When Lane Harlan opened Clavel Mezcaleria nearly nine years ago with chef Carlos Raba, little did she know that the award-winning Mexican hotspot would actually teach her more about her Filipino heritage.

Many of those lessons will be displayed Wednesday during a cooking collaboration between Raba and Filipino chef Rey Eugenio. For Harlan, the night will be a culmination of what she’s learned about her own background while operating the Remington restaurant.

“Often my mama would taste something off our menu and say, ‘This reminds me of a dish Grandma used to make,’ but I hadn’t spent time looking into historical references,” Harlan said about her Filipino mother.

The connection between Mexico and the Philippines became cemented for Harlan in 2018 when she traveled to the coast of Jalisco to learn more about mezcal. Harlan and her team have been visiting various states in Mexico for almost a decade — accumulating more than 1,200 hours of public education about the spirit.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

In Jalisco, Harlan visited a mezcalero who was fermenting agave in stone wells and distilling in a hollowed-out tree trunk. The maker there spoke to her at length about the “Filipino-style” production methods. Interest piqued, the restaurateur went down a rabbit hole that revealed a centuries-long tie between the two countries separated by more than 13,000 miles.

“It is important to highlight the shared history between Filipinos and Mexicans. Filipinos have had an undeniable influence on Mexican cuisine and the production of mezcal in Mexico today,” Harlan said.

Harlan learned that Spanish trading ships, known as the Manila Galleon, linked “Nuevo España” (New Spain) based in Mexico City, to its Asian territories. The trade route, which went between Acapulco, Mexico, and Manila, Philippines, was in use from 1565 to 1815.

Those ships carried Filipino goods and enslaved people. In Mexico — specifically Colima — the enslaved Filipino people worked on large coconut plantations. They were known as Indios Chinos, which translates to Chinese Indians.

Similarly to how enslaved Africans brought distilling methods to the United States that created the whiskey industry, there is growing belief that Filipinos are responsible for the essential process that creates the smoky spirit mezcal, which is made from agave.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

When Filipinos came to Mexico, they brought their style of distillation with them, Harlan learned. In fact, the Filipino distillation style is still used today in the Mexican mezcals Harlan’s restaurant sells from Raicillas, Jalisco and Michoacán.

In addition to mezcal, the Manila Galleon created a culinary exchange between Asia and Mexico that sent items such as corn, tomatoes, chiles, papayas and chocolate to the Philippines, while tamarind, coconuts, rice and tubâ — a drink fermented from coconut sap — came to Mexico.

But it’s more than just food that connects the countries. They partake in similar traditions — Christmas is a huge holiday for both, and the Philippines also celebrates the Day of the Dead, Eugenio said — as well as share the same approach to family and hospitality.

“The greatest similarity I see between the two cultures lies within the hearts of the people themselves, many of them who have had to travel far for work in order to feed their families from abroad. Regardless of social status, for Filipinos and Mexicans, hospitality reigns,” Harlan said. “For us, nothing better than sharing a meal … and eating with your hands. I’m not surprised about this, but I think it’s important to know that the people who have the least are the ones who give the most. Above all else, Filipinos and Mexicans share a love for hospitality. In our homes, you will never go hungry.”

A Filipino/Mexican popup will take place on Wednesday at Clavel between Lane Harlan, Carlos Raba and Rey Eugenio.
Lane Harlan did not know Clavel, her award-winning Mexican hotspot, would actually teach her more about her Filipino heritage. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Wednesday’s collaboration will focus on three dishes: lumpia, a traditional Filipino shrimp dish featuring a non-traditional sweet Thai chili dipping sauce made with chipotle peppers; Inihaw na Manok tacos, which features chicken marinated in roasted jalapeños, garlic, scallions, sesame oil, oyster sauce, fish sauce and fresh cilantro served with grilled pineapples; and pork belly lechon served with a bubbling hot salsa verde.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The chefs promise an abundance of food. They will cook six pork bellies, 90 servings of lumpia and 50 pounds of chicken. Harlan will whip up a variety of beverages, including a house version of tubâ. Harlan’s mother, “Mama Lola,” will serve a Filipino shaved ice. Clavel’s regular menu will also be available.

Eugenio, who has cooked for the likes of Oprah and Ava DuVernay, brings several decades of experience to the collaboration. Most recently, he operated Heritage Kitchen, a Filipino-themed food stall in Whitehall Market that closed in May.

Eugenio jumped at the chance to work with Raba, who he has been friends with since Raba and Harlan opened Clavel.

“Knowing his [Raba’s] background and knowing what he’s produced is inspirational. I admire him,” Eugenio said of the Sinoloa, Mexico, native. “He took cooking from his Nana and he ran with it. He cooks with his heart. And he cooks from his native country. It’s similar to what I have wanted to achieve.”

“With the language, food and culture, there are so many similarities” between their two countries, Eugenio said. “When I describe the different [Filipino] dishes, people say that sounds like Spanish. This will be the easiest collaboration for me because of the cuisine itself.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Raba said that he “always wanted to cook with Rey. His food is missed. There is no better person than Rey to cook the food of the Filipino people.”

Raba is a self-admitted fan of these collaborations, adding that “I like to make popups with people I respect in Baltimore.” Last May, he joined David and Tonya Thomas, who are both Black chefs and food historians, for a pop-up celebrating Mexican and Black cultures, and anticipates more partnerships to come.

Eugenio is readying for the same: He will do a collaboration next month with the popular Asian eatery, Ekiben, in South Baltimore.

John-John Williams IV is a diversity, equity and inclusion reporter at The Baltimore Banner. A native of Syracuse, N.Y. and a graduate of Howard University, he has lived in Baltimore for the past 17 years.

More From The Banner