As a longtime reader of the food section of The New York Times, I have regularly come across the byline of a certain Ligaya Mishan in the section’s Hungry City column which chronicles “New York’s great unsung restaurants” as part of the city’s culturally diverse food scene. She also writes about broader themes on food and culture for T Magazine.
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I’ve always been curious about her first name and its apparent Filipino roots. That curiosity was further reinforced when she wrote an article titled “Filipino Food Finds a Place in the American Mainstream” last March 2018. Then in July of this year, another standout piece by Mishan appeared on the front page of the food section, this time a profile on esteemed Filipino food writer and historian Doreen Gamboa Fernandez. Mishan followed that up this October with a dive into the Filipino roots of chef Angela Dimayuga through her “10 Essential Filipino Recipes.” As a writer for America’s preeminent broadsheet, Mishan has undoubtedly contributed to important conversations about the place of Filipino food, along with other immigrant-led cuisines, in 21st century United States.
Mishan appears to be a somewhat elusive figure, though. While she is active on Instagram, she doesn’t post any photos of herself. That’s by design, a newspaper policy that requires its food writers to stay anonymous, all the better to drop into any restaurant without the risk of being identified as a food critic.
So it was with much excitement that I recently got to chat with Mishan via an online voice call. We talked about her food writing, her thoughts on Filipino food and the dining scene in New York, and of course, the story behind her “joyful” name. Below is a condensed and edited version of our conversation:
What is your Filipino connection?
My mother is Filipino and she grew up in Cotabato. My father is an Englishman. She was a student taking a summer course in Tokyo and he was teaching a summer course, not the same summer course. That’s how they met and fell in love and got married, and they settled in Hawaii. So I grew up in Hawaii which has actually quite a significant Filipino population. I believe that the Filipinos in Hawaii are now the largest non-white group, although when I was growing up, that wasn’t the case.
What was it like growing up in Hawaii?
The majority of people living (in Hawaii) are of Asian descent. So we had access to all kinds of Asian food and it was just part of the local diet. In a single meal, you could have a dish of Asian origin and Western origin and you wouldn’t blink an eye. My mother, like many educated women of her generation, didn’t know how to cook when she came to the United States. So my dad did all the cooking. I didn’t grow up eating Filipino food, really. Occasionally, she would make pancit and it wasn’t very successful. I think she would agree! But my dad had his own recipe for adobo and we ate rice at every single meal, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We did our own versions of silogs for breakfast because there was always rice. We’d have Portuguese sausage and egg and things like that, but I didn’t have labels for any of these things. It was just the way we ate.
How did you start writing about food?
I do think of myself as an accidental food writer. I got my bachelor’s at Princeton in English literature, and then I have a Master of Fine Arts from Cornell in poetry. So I was supposed to be a poet, and then instead ended up as a food writer.
When I first came to New York, I was working at The New Yorker as a copy editor and I ended up writing hundreds and hundreds of these short book reviews called Briefly Noted. But those reviews were unsigned and I always thought, it’s great that I’m being paid for my writing, but I’d really love my name to appear in The New Yorker. So I was looking at places in the magazine where there might be openings. I saw that they had this restaurant review called Table for Two which was a signed review. My husband is an amazing cook and together, we had started exploring the restaurant scene in the city. So I had something to say and the editor gave me a shot. After a year of being one of the writers on Table for Two, the editor of The New York Times food section—at the time it was Pete Wells who is now the main dining critic—e-mailed me, and it was the simplest e-mail: “I like your writing. Do you want to come write for us?”
How did the Hungry City column come about?
Initially, I just wrote occasionally for The Times. At the time, to be honest, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to write every week. I had a very young child. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time away from her going to restaurants. But at a certain point, I realized that if I didn’t say yes (to Hungry City), that if it wasn’t me, it would be someone else and then I wouldn’t write at all. I talked to my husband who was very supportive. I know that some women writers don’t like being asked how they manage work-life balance. But I think it’s a question that all writers, male and female, should be asked.
What kind of perspective do you bring to the Hungry City column?
