“Garlic and ginger, the heat of chilis, and the tartness of vinegar flavor–our earliest memories. Food is where we find home and it is the feeling we love to share.”
These are the ideals of Sariwa, a California Bay Area-based small food business that is the brainchild of Filipino-American chef and activist Aileen Suzara. “Sariwa,” which translates to “fresh” in Tagalog, seeks to “share healthy, delicious foods that nurture community and honor roots.”
Planting the Seeds and Growth
If this story were to start anywhere, it would be with a Filipino family living in the Mojave Desert. Aileen’s experience growing up may be relatable to many whose families also made efforts to assimilate into American culture. Language split families in which parents spoke Tagalog while kids only spoke English. Homemade meals often consisted of Spam, Vienna sausages, Progresso, and the like. English literature lined the household bookshelves. Fantasy novels, in particular, caught a young Aileen’s attention and awakened her interest in cooking, ecology, and healing others–that’s what all the magical children did in these books. One book in particular, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, stood out for its theme of rejuvenation from a child’s lens. Aileen was drawn to these stories of children in England about food and transformation. Since she couldn’t become a druid, she wanted to find these roots for herself.
In a serendipitous instance at the age of 8, she found an unused Filipino cookbook while rummaging through some things. Upon opening it, she felt like she had an agimat, a talisman, that unlocked some essence of meaning, purpose, and history that appealed to her. And like Mary Lennox, Aileen discovered her own history linked to plants, recipes, and stories. This cookbook was the key that brought mystery and magic of ingredients not regularly used in her kitchen. She begged her mom to help create some of these dishes, and so began their expeditions around the desert’s Asian markets, searching for ingredients for malagkit. Aileen also traveled to the Philippines for the first time, where she had a “balikbayan experience,” meeting extended family and learning more history that set her future in motion. Since then, each experience groomed new senses of identity, reclamation, and nature that would become vital characteristics of Sariwa.
During high school, Aileen and her family moved to Hawai’i where she was awakened to a new perspective: a host culture with a strong indigenous identity. She witnessed a community that resisted oppression through food, land reclamation, and healing. These types of struggles were transformational. In understanding that she lived on someone else’s native land, she asked herself, “What is my responsibility based on who I am?” She wanted to answer this question as a part of the Filipino diaspora. She wanted a taste of that transformation that was real and authentic to herself.
Aileen began college in Massachusetts on a pre-med path (the passion to heal had always been there), but eventually transitioned to environmental work and justice. There, she learned about militarism in Hawai’i and how the state shared a historical timeline with the Philippines. This laid the groundwork for her journey toward decolonization. While this ultimately became her focus, she never forgot her love for cooking. As co-president of the Hawaiian club, she cooked up storms for homesick students during the snowy winter months.
In the years after college, Aileen did a lot: stints with Native Seeds/SEARCH and Filipino/American Coalition of Environmental Solidarity (FACES), a culinary program, training in organic farming, and maintaining a blog Kitchen Kwento. Through all of these experiences, she realized that her passions fit more within a community space. Taking the time the time to learn and grow Asian-American crops was just one piece of the puzzle; the next piece involved sparking interest in such crops. This mindset led to the concept of Sariwa. Off the heels of Typhoon Haiyan, she collaborated with fellow activists to crowdsource plant-based recipes, build a cookbook, and organize a pop-up featuring their food. They directed proceeds from this work to resilience funds for post-typhoon efforts. And thus, Sariwa was officially born.
Bloom and Harvest
Today, Sariwa continues to drive its mission in a time where people are raising their awareness of healthy habits and organic foods. The movement of mainstream sustainability has been predominantly white and Eurocentric thus far. It is in this landscape that Aileen wanted to create a space centered on health through lenses of people of color. Being Filipino-American, she especially felt a responsibility after unearthing stories about health issues and healing practices within the community.
There is a certain reputation that comes with Filipino food: great for the soul, bad for the heart. And there is some truth to that. When you disaggregate Filipino-American data out of the greater Asian-American demographic, Fil-Ams boast rates of chronic disease (i.e. diabetes, heart disease) higher than many other communities of color. There is a divide between how the community perceives its food and what food is considered sustainable. Filipino eating consists of salt, oil, and sugar-filled favorites like lumpia, lechon, and whatever else can fit in your covered plate brought home from the family gathering. And kept for baon later, of course. In contrast, a mainstream healthy diet is Mediterranean-inspired (see: Eurocentric) with fresh fruit and vegetables and fish. This is how the lines have been defined until now.
This fatalistic outlook feeds into false traditions that Sariwa aims to circumvent. But to promote such change proves difficult because of the ways food has largely been ingrained into Filipino-American identity. As assimilation happens within our communities, pieces may be lost throughout time, such as language and history. Food is the last to go. Though this is one of her biggest struggles, Aileen also uses it to her advantage. A family’s palate can be used as a powerful entry point to ignite change and progress. The Philippines has a rich history of fresh, plant-based dishes that are often forgotten when praising the tastiness of its cuisine, and they are the tools to reclaim a piece of our history and aid our communities.
“How can we fight for the land if we can’t even survive and take care of our bodies? If you want to do the work, you have to be strong and healthy to do it.”
With this principle, Sariwa acts less as a business and more as a platform for conversation about healing through cooking. Instead of simply teaching how to eat well, Sariwa acts as a vehicle that brings fresh, sustainable food from local farmers to communities. Their work brings Filipino food and that of other communities into the cultural conversation. This food isn’t merely a trend of bold flavors. Our food nourishes our people and reinforces our deep, rich identities.
Allen Mark Arañas is a San Jose, CA born-and-raised Filipino-American writer who works as an operations coordinator for sustenance. Always tired, always trying. Check out his newsletter “coffee in the A.M.” to follow how he navigates balancing the desire to write with day-to-day life.