How a Cuisine Migrated From the Philippines to Winnipeg
I’ve finally found the dish that’s made me fall in love with Filipino food.
The cast iron plate of sisig, chopped pork simmered in chile, vinegar and onions, is still sizzling when it hits the table. A wedge of calamansi — like a Philippine lime that’s a citrus-kumquat hybrid — rests on top. Squeezing a few drops of juice, and taking a bite that is equal parts soft flesh, creamy fat, and skin as chewy as butterscotch, my eyes flutter. It is that good.
The journey to find sisig started a few years ago, with a burger.
It was December 2016. I was visiting my in-laws and curious about why the popular Filipino fast-food chain Jollibee was opening its first Canadian outpost in the neighborhood of Garden City, a 15-minute drive north of downtown Winnipeg. I’d never seen a restaurant launch like it.
When we stopped by that evening, every seat was filled. In between tables, patrons stood, eating Aloha Yumburgers topped with pineapple and honey mustard. The queue of customers in front of the cashiers snaked back and forth like in a bank at noon, out the front door, and into a warming station in the parking lot, a converted shipping container equipped with space heaters. A gracious manager, hustling to meet demand, handed out time-stamped tickets so diners could return in two hours when there would be space for them.
In fairness, people will line up for anything. I’ve seen tourists in Milan waiting to get into a KFC. But why stand in the cold for burgers, chicken, and spaghetti? Winnipeg is 7.9 percent Filipino — the third-largest Filipino diaspora in Canada, but the first in terms of percentage of the population, making it the obvious choice for Jollibee to establish its brand in Canada.
Starting in the late 1960s, facing a national shortage of healthcare workers and a Manitoba shortage in the garment industry (so much that local clothing manufacturers claimed it was costing them the ability to fill up to half their orders here and in the States), Canada began to recruit workers from the Philippines.
With the Filipino economy hobbled by trade deficits, and policy changes to the American Exchange Visitor Program making immigration to the United States more difficult, Manitoba became attractive to this early group that built the foundations of a huge diaspora.
If you want to experience the food of Winnipeg, that needs to include Filipino cuisine, now central to the changing foodscape of the city.
In October, following the birth of our child, my wife and I fled our Toronto home to throw ourselves on the mercy and generous assistance of her parents. Since then, I’ve been living in a suburb of Winnipeg. Determined to stay here until our little Puddin’ is ready to be sleep-trained, I’ve had time to get to know the city and its food.
Before I started coming here regularly, a friend gave me a list of restaurant tips, mostly made up of iconic diners like Alycia’s and Kelekis, places that served perogies and cabbage rolls, the food of the city’s dominant immigrant groups from Poland and Ukraine. By my first visit, those restaurants had closed. If you want to experience the food of Winnipeg, I learned, that needs to include Filipino cuisine, now central to the changing foodscape of the city.
That mission starts with silog at Myrna’s Café & Catering.
“Rice is eaten at every meal, and silog for breakfast is usually leftover from the night before,” says Jeremy Senaris, a building plan examiner who also runs catering business Lasahan and hosts Filipino-focused pop-up dinners.
“A silog is an egg rice,” he says. “That’s the basic. Sunny-side up with the yolk mixed into the rice. And then you have add-ons like longanisa [sweet sausage], tocino [cured pork], bangus [milkfish]. So a longanisa [with rice and eggs] is a longsilog. Fried chicken is chicksilog. With hot dogs it’s hotsilog. There are so many variations. But it always ends with the silog because it always has the rice and eggs.”
The piles of garlic rice are comforting. But the meat and fish toppings at Myrna’s are a little desiccated for first thing in the morning.
Senaris, the runner-up in the third season of “MasterChef Canada,” shares his knowledge of the city and its food, steering me next to Juvian’s, for arroz caldo.
Juvian’s is one of those restaurants that makes no attempt to camouflage its previous incarnation. In this case, it’s the shell of doughnut franchise Robin’s: the display cases now used to store peanuts, the slushy machine empty, counters adorned with jars of atchara (pickled papaya) and photos of bubble tea.
