Natasha Acuba, a Burnaby resident, has made a business selling an everyday dish that she grew up eating back in the Philippines — the adobo flakes.
The sweet and savoury side dish, as she vividly remembers, used to be a staple among an array of food items that her gran laid out every Sunday for a gathering of close to 20 family members.
“It was a family tradition; we spent every Sunday there, after church, without fail,” she said.
Considered as the national dish of the Philippines, adobo or pickled meat, is traditionally made by marinating stewed meat in soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, peppercorn, bell pepper and bay leaves, explained Acuba.The dish has its Mexican, Spanish and Puerto Rican versions, and every family has its own version of making it, she added.
Acuba’s grandmom made it by braising the meat for six hours, while stirring constantly, and then drying it to get a “flaky” and “chewy” texture — “Much like bacon bits or beef jerky,” she said.
Now, though the family get-togethers are a thing of the past as she and most of her cousins have migrated out of the Philippines, and her gran has passed on; the dish that used to be an integral part of the weekly tradition has continued to thrive as the focus of Acuba's business.
How it all began?
Acuba founded Telly’s Manila Kitchen in 2020; almost two decades after she moved to the west coast. The founding of the business, just as her adobo recipe, had everything to do with Acuba’s gran — the matriarch of the family — Terecita Vellaluz.
In 2019, Vellaluz suffered a stroke, and had to be placed under a 24-hour medical care. Though miles away from her nana, Acuba decided to start a business that would honour her legacy while also bringing in extra income to help out with the medical bills.
She learned all about her family’s secret recipe over a video call from her mom, Telly (the business is named after her). She learned that the age-old recipe includes just four ingredients, and that when her gran had first started making it, it wasn’t with chicken or pork — as is done today — but with "infant ducks."
Pateros, a municipality in Metro Manila, where her gran lived, was known for a delicacy called adobong itik — which refers to adobo made with duck meat. But when the recipe was passed down to Acuba’s mom, she started using pork shoulder instead of duck meat.
Now, in the hands of Acuba, the recipe flourishes in two different versions: as pork and chicken adobo flakes.
Acuba started out small — making limited samples of her family recipe in her home kitchen for select number of friends to taste and give feedback. Many came back for refills, and with the question: 'Are you selling these yet?’.
That was a push enough for Acuba, who moved her cooking to the YVR Prep Commissary Kitchen in Burnaby, and started selling bottles of her flakes at various farmers markets — the very first being in New Westminster.
“We were consistently sold out!” she said.
There was enough demand to take it up full time, Acuba realized. She quit her job as a manager at Sephora to focus on expanding her business.
She realized that though Filipinos ate it as an accompaniment to fried rice, adobo flakes were for everyone. She saw her friends add the flakes to their tacos, carbonaras, pokey bowls and congees; even on top of baked potatoes (instead of bacon bits), and pierogies. Some even paired them with beer, or as an alternative to deli meat slices on a charcuterie board.
Honouring the matriarch
Acuba is happy how far her business has come in just two years; and though her gran — "who always had her hair perfectly set, and wore perfume to bed" — isn’t alive to celebrate it, Acuba still looks up to her for strength.
“One of the things that's really amazing about my grandma was that though she did not know how to read or write — she started as a vendor in a public market selling fish — because of how she was as a person, how determined and persistent she was, she grew several businesses (a gym and a beach resort to mention a few) before she passed.”
Every bottle of adobo flakes that Acuba sells has a photo of her gran on it.
Vellaluz passed away a year after Acuba launched the business.
"Though she couldn't converse properly post the stroke, my mom would tell me that every time I mentioned Manila Kitchen to grandma, she smiled.”
A gesture that was, and is, enough motivation for Acuba to go on.
You can grab a Telly’s Manila Kitchen product from City Avenue market (810 Quayside Dr. in New West), Dalina on Main Street, or YVR Prep (5279 Still Creek Ave. in Burnaby), or request for a free delivery through their website if you are in the Lower Mainland area.