For a lot of people, (food writing) is just a dream job and to say that it’s hard in any way sounds laughable. What’s so hard about going out to eat? But it can be hard. I thought about this a lot when I wrote my piece about Doreen Fernandez. She says if you just say things are delicious, there’s a certain limit to what you can do as a writer. It becomes much more interesting when you listen to the stories of the people who are making the food. So Sam Sifton helped point me in the right direction. After the presidential election in 2016, it seemed much more urgent to tell these stories because so many of the restaurants I cover are run by immigrants and people of non-Western traditions, just making sure that, not only their voices are heard, but their faces are seen. I always ask the photographers to take pictures of the people at the restaurant so that the readers remember that it’s not just food, that there’s somebody there who is making this for us.
How do you approach and review these lesser known cuisines?
I always want to think about where I’m coming from and where the restaurant is coming from, and to try to judge on its own. There’s a lot of research that goes into all of these things and I would never pretend to be an expert at anything, even cuisines I eat all the time. I do a lot of research beforehand and afterwards, and I also talk to the people who run the restaurant. So that the review becomes a combination of their stories and then also hopefully some kind of historical context and some sense, for people for whom this is a native cuisine, of how they judge it. There may be certain flavors or textures which are less to my taste, but I’d like to know whether, in that culture, that’s exactly what the dish should taste like, that’s exactly the texture of the dish that’s right, and other people would recognize as right. I don’t think it should be entirely about whether I personally enjoy this dish, as I want to get a sense of it in some larger context.
After the presidential election in 2016, it seemed much more urgent to tell these stories because so many of the restaurants I cover are run by immigrants and people of non-Western traditions, just making sure that, not only their voices are heard, but their faces are seen.
What’s it like to stay anonymous?
It is kind of funny. Lately, I have been able to do more public speaking. I always have to say that if they do any kind of video, it has to be just for private use and it can’t be disseminated in public. People seem to be fairly observant of that, which is great because it would be sad to just sit at home. Even though Pete Wells’ image is not published, I’m fairly certain that every big restaurant in town has his photo on the wall. My photo was actually not on walls that I know of because one of my friends once went into a kitchen and took a picture of the wall with the pictures of all the critics. I don’t know if it’s good they couldn’t find my photo or because they know that I don’t review those kinds of places. So it seems to be successful so far. If you Google my name, a lot of pictures of dark-haired women come up, but they are usually women from photographs that accompany articles I’ve written. I don't think it’s giving too much away to say I have dark hair. I am half Filipino.
When did you start taking a deeper dive into Filipino food?
I really only discovered Filipino food for myself later in life when I started writing for The Times about food. My editor happened to be married to a Filipino woman, so he also had a special interest in Filipino food and urged me to check out the scene in Woodside, Queens which has historically been an enclave of Filipino immigrants. I’ve also just come to know more Filipinos in New York City which happened separately from my food writing career. The mom of one of my daughter’s classmates is a Filipino from Canada. She’s also a writer and a poet and she introduced me to all these amazing Filipino writers in New York City, including Jessica Hagedorn and Gina Apostol. They would have these salons where everyone would bring food, all of it fantastic. Then I would bring them out with me on my forays to Filipino restaurants to see what they thought. So that’s been a really great experience.
In discovering Filipino food, was there any dish in particular that drew you in?
I remember going early on to a restaurant called Engeline’s, which sadly doesn’t exist anymore, in Woodside and having crispy pata, which was this revelation and one of my mother’s favorite dishes. So to have it arrive with the knife straight up, stabbed in—it was so dramatic. I have to confess that before I started writing about food, I had actually stopped eating meat, except for fish. So to encounter the full porkiness of Filipino food was sort of fantastic. That was a great learning experience. Among the dishes that I love, I always order laing and tortang talong. I’m talking now about vegetable dishes which I feel are undersung in the Filipino canon.
I remember going early on to a restaurant called Engeline’s and having crispy pata, which was this revelation and one of my mother’s favorite dishes. So to have it arrive with the knife straight up, stabbed in—it was so dramatic.
What was the impetus behind writing about Doreen Gamboa Fernandez in The Times?
I came across her when I was first researching Filipino food. The writing was just so extraordinarily vivid and the thinking so precise. How come nobody knows about this. Like M.F.K. Fisher, she should be read by everyone. But then I found it difficult to find her books. I actually borrowed Jessica Hagedorn’s autographed copy of Tikim.
Part of my goal in writing the profile (on Doreen Fernandez) was that she could just be brought back into print in the United States. So I was very excited to see that there is this new edition out from Brill. I would love it if there could be a new edition out from a major American-based publisher.
