It was 4 a.m. by the time chef Kimberly Camara finished transforming her New York City apartment into a makeshift bakery for Kora, her Filipino doughnut shop. She’d spent the last two days prepping dough, fillings, and glazes, and on this sleepy Friday last fall she pulled out folding tables stored underneath the couch and plugged in two small fryers. While she waited for the rest of her team to arrive—her mother, brother, and cousin—she and her partner, Kevin Borja, rolled and shaped the doughnuts on the folding tables. Altogether, they fried, glazed, and boxed about 500 doughnuts for customers to pick up. And while that may seem like a lot of doughnuts, this barely makes a dent in Kora’s nearly 10,000-person waitlist.
“It’s daunting,” Camara says. After she and Borja were laid off from their jobs—a research development cook and a server at Union Square Hospitality Group, respectively—back in March, Camara cobbled together leftover ube pastry cream and brioche dough and sold them as doughnuts via Instagram. “There was no monetary motivation behind it,” she says. “It was literally just like, I want to do something.” She thought they’d be doing this for about a month, but now a year later, they’re trying to keep up with the staggering number of orders they’ve gotten. Recently they opened their own commissary space to keep up with their never-ending orders.
While business for delivery apps has more than doubled during the pandemic, Instagram has become a source for takeout. The Kora team was shocked by how fast their following grew. But they weren’t surprised that people were interested in Filipino flavors. “I think society has become more open to trying things because of the internet, honestly,” Camara says. “Obviously, ube is one of the main things that people are so excited about, just because it’s purple and tastes great. I see a lot of Filipino cuisine being hailed and sought out.”
Kora is one of several new Filipino online pop-up bakeries slammed with overwhelming demand. The Dusky Kitchen and JEJOCA, both located in New York City, have consistently sold out of Filipino sweets sampler boxes within a day or two of opening up online orders. The team behind Salamat Cookies in Indianapolis received double the orders they expected in their first week in business last May. Now, 24,200 cookies later, Salamat has registered as an LLC, launched an official website, and is looking into renting a commercial kitchen. In Milpitas, California, chef Francis Sibal started Kuya Pields in response to the popularity of the baked goods he made and donated to frontline workers at the hospital where his sister works. “People were too embarrassed to say, ‘Hey, could I just buy it?’ knowing this whole thing was for the front liners,” he says. “I didn’t plan to start a business. It all just happened.”
And it’s happening now—with a lot of chefs out of work and able to dedicate their skills and time to more personal projects; home bakers ready to take their hobby to the next level; and so many of us stuck at home, on our phones, and in search of something soothing, scintillating, and sweet. All this has led to the current Filipino baking evolution we’re seeing right now on social media.
Baking has long been a part of the Philippine culinary canon, reflecting a history of cultural melding. In precolonial times, with the influence of Malay ancestors, natives made cakes out of sticky rice and coconut milk. In a 16th century account, Italian historian Antonio Pigafetta described kakanin—the general name for Filipino rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves and given to the Spanish as gifts—as “resembling sugar loaves, while others were made in the manner of tarts with eggs and honey.” Philippine food historian Doreen Fernandez noted in her book Palayok that there were so many variations of kakanin, specifically subtly sweet baked bibingka and fluffy steamed puto, that written records from Spanish missionaries couldn’t capture how rich the baking tradition had been.