Arroz caldo is an aromatic variation of congee, the rice porridge flavored strongly with chicken broth and ginger, and garnished with crunchy bits of chicharron and fried garlic, scallions, chicken scraps, and a hard-boiled egg.
The kare kare, oxtail stewed in a peanut butter sauce and served with eggplant, is delicious, but a reminder of the frequent criticism of Filipino cooking that it’s too sugary.
A few years ago, I attended a forum on the subject, where every panelist brought up the unfair reputation of Filipino cuisine as too sweet. And while the adverb “too” is subjective and a matter of taste, it would be accurate to describe every Filipino meal I’d had until then as having sugar in it.
Shortly after, and by chance, I spent a day cooking with a Filipino man. We were in the basement of a community center, preparing a meal for 85 guests. As I watched him liberally distribute sugar into every pot on the stove, my eyebrows raised in an “I told you so” gesture for the benefit of no one but myself. And then I tasted his chicken adobo. The signature Filipino dish can contain a lot more ingredients, but in the kitchen of that shelter, with a paucity of materials, it was simply chicken thighs braised in soya sauce, garlic, sugar, and vinegar. And I was struck by the level of acidity, and how well-balanced the final flavor was. The sweetness was a note, keeping perfect rhythm with the sour.
If Filipino food has a reputation for sweetness, it’s not without reason. But every genre is unfairly defined by its worst tropes — romantic comedies for their third-act misunderstandings, political biographies for their hagiographical tendencies. Just as French food is more than a baguette poking out of a brown paper shopping bag, Filipino food is way more than sugary longganisa (sausage colored red with annatto). And if it is sometimes very sweet or fatty, it’s meant to be balanced by the acidic condiments always available on the table.
“The Filipino palate likes something tangier to cut the richness of certain foods,” explains Mila Nabor-Cuachon, owner of Casa Manila restaurant in Toronto.
While various sawsawan (dipping sauces) show up on restaurant tables, formulations of vinegar, garlic, shallots, shrimp paste, ginger, coconut, or chile, the most common are seasoned vinegar (usually with garlic, onion, and chile) and bagoong, a paste of fermented krill.
“That is our salty, a condiment to enhance a dish like kare kare,” says Nabor-Cuachon.
Filipino restaurants here seem more ubiquitous than the Tim Hortons franchises that dot the Canadian landscape. Wherever you are in Winnipeg, you can pick up fresh ensaymada (a brioche-style bun topped with butter and sugar), a plate of pancit (fried noodles), a bowl of sinigang (sour tamarind fish soup, often with eggplant), or dinuguan (a stew thickened with pork blood). Supermarkets like Lucky, Tindahan, and Save-On-Foods feature extensive Filipino ingredients, snacks, and prepared foods.
Taking my time to eat my way through these has been an education, my appreciation building with each meal. But the real game-changer is the sisig.
Senaris vouched for the version at Mar’s Sisig as the best in the city. His word, plus the confidence of putting the dish in the restaurant’s name, led me to this barbershop-sized restaurant.
“For Filipino parties, they’ll have a roast pig, a lechon. People will eat everything else and leave the head,” Senaris describes the preparation, a way of chopping up the leftover head meat, marinating it in vinegar with onion and chiles, and serving it on a sizzling hot plate.
“It’s basically stir-fried pork, made with cheeks and ears. So it’s fatty and crispy and has lots of chicharron in it. You have it while you’re drinking beers.”
When the sputtering plate arrives, the calamansi winking at me, it’s like that third bed telling Goldilocks that this one’s just right. The sisig, a dish that might be too fatty for some but is exactly calibrated to my tastes, unlocks Filipino cuisine for me. Since then, I’ve begun to crave arroz caldo for breakfast.
And if it was ever too sweet for my taste, that was my ignorance of what the vinegar is for.
“The way people use lemon, we used seasoned vinegar,” says Nabor-Cuachon. “There’s always condiments there so you can have it your way.”