The San Francisco Bay area is my home—a center of diversity and culture in every way, especially food. Because we live in a large city near a port, finding food from my mother’s home country, the Philippines, was never an obstacle.
My mother’s go-to place for food from the Philippines was the International Market. There we could fine anything Asian, including anything Filipino. My mother usually bought ingredients for lumpia, our family’s personalized culinary specialty. She could buy the necessary items in bulk, especially the eggroll wrappers, which were hard to find in regular supermarkets. As we entered the International Market, we would see at eye-level the Hindu idols surrounded by fruit sacrifices. I always wondered why people would give inanimate objects perfectly good fruit. We would snake around the alcohol stand to the produce section, where we found vegetables that Lola, my grandma from the Philippines, liked to put in soups. We also found the carrots and onions needed for our lumpia there. Nearer the back, we would watch the fresh fish and crabs swim in their tanks before picking up oyster sauce and water chestnuts from the canned food section. During our shopping excursions, my mother would often run into another Filipino and strike up a conversation in Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines. She always hoped that this person would be from her region so that they could speak with her in a Southern Philippines dialect. There was always a little disappointment when my mother found out that they were not from her island, but she would still be pleasant. Occasionally, walking down an aisle, we would see someone my mom knew, and the two women would stop for hours to get caught up with each other. Hours later, my mom might invite them to come over to our house for dinner and have some lumpia. She was seldom refused.
When I think of lumpia being made at my house, I hold these memories close: the sound of the food processer intertwined with the squish and squash of meat enfolding the remainder of the ingredients; the sight of my mother measuring each ingredient with her experienced eyes; my Lola leaning over a large tub full of ground pork and beef, using the force of her entire body and the strength of her hands to push the ingredients into the crevices of the meat; the melodic sounds of Mommy and Lola chattering back and forth in their dialect, discussing the welfare of my cousins, aunties, and uncles across the seas back home in the Philippine Islands. When Lola is ready to begin wrapping the meat, she asks me to slowly and carefully separate the thin egg roll wrappers from their stack. Once the meat and vegetables are wrapped just right, some of the lumpia will go into the freezer to be sold or given away and some will be set aside for our dinner that night.
To complete our meal, we would prepare rice in the ever-present rice cooker and our special sauce concoction to go with the lumpia and rice. I would be sent outside to grab the yellowest lemons I could find from the tree in the back yard, lifting up my shirt to carry them back inside again. We would cut and squeeze the lemons and put an even proportion of soy sauce and lemon juice inside a shallow bowl. If the lemon tree was ever bare, we had to resort to vinegar, but it was never the same without the distinctive taste of the lemon zest dancing together with the other flavors in my mouth. When all was done, I would call my brothers and my dad to the table and we would all eat lumpia together.
Filipino lumpia finds its origins deep in Asia, with its roots traceable to China and Guam. Traditional lumpia is only a couple inches long and about half an inch in diameter. They are more wrapper than meat and very crunchy. When my mother moved here to America and married my father, she made lumpia the way that it was made in the Philippines. My father would always say, “Americans like meat! We should make lumpia fatter and longer.” Slowly the lumpia began to grow longer, increasing from two inches to seven inches long. They also grew rounder, plumping from half an inch in diameter to one and a half inches. Mommy invented her own version of lumpia and named it “American lumpia.” American lumpia became very popular in both church and community.
The Taylor family is known for our special American lumpia. Every year, my mother sells her lumpia to help raise money for summer camp for the children of my church. We make and freeze lumpia in mass quantities beforehand and then sell them by the dozen: $12 per dozen for packages of frozen and $15 per dozen for pre-fried. We set up a table in the foyer so people can smell the aroma as they walk in and out of church. Everybody we know loves them. They often consult with Mom since she knows how to cook them to the perfect crispness. This food has become part of our identity as a family. It has also helped connect us with our church family and community. American lumpia is a gift from my family’s kitchen to the kitchen of those we love.
American Lumpia (estimated proportions)
1 lb. ground pork or beef
¼ cup oyster sauce
1 can of water chestnuts
¼ cup soy sauce
1 cup of ground carrots
2-3 tbs. garlic
½ cup of sliced green onions
1-2 tbs. ground pepper
1 package of wrappers
- Grind chestnuts and carrots.
- Chop green onions.
- Mix all ingredients with meat of choice.
- Wrap 1-2 tbs. of meat for every wrapper.
- Deep fry until golden brown.