If you were born during the Baby Boom, or even earlier, you likely remember a time in the dim past when the only Asian dishes commonly available in America were chow mein and chop suey. Broader choices in Chinese food soon followed, however, including restaurants devoted to Szechuan and other, more challenging regional cuisine. Then came Japanese food: at first limited to sukiyaki and teriyaki, then tempura and noodle dishes, before our national obsession with sushi took hold in sophisticated urban centers in the 1980s.
Long a takeout staple in the UK, Indian food became more familiar here, borne upon waves of South Asian immigration to the US as the 20th century gave way to the 21st. And then suddenly every town seemed to have a Thai restaurant or two, even out in the hinterlands, plus some “Asian fusion” place that also serves a few Indonesian appetizers and perhaps some Mongolian hot pot. That’s about where things currently stand, except in a few scattered outposts where Vietnamese expats have settled – and of course on the West Coast, where cultural exchanges with Asia go back centuries already.
The cuisine from Asia that most of us don’t yet know at all is one of the world’s most diverse, emanating from an archipelago of islands that have been at the crossroads of traders, refugees, conquerors and colonizers since they were first settled circa 3200 BCE. We’re talking here about Filipino food. These islands are home to more than 100 different ethnolinguistic groups, so their cuisine was diverse even before the various invaders came along, bringing their favorite recipes and ingredients with them.
China began trading with the Philippines more than a millennium ago; Indian and Arab influences followed. Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century became intermediaries with other parts of their empire, notably introducing produce native to the New World. The end of the Spanish-American War in 1898 meant the arrival of products from the US, and for better or worse, such concepts as processed and convenience foods.
Even today, it’s difficult to make generalizations about Filipino cuisine, because it differs tremendously from one island to the next. Christina Mauricio, who with Eva Tringali has just opened the Harana Market on Wittenberg Road in Woodstock, takes a stab at it: “The classic Filipino thing is to eat everything with rice. Rice is life,” they say, noting that for the most part, Filipino food is an “approachable” cuisine. “The flavors are very familiar. We try to balance sweet with spicy, salty and sour.” Garlic, soy and vinegar are commonly used flavorings, as is the sofrito base that we know from Latin American cooking, along with tropical fruits and coconut.
And yet, if you drill down to the ingredients lists of national and regional specialties from the Philippines, you’ll find many items not commonly available in US supermarkets: dried salted fish, tamarind, bitter melon, yardlong beans, pigs’ blood (along with various other parts of the pig not popularly used in cooking here, such as ears and cheeks). How are you supposed to find this stuff, even if you’ve managed to get your hands on a Filipino cookbook?
Enter Tringali and Mauricio to the rescue. “The Catskills definitely never had an Asian market before. The closest was in Albany,” Mauricio says. “A lot of people go down to New Jersey.” And the nearest Filipino restaurant is in Rockland County.
That sad state of affairs has changed now, thanks to the couple’s recent decision to relocate to Tringali’s native Northeast from San Francisco, where they first met and got married in 2018. Mauricio, who grew up in San Diego, had attended culinary school in Portland and worked as a chef on cruise ships and in hotels; but their true education as a cook came at the feet of a Filipina immigrant forebear. “The food that I cook here is basically recipes that I learned from my Grandma,” Mauricio says, although it’s “instinctual cooking” based on familiarity with how the ingredients best go together, rather than relying on written-down recipes. “I always wanted to bring Filipino food in general to everybody else…to put our culture and food on a platform and share it with the world.”
Seeking a more affordable place to live than the Bay Area, the pair decided to look for a venue to open an Asian food emporium closer to Tringali’s family. A SUNY New Paltz grad who grew up in Brewster, Tringali’s professional arc has focused on events production, so the front of the store is her primary domain, while Mauricio makes the kitchen magic happen.
They found a place to live in Phoenicia last year, and then discovered the little shop at a literal crossroads: the corner of Wittenberg Road and Glenford-Wittenberg Road, on the western frontier of Woodstock. Built in 1929 and known locally as the Old Wittenberg Store, it was once the social hub of its tiny hamlet, serving as a combination of general store, gas station and post office, with a carriage barn next door. It has subsequently housed a catering business, a purveyor of Scottish pasties and, most recently, Mezzaluna Pizza. “It feels like we won the lottery,” says Mauricio of the couple’s discovery that the space was available for lease. “The building is so historical. It’s great to see it come to life.”
The gamble they took on finding a clientele for a niche product line in a relatively remote location has been paying off big-time since the Harana Market’s opening in late January. Demand has been high, and Mauricio’s prepared food in particular has been selling out quickly. “There were a lot of Asians up here even before the coronavirus,” notes Tringali. “There’s a huge Thai community. And we’re surrounded by dozens of monasteries. It’s definitely a changing demographic. But brown people have always been here; it’s a matter of visibility and erasure.”
Folks of Asian heritage longing for the home cooking of their childhoods only represent about half of the shop’s customers, however. Curiosity and the desire to try new tastes are driving the others, according to Tringali, as well as the quest for healthier meals. “Some people come in here and have no idea what anything is for. But it’s only a first time the first time.” Harana stocks recipe cards to hand out with certain products, and the owners are ready to offer advice. “We love helping people cook more interesting food!” Tringali says. “Helping people with putting meals together – that’s the best. They can pick two or three products to make a simple recipe.” In the future, they’re planning to sell meal kits with key ingredients along with cooking instructions.
The tiny front room houses a counter with display shelves, several small coolers and taller shelf units, all carefully organized to make it easy to select the desired Asian grocery product. One display features sauces and vinegars, another canned goods; flours, noodles (most of them gluten-free), soup mixes and snacks are grouped together. One refrigerator holds a small greengrocery that the proprietors promise will expand as locally grown specialty vegetables come into season. Behind the front counter are bins where you can buy different types of rice in bulk, alongside bags of ethically sourced coffee from Vietnam and a selection of handicrafts imported from the Philippines.
Mauricio’s freshly prepared foods are stocked in the largest refrigerator for pickup. From Wednesday to Friday, you can get what in Tagalog is called ulam: a viand or main dish for one, either meat (locally sourced) or vegan, with rice on the side. The specialty on Saturday and Sunday is “Filipino breakfast all day”: typically a silog plate featuring garlic fried rice, some type of marinated meat, a fried egg and “a spicy vinegar sauce that really does make the plate sing,” in Mauricio’s words. Other popular offerings are arroz caldo, chicken and rice congee, vegan sisig made with tofu and of course the spring rolls known as lumpia. Come the nicer weather, there will be outdoor seating for Filipino barbecue feasts and shaved ice desserts.
Ready to discover this amazing international hybrid cuisine? Check out the Harana Market at 603 Wittenberg Road, open from noon to 6 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. For more info, visit www.haranamarket.com or www.facebook.com/haranamarket.