‘Tastes like heaven’

There's a thriving market for sauteed shrimp paste, sweet purple yam spread and fish crackers in Whitehorse. It's all part of the growing influence of Whitehorse's burgeoning Filipino community.

There’s a thriving market for sauteed shrimp paste, sweet purple yam spread and fish crackers in Whitehorse.

It’s all part of the growing influence of Whitehorse’s burgeoning Filipino community. It’s estimated to number nearly 2,000 now.

Two stores are selling Filipino food in the hope of earning a buck while catering to the homesick cravings of these residents.

Asian Central opened in January on Ogilvie Street. It’s part convenience store, part restaurant, operating out of what was once the New Oriental Restaurant.

Inside, you can still find a lunch buffet with chow mein and Chinese vegetables, but many of the plates have a Filipino twist.

Pork and beef are marinated in a sweet and sour sauces – not the neon-red, gelatinous variety that comes with pineapple, but something more subtle, less sweet.

“When I came in 1999, it was very depressing,” said owner Ailene Gayangos. “Where I grew up, I was surrounded by ocean and everything is fresh. Food is my life.”

Gayangos knew other Filipinos felt the same way. And she’d always wanted to run her own store as her parents had.

“One guy was so delighted to find banana leaves,” she said. “That’s my job. I can absolutely see myself in his shoes.”

The television in Asian Central’s dining room is permanently tuned to the Filipino channel, recently introduced by Northwestel. One Friday afternoon, the channel alternated between game shows and soap operates.

At the condiments table, fish sauce and spicy vinegar sit alongside plum sauce and ketchup.

Coolers and freezers line the establishment’s walls. One contains ice cream bars flavoured with durian, an exotic fruit that smells like gym socks and tastes like almond custard.

“It smells like hell, but it tastes like heaven,” said Gayangos. Purple sweet potato, jackfruit, mango and taro are other ice cream varieties on hand.

The store also stocks a cooler full of Chinese steam buns and a freezer with a variety of dumplings and other dim sum offerings. Other foods on hand hail from Japan, Thailand, India, Korea and Singapore.

The combination of retail outlet and restaurant under one roof has an odd, jerry-rigged feel, similar to what’s found inside its chief competitor.

At Body Scents on Main Street, a section has been rebranded as the Filipino Store. A bestseller is bagoong alamang, or fermented shrimp paste, said owner Joy Allen.

“It stinks,” said Allen. She likens the smell to “a dead rat.” Her husband makes her open the windows while cooking with it.

It’s used to cook pinakbet, a popular dish from the country’s north. It’s served with vegetables like okra, eggplant and bitter melon.

Pinakurat is another popular sauce, made of fermented coconut sap and spices. It’s spicy and sour and kids like to use it as dip for pork rinds, said Allen.

There are also freezers full of milkfish, pork fatback in sauce, a variety of sausage, and shredded cassava, yam and coconut.

Shelves are lined with bags of dried taro leaves, bean thread noodles, eggnog cookies, yogurt drinks and banana chips.

“There are certain things that bring you back home,” said Allen. Food is one. “You don’t forget. You taste it and your brain clicks. You’re used to that,” she said.

When Allen arrived in 1988, she was the second Filipino nanny in Whitehorse, she said. She’s watched the Filipino community grow.

Both businesses are hedging their bets, recognizing that the Filipino community remains a small market. In the Filipino Store, snacks share space with facial scrubs, massage oils and bath foam.

And at Asian Central, Gayangos scaled back the number of Filipino dishes initially on offer, recognizing that most customers remain more comfortable with Chinese food.

Filipino restaurants have opened, and failed, in Whitehorse before. So Gayangos plans to go slow, expanding the Filipino offerings over time.

And they may feature pad thai or dim sum on certain days, she said.

Prior to opening her store, Gayangos would visit Vancouver’s Chinatown before returning to Whitehorse. She’d load up with boxes of Filipino mangos – which she insists are the sweetest – marinated or preserved milkfish and other foods that reminded her of the Philippines.

It’s a running joke among Whitehorse Filipinos that they’re happy when someone returns from vacation because they’ve brought food.

As a telling sign of how tight knit Filipino community remains, Allen once helped her competitor, Gayangos, enter the country.

Neither is sure the market is big enough for both stores, but the two women remain on friendly terms.

“That’s business,” said Allen.

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