FOOD

These London-based Filipino restaurateurs are reconnecting with culture through cuisine

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Romulo Café, Mamasons Dirty Ice Cream, and Sarap Bistro are just some of the restaurants that are giving Filipinos in London a taste of home. Photos by JULI SUAZO

Moving to a new city — away from family, home, and the community that raised me — often feels lonely. While cultural differences are expected when relocating to a new continent, the most glaring gap between my old life back home and my new life in London is that I’m always hungry. I’m constantly looking for the familiar fusion of savory, sweet, and salty flavors that Filipino food has always offered me.

And when the search to end my constant cravings could not come to an end within three kilometers of my apartment, I started cooking.

For some Filipinos in London, food serves as a reminder of home and cooking was a way to cope with loneliness of being away from it. And when cooking and eating alone at home were no longer enough, these Filipinos did what most Filipinos do: start cooking for other people.

Bringing a piece of home

“There was a point in my life where I felt separated from my roots,” said Rowena Romulo of Romulo Café and Restaurant London. Having grown up with her grandparents and cousins in a family complex, she explained that sharing a sole kitchen and dining room made having meals together customary. For the Romulos, food represented family, nostalgia, and their childhood. But 20 years after leaving her home to build a career in banking in New York and Italy, Rowena struggled to reconnect with both her culture and country. “There were some times I could not remember parts of my childhood,” she shared. And in her attempt to search for her memories, she decided to build a restaurant.

The menu of the first Romulo Café in Quezon City is comfort food-driven, but loyal to their Lola Virginia’s old recipe book. “Every Filipino home has their own adobo recipe,” said Rowena. When she opened Romulo Café in London, Rowena stayed away from any labels measuring the culinary accuracy of the cuisine. “I hate the word authentic — how do you know what’s authentic? It’s about heritage and it’s always about pinpointing the taste of home.”

Romulo Cafe's Truffled Chicken Adobo is made with classic Norfolk chicken cooked in soy sauce, garlic, and cane vinegar scented with black truffle while served with bok choy and sweet potato shavings. Photo by JULI SUAZO

Experimenting with her family’s adobo recipe passed on from generations, Rowena calls her Truffled Chicken Adobo, “Romulo Style” — classic Norfolk chicken is cooked in soy sauce, garlic, and cane vinegar scented with black truffle while served with bok choy and sweet potato shavings.

Designed as an homage to her grandfather and diplomat Carlos P. Romulo, the interiors are accented with soft lime colors and adorned with photos from his career. “When we were deciding on how to decorate the place, all our choices were an answer to: ‘If my grandfather lived in London, how would his house look like?’,” she said.

Rowena Romulo built Romulo Café and Restaurant as a way to reconnect with both her culture and country. Photo by JULI SUAZO

After years of living away from home, Rowena believes that she has built a new one with Romulo Café and Restaurant. “Once [someone] opens that door, it’s like I’ve invited that someone to my home and I want people to feel that way when they dine at our restaurant.” Set to expand the household brand across London, Rowena will be opening the doors to her second branch Kasa and Kin — a new contemporary combination of restaurant, bar, bakery and patisserie rooted on their signature Romulo-style comfort food – on Oct. 30.

Food is a family affair

As Filipino-Bangladeshi Omar Shah vividly recalled, living in a bahay kubo in Pampanga with his lola during his earlier childhood first introduced him to dirty ice cream — from yearly barrio fiestas to weekly visits from friendly neighborhood manong sorbetero. When he finally joined his parents in London, he started working at their family restaurant. “At eight years old, I was already washing dishes and helping out in the kitchen,” he said.

Mamasons Dirty Ice-Cream owner Omar Shah also built Maginhawa restaurant group — home to six Filipino-inspired culinary concepts. Photo courtesy of MAGINHAWA GROUP

For Shah, hospitality is in his blood. He took over their family restaurant Bintang — originally serving Malay-Thai-Indonesian cuisine – and transformed its menu to underscore Filipino Pan Asian cuisine. But one restaurant wasn’t enough for Shah. As his family and community got bigger, he wanted to provide the younger ones with the same opportunity he had growing up working in a family-run joint and experiencing the first point of hospitality. Since then, he’s built Maginhawa restaurant group — home to six Filipino-inspired culinary concepts.

He credits his late mother’s pregnancy cravings for his restaurant’s signature hit: the bilog. “The idea started with pandesal and dirty ice cream,” he shared. When his mom was pregnant with him, living away from home, and desperately pining for this unnamed dessert combination, she turned to nearby resources. “My mom would buy whatever white bread and ice cream she could find in the grocery, make it herself, and that was the closest thing to it,” said Shah.

