Shiela Mcaleer grew up in Manila’s Central Market. Her home was in the middle of it. The place where her family slept, ate and lived was the same place they sold bananas, string beans and takeaway meals. “It was very busy,” says Mcaleer. “We slept in the market. When we woke up it was market straight away, cook straight away. My mum gave birth to me in the market. That's normal in the Philippines.”
Mcaleer tells us this at the table of one of her Sydney restaurants, Kapamilya Rockdale. She has just organised a huge catering order and facilitated a delivery for her importing business, and now we’re sitting down to eat. There’s sinigang (sour pork and vegetable soup), dinuguan (a rich black stew made from pork blood, vinegar and garlic) and menudo (a casserole-like red stew with pork, liver, tomato and carrots). “I learnt all of this from my mum, watching her, helping her.”
Mcaleer left the Philippines at 17. Like many poor Filipino migrants, her aim was to find work and support her family – first from Tokyo and then from Sydney. She did more than that. Over the years she saved enough money to open her first business, a small grocer in Rockdale. “It was a very run-down shop. Very few customers.”
But Mcaleer had an idea to get people in. “[During] Ramadan I saw one guy doing a barbeque, lots of Muslims coming on the street, lots of smoke. I can do that, but Filipino street food.”
She put her barbeque on the street one weekend and posted to Facebook saying she’d be grilling pork skewers, chicken and pork intestines, cubes of chicken-blood jelly, and spice-and-tomato-stuffed squids. Hundreds of people came, literally enough to close the street.
Now Kapamilya is famous in the local Filipino community for its winter weekend barbeques and its shelves of spiced vinegar, imported chips, traditional sauces and other indispensable Filipino pantry items. But also for its commitment to making things you can’t find easily outside of the Philippines.
That includes dishes such as ginataang (pumpkin, crab and coconut curry), laing (taro leaves simmered in coconut milk) and the infamous balut (semi-developed duck eggs).
Kapamilya was such a success Mcaleer could open two more of them, one in Fairfield and another in Marrickville. Her next plan is to find a giant hall, line it with grills and start Sydney’s first permanent Filipino barbeque. “There would be lots of street food, that is my dream. I am saving money.”
If Mcaleer’s mum saw her success, what would she say? “I'm sure she'd be very flattered and very happy. ‘Wow, I can't believe you did that’. We came from a very poor family. ‘How the hell?’”
No idea about Filipino groceries? Here are five Filipino pantry essentials, according to Shiela Mcaleer
Piattos cheese-flavour crisps
These are thin chips that are so oddly uniform they look like shards of plastic. They’re topped with the best kind of powdery American-style fake cheese flavour. This incredibly addictive snack is very similar to the now-extinct cheese-flavoured In A Biskit. “This is our best seller,” says Mcaleer.
V Cut spicy barbeque flavour crinkle-cut crisps
“It’s a little bit spicy,” Mcaleer says. It’s not exactly like chilli-flavoured Kettle chips but it does have a good hit of spice. Texturally it’s similar to Smith’s, just slightly thinner, and tastes more savoury and less sweet that a typical barbeque chip.
Egg Bite cookies
The packet makes it seem like you’re going to get a big eggy hit, but these little button-shaped biscuits are like an Arnott’s Arrowroot biscuit but with a custard-like aftertaste. Texturally it’s closer to a butter-biscuit you’d have with a coffee.
Datu Puti, spiced white vinegar
It’s full of spice, you can see it floating – hunks of red chillies, ginger and garlic. It tastes like an acidic slap to the tongue. It’s aggressively tart, heaped with flavour and carries that low-and-long-burn chilli heat. “This is the most important for Filipinos. All our food is pork and vinegar. Datu Puti is the famous brand,” she says.
Pancit Canton, calamansi-lime flavoured instant noodles
“Filipinos love noodles. This is my favourite one,” says Mcaleer. “Calamansi [citrus fruit] is a delicious flavour. I have six trees at home.”
Kapamilya Groceries and Eatery
Rockdale 28 Walz Street, Rockdale
(02) 9599 9788
Marrickville 324a Marrickville Road, Marrickville
(02) 9560 5264
Fairfield 45 The Crescent, Fairfield
(02) 9728 1475
This is another edition of Broadsheet’s “Local Knowledge” weekly series, where Nick Jordan explores the eateries at the heart of Sydney’s different cultural communities. Read more here.