It was 4 a.m. by the time chef Kimberly Camara finished altering her New York City apartment into a makeshift bakery for Kora, her Filipino doughnut shop. She’d spent the last two days prepping dough, fillings, and glazes, and with this sleepy Friday last fall she pulled out folding tables stored beneath the sofa and plugged in two small fryers. While she waited for the rest of her team to arrive–her mother, brother, and cousin–she and her partner, Kevin Borja, rolled and shaped the doughnuts on the folding tables. Altogether, they fried, glazed, and boxed about 500 doughnuts for clients to pick up. And while that might seem to be a great deal of doughnuts, this hardly makes a dent in Kora’s almost 10,000-person waitlist.
“It’s daunting,” Camara says. After she and Borja were laid off from their jobs–a research development cook and a server at Union Square Hospitality Group, respectively–back in March, Camara cobbled together leftover ube pastry cream and brioche dough and sold them as doughnuts via Instagram. “There was no monetary motivation behind it,” she states. “It was literally just like, I want to do something.” She thought they would be doing this for about a month, but now a year later, they’re attempting to keep up with the staggering number of orders they’ve gotten. Recently they opened their own commissary room to stay informed about their orders.
While business for delivery apps has more than doubled during the pandemic, Instagram has become a source for takeout. The Kora team was shocked by how quickly their following grew. But they were not surprised that people were interested in Filipino flavors. “I think society has become more open to trying things because of the internet, honestly,” Camara says. “Obviously, ube is one of the main things that people are so excited about, just because it’s purple and tastes great. I see a lot of Filipino cuisine being hailed and sought out.”
Kora is one of several new Filipino online pop-up bakeries slammed with overwhelming demand. The Dusky Kitchen and JEJOCA, both located in New York City, have sold out of Filipino candies sampler boxes inside a day or two of opening up online orders. The group behind Salamat Cookies in Indianapolis obtained double the orders they expected in their first week in company last May. Now, 24,200 biscuits later, Salamat has enrolled as an LLC, established an official site, and is looking into renting a commercial kitchen. In Milpitas, California, chef Francis Sibal started Kuya Pields in response to the popularity of the baked products he created and contributed to frontline workers at the hospital where his sister works. “People were too embarrassed to say,’Hey, could I just buy it?’ Knowing this whole thing was for the front liners,” he says. “I didn’t plan to start a business. It all just happened.”
And it’s happening today –with a lot of chefs out of work and ready to dedicate their skills and time to personal endeavors; home bakers ready to take their hobby to the next level; and so many people stuck in the home, on our telephones, and in search of something soothing, scintillating, and candy. All this has caused the existing Filipino baking development we are seeing at this time on social networking.
Baking has long been part of this Philippine culinary canon, reflecting a history of ethnic melding. In precolonial times, with the effect of Malay ancestors, sailors produced cakes out of sticky rice and coconut milk. At a 16th century account, Italian historian Antonio Pigafetta explained kakanin–the overall name for Filipino rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves and given to the Spanish gifts–as”resembling sugar loaves, while others were made in the manner of tarts with eggs and honey.” Philippine food historian Doreen Fernandez mentioned in her book Palayok that there were numerous variants of kakanin, especially subtly sweet baked bibingka and fluffy steamed puto, that written documents from Spanish missionaries could not catch how wealthy the baking heritage had been.
The Spanish government established the initial bread bakery in the Philippines around 1631, also pandesal was born. It was originally made out of wheat flour, rough and crusty like a French baguette. But because the Philippines wasn’t big on wheat production, bakers eventually turned into weaker flours made from low-protein wheat, like all-purpose or cake flour, which led to the pillowy, bread-crumb-dusted rolls Filipinos know now. “It is the bread of our history, at the core of our culture, at the heart of our tastes,” Fernandez writes of pandesal. “It is brown and plain like the Filipino, good by itself or alone, crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. It is good, basic and strong–just the way we are, and would like the nation to be.”
