Growing up with a rich culinary heritage and having access to an abundance of top-quality produce—for a cook, it doesn’t get any better than that. The Australian-Filipina food and travel content creator, cookbook author and businesswoman Yasmin Newman is fortunate to revel in both. She was raised and lives in Australia. She yearly got to visit her mother Rebecca Morillo’s family for vacations in Mindoro when she was growing up.
“My [Australian] dad also believed that it’s really important for my brother and I to reconnect with our Filipino heritage,” says the lovely celebrity cook when she met the media recently in time for Filipino Food month.
The Australian Embassy brought her over for a series of events that highlight Filipino cuisine with a little taste of Australia. Yasmin will be going around the country to share her recipes of well-loved Filipino dishes using Australian ingredients, all from her cookbook Under the Coconut Skies: Feasts and Stories from the Philippines. “I’m so grateful because I have other friends of mixed heritage in Australia who always had a much more complicated sense of identity whereas I was always very proud to be a Filipina,” Yasmin offers.
Yasmin says her time in the Philippines has always been inspiring. “Here's this place with purple-colored shakes and desserts with all the different colors. And it feels so exciting! I’d come back and bring those stories back to Australia.”
She got into cooking essentially because she enjoyed her mother’s food early on. “I got into eating first,” she says with a laugh. “My mom is a really great cook.” The exposure to her Filipina mother’s cooking became her “driving force” and served as a “doorway to understanding my identity and my heritage.”
Yasmin’s mother has been very influential and a great supporter in her foray into the culinary world. “Among her Australian friends, [my mother] is known as the Cassava Queen,” Yasmin offers. “Back in the 70s when she [first] arrived [in Australia], she would make this cassava cake and it became this instant hit…so much so that she's sick of making it.” The recipe of this “phenomenal cassava cake” is included in Yasmin’s first book 7000 Islands: A Food Portrait of the Philippines, published in 2013.
Yasmin says Mrs. Morillo also makes the best caldereta. “What's interesting with her caldereta is that over the years, it’s been given an Australian touch,” the self-taught cook offers. “It's a bit lighter. It doesn't have liver paste in it, for example. She was experimenting, playing around with it.” This turned out to be the version that’s most requested in gatherings.
But aside from her mother, Yasmin’s two biggest inspirations are culinary historians Doreen Fernandez and Felice Sta. Maria. “It's very cliché to say but I just absolutely love her writing. It's very poetic and so thoughtful,” she says of Fernandez. As for Sta. Maria, she had the honor of meeting the bestselling cookbook author a few times. “She along the way assisted me as I was writing a book because I wanted to tell it from the lens of an Australian but I also wanted a Filipino to own it to be true.”
The 7000 Islands book is more of a catalogue of classic recipes, says Yasmin, while Under Coconut Skies contains dishes from the regions that don’t usually get a lot of exposure. The sophomore book also has new recipes inspired by how she likes to cook in Australia.
The Australian food identity, says Yasmin, is characterized by the use of top-quality ingredients, and letting those do the talking. Like Filipino cooking, the style is unfussy and laidback. “The weather is so beautiful not to be outdoors so we don’t want to spend too much time cooking in the kitchen,” shares Yasmin.
Another similarity between Filipinos and Australians is that they both love to eat. Australians love pork barbecue, long lunches, eating outdoors, just relaxing and having good times together.
As for her favorite Filipino ingredients, Yasmin says she loves calamansi and suka. “Calamansi reminds me so much of the Philippines. Everywhere you go there’s calamansi and the sawsawan,” she says. She likes its unique mandarin undertones. “It’s not like a confronting sourness… there’s a brightness and a sweetness. You can use it in savory dishes but also lends itself beautifully into sweet dishes.”
As for the suka, she like the complexity of flavors in our local vinegars, especially the sukang tuba.
When asked what’s her favorite Filipino food, Yasmin says she hasn’t been to the country for three years and so is missing the ensaymada. She’s also a “sucker for anything pork,” and would love to indulge on some crispy pata during this visit.
When the cook began to embark on writing her books, what she initially wanted was to do a small part in documenting cuisines to make them accessible to Filipino-Australians. But interestingly, people have reached out to her—many of them first and second generation migrants and partners of Filipinos—who wanted to know how to cook Filipino food but unfortunately don’t have the recipes. “It brings me so much joy to know that [their knowledge on Filipino] food has helped them understand where they came from and where they’re going,” says Yasmin.
As a proud ambassador of Filipino cuisine and Australian food products, Yasmin shares her love for food and her Australian and Filipino influences in a series of cooking videos called A Taste of the Philippines. The video series was produced by the Australia Philippines Business Council (APBC) in partnership with the Australian Government.