overseas Filipinos

Kariton Sorbetes: Comfort through Filipino gelato in Melbourne

Bea Cupin

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Kariton Sorbetes: Comfort through Filipino gelato in Melbourne

FILIPINO SORBETES. Most of their gelato flavors take from familiar Filipino flavors.

Kariton Sorbetes

In food-obsessed Melbourne, Kariton Sorbetes finds its place to introduce Filipino favorites to Australia

MELBOURNE, Australia – John Rivera was only three when he left the Philippines for New Zealand, and in his pre-teens when his family eventually moved to Australia.

But it’s the memory of his lola (grandmother), who once owned a carinderia (eatery) in Cabanatuan City that Rivera looks back to when asked about what made him pursue a career in the food industry in the first place.

“I love creating. I’ve got a creative mind. And it’s the hospitality that I really love,” explained Rivera.

It’s the beginning of March and while it’s finally starting to hit 22 degrees Celsius outdoors, it’s chilly inside the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Center. This week, thousands of leaders, officials, and media from all over Southeast Asia and Australia are gathered for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-Australia Special Summit.

Rivera and his colleagues are among a select group of homegrown businesses invited by the state to show off their products this week.

Despite the chill in the media center, Kariton Sorbetes gelatos generate both curiosity and glee, thanks in part to the bright purple and vibrant green of today’s offerings: Ube Halaya gelato and a soy and coconut-based Buko Pandan for those who have lactose intolerance.

Adult, Female, Person
VICTORIA FOOD. Kariton Sorbetes was among the business featured at the ASEAN-Australia Summit in Melbourne.

Their gelato flies off the shelves nowadays – from just over 100 tubs a week “for fun” during the lockdown in Melbourne to over 700 weekly today, now that’s the city and rest of the world has opened up.

“We realized there was a massive market and there’s a massive gap in the market for Filipino-centered products. Here in Australia, there’s a generation of Filipinos – my generation of Filipinos that are super proud of who they are and we want to showcase that to the world. Having a gelato brand has been the perfect open door for other cultures to experience our flavors,” Rivera tells Rappler on March 6, in between serving scoops of their gelato.

Rivera, a chef by training, said the reception in food-obsessed Melbourne has been amazing. What’s more amazing, through, is he finds most of their clientele are not Filipino.

“Melbourne is an amazing food city. We grew up with a lot of diversity in our food and I think that’s why it’s been quite successful here because Melbournians are foodies. Melbournians love good food and they love bold, bright flavors,” he added.

Their flavors are unapologetically Filipino.

The Buko Pandan, made completely without dairy, is inspired by a pre-pandemic visit to Aristocrat. Rivera thought it essential just for coconut to be there, but for the texture of pinipig (rice crispies) to be prominent, too. The turon flavor is a banana gelato with muscovado butterscotch, jackfruit, and a caramelized lumpia wrapper. There’s the taho soft serve sundae, which is soy-based and paired with sago pearls and an oolong tea-based arnibal (caramelized brown sugar syrup).

Other flavors include Iskrambol, a gelato version of the icy Manila street food classic, the Mango Float, the Chocnut, and a Cassava Cake gelato, to name a few. Ice cream can also be scooped into tinapay (bread) like a sandwich palaman – similar to what sorbeteros do back home – or as a topping to their halo-halo.

Returning soon – with a few tweaks – is a champorado (chocolate rice porridge) with a patis (fish sauce) caramel sauce. The Kariton Sorbetes crew admits it’s a flavor that takes people a while to get used to – but they swear the umami of a patis caramel sauce goes perfectly with a chocolate and rice gelato.

Cream, Dessert, Food
FILIPINO FLAVORS. The bright purple Ube Halaya and bright green Buko Pandan gelatos are hard to miss at the media center.

Rivera takes pride in Kariton not only because of the success he and his Vietnamese business partner’s quarantine project has achieved, but also as he thinks of the fact that Kariton is flourishing – that Filipino flavors are taking up space in the process, and that he’s part of it all – is a privilege.

“Growing up, I’ve never had Filipino role models that looked like me. We were all just trying to make it – like, make it fine,” he tells Rappler. For Rivero and his generation of entrepreneurs, putting Filipino food at the forefront is about “putting their head out and flying the flag.”

“I put my head out too….. Our kitchen crew, there’s about 10 of them, they’re all young Filipinos. They put their hands up and say, ‘I want to fight for this.’ It’s a privilege to be one of those people,” he adds.

Kariton is about giving back, too, to an older generation of Filipinos who were first to put their heads out and take a risk in Australia.

His father Charlie is their final taste tester. “He’s a typical Filipino – mapili (choosy), so hard to impress. When we first started, all the gelato went to him. We called it the ‘Charlie Test’. Kung nagustuhan ni Charlie, puwede na ibenta (If Charlie likes it, then we can sell it),” shares a bemused Rivera.

Cream, Dessert, Food
TAHO SOFT SERVE. The dairy-free option of course includes arnibal and sago.

The Charlie Test isn’t just a measure of whether the flavors hit the mark – it’s also a check on whether it’s good value for money. Charlie, after all, is a baby boomer who Rivera lovingly refers to as a “frugal immigrant.”

“He has a different kind of context to what [the food] is. He has more connections. He has more connections to what the food is like for him,” he says.

Food is connection, after all. Kariton Sorbetes recently played a part in the final goodbye of a friend’s grandmother. She was a fan of Kariton, so a week before she eventually passed, her family ordered tubs of the Ube Halaya to share.

“Our generation, we’re experimental – it’s cool, it’s fun. But one thing we never wanted to do was alienate our titos and titas. We want them to enjoy and have fun and be proud of what we do as much as we can…. For me, it’s a generational treat – whether it’s your lola, your tita, your tito, you’re welcome,” he added. – Rappler.com

Kariton Sorbetes is open in three Melbourne locations and will soon open a store in Sydney. They hope to soon open in Manila, too.

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.