AUBURN — Beth Davis is in her large, immaculate kitchen calmly and confidently putting together heaping quantities of fried rice, pancit bihon, pork adobo and Filipino fruit salad, while simultaneously demonstrating each recipe step-by-step, hosting a boisterous birthday party, chatting in several languages, making sure everybody who wants coffee has coffee, revealing the contents of an oversized pantry that’s so well stocked you could mistake it for the grocer’s, and breezily describing Filipino Christmas foods and traditions to a reporter who has crashed the party. She is unfazed.

Beth Davis’ Filipino pancit bihon with noodles, garlic, chopped chicken, snow peas, string beans, carrots and garlic. “Garlic always,” said Davis. “Filipinos use so much garlic.” Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

Filipino fried rice, pancit (an accommodating fried rice noodle dish with vegetables and meat), adobo (peppery soy-and-vinegar braised chicken or pork) and that fruit salad (canned fruit cocktail, apples, Cool Whip, Nestle table cream and sweetened condensed milk) are on the menu this afternoon and are among the dishes that are indispensable for Christmas, or any celebration, in the Philippines. That’s where Davis and her stylishly dressed guests grew up. By one path or another, they have all found a home in Maine. Davis herself arrived 45 years ago after marrying an American. Today, the couple has four children and several grandchildren.

It is three weeks until Christmas. A few days earlier, these women, along with some 250 other members of Maine Filipino households, celebrated at a community center in Brunswick. It was the first Christmas party held by the newly reconvened Filipino American Samahan of Maine, a group that disbanded 17 years ago after the Navy base in Brunswick dwindled and closed, and many of the Filipinos then serving in the Navy and living in Maine moved on.

But the last several years have brought change, make that growth, to the Filipino community here. Sarah Boothby, president of the samahan, said that when its previous incarnation disbanded – she was president then, too – some 1,000 Filipino (or blended) families lived in Maine. Today, she thinks that number has at least doubled, and perhaps tripled. A driver of the expanding population, Boothby said, is the “tremendous” number of Filipino nurses coming to Maine in recent years to work in the state’s hospitals.

Five-year estimates through 2021 from Maine’s Office of the State Economist put the Filipino population here at just over 2,000, plus or minus 500, or roughly 0.2% of the state’s total population. According to that data, the largest number of Filipinos live in Cumberland County. But the office warns that the margin of error, which comes from the 2021 Community Survey done by the U.S. Census Bureau, is high.

When Buena Vista, a Filipino grocery store, opened in South Portland last summer, Sinful Kitchen chef and proprietor Dave Mallari was there; his father is Filipino. “It was packed!” he said. “There are a lot more Filipinos (in Maine) than we thought.”


This month, Mallari restarted his Filipino “Boodle Fight” dinners, communal, eat-with-your-hand feasts that he’d paused for the pandemic.

The Maine samahan, or association, reconstituted itself one year ago . Boothby, who lives in Brunswick, would like the Filipino community here to become better known to its neighbors. “We are a part of the community and we are serving the community,” she said, noting that Filipino nurses in Maine during the pandemic “saved a lot of lives.”

As important, “we just want to impart our culture and traditions to the next generation so they will not forget it,” she said.


The Philippines is a largely Catholic country – the result of nearly 400 years of Spanish colonization – that goes in for Christmas in a big way.

“I think the No. 1, very important, is we should have God in our life,” party guest and Lewiston resident Marilou Gagne said. “That’s the spirit of Christmas.”


There are also traditional star-shaped parol lanterns; nine days of masses; the twinkle and hubbub of elaborate Christmas displays; the church bells; the visiting and gatherings; the caroling and dancing; the presents, for children only; and a countdown to Christmas that begins on Sept. 1. The extended Christmas season is a point of pride and joy. Also chief among Filipino culture and traditions at Christmas – and really any time of year – is the food.

