“Food culture is so essential to who we are as a people.”
Seated on a shady concrete ledge overlooking the southwest corner of Lake Merritt, Aileen Suzara, chef and founder of Sariwa, explains how a career centered on community and environmental health led her back to a childhood dream of working closely with food -- and a discovery of her own family’s roots as farmers.
“With Sariwa, the seed of it started when I was very young -- so when I was eight, I told my family I wanted to grow up to be a farmer and a chef! I’ve spent the past decade-plus working on different community-based projects as an educator, working on environmental justice campaigns, and eventually, kind of just having this turning point where I knew I wanted to dive deeper into food. I knew that, in retracing my own family roots, that took the shape of both the agriculture and farming side [ ... ] I met family in Pangasinan, I saw the mango orchards, the rice fields.”
It’s a turning point that she says was equally influenced by her family’s histories as well as her professional experiences around the connections between food and people.
“I really just felt compelled by my family's lineage in agriculture, so I ended up training. I wanted to learn more about agriculture and soil and doing it form kind of a legacy perspective. I wanted to get back to the roots and ended up spending a couple of years doing organic farming and agriculture projects. Really getting to care deeply about the connections of seed, heritage vegetables, and kind of lifting up the positive aspects of [Filipino] agriculture you see -- all the hard work, all the connections to land.”
This sustainable, relationship-based approach to food found direct and natural links to her work and education in Public Health, leading eventually to a pop-up project that grew directly out of her community service work.
“I [was] with an org called FACES -- it's an environmental justice org that kind of had a climate justice campaign, and we wanted to do a community dinner in the wake of typhoon Haiyan, and that was the first pop-up dinner that I was a part of that was Filipino-themed, and we brought it together with The People's Kitchen Collective, as a collaborative. And just having over 150 people gathered together, having this food in Oakland I think sparked something for me, and I ended up taking that little seed, continuing through my work in public health nutrition, and actually doing a pop-up series while getting a Masters in Public Health.”
Aileen says that the perspectives from her Public Health background are at the forefront of the Sariwa project, engaging the question of how to run a Filipino food business in a manner that is deeply concerned, at every level, with ecological health and the public good.
“Sometimes we hear about Filipino food as something that is making our community sick because of x, y, and z stereotypes, and I just felt there is a completely different story that so many of our families have, that Filipino food is connected to place, that is seasonal, and it's not even doing it for the buzzwords, it's just what it is. And for me, it's thinking, ‘OK, what are ways to be accountable to community? How can I source ingredients that don't involve people of color and workers getting sprayed with pesticides, or getting their children sick, or getting the water polluted?’"
It's also a concern that Aileen maintains is key to Sariwa's role in honoring and preserving Filipino-American agricultural heritage.
"Being Filipino-American, we have this incredible legacy of farmworker struggles, and so if there is some way that we could bend our work to really build community and build health and build sustainability, even if it takes smaller steps to get there, I think we could get there, because it's kind of the new iteration of labor and workers that are now in the fields -- I feel that responsibility. I think what I love and am reminded by visiting family in the province, you know, that's ‘local,’ that's ‘sustainable,’ but words aren't always necessary. It's just always, ‘Of course you have to get something local, because that's what your natural environment is, and that's what’s around you.’"
The importance of respectfully weaving her project into the fabric of the existing local, natural environment is a critical part of the mission at Sariwa, something Aileen proudly stresses is expressed at every layer of the project.
“There are so many food stories, agricultural histories, right here in California that we can lift up in our cuisine, Sariwa means ‘fresh,’ and it is now a member of La Cocina, which is the incubator kitchen in San Francisco. La Cocina has been in the Mission for almost 15 years now, and essentially it's been an incubator that came about because it was the community really needed -- like it was a community need to kind of have both affordable kitchen space for entrepreneurial food businesses, but also to provide support, resources, whether its linguistic support, walking through the ropes of business, kind of just having a supportive network, and so most of the businesses that use it are primarily immigrants, primarily women of color, and/or are coming from communities of color. And I just think that really deliberate focus has been really empowering to be a part of, and right now, when I step into the kitchen, I am just blown away, the kitchen is literally bursting with life.”
Of course, this philosophy also extends to the delicious food from Sariwa, where regional Filipino specialties are thoughtfully prepared using the California harvest -- flavors Aileen and her team will be bringing to the UNDSCVRD Night Market.
“I love simple, fresh stuff. Making ensalada talong, I use these magical, miniature heritage eggplants. It's not just an eggplant is an eggplant, you have 30, 40 varieties of things, and how do you harness those flavors. And I love making different regional adobos. Some things that I really appreciate tracing are adobong dilaw which is one recipe I hope to introduce into the menu. Adobo dilaw has a soft spot for me because some of the Katipuneros had a special relationship to adobo dilaw -- it was one of their favorite dishes. So I was like, OK, let's dive into that. Turmeric is not just this new things that you see in cafés, it's an ingredient that's been used in especially South Asian cuisine forever, but it's also present in Filipino and southeast Asian foods. And ube is everywhere, but I'd love to have more fresh ube -- it's kind of a rare commodity. It's often frozen, and so I am like, ‘OK, what can we also make with root crops that we have available to us here?’ I love using different types of purple sweet potatoes. So those are things that strike me: how can you tinker with things, how can you play with the ingredients, and how can you take something simple and make it irresistible to people.”