Mission to cook 50 Filipino meals in 50 states comes to Anchorage

Shannon Kuhn
Yana Gilbuena dishes out crab fat fried rice served "kamayan" style on banana leaves without plates or utensils. Shannon Kuhn

Yana Gilbuena is on a mission to cook 50 Filipino feasts in all 50 states in 50 weeks.

Her goal is twofold: to spotlight Filipino cuisine and culture throughout the United States and to raise money for schools in the Philippines that were devastated by Typhoon Haiyan almost a year ago.

Gilbuena was born and raised on the island nation before emigrating to Los Angeles. She launched the project from Brooklyn, New York, where she gave up her lease and sold all her belongings except for her backpack, cooking knives, and bicycle.

Alaska’s feast marked the 25th week and halfway point of the SALO project.

The menu in each state is tailored to what is in season and available locally. During her week-long stay in the land of the midnight sun, Gilbuena headed to Cordova to meet fishermen with Drifters Fish to source Copper River coho salmon for the Anchorage dinner, hiked Flattop and even checked out the state fair.

I met Gilbuena in the kitchen of roommates Elana Habib and Harrison Law, who hosted the Alaska dinner in their tiny midtown apartment. We chatted over the sizzles of frying crab fat and garlic.

“I started SALO because I missed the flavors of home," Gilbueno said. "I grew up in a city called Iloilo, in the island of Panay in the Philippines. Even after nine years and two coasts, I still craved what home tastes like. So I decided to recreate them by hosting underground dinners featuring the flavors of all three regions of the Philippines.”

Filipino food is built on simplicity -- its main spices are soy sauce, vinegar, fish sauce, sugar and pepper. Gilbuena wants to raise awareness about the cuisine of her country and the food she loves. “Julia Child brought over her passion for French cuisine to America and encouraged people to cook. I aim to do the same, but with Filipino cuisine.”

Habib took Gilbuena shopping for ingredients the morning of the dinner at the local Asian markets. “We spent two hours going from market to market, exploring,” she said. “I live here and I had never been to any of them before.”

Gilbuena said the project name SALO is derived from the Tagalog word “Salu-salo” meaning a big party or gathering.

 “As Filipinos, we value the culture of sharing and gathering together. SALO is my way of bringing people together who otherwise wouldn't know one another,” Gilbuena said.

Before the dinner, Habib and Law pushed multiple tables together to make one large enough for the meal. Two couches and half a dozen chairs were pulled around for guests -- 17 strangers brought together by food. The feast was served in a traditional “kamayan” style. “The banana leaves are your plate, and your hands are your utensils,” Gilbuena instructed.

The five-course meal was a delicious adventure. Food was heaped in a pile on the banana leaves (“don’t eat them,” Gilbuena joked), in the middle of the table and everyone dug in, family style.

Crab-fat fried rice, long beans sautéed in fermented shrimp paste, and a Filipino version of salmon ceviche came out first. Over the next two hours, diners took the culinary equivalent of a whitewater raft trip down 6 Mile Creek. This included trying the chef’s surprise of “balut,” or fertilized hard-boiled duck eggs (quite the bonding experience), and ended with a street dessert called “mwasi”, a pancake made of chewy rice flour topped with grated coconut and muscovado sugar.

About a third of the revenue from the dinner ($50/ticket) went to help fund school kid lunches in the Visaya region, which was devastated by Typhoon Haiyan. Each SALO dinner provides 15 children with lunches for an entire school year.

Funded in part by Feastly, an online platform that connects chefs with diners, Gilbuena relies on the kindness of strangers and the power of social media to find a volunteer host in each state.

At the end of the meal, after exchanging phone numbers, we headed home. But first, we wanted to know about the clean up. “You roll up the banana leaves and you are done,” explained Gilbuena.

“Seriously -- no dishes!”

Shannon Kuhn lives in Anchorage, where she writes about food and culture.