Beth Davis’ Filipino fried rice with scrambled eggs, bacon, garlic and carrots. Davis adds Gravy Master for color. Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

“Without food, there would be no get-together,” said Boothby, who worked for 30 years at L.L. Bean and now is a real estate agent and property manager.”Without food, it’s nothing.”

In addition to the food Davis is cooking for the birthday party, guests ticked off other items that are typically found on Filipino Christmas tables:

Lechon, or spit-roasted suckling pig, for those who can afford it, though not practical in Maine, because it’s too cold to cook outside at Christmas time.

Morcon or embudito, two related dishes in which pounded or ground beef (or sometimes pork) is rolled around a filling variously made up of cheese, hot dogs, chorizo, pickles and boiled eggs. “Over there, because the Philippines is a poor country, we don’t get to eat meat every day,” Gagne said. “But on Christmas, if we have meat, that means it’s very special.”

Rice, which is ever present, holiday or no. Rice is love, according to Filipinos. Davis makes it, like she does everything else, without measuring. “I cook by instinct,” she said.


Lumpia, or fried spring rolls, also pretty much mandatory at Filipino celebrations.

Leche flan

Bibingka, street food coconut rice cakes that are cooked over charcoal. “Oh my God. That’s the best! You will drool,” guest Mary Linkovich said when describing these.

You can’t call it a party in the Philippines without lumpia. Shutterstock/Diade Riva Nugrahani

“There’s an abandon and abundance that is amazing,” said Guy Hernandez describing Filipino food and feasting in general. Hernandez, who founded and cooked at Bar Lola, Lolita and Hilltop Coffee in Portland with his wife Stella, is the son of an American mother and Filipino father. He adopted his now-teenager Kai from the Philippines, and their interest in the land where they were born (Kai uses they/them pronouns) has sparked Hernandez’s own reexamination and exploration of the food and culture he grew up with without ever giving it much thought. Filipino cooking, Hernandez said, is embracing. It combines many ideas and has few rules.

“Adobo is what people consider the Filipino national dish,” he said by way of example. “If you ask 10 Filipinos what adobo is, you will get 12 answers. Every Filipino has a different way of doing it.”

Many ideas and few rules could probably describe Christmas in Maine for many Filipino and part-Filipino households. Traditions often reflect the families’ compound identities, their Filipino roots and their Maine homes (and, in many cases, spouses) – lumpia and pancit sharing the buffet table with the Christmas ham and mashed potatoes.



Most of the women at Davis’ party have lived in Maine for decades, and its traditions and rhythms have become familiar. But it wasn’t always so. Boothby remembers her first fall and her first nor’easter. She thought all the trees were dying.

Lewiston resident Mila Poliquin, a graceful dancer and Philippines culture teacher who arrived 34 years ago to marry a Mainer, recalled her first snowfall. She was thrilled. She marveled at the flakes. She tasted the snow, and eagerly helped her new husband shovel. By her second winter, snowfall felt a little more ho-hum. By year three, it was losing its charm, and when the first snow began to fall in her fourth winter in Maine, she caught herself thinking, “No more!” She laughed at the memory.

Gagne arrived in Maine on a glittering, sunny day in September. She was chilled – and puzzled. “I said, ‘How come the sun is so bright and it’s very cold?’ Because in the Philippines, if there is sun, it’s really hot.” Other aspects of her new life proved equally strange. “The first time I met my brother-in-law, he hugged me. We don’t hug over there. We hug when it’s your wife or husband. We’re not taught to be huggable. I was so scared and afraid of hugging people. My brother-in-law, he doesn’t know that.”

More than 30 years on, Gagne said, “Now I’m a huggable person.”



Beth Davis peels apples in her kitchen for Filipino fruit salad. The kitchen sink at her home in Auburn looks out on Taylor Pond. Davis loves to cook, perhaps a trait she inherited from her grandfather, who owned a restaurant in the Philippines. Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

Filipino food is having a moment in the United States, one long since predicted by TV celebrity chefs Andrew Zimmern and the late Anthony Bourdain. “I think Filipino food … is just going to keep getting more and more popular,” Zimmern, host of TV’s “Bizarre Foods,” said in 2017. The following year, the New York Times headlined its own article on the subject, “Filipino Food Finds a Place in the American Mainsteam.” (Make that Maine-stream?)

