Filipino food

Bibingka is in the air – and it’s not in Manila

Jojo Dass
Bibingka is in the air – and it’s not in Manila

FILIPINO STAPLE. This cafeteria's bibingka sells like hotcakes.

Daisy Calabia

An enterprising group of overseas Filipino workers in Dubai brings bibingka's mouth-watering scent to the city

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – With the onset of the “ber” months, that aromatic whiff of rice cake – bibingka – on banana leaf being baked atop a clay oven filled with glowing charcoals would soon be in the air, heralding the start of the longest yuletide season in the world.

But that’s in the Philippines. 

Seven thousand kilometers away, in Dubai, an enterprising group of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) thought of bringing that mouth-watering scent to the city. 

Pinoys, after all, grew up with this comfort food back home, and it makes them nostalgic about Simbang Gabi (dawn Masses), Noche Buena, and of course, their loved ones too, being away from them. And so, the bibingka found its way in Dubai, all dressed up with cheese and toppings of grated coconut.

But aside from the very Filipino bibingka, there’s an added option too, especially for Filipinos who have developed a liking for other delicacies.

The paratha, a South Asian flaky flatbread and a staple among Indian and Pakistani nationals, is best served rolled with scrambled egg and cheese. Some Pinoys crave parathas, which is best for breakfast and afternoon snack.

This part of the world is the domain of flatbreads and different varieties of them. This is the culinary legacy of the once mighty Ottoman Empire, which controlled vast territories from Central Asia to the Middle East, and onto North Africa from the 14th century until the early 20th century.

Market demand

Daisy Calabia, who used to work as a restaurant manager, told Rappler they saw a market demand for an eatery serving not only a particular cuisine but a mix of several ones.

This, noting that Dubai, being an international expat city and second home to people from over 250 countries, gives everyone an opportunity to explore different food fares.

As such, Filipinos come to the eatery to enjoy their very own bibingka and discover paratha, while their Indian and Pakistani counterparts indulge themselves in the Pinoy delicacy. The foreign nationals are curious and amazed about how it is being baked in banana leaves over glowing charcoals.

IN DEMAND. The cafeteria’s façade in Satwa, Dubai. Photo by Daisy Calabia

The eatery’s name, Bibingka and Paratha Cafeteria, is a bit cliché, even drab if you’re not so kind, but there’s beauty in simplicity. It opened on July 19 in Satwa, a working-class enclave of mostly Filipinos, Indians, and Pakistanis.

It is open from 10 am until midnight, and is making lots of home deliveries, which, by itself, is almost like a norm in the city. People can just make a phone call or send a WhatsApp message to the mom-and-pop store, or a shawarma outlet at the corner, or ask for soda or a roll and chai (tea), and have it delivered to their door in minutes.

Bibingka and Paratha Cafeteria seats eight people and, Calabia said, there were plans to set up tables to go al fresco in the winter. The cafeteria also serves drinks, including milk teas.  

“Originally,” said Calabia, “the plan was [to name it] ‘Bibingka House,’ since it’s the main product.”

Pero after checking the area, [we learned that] ang daming ibang lahi sa paligid. So, naisip namin na palitan ‘yong name para ma-accommodate rin sila,” she added.

(But after checking the area, [we learned that] there are many other nationalities everywhere. So, we decided to change the name to accommodate them.)

“Tayong mga Pinoy, bukod sa talagang hinahanap natin ang bibingka, e mahilig din naman sa paratha. Then, ‘yong ibang lahi naman, kumakain din pala sila ng mga kakanin natin. And nakaka-proud ‘pag natitikman nila ‘yong bibingka natin, sinasabi nila na special cake daw po ‘yon,” Calabia also said.

(We Filipinos crave bibingka and also love parathas. The other nationals, surprisingly, also enjoy our delicacies made from glutinous rice and coconut milk. It makes us feel proud when they try our bibingka. They say it’s a special cake.)

Pooled resources 

Calabia, a native of Mariveles, Bataan, said she and three other OFWs pooled their resources together for their project. Among her other business partners are Evangeline (Asiyah) Monjardin, an architect, and Rubelin Zamora, a company human resource officer.

Since may background na ako sa resto and café, naisip ko na gano’n business na rin itayo ko. And I am so lucky na may nagtiwala at laging nakasuporta,” Calabia said.

(Since I already have a background running a restaurant and café, I thought of running the same business. And I’m so lucky that they trusted and are always supporting me.)

She said the cafeteria currently employs four people, with plans to hire at least one Indian chef.

“If everything goes well and there’s an opportunity to expand [the cafeteria], why not? Right now, we need to focus on making this flagship store profitable and successful,” Calabia said.

DAISY AND HER BIBINGKA. Asked why she opted for the bibingka, she says: ‘Because the bibingka is uniquely Filipino and we are known for that. Also, it’s not always available in stores or eateries.’ Photo by Daisy Calabia
From engineer to restaurateur

Running a restaurant actually was a long jump for Calabia, an industrial engineer who arrived in Dubai 12 years ago on a visit visa for a stab at the city’s promise of la dolce vita.

She worked her way through college at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines Bataan branch, landing her first job after graduation in a well-known printing and packaging company in Manila.

In Dubai, Calabia started out as a customer service agent in a company importing and reexporting car tires and batteries. She stayed the course until finally being promoted as purchasing manager, which saw her traveling as quality control officer checking suppliers’ materials.

She transferred to other industry-related companies until one of her former bosses hired her to run two restaurants.

Calabia, who has received several recognitions for her involvement with the Filipino community, later on was embroiled in and won a labor case arising from termination without probable cause. This was pivotal because it pushed her to decide she would not be an employee anymore and would start a business instead.

The cafeteria is an affiliate of the League of Food and Beverage Entrepreneurs under the nongovernmental group Philippine Business Council – Dubai and the Northern Emirates. – Rappler.com

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