Local entrepreneur helps bring flavors of the Philippines to Hawaii

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 do it, traditional and homemade, so when you try it it tastes like your Lola’s cooking,” said Ces Gamad, steward of Mama’s legacy Sita Foundation.

The family business exports sauces, marinades, condiments and meal sets to Hawaii and approximately 80 countries and has been promoting traditional Filipino cuisine for more than four decades.

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

For example, Mama Sita’s sells a ready-made champorado kit that makes the Filipino rice and dark chocolate porridge super easy to make.

The cocoa comes from Davao in the south of the country, while the heirloom rice is sourced from local farmers in the north of the Philippines.

“The Cordillera people 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 is the mission – to preserve and grow the ecosystem of the Philippines’ culinary heritage, from farmer to importer.

To create its signature vinegars, hundreds of blue barrels are used to ferment coconut blossom juice for several months to develop flavor.

Calisay says Mama Sita’s oyster sauce is a hit in Hawaii.

“These are farmed oysters, we get them mostly from Pangasinan and I think some of them are from the Visayas, plus we’re just made up of a lot of islands too,” Gamad said.

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

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

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

“We want to bring the Philippines to Hawaii so they don’t miss the food they grew up eating,” she said.

Now she is navigating the requirements and bureaucracy of multiple government agencies in the Philippines and the US, managing the volatility of inflation and natural disasters affecting 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 – Clara Reyes-Lapus, the daughter of the real Mama Sita – she is trying to stimulate overseas demand for Filipino artisanal products.

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

The entrepreneurs are changing that by recruiting international chefs as food ambassadors, like chef and owner Vicky Pacheco of Sentro 1771.

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

“Not just in a typically Filipino way, but in a different form of cooking, like a French utensil with a Filipino touch or flavor,” Calisay said.

Proof that food needs to connect cultures – including Hawaii and the Philippines.