This year, Food & Wine magazine did a 15-page spread on Filipino food in the States. A travel feature that the magazine did, also this year, on “The Best Places to Eat Filipino Food in Every State” listed Mallari’s Sinful Kitchen and his pig-roasting business, The Pig Kahuna.

What’s driving its growing popularity? Americans, Mallari thinks, are looking for the next big food thing. Food from places like Thailand, Japan and Korea have become old hat. Also, he said, pop culture has begun to embrace the Filipino experience in America with movies like “Easter Sunday” and comedians like Jo Koy. “As soon as people start looking at the culture, the next logical thing is the food,” Mallari said. It’s crossed his mind to open a Filipino restaurant in Portland – or then again, maybe not.

“We’re very judgmental,” Mallari said. “The Filipinos will be like, ‘That’s good, but I can make it better.’ In order to open a (Filipino) restaurant, you have to have real nerves of steel.”

Then there’s the Lunchbox Factor. Until relatively recently, immigrants to the United States often felt they had to assimilate, stifling their native languages and muting customs from their homelands. Today, a diverse background is just as often something to boast about in the States. Many now-adult children of immigrants to the United States have stories of being teased about the contents of their lunchboxes as youngsters. Hernandez, who said he never had such an experience himself, thinks today it more often goes the other way around: ” ‘Go ahead and eat your peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I feel sorry for you. You wish you had what I have for lunch!’ ”

“We should be talking about” Filipino food, he added, “because it’s a great cuisine, a really interesting flavor profile and a really interesting culture that, like all other cultures, has things we can learn from, things we can emulate.”


Embutido (Filipino Stuffed Meatloaf)
This recipe is from Chef Dave Mallari of the Sinful Kitchen restaurant and The Pig Kahuna catering in Portland. Embutido is traditionally stuffed with Vienna sausage or hot dogs, but Mallari replaces those meats with fully cooked longanisa sausage for a better flavor. Find the sausage at Buena Vista Filipino Market in South Portland or, occasionally, at Hong Kong Market in Portland in the frozen food sections. Serve the meatloaf with rice and Filipino banana ketchup, which you can find at the same markets. As a kid, Mallari hated embutido, singling out the raisins for special dislike. Now, he said, “it’s one of the dishes I crave the most at Christmastime.”

Yield: 2 big logs or 4 small ones

1 pound ground pork
2 raw eggs
¼ cup flour
1 cup breadcrumbs
1 large carrot, diced small
1 large yellow onion, diced small
1 medium green bell pepper, diced small
⅓ cup sweet relish
3 tablespoons tomato sauce or ketchup
⅔ cup raisins
1-2 teaspoons salt
¼ teaspoons pepper

6 pieces Filipino Longanisa Sausage, fully cooked
2 hard-boiled eggs, cut into quarters

Combine all the ingredients for the meatloaf (except filling) in a large mixing bowl and mix together using your hands.

Cut 2 pieces of aluminum foil about 12 inches long each. Flatten half of the meat mixture on of the foil, covering about half of the sheet. Leave some space at the ends, about 2 inches on each side. Place the sausages and hard boiled eggs on the middle of the flattened meat. Roll the foil so that the meat forms a cylinder or log, locking the sausage and egg in the center. Twist the ends of the foil to lock.

Steam for 50-60 minutes or until juices run clear when foil pouch is pierced. (Mallari usually uses a large bamboo steamer, but he has baked the meatloaf, too, when he’s making a very large one).

You can cut and serve the embudito as is, but it’s even better when you sear the outside until browned or sear each individual slice.

Buko, or Filipino fruit salad. This version uses fresh young coconut. In her version, Beth Davis reached for a fruit that’s more at home in Maine – apples. Shutterstock/MDV Edwards

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