When I was a kid, my mom was a school teacher, but she started a weekend side-business with her best friend: making longanisa, Filipino pork sausage, for parties and gatherings. Their customers included fellow teachers, relatives, and friends during spring breaks and summer vacations. Word-of-mouth travelled pretty quickly in our tight-knit community.My mom has since passed on, but the longanisa business she started in the 80s has been taken over by my dad Rod—or Chef Hot Rod, as he's known in food circles because his food is so spicy. The sausages may get to a retail supermarket or summer farmers' market eventually, but for now, just like my mom, we're selling freshly made frozen Filipino longanisa sausage out of coolers in our trunks in parking lots and driveways across Winnipeg.
If one of our Filipino associations is having a meeting, we'll make an announcement a couple of days ahead that we'll be bringing to sell. There's also times where I've driven to meet a buddy after a hockey or volleyball game and we'd meet in the parking lot to hand over this stuff. People would order it in advance from the list of Filipino home cooks in our pseudo-underground catering network.
My parents, along with 11,000 other Filipinos, immigrated to central-northwest Winnipeg in the 70s, fueling the local garment and textile industry. Today, about 10 percent of Winnipeg's population (of around 633,000 people total) is Filipino. And after English, the most common language spoken in Manitoba households is Tagalog. Toronto and Vancouver may have more Filipinos in numbers, but we're the highest concentration in the country.
Back then, there were zero Filipino restaurants in the city while our numbers continued to explode. It seemed like we were constantly going to family picnics at the park, attending someone's christening or wedding, or playing with my cousins while my uncle held mahjong parties at his house. We'd celebrate birthdays and Manny Pacquiao's boxing matches. We always find any reason to celebrate, and food is always a priority.Back then, supermarkets didn't have what were considered "exotic" offerings like Filipino tilapia, vegetables like bok choy, kangkong, or gai lan. Imported frozen fish was rare and expensive, so making sinigang ng bangus (sour milkfish soup) required us to substitute these classic recipes with local pickerel, spinach, and radishes. On any given weekend, there was always lumpia (deep-fried stuffed pork in rice rolls), pancit (sautéed rice noodles with julienned vegetables and pork bits), and Filipino spaghetti with sweet tomato sauce and cut-up hot dogs. Everyone always brought something Filipino to dinner, or Filipino-Canadian, like pizza and chicken nuggets.
Today, we've got dozens of mom-and-pop Filipino grocery stores and our big supermarkets now carry products from the Philippines. A new generation of Filipino chefs are starting make waves in the local marketplace from a food truck called Pimp My Rice, which is known for its crispy adobo wings. That underground catering network of Filipino home cooks can now be found on several Filipino community groups on Facebook.Still, with all this growth in the local food scene, we continue to keep small coolers of frozen longanisa around. We even use several friend's freezers as additional pick-up locations. Longanisa can now be ordered anywhere because everyone has a hook-up, and if you don't, I'll find you one.