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An ‘Ate’s’ Home-style Filipino Cooking

Despite its blend of flavorful influences from many lands, in terms of popularity, Filipino cuisine is the poor cousin among the Southeast Asian cuisines in Japan. As Philippine-studies expert Takefumi Terada of Sophia University mused, maybe, the star dish of Filipino cuisine adobo is just “too brown!” It lacks the spicy, colorful charisma of Thai or Vietnamese signature dishes. Regardless of the reason, as Southeast Asian restaurants have proliferated in Tokyo, we rarely see restaurants that serve the tasty cuisine of the Philippines, even though many Japanese people visit for tourism, business, or to study English. Nishiogi’s Filipino restaurant Ate is a notable exception.


Ate’s colorful signboard can be easily spotted along Nishiogi’s South Central Street on the Southside of the station. The owner, Mayumi Takeuchi, came to Japan 37 years ago, married her Japanese husband, and became a naturalized Japanese citizen – hence her Japanese name. She has been living in Nishi-Ogikubu since she was married.


Ate serves home-style cooking to a diverse clientele, including many Filipinos living in Tokyo. The name “Ate” means older sister in the official language of the Philippines, Tagalog. Like an older sister to her Filipino customers, Takeuchi believes her role is to cook for them on behalf of their families in the Philippines. “Oldest sisters are supposed to take care of little brothers and sisters like mothers,” Takeuchi explained. “The oldest sister has to cook instead of the mother when she is away. Washing is also usually a mother’s role, but the oldest sister does it when the mother is sick. Ates have many things to do. The oldest sister and brother have a lot of work if there are five siblings. Because the oldest one will do housework instead of the mother.”


According to Takeuchi, quite a few Filipino people live along the Chou-line. Young Filipino students and office workers often come to this restaurant. “There are many Filipinos who come to Japan to study funded by private companies. Those Filipinos frequently visit here. They come to eat the dishes their moms make in the Philippines. Many of them cannot cook by themselves.” Being so far from home, they tend to miss home-made dishes.


Takeuchi uses recipes handed down from her grandmother who ran a restaurant in Imus Cavite near Manila. “My adobo is cooked based on my grandmother’s original secret recipe. Other Filipinos don’t cook it like she did. It’s a secret.” Adobo is a Filipino dish in which marinated meat, such as pork and chicken, are simmered in a pot with the marinade. It is one of the most popular and well-known representatives of Filipino cuisines in this restaurant.

Adobo is a dish that grew out of the necessity of preserving food in a tropical climate, Takeuchi explained. “Filipinos in the past could not afford refrigerators,” she said. “Adobo could last from three days to a week. The vinegar, used as a marinade, also worked as a preservative.” Adobo’s ingredients at Ate is the same as typical restaurants, but the way of cooking is special. Takeuchi has demonstrated Filipino recipes on NHK’s cooking programs three times in the past; however; the secret of her adobo remains undisclosed because it is so special to her.


While adobo is perhaps the most famous dish, Sinigang is another popular dish. Sinigang, translated as “to stew” in Tagalog, is sour soup which uses a fruit called tamarind, and more traditional stew ingredients such as onions, radish, and okra. Tamarind is used for the stock, and it is a source of the soup’s sourness. Takeuchi has found she can green mango as a replacement if there is no tamarind. These days, instant sinigang soup is available, but it is still difficult to find in Japan. Both tamarind and mango are expensive in Japan, making it even more challenging for young Filipinos to make these dishes.


The sourness of adobo and sinigang is characteristic of Filipino dishes in general. Adobo gets its sourness from vinegar which, in the Philippines, is made of sugar cane and therefore is sourer than Japanese rice vinegar. When Takeuchi cooks, she uses Filipino vinegar and Japanese soy sauce. “I do not use soy sauce from the Philippines because it is jet black. It is so black that I think some [residue] is left in the bottom [of the bottle].” She said many Filipino dishes tend to be dark brown due to soy sauce.


Although Ate gives us the opportunity to try authentic Filipino flavors, Takeuchi has made changes in the presentation of the dishes in order to make it more appealing to her Japanese customers. “Filipinos do not really care about the presentation of food. Just the taste. People do not think much, just roughly cut and cook.... The food I cook is Filipino home-style, but the way I present food is Japanese style. It is because my customers are mostly Japanese.”


Dishes in the restaurant are cooked by Takeuchi. On weekdays, the restaurant opens from 6 pm and last order is at 10 pm. Lunch is served on weekends, and an all-you-can-eat buffet is held on the first and third Sunday which is a good chance to enjoy various Filipino dishes.


