Discover more from Tales From Topographic Kitchens
A review of Mayumu: Filipino-American Desserts Remixed by Abi Balingit
The first in a series of stand-alone new cookbook reviews
Tales From Topographic Kitchens is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
The last time I required blood drawn at a regional hospital, they summoned an advanced clinical practitioner (ACP) to do the job instead of a phleb. My veins make like over-cooked spaghetti; they slither away before collapsing if you try to pierce them with a sharp object. “We’ve bleeped ******”, the nurse reassured me; “they have never failed.” I felt a bit sorry for the ACP. That’s too much for any one person to live up to.
This was during the second lockdown. The ACP had spent far too long away from their family in the Philippines. “That is two Noche Buenas I have spent here,” they told me when I asked how they were coping, considering Christmas wasn’t all that long ago. They were diplomatic when I asked about their first impressions of the hospital canteen: “I wish there were rice with fried eggs for breakfast. I work too early to make it at home.” Would you prefer me to be quiet? I asked as they sized up my arms. “No.” Sometimes, talking during fiddly procedures can help both parties. They told me how community ties are strengthened by sharing expat food knowledge, about buying in bulk from wholesalers and the lengthy, communal shopping lists that accompany Filipinos on trips to stores that cater to diasporic communities; the chat boards and Whatsapp groups that are rich sources of information on ingredient substitution, the difference between British and Filipino cuts of meat, which British cheeses sub for Queso de Bola or Kesong puti; and about the gifts of essential foods from people flying in and out of the Philippines, before and after lockdown. Sourcing fresh ube, Kapuso kaong, buko and pinipig at an affordable price is a particular challenge. Because of this, they have begun to meld Filipino and English food traditions. I think of it as culinary genealogy in real-time.
They found a viable vein. We laughed with relief.
The good thing about waiting in a hospital is the time it frees up to really notice stuff. I’d recorded a voice note about my food chat with the ACP in one of the loos, which I saved ‘for later’ (i.e. forgotten about) until later last year when Abi Balingit tweeted about her first cookbook. Mayumu: Filipino-American Desserts Remixed, which came out in the USA this month (March) and will be published in the UK in April.
‘Mayumu is my story of what it means to be a Filipino-American baker in New York,’ writes Balingit, who grew up in California and created a blog, The Dusky Kitchen, back in 2020 during the COVID pandemic. Focusing on home baking in her small, low-lit (‘dusky’) city kitchen, her blog and recipes on Instagram caught an agent's eye, and here we are.
Balingit’s work sits comfortably alongside other diasporic American cookbooks: Eric Kim’s Korean-American, Coconuts and Collards by Von Diaz, Illyana Maisonet’s Diasporican, Elizabeth Ann Besa Quirino’s books about American-Filipino cooking, The Arabeque Table by Reem Kassis, and Turnip Greens & Tortillas by Eddie Hernandez come to mind. But please don’t call this fusion food which in the past displayed a tendency to impart a kind of bolted-on rigidity to every cuisine it utilised, especially when white chefs are involved. There’s nothing rigid about Balignit’s cooking style, and this takes courage. "There’s a saying in Tagalog that many of us first-generation Filipino-American kids have co-opted from our mothers: Bahala ka sa buhay mo! Roughly translated, it means “Do whatever with your life!”’ she writes. Balingit’s recipes are fueled by memory and appetite and tell a story of culinary evolution and pleasure and, in the process, steamrollers into submission the idea that any one culture is monolithic with a single, ‘pure’ story in common. Mayumu is a cross-generational, cross-border story on her own terms. It is, indeed, her life.
The headnotes to Balingit's recipe for Yema Buckeyes particularly resonated with me, an English woman who has never been to Ohio or the Philippines. My first encounter with the Buckeye tree from which the people of Ohio derive their nickname was in a novel by Billie Letts called ‘Where The Heart Is’, which I read long ago. Benny Goodluck, a boy of Native American heritage, gives Novalee, the heroine of the book, a buckeye tree for luck. Used by Native Americans for medicinal purposes, buckeye nuts are said to resemble the eye of a male deer. Bilingit takes the famous recipe for Ohio buckeyes — balls of peanut butter partially dipped in chocolate— and replaces the peanut butter with hand-rolled balls of egg custard which in the Philippines would be dipped in caramel to be served on Christmas Eve. These are known as Yema.
Sapin Sapin, a layered rice cake, is a vehicle for a whole host of variations, she writes, remembering the Good Humor Strawberry Shortcake Bars she bought from the ice cream truck in summer. These become the inspiration for her Strawberry Shortcake Sapin Sapin with its layers of vanilla, molasses and strawberry. Balingit tells us how to make and use Latik, the fired coconut curds used as a crispy base in her shortcake, but she also suggests using shortbread. A Peach Mango Cheesecake Turon is inspired by the fried peach mango pies sold by Jollibee, a Filipino chain of fast food restaurants with outlets in the States, UK, and Italy. Balingit offers us a recipe for the Peach Mango Compote too, and provides guidance on the variety of bananas to look for. (Clue: It is not the Cavendish.) Her Spicy Bagoong Caramels explores the idea of using bagoong, the spicy Filipino fermented and fried shrimp paste, in sweet foods and the web has gone mad for Balingit’s Adobo Chocolate Chip cookies which cleverly balances sweet, salty and savoury flavours. Her recipe for Biko uses speculoos (Biscoff) cookie butter from a jar, and she creates a giant Cashew Tart inspired by Pasalubong, the cellophane-wrapped caramel and cashew candies from the Philippines. I love the sound of her Caramelised Jackfruit and Banana Jam, which she uses to sandwich Linzer Cookies; Brownies are imbued with a deeply savoury flavour via MSG, chocolate, coffee and five-spice turrones (the recipe for this is provided), and her recipe for Floating Islands is made using salted duck eggs. She takes the concept of a Pineapple Upside Down Cake, reminisces about I Love Lucy, adds guava to the mix, then turns the whole thing into cupcakes; and creates intricate Corn Maja Blanca Bars which celebrate the commonalities between Filipino-Spanish culture, the food of Indigenous Hawaiians and the Latina communities of California.
Some practicalities: At the start of the book, Balingit offers sensible cooking advice, providing reassurance to those of us who lack kitchen space or have to share it with others. There’s an illustrated guide to Filipino-American pantry essentials and the recommended brands to look out for. At the back of the book is a glossary of Filipino culinary terms. I’m British and have spent a bit of time sourcing the ingredients mentioned by Balingit and have managed to source most of them online or in local international food stores. I bought Skycracker Crackers (which are also an excellent sub for saltines, by the way), cans of ube, Bagoong Alamang, Latik, Nata De Coco, Gosomi Crackers, Tajín, and jars of Halo-Halo fruit mix and beans. Oriental Minimart sometimes has ube ice cream if you’re near Dover, and Filipino ice cream parlours in London sell it in tubs. It is worth Googling to see if stores local to you have these items. Mayumu uses the American volume method of measurement.
Click here for Abi’s website.
Click here for Abi’s Twitter account.
Click here for Abi’s Instagram account.
Pre-order Mayumu in the UK via Blackwells
and replacing the peanut butter with balls of egg custard in the manner of Yema, a caramel-coated candy that is commonly made in the Philippines on Christmas Eve.
A recipe for Strawberry Shortcake Sapin Sapin[