It was really a fantastic process of researching her life. I was fortunate to get in touch with her niece who gave me access to so many people who shared so many stories and photographs from their lives. That was a really great project which took months to bring it all together. I really wish I’d been able to go to the Philippines to be able to actually interview people face to face, visit her hometown, see her old house. All of those things would have been really profound.
What’s your take on today’s Filipino food scene in New York City?
I do feel like it’s really only been in the past couple of years that there has been more of a breakthrough. Way back when I first moved to the city, there was Cendrillon run by Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan in SoHo and now they have Purple Yam in Brooklyn. They were on the vanguard way before anybody else. I remember taking my mom there, and they obviously have done an enormous amount for Filipino food in this country.
What’s interesting about this new generation who are clearly building on what came before, with Nicole Ponseca when she opened Maharlika and Jeepney, is that she grew up here and so hers is a restaurant that’s more about this Filipino-American experience. You walk into the restaurant, and for my mother, everything is recognizable, and for me, everything is recognizable. We see the capiz shell lamps, the photographs of the jeepney or of Miss Philippines. The cocktails are made with Tang, for example. So there’s a sort of irreverence and a fondness for this kind of sense of humor. I imagine some people would come in and say it’s not 100 percent what they knew. And obviously every Filipino dish is going to be contested, right? But I love that (Nicole) made Filipino food that is Filipino but also accessible. It didn’t seem like she sacrificed anything in making it accessible. She just set it up in a way that people can come out for a nice evening, have good cocktails, and enjoy these dishes which are going to be slightly unfamiliar, but not so unfamiliar that it makes the evening too much of an adventure for them. Whereas if they go all the way out to Woodside to one of the more local places, there’d be a higher point of entry, that they have to be comfortable with a menu that they really aren’t going to know how to navigate.
There’s this distinction between the places that open in Woodside which cater to the local community, and these places that open in Manhattan that are seeking a bigger audience. I feel like the ones seeking a bigger audience are still new. That’s something that’s happening, but slowly. We have to be able to allow for these young Filipino-American chefs to take the cuisine they grew up with and be creative and innovative and push it forward in their own way, like at Bad Saint in Washington D.C.
I think that we can comfortably say now that Filipino food has entered the American canon. But there’s still a ways to go in terms of there being a critical mass of restaurants such that most Americans can say, oh you know, let’s go for Filipino tonight, the way they would say, let’s get Thai or let’s get Vietnamese or Japanese or Chinese. I just think it’s going to take a while because all those cuisines have marquee dishes. If nothing else, Americans know about pad Thai or pho. They don’t have the one (Filipino) dish that they can just cling to and say, I know what I’m going to get when I go to the Filipino restaurant. (But) we’re definitely moving forward.
Where would you suggest visitors go to experience the diversity of the food scene in NYC?
In terms of the diversity, they may be interested in trying Eastern European and Russian food in Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. They could go up to 116th Street in Harlem where there are a lot of Senegalese restaurants, with some other West African places moving deeper into Harlem. There’s also good Ethiopian food to be found in Harlem, and more West African food in the Bronx. They can go out to Astoria, Queens for Egyptian food and other Middle Eastern food. They could find some of that also in Jackson Heights which is known for a lot of South Asian food but has a ton of different cuisines. I can’t necessarily say that our Mexican food scene is as powerful as Los Angeles, but there are lots of great tacos that you could find walking under the elevated train, the 7 train in Queens, or certain parts of Brooklyn.
I will say the most exciting places to eat tend to be outside of Manhattan, if you’re looking for these smaller spots that are immigrant run, that are doing cuisines that people might be less familiar with. But if you’re in the city and you just go down to the East Village, there are lots of fun places to go to, tiny little slivers where somebody only specializes in Japanese curry or empanadas.
What is it you love the most about living and eating in New York City?
I really do feel like the whole world is in New York, that almost every cuisine is represented. You’ll suddenly find a restaurant that represents a cuisine that’s maybe only eaten by a few thousand people in the world and you get to suddenly experience it— that’s amazing to me. It’s so easy to get everywhere in New York, to walk into a Bhutanese snooker hall in Queens and to feel at home. People are so welcoming and ready to share their cultures with you. It’s really important to not be tourists, to think of this as we’re neighbors. I live in New York and they live in New York and they’re welcoming me into their world. I feel that is a gift that I respect.
Photos by Ligaya Mishan courtesy of @ligayamishan on Instagram