The bilog is a toasted pandesal dirty ice cream sandwich reminiscent of the classic Filipino street snack. Photo courtesy of MAGINHAWA GROUP

The bilog — a toasted pandesal dirty ice cream sandwich — is sold at Mamasons Dirty Ice-Cream, a dessert parlour run by Shah and his family which has since expanded to three branches spread across London. “I’ve got my nephews, nieces, and friends’ kids working [at Mamasons],” he shared. “And a lot of the time, it’s their first job.”

Mamason's flavor line-up features ube, queso, guyabano, milo, calamansi, and black buko. Photo courtesy of MAGINHAWA GROUP

Around eight out of ten people walking in the dirty ice cream parlor are Filipino. And almost all of them order a scoop of dirty ice cream. Reminiscent of home, their flavor line-up features ube, queso, guyabano, milo, calamansi, and black buko. “I realized that Filipinos who live here and grew up away from home don’t even know what dirty ice cream is,” said Shah. “If my experience [with dirty ice cream] was at a barrio fiesta, I hope Mamasons can — in a way — be that barrio fiesta for them.”

Cooking is the way back home

For Filipinos who were raised in a third-culture environment like Budgie Montoya, food became the easiest way to learn about his country. “I felt very disconnected to the Philippines,” shared Montoya, admitting to not knowing how to speak Filipino or any native dialect. Having grown up in a Filipino household somewhere in Australia, he battled with different identities. “It was like I wasn’t Australian enough, but I wasn’t Filipino enough either.”

When his job in information technology led him to London, his longing for home was magnified. “I missed my mom, I missed Filipino food, I missed everything about my culture, and I felt the connection was not there,” said Montoya. To find a missing link, he started by asking his mom for recipes and recreating them at home. For him, cooking — what was initially a coping mechanism — turned into a calling.

Budgie Montoya, owner of Sarap BAon, left IT to start a new career as a chef, working his way up from steakhouses to Michelin-starred restaurants. Photo by JULI SUAZO

He left IT to start a new career as a chef, working his way up from steakhouses to Michelin-starred restaurants. The spontaneous supper clubs he hosted with his then roommate turned into a brand: Sarap BAon. “The ‘A’ is capital so we annunciate the pronunciation correctly,” he explained. Sarap BAon follows a laid-back eatery concept, largely inspired by street food and food halls in the Philippines.

He describes his culinary approach as regurgitative and cites the “bistek” tartare as an example. Montoya turned the familiar dish on its head and made it his own as he dressed raw bavette with calamansi and soy sauce, and topped it with yeasted onion puree, burnt leek emulsion, and crispy shallots. “We wanted to make sure the flavors and things people know about [bistek] to be there but it’s not necessarily just bistek because the texture is different,” he said. “A lot of it is part of it is learning how far we can push the identity of the cuisine.”

Sarap BAon's signature lechon is a slow roasted pork belly stuffed with lemongrass, garlic, chilli, and ginger, served with rice, atchara, and Mang Tomas sauce. Photo by JULI SUAZO

Promoting an underrepresented cuisine comes with its challenges. He shared that he encounters a Filipino — almost every day — dining at his restaurant complaining about how his dishes aren’t traditional. “These diners want to find the sinigang that they ate back home when they were like 12 but I can never recreate that moment for them,” he said.

Montoya is most proud of their lechon — their signature slow roasted pork belly stuffed with lemongrass, garlic, chilli, and ginger — served with rice, atchara, and Mang Tomas sauce. The roasted pork staple also reminds him of what food means to his culture: a celebration. “Not growing up in the Philippines, food was always about family, community, and getting people together,” he said. “For me that’s comforting. I want people who come to Sarap BAon — Filipino or not — to feel like they’ve had a little celebration in life.”

He alluded to introducing Sarap BAon’s little brother, Sarap Bistro, this end of October. The concept will stay faithful to Filipino flavors but using British produce that’s sourced ethically. “It’s in our nature and DNA as Filipinos to not waste food and to me, that means using everything from an ingredient,” he shared, providing an example: “So instead of using macapuno, we’re finding a local ingredient that can still replicate the same flavors.” One of the most exciting things he’s working on for Sarap Bistro is a halo-halo trolley that makes the classic Filipino dessert fully customizable to your own palette.

“Filipino food doesn’t need to be elevated, it just needs to be championed,” said Montoya. “It’s rare to be able to read about Filipinos doing things outside of the Philippines and if I had that growing up, I could’ve made these decisions earlier.” He hopes that the string of choices that led him to Sarap BAon can inspire the next generation of third-culture Filipinos — showing them that one of the best ways to reconnect with your culture is through cuisine.

Erratum: An earlier version of this story referred to Omar Shah as Filipino-Indian. We apologize for this oversight.