Palm Corned Beef Is My Favorite Part of Filipino Breakfast

Rich, salty, and fatty, it made our breakfasts of eggs and rice into savory magic.

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Jan 3 2019, 9:00pm

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If childhoods full of sugary cereal or pancake breakfasts may perhaps account for seemingly everyone else in the world’s sweet tooth, then maybe my constant need for salt could be attributed to the entirely savory way I’d start my days growing up: a mix of rice, meat, and eggs.

Sometimes it was hot dogs fried up in a pan; other times, bacon; or sometimes sweet, cured pieces of pork called tocino. My favorite, though, has always been canned corned beef. My parents would grab a can and spill it into a hot cast iron pan with onions or diced tomatoes. Sometimes it was the hash version that’s dotted with tiny, fake-looking bits of potato.

In the suburbs of Philadelphia, where my family settled after leaving the Philippines in 1997, cans of Libby’s and Hormel corned beef were easy to find. I’ll still eat those with no complaint, but the star of the breakfast table was always Palm, a corned beef from New Zealand that comes in a round, red-and-yellow can emblazoned with a large cow. Beneath the words “corned beef,” the can specifies “with juices,” which is important—a very tasty attribute.

The meat is bright pink and pulls apart into long shreds, making it look almost like, well, corned beef that doesn’t come out of a can. Palm’s texture feels more satisfying than the minced meat of Libby’s and Hormel’s versions. Apparently, Palm also comes in flavors including barbecue, but I see no need to branch out from the original.

When I was a kid, Palm was a treat procured only from encounters with friends and relatives from parts of the world with a higher density of Filipinos, as canned foods often made their way into the souvenir stash. Now that I live in New York City, home to the United States’ third-largest population of Filipino immigrants, Palm is easier to find.

Still, as good as it may be, Palm is a breakfast food that, for one’s health, is probably best eaten with little frequency anyway. Rich and fatty, it coats every grain of rice, slicking even the corners of the mouth with oil. As with most processed cans of meat, its sodium content might also make one wary.

Salty, oily, and savory, Palm corned beef is something I can’t disassociate from the simple pleasures of my childhood breakfasts. For me, it’s only ever paired with the smell of sizzling garlic, the steam that billows out of the rice cooker, and the crackle of eggs frying in a pan deep with oil. It’s a combination that always works, and despite the fact that it doesn’t take much effort to prepare, it always satisfies.

We ate cans of Palm corned beef both in the Philippines and in Pennsylvania. After I moved to the United States, Palm quickly became a reminder of my background. Sometimes that felt good, but not always.

In the Philippines, it felt foreign, which is to say that it felt like aspirations of America. An inevitable result of almost 50 years of American occupation is a tendency to see American things as more desirable, a mindset that extends to imported foods, including the canned ones. The constant presence of the American military had led to an insurgence of American canned goods like corned beef, Spam, and Vienna sausages.

As I’ve written before, the international exchange brought along by imperialism and colonialism made foreign foods an important part of Filipino diets, too. For example, even though Palm is an imported product, it’s now listed as a Filipino food on the online grocer Fil-Stop.

These meats are consumed with such frequency that they’ve even entered the portmanteau parlance of Filipino breakfast. Treating garlic rice (sinangag) and egg (itlog) as necessities on the plate, there’s a name for the style of breakfast in which which canned corned beef often finds itself: silog, to which each meat is added as a prefix. The combination of canned corned beef, garlic rice, and a fried egg can be cornsilog, and Spam plus garlic rice and egg is Spamsilog.

But in my new life in America, eating canned corned beef somehow reinforced the idea that I wasn’t American, instead of feeling like a part of our American Dream. I was five when we moved to the United States, and the people I saw as American had doughnuts for breakfast the morning after a sleepover. When they ate corned beef, it didn’t come out of a can; it was boiled, like the potatoes and cabbage alongside it, and often fairly bland. None of it smelled like garlic or oil, and they definitely didn’t eat it for breakfast.

To the friends I grew up with—who always seemed American in ways I could never be—canned meat was talked about not in terms of pleasure, and more in the context of food one might eat only if desperate, like if you were stocking a doomsday bunker. Perhaps because of that, our family mornings of canned meat sometimes felt sort of like a source of unwanted otherness. We learned to switch out of it as needed—when I had sleepovers, we’d make pancakes the next morning and dot them with chocolate chips.

But in the solace of our own family time, Palm corned beef reminded me of our home across the world. In my brain, canned meats were tied less to America even though that’s where many of them came from, the New Zealand-derived Palm being a notable exception.

Eating Filipino breakfast, and Palm corned beef along with it, still serves as a nod to all of the people who remained in my homeland. In Pennsylvania, the meal meant sitting down in the small unit of just my parents and sibling and me, but it recalled the days in the Philippines when breakfast was shared with my aunts or cousins or my grandfather—all of whom were suddenly so far away.

I’ve often thought and said that I just didn’t grow up eating Filipino food. That’s because the standards, like adobo and pancit, weren’t things we ate often. Still, when I ate Palm corned beef in America—a can that weaves histories of the Philippines and the United States, by way of New Zealand —it was a shortcut to connecting to my culture.

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