As Filipino immigrants moved into the U.S.they brought together these baking traditions. Step into any Little Manila, and you will easily find a bakery mainstay with soft pandesal; ensaymada, cheese-topped brioche rolls; chiffon cupcakes known as mamon; dacquoise-like cakes with layers of buttercream, meringue, and cashews aptly dubbed sans rival; brazo de mercedes, a fleecy meringue roll full of custard; and all kinds of vibrant kakanin. A few of those bakeries have become household names. Philippine Bread House at Newark, New Jersey, has existed since the 1970s and is cherished for its ube-flavored Swiss rolls and mango sponge cakes. Since its founding 1979, Valerio’s City Bakery has become a mini-chain using four locations in California, all doling out hot pandesal and white loaves swirled with ube, cheese, or mongo (red mung bean).
Jessica Causing was motivated by her great-aunt’s 40-year old bakery Gemmae Bake Shop at Long Beach, California, when she began her very own online bakery JEJOCA, which is currently on hiatus. Gemmae’s is renowned for its ensaymada, pandesal, and bibingka, but over the decades it has also added things that combine Filipino tastes with American baking traditions, such as mango cream cheesecake and ube pistachio sour. “I grew up eating a lot of Gemmae’s stuff,” Causing says. “That collaboration between the flavors and the baked goods definitely inspired me.”
Even as food with Filipino ingredients became widely accessible (Trader Joe’s ube waffles! ) ) , baked products stayed largely within the Filipino community. However, with the rise of Instagram bakeries and other online platforms during the pandemic, many individuals are actively seeking out these treats.
When food author Kiera Wright-Ruiz saw photos of the Dusky Kitchen’s pandan polvorón, Filipino shortbread, she knew that she just had to try them. On her, they seemed like the”ultimate gift” in the end of a long day throughout the pandemic. “Something that draws me to Filipino flavors, in particular, is the merger of cultures,” she explains,”I’m half-Latinx and half-Asian. So in general, it’s just really interesting for me to see ingredients or dishes that I know from the Latinx angle and see how that has been translated to Filipino culture.”
“They were unlike anything I had ever seen,” says EmJ Hova, a private trainer who found Kora on social networking. “The doughnuts looked like a work of art. The vibrancy of the colors, the flavors, and just the story that Kim was bringing with her Filipino history and her grandmother, everything spoke [to me].”
After pining over the doughnuts for weeks, her and her spouse got their first Kora box last autumn. “I was marveling at the fact that you can make a doughnut that doesn’t involve chocolate or sprinkles or just plain custard. Everything was so unique and special.”
Filipino flavors and ingredients stand out in the landscape of beige baked products on our Instagram packs, which is part of the reason Camara believes they do this well on the platform. “I’m not surprised,” she states. “You can’t help but notice that vibrant purple hue when scrolling through your feed.”
Part of this is thanks to the ripple effect of this Filipino diaspora. During the earlier weeks of COVID-19 lockdown, my TikTok feed has been filled with videos of house bakers located in the Philippines making ube-cheese pandesal and posting themselves tearing aside the bun to show a cheesy center. Sibal says that watching this pushed him to begin baking in the first location for frontline employees. Ahead of the pandemic, Sibal was utilized to cooking a variety of international cuisines as a company chef in Google HQ, but Kuya Pields enabled him to concentrate on the food he grew up with.
Meanwhile, home bakers used this time to experiment and do something new. The Dusky Kitchen has been always something ad operations manager Abi Balingit hoped to do but only now found the bandwidth to make strawberry and pandan polvorón; linzer cookies inspired by turon, banana spring rolls; and pumpkin pie hopia, a moon cake–like pastry affected by Fujianese immigrants into the Philippines.
After viewing the rise of those bakeries around Instagram and TikTok within the previous many months, I’ve realized that I, and countless others around the world, have experienced front-row chairs for something particular unfolding before our eyes. We’ve seen the continuing ingenuity of Filipino bakers, and subsequently, the development of Filipino baked goods, using conventional Filipino ingredients and contemporary baking techniques. And today there is an audience beyond the Filipino community for these baked goods.
“Doughnuts are the vessel that we’ve chosen to introduce these flavors to people who don’t already know about them,” Borja says. Camara claims they expect to venture beyond doughnuts and desserts to offer you a complete Filipino dining experience inspired by her grandma’s recipes.
“I feel like I was destined to do something with this apartment because it’s in the middle of Little Manila, with all the Filipino community and the resources available to me,” Camara says. “Filipino cuisine is