The Spanish government established the first bread bakery in the Philippines around 1631, and pandesal was born. It was initially made out of wheat flour, tough and crusty like a French baguette. But because the Philippines wasn’t big on wheat production, bakers eventually turned to weaker flours made of low-protein wheat, like all-purpose or cake flour, which led to the pillowy, bread-crumb-dusted rolls Filipinos know today. “It is the bread of our history, at the core of our culture, at the heart of our tastes,” Fernandez writes of pandesal. “It is brown and plain like the Filipino, good by itself or alone, crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. It is good, basic and strong—just the way we are, and would like the nation to be.”
As Filipino immigrants moved to the U.S., they brought with them these baking traditions. Step into any Little Manila, and you’ll easily find a bakery mainstay with soft pandesal; ensaymada, cheese-topped brioche rolls; chiffon cupcakes known as mamon; dacquoise-like cakes with layers of buttercream, meringue, and cashews aptly dubbed sans rival; brazo de mercedes, a fleecy meringue roll filled with custard; and all kinds of colorful kakanin. Some of these bakeries have become household names. Philippine Bread House in Newark, New Jersey, has been around since the 1970s and is beloved for its ube-flavored Swiss rolls and mango sponge cakes. Since its founding in 1979, Valerio’s City Bakery has grown into a mini-chain with four locations in California, all doling out hot pandesal and white loaves swirled with ube, cheese, or mongo (red mung bean).
Jessica Causing was inspired by her great-aunt’s 40-year-old bakery Gemmae Bake Shop in Long Beach, California, when she started her own online bakery JEJOCA, which is currently on hiatus. Gemmae’s is renowned for its ensaymada, pandesal, and bibingka, but over the years it’s also added items that combine Filipino flavors with American baking traditions, like mango cream cheesecake and ube pistachio tart. “I grew up eating a lot of Gemmae’s stuff,” Causing says. “That collaboration between the flavors and the baked goods definitely inspired me.”
Even as food with Filipino ingredients became more widely available (Trader Joe’s ube waffles!), baked goods stayed mostly within the Filipino community. But with the rise of Instagram bakeries and other online platforms during the pandemic, more people are actively seeking out these treats.
When food writer Kiera Wright-Ruiz saw photos of the Dusky Kitchen’s pandan polvorón, Filipino shortbread, she knew she just had to try them. To her, they seemed like the “ultimate gift” at the end of a long day during the pandemic. “Something that draws me to Filipino flavors, in particular, is the merger of cultures,” she explains, “I’m half-Latinx and half-Asian. So in general, it’s just really interesting for me to see ingredients or dishes that I know from the Latinx angle and see how that has been translated to Filipino culture.”
“They were unlike anything I had ever seen,” says EmJ Hova, a private tutor who discovered Kora on social media. “The doughnuts looked like a work of art. The vibrancy of the colors, the flavors, and just the story that Kim was bringing with her Filipino history and her grandmother, everything spoke [to me].”
After pining over the doughnuts for months, she and her partner got their first Kora box last fall. “I was marveling at the fact that you can make a doughnut that doesn’t involve chocolate or sprinkles or just plain custard. Everything was so unique and special.”
Filipino flavors and ingredients stand out in the landscape of beige baked goods on our Instagram feeds, which is part of the reason why Camara thinks they do so well on the platform. “I’m not surprised,” she says. “You can’t help but notice that vibrant purple hue when scrolling through your feed.”