Filipina chef whips up adobo cookies and other reimagined desserts

Fermented shrimp paste with a caramel flavour, anyone?

Abi Balingit lives in Brooklyn, New York. Photo: Nico Schinco
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It takes a wild imagination to combine the savoury kick of Filipino adobo, made with soy sauce and vinegar, with the classic decadence of an American chocolate chip cookie.

But Abi Balingit is relentless when it comes to subverting expectations. Armed with a hand mixer in her tiny kitchen in New York, she whips up eccentric desserts – combining her Filipino heritage and American upbringing. The result: a 75-recipe cookbook.

In Mayumu: Filipino American Desserts Remixed, the baker from Brooklyn weaves personal anecdotes of growing up as a second-generation immigrant in California with how to make desserts that blend Filipino and western flavours and techniques.

One of them is a step-by-step process for baking an adobo chocolate chip cookie, which quickly drew attention when the book came out last month. The recipe, which uses unconventional ingredients such as bay leaves, soy sauce and pink peppercorn to create a sweet-salty cookie, was even featured in The New York Times.

Other dishes in the cookbook include a play on baked Alaska and the icy Filipino dessert halo-halo, madeleines with a tropical lychee flavour, as well as a strawberry shortcake sapin-sapin, a layered glutinous rice cake traditionally packed with jackfruit and ube.

For the most part, the Filipino-American fusion represents how Balingit's upbringing shaped her relationship with food. It's apparent in the way she uses personal stories, of her parents and their move to the US, to give Mayumu's readers an insight into her unique and whimsical perspective.

“I have always been exposed to Filipino desserts,” she tells The National from her New York apartment on video call. Balingit, 28, was born in San Jose, California but says she has always been in touch with her Filipino roots.

“My parents are both from Pampanga, and only immigrated to the US in the early '90s,” she says.

She grew up eating Filipino food made by her parents and other relatives, and she recalls her mother's frequent making of desserts such as maja blanca, a gelatin-like dish made with coconut milk, cornstarch and sugar, or cassava cake.

This early exposure led Balingit to pick up an apron herself, and at the age of 13 she started baking, albeit mostly inspired by American sweets.

“When I started actively baking for myself, I was inspired by a lot of western desserts just because it was what I had with a lot of other kids growing up, and by watching Food Network,” she says.

“My mom would make maja blanca, then I would bring a chocolate cake to a party.”

Experimenting with Filipino cuisine

Balingit's penchant for experimental cooking was first stirred during the pandemic, also around the time when she moved to Brooklyn.

In 2020, she launched a blog called The Dusky Kitchen, where she would post her dessert recipes that feature eclectic influences, but mostly exploring Filipino flavours.

Her bold approach to mixing and matching ingredients certainly did not go unnoticed. One of her posts on Twitter was picked up by a literary agent, who kick-started the idea of publishing her recipes.

In writing her first cookbook, Balingit increased her knowledge about Filipino cuisine. The make-up of the nation is diverse, with its population of more than 110 million people who speak several different dialects and languages.

“I got a better understanding of Filipino food, that there's so much regionality to it. There are different desserts from province to province, for instance,” she says.

Although her cookbook has a bias for desserts that come from her parent's hometown Pampanga, a few hours north of the capital Manila, Balingit has tried to capture flavours from other parts of the Philippines.

After reading other Filipino cookbooks, she was inspired by the many textures and flavours that exist in the wide-ranging cuisine, picking up bits and pieces for her own recipe development.

“The book really incentivised me to go out of my comfort zone,” she says, which perfectly summarises her whole approach to baking.

Balingit is aware of how “specific” her point of view is, and she's settled with the idea that “sometimes it's not everyone's cup of tea”.

“Accepting this is really the way that I've kept doing what I was doing. I prefer to have polarising opinions about my food versus people having a 'meh' opinion about it.”

She says Mayumu is also emblematic of the never-ending assimilation the Filipino diaspora needs to do, as well as continuously educating other people about Filipino cuisine, which Balingit says has “nowhere else to go but up”.

Pitching the cookbook to editors was a quite a challenge because of the rather muted appeal of Filipino food compared to other global cuisines, but it became apparent for Balingit that “any resistance to our food can sometimes just be simple misunderstandings of what it really is”.

“The only way to keep educating other people about it is to have more presence,” she says.

UAE residents can order the book on amazon.com

Updated: May 24, 2023, 4:03 AM