On New Year’s Eve, I always cook palabok… it’s a, it’s a rice noodle dish with shrimp stock and pork… but the most important part is the stuffs you put on the top. You know how I always have you arrange everything in a circle, right? Have you ever noticed that even the toppings are circles? So I put the noodles in a circular serving platter, and we have the slices of hard boiled egg, the chopped green onions, the boiled shrimp, squid rings, the calamansi halves. All of that is supposed to be circular to invite wealth and abundance in the coming year. Di ako sure kung talagang Pilipino yung tradition na ‘yun… (I’m not sure if that tradition really is Filipino) because the idea of circles is usually part of the Chinese culture. Maybe it’s an influence, I don’t know, I didn’t really ever think much about when I started doing it or why.
Background: The informant is a 48-year old Filipina immigrant to the United States who is married to a Filipino-Chinese man. She learned how to cook traditional Filipino foods from scratch from her mother and oldest brother in the Philippines, where cooking meals from household items was essential to maximizing the volume of food when money was scarce.
Context: This conversation happened at the dinner table, where the informant and I were eating store-bought palabok that was not arranged in circles.
I am not really very well-connected to the Chinese aspects of my identity, since I was raised only in the Philippines and the United States, where even my Chinese relatives had largely assimilated to the cultures of their respective environments. Arranging food in a way that invites wealth from a different culture’s beliefs is a practice of my mother’s that I found more interesting after I began to reflect upon what she told me. The circular food and arrangement is a call back to her previous life in the Philippines, where financial stability was a primary concern at every turn. The sprinkling of a different culture’s traditions (likely my father’s influence) reminded me of myself, the way that they are mixed together. Food is an incredibly important aspect of family life in the Philippines, and families in a household scarcely eat their meals separately.