Jette McGee is busy attending to the long queue lining up at the counter of her shop, which she runs with her mother Edna Baluyut. Customers come to Asian Sari Sari Store not only to buy Filipino produce and other Asian groceries, but to transfer money to relatives back home. “Many, many every day,” says Jette as she processes orders. Her customers, who hail from the Philippines, Myanmar, East Africa and further afield, also come to send care packages home. Many arrived in Australia as refugees, have settled into life in Darwin and are keen for their families to join them eventually.
Jette’s aunty came to Australia from the Philippines in 1982 and married a local. Jette and Edna arrived in Darwin in 1994, then Jette’s grandmother, her uncle and all her aunties followed. “In the Philippines, the eldest child helps the family,” explains Jette, the eldest of the family’s next generation and herself a mother of six.
Edna started importing Filipino groceries in bulk 10 years ago, storing them at home. She soon set up a small trestle table at the local markets, before opening her first shop. With Darwin’s growing Filipino and East African population, demand has continued and the mother-daughter team opened a second shop in nearby Yarrawonga last year.
One of the shop’s loyal customer is chef RJ Sta Cruz, who shops here with his wife Abigail and their young daughter. “We buy things that we miss from home,” Abigail explains. Their basket is piled with jars of lychee and apple coconut gel, which are popular desserts, as well as ingredients for pork tocino, a favourite Filipino dish made with spice-cured pork and pineapple juice or lemonade, before being boiled or fried.
Banana flowers, yam beans, finger eggplants, snake beans, baby green pawpaws and sigarilyas (winged beans) are stacked in the fridge. “This is the only place in Darwin where you can get these ingredients,” RJ emphasises. Edna grows most of the fresh produce, including limes and chillies, that are stocked at the store, in her garden at home.
Beside the fridges, there are baskets of sweet treats – baked watermelon seeds, dried mango rind, toasted wheat cakes and biscuits from the island of Cebu. The shelves beyond are lined with tins of quail eggs, baby squid in its ink, fried sardines in tomato sauce with chilli and cans of mackerel in soy sauce. “Filipinos love oily fish and sour flavours,” says Jette. There are bottles of toyomansi (soy sauce with calamari) alongside bottles of pinoy kurat (spiced coconut vinegar), lechon (a sauce based on pork liver) and tamis anghang (banana sauce). “We use banana sauce for marinating chicken,” says Jette.
Breakfast is often slices of longganisa (sausage) or a bowl of kangkong (water spinach) and tamarind soup for a sour start to the day. Lunch could be tuna with cumquats and red onions on rice, while dinner might be sinigang (a tamarind-based soup) with kangkong and pork or prawns, or palabok (rice noodles tossed with crushed pork rinds, smoked fish, boiled eggs and spices). “Palabok is my favourite – my aunty cooks it for me,” adds Jette, who doesn’t cook herself. “I’m the only Filipino I know who doesn’t cook,” she laughs. Jette’s husband does the cooking. “Even though he’s not Filipino, he cooks great Filipino food,” she says.
Nata de coco cheesecake
The unique flavour and surprisingly chewy texture of nata de coco (coconut gel) is the perfect foil for this tart, Greek-style yoghurt cheesecake on a ginger-spiced biscuit base. You will need a 20 cm springform pan for this recipe.
Sirloin steaks with Cafe De Manilla Butter
This twist on Café de Paris butter substitutes spicy shrimp paste for the usual anchovies.
Shop 24, 48 Trower Rd, Millner, NT, (08) 8948 1441
Photography Simon Furlong