Local entrepreneur helps bring flavors of the Philippines to Hawaii

Hawaii entrepreneur works to bring the flavors of the Philippines to the islands
Published: Nov. 15, 2022 at 8:58 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - For many Filipinos, Mama Sita’s offers a taste of home no matter where they are in the world.

“The way you would make it at home is the way we make it, traditionally and homespun that’s why when you taste it, it taste like your lola’s cooking,” said Ces Gamad, legacy custodian for the Mama Sita Foundation.

The family-owned company exports sauces, marinades, spices and meal kits to Hawaii and about 80 countries and has been promoting Filipino heritage cooking for more than four decades.

At the Mama Sita’s factory in Manila, Gamad and Hawaii-based importer Melody Calisay explain how products get from Philippine farm to Hawaii shelf.

For example, Mama Sita’s sells a ready-to-make champorado kit, which is an easy way to make the Filipino porridge made from rice and dark chocolate.

The cacao is sourced from Davao in the southern part of the country, while the heirloom rice is sourced from indigenous farmers in the northern part of the Philippines.

“The people from the Cordillera, they use this Balatinaw rice in their rituals, it’s something that’s part of their spiritual life, it’s something that’s part of their cultural identity,” Gamad said.

And that’s the mission – preserve and grow the Philippines’ culinary heritage eco-system, from farmers to importers.

To make its signature vinegars, hundreds of blue barrels are used to ferment coconut flower sap for several months to develop flavor.

Calisay says in Hawaii, Mama Sita’s oyster sauce is a best seller.

“They’re farmed oysters, we get them from Pangasinan most of it and I think some of them from are from the Visayas also we just also made up of many islands,” Gamad said.

Another popular product is the achuete annatto powder, a food coloring for dishes like pancit noodles and kare-kare peanut butter stew.

Products are stored in the warehouse until they’re loaded onto trucks and containers. It can take between 2-3 months for a shipment to arrive at its destination, depending on shipping delays.

Buyer Calisay says she started with no capital or sales experience more than 15 years ago, but was motivated by a mission.

“We want to bring the Philippines to Hawaii, so they will not miss the food that where they grew up with,” she said.

Now she navigates the requirements ad red tape of multiple agencies from the Philippines and U.S. and manages the volatility of inflation and natural disasters, which impact costs.

“The import business is a very risky business, but you just have to be persistent. You just have to work hard and never give up,” she said.

On the export side -- the real Mama Sita’s daughter Clara Reyes-Lapus – she’s trying to boost foreign demand for Philippine artisanal products.

“In Hawaii, where there are many Ilocanos, they don’t appreciate these vinegars,” Reyes-Lapus said.

The women entrepreneurs are changing that by recruiting international chefs as food ambassadors like Sentro 1771′s chef-owner Vicky Pacheco.

Pacheco uses Mama Sita’s products in everything from soy calamansi milkfish to adlai paella to champorado desserts.

“Not only in a typical Filipino way, but in a different form of cuisine, like a French implements with Filipino touch or taste,” Calisay said.

A testament to the power food has to connect cultures -- including Hawaii and the Philippines.