• Australia Master Chef Winner Adam Liaw with Will Mahusay, during their shoot for SBS' The Cook Up show (Will Mahusay)Source: Will Mahusay
Sydney Cebu Lechon owner Will Mahusay talks about Filipino pride, banana-cue, and how the Australian lunchbox has changed over the past few years - both on the playground and in the office.
By
Mark Mariano

13 Sep 2021 - 8:38 AM  UPDATED 22 Sep 2021 - 2:41 PM

--- The Cook Up with Adam Liaw airs weeknights on SBS Food at 7.00pm. Will Mahusay's Lunchbox Snacks episode aired Wednesday, 1 September and is available on SBS On Demand --- 

 

It's a tale as old as time, and one many first and second-generation immigrants share. That dreaded lunchbox moment where you peel back the lid to reveal your favourite home-cooked dish - sure to be made with love - and someone around you asks, "What's that funny smell?".

I remember bringing leftover pancit to school. It is one of my favourite Filipino dishes, and I swear my Mum's is the best. The soy sauce heavy noodle dish is proudly pungent, but when surrounded by compartmented Tupperware containers full of LCM bars and neatly cut sandwiches, the Tetra Pak with my mother's scribbled handwriting on it suddenly felt so out of place. 

It's safe to say, though, that this experience happens less as Australia globalises more and more. Kids these days bring sushi to school, and offices hold the occasional pot-luck lunch. While there's absolutely nothing wrong with a wrapper-covered bar and bangin' sangas, it's safe to say that the Aussie lunchbox is evolving. 

For Sydney Cebu Lechon owner and proud Pinoy, Will Mahusay, this tale was no different. Migrating to western Sydney from Cebu, the Philippines in the late '80s, Mahusay's eating experience at school varied, and this carried into his corporate world. 

Could it be that the same people with the 'stinky' lunches are the pioneers of today's diverse palette?

"In primary school, we went straight into Anglo-style lunches - things like chips and poppers. My parents were so time-poor - they had to prepare lunch for four children and run off to work early in the morning," he admits. "In high school, that changed. We got older, and my parents would just cook extra the night before knowing the leftovers would be taken to school for baon (lunch)."

In his small-town high school, he was able to find fellow ethnic-leftover-bringers. "We all took comfort with each other." 

However, as Mahusay entered the corporate adult world, baon in tow, he'd get subtle comments about the heavy garlic smell. While that wasn't his motivation to leave, he decided to take the leap away from his corporate life to carry on his father's food legacy and in turn opened Sydney Cebu Lechon. "It wasn't an easy decision. I was used to the safety, but after going through my father's books, I rolled the dice and took the risk." 

COOK WILL'S BANANA-CUE
Banana-cue

Banana-cue is commonly sold by street vendors in the Philippines. It’s a popular mid-late afternoon snack and the vendors serve this treat on a barbecue bamboo stick, but my version is simply wrapped in banana leaves.

In The Cook Up kitchen, Will shares banana-cue - a quick and simple snack that draws from traditional Filipino cooking methods. While he couldn't bring the barbeque element fully into the studio, he was very happy to represent a piece of the cuisine. 

"Food has played such a major role in Australia's multiculturalism. Food is a fire starter - it piques curiosity."

As Filipino food emerges out from under the Asian food umbrella, Mahusay strives to put the cuisine's best foot forward and opened the lechon restaurant outside of its Blacktown comfort zone. 

"I believe [the risk] paid off. Filipino food is grabbing a lot of attention in the most positive sense," says Mahusay. "Lechon is really just roast pork. This isn't a foreign concept to a lot of different cultures. People just aren't familiar with the lechon name and the aroma. I kid you not - as soon as [non-Filipino people] bite into it, they just give me that, 'Where have you been all my life?' look," he proudly exclaims.

Could it be that the same people with the 'stinky' lunches are the pioneers of today's diverse palette? "Food has played such a major role in Australia's multiculturalism. Food is a fire starter - it piques curiosity."

There's no knowing how our lunches will look like over the next few years, and that's okay. One thing is for sure - food continues to be the great unifier in spaces and times where it's needed most. 

Love your lunchbox
Packing love into the lunchbox across the generations
Every second-generation Aussie knows that their mum was the original Instagramable lunchbox maker. Just don't tell the other kids.

Will's Pinoy pantry staples

  • Vinegar (suka)
  • Soy sauce (toyo)
  • Fish sauce (patis)
  • Garlic (bawang)
  • Pepper (paminta)

Love the story? Follow the author on Instagram @markusmuch

MORE FILIPINO SNACKS
Turon with banana and jackfruit

This sweet dish is a classic Filipino street food snack. My version takes me back to when I was 8 years old and I would eat it with a scoop or two of ube ice cream. Traditionally, the dish uses Saba bananas which are commonly found in Asian grocers, either fresh or frozen.

Filipino roll cake (Brazo de Mercedes)

Filipino cuisine has an impressive lineup of cakes, and Brazo de Mercedes is no exception: a roll cake made from fluffy meringue, with a centre of rich egg yolk-based custard.

Cassava cake

At work, my mother was affectionately known as the Cassava Queen. She made cassava cake countless times over the years for colleagues who repeatedly requested the exotic dessert for office gatherings. Also known as cassava bibingka, this Filipino classic is characterised by a springy, elastic texture. It is also very easy to make. Stock up on pre-grated frozen cassava from Asian grocery stores, then thaw when you are ready to begin the recipe.

Filipino sweet sticky rice cakes (suman sa lihiya)

Sticky rice cakes abound throughout South East Asia. In the Philippines, eating the local variation, known as suman, is a national pastime. Serve with latik sauce (see recipe below) or a simple mixture of sugar and grated coconut.