Ox and Tiger: Rooted in History, Cooking for the Community
“One of the things that EJ and I always enjoyed together since our first date was cooking. We would cook special meals for each other for birthdays/anniversaries, and have iron chef challenges where we would battle and have our friends and family judge whose food was better. Our obsession went next level when we were living in Chicago. We bounced a lot of ideas and actually tested them out in the kitchen, and also tried to recreate a lot of food that we ate growing up. EJ cooked Filipino food, and I made Japanese food. But by that time, we’d had a lot of influence on each other's cooking – so we started to explore where these two cuisines could compliment each other.”
EJ Macayan and Hitomi Wada, the team behind Japanese-Filipino pop-up project Ox & Tiger, understand the value of knowing where you come from, turning knowledge from elders into useful solutions for the present.
“I grew up with both sides of my grandparents, so I was surrounded by many cooks. They had rich gardens in their backyard, and I would help cultivate and harvest the produce. This continues to have a significant impact on me as a chef, as I am always trying to figure out ways to serve the most fresh produce, [because] growing up I had no fear in trying something new. My palette was very open to the different flavors our cuisine had to offer. Fast forward many years with many family parties with lots of food, I put myself into culinary school and never looked back. I wasn't sure where it was going to take me, but I knew how much I loved to eat and decided to choose the path that would let me do at least that,” EJ says.
EJ also credits his grandparents’ cooking with formational influence on his cooking and his early appreciation for a wide range of flavors.
“Living in Salinas, CA and spending a lot of times with my grandparents, I was surrounded by farmland and the ocean, My favorite dish was Pinakbet, and the ampalaya was the best part of it to me. The bitterness was so extra, it laid a strong memory that wasn't harsh but interesting enough to keep eating. I also loved eating grilled mackerel and rice with tomatoes and patis. I started to love vinegar when my uncle gave me Jicamas and salt vinegar as a snack. From then on, pickles were a staple for the rest of my life. My family introduced me to all the flavors of our cuisine, but the sourness was what attracted to learning more about our food. For this reason, you will most likely taste something sour in the dishes at Ox & Tiger,” EJ says.
With a foundation in well-known projects like Rich Table, Yuzuki Eatery, and Fat Rice, the team has firmly set down roots in the Bay Area primarily because it is a hub of a surging wave of Filipino culture.
“I cooked a lot of food at Fat Rice that reminded me of my childhood. There were a lot of similarities in flavors and regional ingredients that I wanted to reconnect with. I was cooking with so many different flavors but felt like there was something missing. I slowly realized that I didn't have a platform to share our Filipino cuisine and how it is entertaining and flavorful as all of the food that is out there. This really guided our decision to move back to California and to be a part of the Filipino movement that was surfing the nation,” EJ says.
Importantly, the team doubles down on the importance of community in the formation of the Ox & Tiger project, citing personal relationships in the Bay Area alongside the region-wide movements as key motivators for heading to Northern California.
“Cooking for one another was something that made me feel at home with Hitomi. Being able to share something about my upbringing and my family to her was something that meant a lot to me. Coming back from Chicago, we were on the outside of the Filipino food scene in the Bay Area. So I started working with long-time friends JP & Kristen at The Sarap Shop. They introduced me to the community, and I was able to meet one after another welcoming us in like we were already part of the movement. The Sarap Shop is a major reason for us being where we are right now. Without them Ox & Tiger would still be a dream,” EJ says.
With their dream now a reality, EJ and Hitomi look to share the spirit of the communities they grew up in with the SOMA Pilipinas community at Kulinary Confidential – bringing the flavors and experiences they’ve cherished with their friends and family to a new group of friends and family.
“Sharing food with others generates the feeling of home. As a culture we have been immersed in it all of our lives. We had grandparents cooking the favorites at all the parties, and what we do now is carry that tradition for the future. I want to be able to be that person in our family to take those recipes from our elders and pass them on to the youngsters. There is a lot that we can pass down, and doing that with our food will keep our culture thriving. Ox and Tiger will introduce a refreshing take on our Filipino Cuisine, yet bring nostalgia that could help the Filipino/Fiipino Amerian people connect or reconnect with their heritage. The Filipino heritage is about bringing people together and what better way to do that than through food?”
Written by Paul Barrera. Photography by Evelyn Obamos.