She opened her first restaurant eleven years ago in a building with many other tiny bars and pubs right in Nishi-Ogikubo. Her first restaurant was “Gohanya Ate,” which is translated as “Diner Ate” in Japanese. Gohanya Ate was a joint venture with her Japanese friend, this diversity in their backgrounds lent itself to a menu offering both Filipino and Japanese dishes. The restaurant was a cramped space on the basement floor alongside many bars. It did not have enough space to put the cooking equipment needed to make authentic Filipino dishes. “There were only five or six items on the menu at that time. That was all I could cook. Plus, people regarded this restaurant more like a bar, especially because all the neighboring establishments were drinking places. People just wanted to drink and have fun [laughing]. People just wanted to drink, so there were just a few Filipino dishes. I was a bit sad then.” Takeuchi kept hoping to serve authentic Filipino dishes, not in a bar, but in a proper restaurant.


While working in her original location, she often perceived how Filipino cuisine is misunderstood in Japan. Many Japanese visit the Philippines to study English and enjoy holidays on the island, however; its food culture remains unfamiliar, unlike that of Thailand and Vietnam. “Filipino dishes are not common in Japan. And people’s expectations are very low. I heard a lot of words that hurt my feelings. Like Filipino dishes are ‘awful and smell bad’.... I really wanted to relocate the restaurant so I could find a better place to cook real Filipino dishes. Japan has many places that serve different cuisine, like Vietnamese food. I wanted to change the impression of Filipino food.’ I hope Filipino dishes can also be regarded as one of the major ethnic cuisines someday.”


After running the restaurant in its basement location for four years, she moved to the current place along Nishiogi South Central Street and renamed it “Ate.” The second-floor space presents a more welcoming atmosphere and attracts a broader range of customers than before. Current customers are mostly Japanese, with Filipino customers averaging about twenty percent of the clientele. Most recently, American customers have increased as well. “Speaking Tagalog, Japanese, and English, it confuses my brain,” she said with a laugh.


While Takeuchi’s business seems steady now, she faced many hardships when she first came to Japan. “The image of Filipino girls among many Japanese is the bar girl. Filipino girls are often asked ‘Which bar do you work for?’. People do not ask such a question when I am with husband and children, but I was often asked when I was working alone. Well, I was asked that while I was still young.”


Since she was using English before she got married, she learned Japanese from daily interactions. “When I had my children, I was not able to speak Japanese, and not able to follow the materials for the school. I studied by myself.”


Takeuchi was the only foreign parent in her son’s elementary school. Because her Japanese husband often went abroad for business, she struggled with the language barrier during childrearing. “The hardest time was when my children entered school. I could not understand Japanese well enough to follow what the teachers were saying.... The children often brought back many papers from school. My husband always informed the teacher when he was away. If he stayed abroad for a week, he asked the teacher ‘Please explain simply enough for my wife to understand’.... I think it is natural for a mother to help her children. While I could not teach the children, I still had to be strong. That’s why I learned to read Japanese text, like kanji. While I cannot read the really difficult ones, I can mostly understand now. I learned with my eyes.” It seems that it was Takeuchi’s maternal love that encouraged her to master the Japanese language.


Takeuchi cooks dishes herself, however, her nephew, the son of her younger sister, works with her as a waiter at Ate. Takeuchi said, “He is Japanese. His nationality is Japanese, but he was brought back to the Philippines while he was a baby grew up there. He came back to Japan last year. He cannot speak Japanese very well but understand some words. He has never been to Japanese school. But he really wanted to come back, maybe because it is his home country.”


Because he is not fluent in Japanese, he had limited job opportunity; he was working at a factory at Ibaraki prefecture for ten months. Now, he is living with Takeuchi and learning Japanese. “After all, he called me and asked to come to my place. I could not leave my nephew, so I went to Ibaraki to pick him up.” Since he started working, things have become much easier. “It is totally different.” Takeuchi laughingly said. It is nice working with a family member she trusts.


In addition to her nephew, Takeuchi has also hired a young female student who is working part-time. Even in the case of a potential part-time worker unfamiliar with the basic task dishwashing, Takeuchi said, she could not turn down a girl who loves Filipino dishes. “Unlike typical staff meals, I cook properly, and we eat like a family. I think that is the most attractive aspect of working here.... She likes Filipino food, if she didn’t, she wouldn’t work here. She is so adorable. I don’t have a daughter, so I am happy to have a girl on staff. I feel like a mother to them.”


Takeuchi is comfortable in the role of the older sister; she is someone who welcomes everyone with home cooking and a warm smile, not only customers but even her part-time workers. Even now, she feels that many Japanese people still misunderstand the Philippines. For her, and for so many, Ate not only represents a taste of the Philippines but also is a space to disseminate positive aspects of Filipino cuisine and culture. (James Farrer and Mayuko Kawai, July 10, 2019).


(English text and interview by James Farrer and Mayuko Kawai; Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura; translation by Mayuko Kawai; copyright James Farrer 2019, all rights reserved)

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