“If I want a smoky flavor I will literally burn something.” Dylan Ubaldo, originator of Calasag Pop-Up, grins mischievously in a red apron. The Filipinx culinary artist, who uses they and he pronouns, tells me about a recent experiment. On an open stovetop flame they placed an eggplant lathered in mirin and coffee, searing the nightshade purple to black. They then mashed the eggplant into a charred, caffeinated rendition of tortang talong, a beloved Filipino omelette dish often served for breakfast. Their face glows in satisfaction as they remember the mess and the ecstatic flavor that came with it. “That’s what it’s all about to me. You kind of have to be committed to cleaning up.”
Ubaldo’s food art practice combines an arrow-sharp commitment to Filipino culture with a dedication to raucous invention. Supposed-tos and should-be-likes fade away, and the process of making takes precedent.
The members of Calasag, the Filipino food incubator and collaborative spearheaded by Ubaldo, put heritage and shared joy first. Calasag is currently composed of Dylan Ubaldo (@toyomansi_), Maryrose Runk (@filipinograndpa), Anna Aguilo (@divinagracia.aa) and Amira Green (@thug.mom), who share a goal of creating “a support group, safe space, culinary incubator for Filipino American people and Filipinx people.” The group hopes to make space for Filipinx people to challenge constraints of authenticity and expand their own food. For Ubaldo, food unlocks memory, identity, and agency. “Right now Calasag for me is questioning how do I exist as a Filipino person here in Baltimore,” says Ubaldo.
The name Calasag (pronounced kah-lá-saag) has many meanings, epitomizing the various functions of the food pop-up. “The barangay, the village, that my family is from in the Philippines is called Calasag,” Ubaldo explains. “Also within that word it contains the word ‘lasa’ which means taste or flavor in Tagalog.” The name also has anti-colonial roots. Kalasag with a “K” refers to beautifully carved wooden shields that indigenous peoples of the Philippines used to protect themselves—physically and spiritually—from colonizing forces. Sitting on the culinary artist’s right forearm is a tattooed kalasag, proudly peering over the meal Ubaldo is preparing.
At first with Calasag, Ubaldo hoped to spread knowledge of the history of colonization by the US, Spain, and other empires within the Philippines. Recognizing the challenge and murkiness of history, Ubaldo’s goal has shifted to a more pointed focus on the Filipino diaspora in Baltimore City. “History is like telephone, it gets convoluted over time. It’s easy for me to present a Filipino pop-up and present my own version of the history,” Ubaldo says. “I would rather just exist, and show people how we exist.”
Calasag’s pop-ups are mini enclaves of Filipino culture, down to the aesthetic and energy of the events, and are reactive to Baltimore, simultaneously. Calasag is diversifying their culinary game, adding “Pick-Up” to their Pop-Up, creating a financially accessible and downright neighborly way to engage with delicious and vivacious Filipino food.
The first time I tried Calasag I ordered pick-up; I ordered sisig and pabo kaldereta sa gata off of Instagram, just in time before they sold out. A deep foodie and chef myself, I felt like I was waiting for a blind date as I met a Calasag collective member at the congested corner of 29th and Miles. Digging into Calasag’s dishes, I grew enamored with the pop-up.
Bao Bar Poblacion, A Party Buffet, and Lor Sisig: Food Images from Casalag’s Instagram
Sisig, likely a recognizable dish to Filipino food lovers, is both positively delicious and illustrative of resilience in the face of colonialism. The dish is made using parts of the pig head, chopped or torn finely and seasoned with calamansi (Philippine lemon), onion, and chili pepper. Served over fluffy white rice, Calasag’s sisig is savory, sweet, and spicy but suitable for even the pickiest white-bread eater. It is complex yet utterly welcoming, an ideal food to pair with a crisp summer beer. This warm welcome comes from Filipinos’ resilience and celebration in the face of domination. Sisig was invented using the head of the pig, thrown out by US soldiers stationed in the Philippines in the ‘60s, and has since evolved into the staple it is today. “A lot of soul food and a lot of Filipino food came from creating delicious food out of the scraps that were left for us from our colonizers,” explains Ubaldo.
Calasag’s pabo kaldereta sa gata (turkey kaldereta with coconut milk) intrigued me with its hearty stew components and delicate flavor palette. The chefs of Calasag placed a grilled turkey leg in the center of a coconut milk stew carrying a xylophone of flavor. The savory and sweet groundedness of black pepper, ube, and coconut milk contrasted brilliantly with airy heat and citrus from chili and lemongrass. Turkey does not usually stand out to me, but Ubaldo’s spiced coconut powder and garlic marinade kept the meat tender and delicious. Ubaldo notes that this dish is close to their heart. “It’s a recipe developed by my Tita Anabelle that she would make using local wild turkey,” they say. “I’ve never seen it made with turkey anywhere other than Calasag.”
Ubaldo beams as they describe the process of making it their own, alongside the Calasag collective. “Doing this on a smaller scale [as a pick-up], we feel less inclined to do things just to please people. We’re just creatives, artists. We are about experimenting.”
Calasag Pop-Up (Photo by Diamond Dixon)
Under the moniker Toyomansi, a shoutout to Filipino soy and calamansi flavor, Ubaldo is a musician and curator as well as a chef. Calasag’s principles and presence overlap with hip-hop and punk DIY scenes, seizing control of narratives of what art is and who gets to create it. “People make food that might not be aesthetically pleasing, but the association and relationship that that food has with the community it’s in, that’s art,” Ubaldo asserts. “It’s lame that we have these white chef coat people who are everywhere, standing for photos, but I know amazing culinary artists, women who are never in front of a camera but in front of a stove, making the best food you’ve ever had, making art.”
More than accolades, Ubaldo wants creative freedom and grassroots joy. In their approximation of success, a friend’s feedback at a cookout is worth as much as a review in Bon Appetit. They are reaching for a more communal, interdisciplinary food culture. “There are so many people fighting for representation in the fine dining world for Filipino food,” they say, “and that’s dope, but I’m like, where’s the underground?”
A Food Prompt from Dylan Ubaldo:
“When we think about food and nutrition we often disregard mental health. Look for ingredients that speak to your soul, remind you of joyful memories and help you feel grounded.”
Check out Calasag at their 2nd Anniversary Potluck at Sidebar, on June 4 from 8–12 p.m.
Photos by the author except where otherwise noted.
E Cadoux is a chef, performance artist, facilitator, and organizer. They are a staff collective member of FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, and a co-founder of the performance art group Call Your Mom.