right now,” she told VICE.

The Philippines has the largest COVID-19 outbreak in Southeast Asia, with a total of 329,637 as of writing. Pandemic restrictions and lockdowns have affected almost every sector of the country’s economy, with about 4.6 million Filipinos unemployed as of July 2020. The food and beverage industry, which accounts for close to 10 percent of the country’s GDP, suffered a 35 percent drop in employment in July, compared to the same time last year.

Before the coronavirus hit, people freely spent their money eating out at national chain restaurants in giant malls. But the lockdown has forced restaurants big and small to close, or reduce services to a customer base too scared to venture out. Many turned to each other online to satisfy daily food needs and cravings.

Sourdough bread, typically known to require an arduous and time-consuming baking process, could only be found in bakeries catering to high-end clients before the lockdown. Like home bakers all over the world, Filipinos began producing it during lockdown. But they took it a step further and started taking orders online.

Recent college graduate and Manila resident Angelica Reyes was ready to start her job hunt in the media production industry. But when the pandemic hit she found herself struggling to find a job in her field. Angelica had previously baked and sold cookies to help with her college expenses and, when a friend in her neighbourhood said she couldn’t find fresh bread, the budding entrepreneur decided to help her out. That one loaf led to a quickly growing sourdough bread business called Dough by Angelica. Since May, promoting mostly through Instagram, Angelica has sold over 550 loaves of sourdough bread.

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Angelica Reyes prepares her next batch of dough while waiting for the sourdough bread to rise. Photo: Courtesy of Angelica Reyes

“It’s not as if there’s anything I’ll be doing in the next few months,” Angelica said, “so I  might as well do something I really like and really build something out of it.”

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Angelica Reyes’ sourdough bread for Dough by Angelica sits to cool after coming straight out of the oven. Photo: Courtesy of Angelica Reyes

Siblings Janella Carsido, Patricia Garcia and Kaimo Garcia from Angeles City, Pampanga,  a province two hours north of Manila, found themselves out of work and stuck at home when they decided to start a new baking business, The Beikeri, to earn extra income. Their first offering was a take on a Filipino classic — ube pandesal. Pandesal, traditionally known as the Filipino bread roll, is a common, low-cost product usually found at local bakeries. Ube pandesal combines pandesal and ube, a purple yam.

Promoting through Facebook and Instagram, The Beikeri’s ube-cheese-de-sal — a rich, decadent and cheesy artisan pastry worthy of a seat at any high-end dessert table — quickly became a hit. While sales have slightly tapered off since the original rush, the siblings have added other baked goods such as coffee buns, cashew tarts, and cinnamon rolls, and have seen sales remain steady.

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The Beikeri’s ube-cheese-de-sal. Photo: Shanti Lerner

The new food trend is not limited to stay-at-home chefs. Renowned chef and restaurant owner Sau del Rosario has also been forced to innovate. After closing two of his restaurants at the start of the lockdown, he gathered top chefs from Pampanga, considered the culinary capital of the Philippines, to consolidate their best heirloom recipes.

The food is prepared in Pampanga, where it’s packed and frozen, then sent to Manila to the group’s ‘cloud kitchen,’ a term used to describe a professional communal cooking facility and food preparation area set up for meal deliveries. At the cloud kitchen, the food is cooked and delivered to customers upon order. With dishes such as truffled kare-kare (stew with peanut sauce) and a modern take on his mom’s buko (young coconut) pie, it’s proved to be a big success.

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Culinarya Pampanga’s Truffled Kare-Kare. Photo: Courtesy of Sau del Rosario

“In our first month, we have already gained back our investment,” del Rosario said. “I have friends who are in malls and own fine dining restaurants who are struggling. Now it’s about survival of the fittest and it’s really challenging.”

One of the most popular businesses of choice is sushi bake, which can best be described as a dismantled sushi roll baked into a casserole dish with all the ingredients Filipinos love. On top of a bed of vinegared rice are pieces of salmon, tuna, crab and fish roe, and generous helpings of Japanese mayonnaise. To eat, it is scooped out and served on nori seaweed.

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Baked By Kiki’s signature kani sushi bake sizzles in the oven. Photo: Courtesy of Nikki Sunga and Mikey Reyes

Manila couple Nikki Sunga, a creative director for an advertising agency, and Mikey Reyes, who works in software sales, set up a home-based sushi bake business called Baked by Kiki. With consistent sales, the couple has used the profits to help pay off a home they recently bought together. But with so many people making and selling sushi bake, they know that the key is to innovate.

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Nikki Sunga prepares the ingredients to make her signature kani sushi bake. Photo: Courtesy of Nikki Sunga and Mikey Reyes

“It’s probably a trend that will not stay long term for the industry,” Mikey said. “There will be a few places that will survive, and we are aiming to be something like that. We are also evolving the business.”

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Baked By Kiki’s newest item the yakiniku bun is the newest addition to their business. Photo: Courtesy of Nikki Sunga and Mikey Reyes

Ran Estrada, a mother of three from Angeles City, Pampanga owned a successful local catering business and busy canteen that served students and workers at a local university for over 10 years. But when the lockdown struck, she was forced to close it. However, she wasn’t ready to give up her food business and immediately moved online to create Quaran’Eats where she found a ready audience for different varieties of sushi bake.

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Raine Estrada and her mother Ran Estrada packing their freshly made sushi bake to be sent out for delivery. Photo: Shanti Lerner

“I’m really happy with what we have created here,” Estrada said. “It’s really a family business. When I had my canteen, I was only running it with my husband. But now even though my children have careers, everyone moves and helps out when they can.”

While the restaurant and dining-out scene will one day return once the pandemic ends, many home chefs think the experience will have a lasting cultural legacy.

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Raine Estrada sets her freshly made sushi bake on the table to cool. Photo: Shanti Lerner

“People’s eyes have been opened to shopping locally,” Angelica said.  “It’s different when it’s fresh and knowing that you know who made it and so much time was put into it. Not to say factory items don’t take time to make, but there is an added feeling of authenticity when you buy something that is from a small business or local. This is going to be part of what Filipinos are going to get used to. And this is that new normal.”

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