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Fleeting representation sparked the noble idea of opening a Filipino restaurant, but its downright delicious food and community-building efforts have gone beyond just filling the gap

For Melissa Miranda, Musang stands for a lot of things. It is the Filipino restaurant she opened with a Kickstarter fund of over US$90,000. It is also her dad’s nickname, derived from the car he used to drive (Mustang). It means wild cat in Filipino as well, something that will have a significant meaning in her life later on. Of all the definitions though, what holds the most value to her is the acknowledgement of her family’s beloved culture, appreciation from society and everything that her father has worked hard for.

See also: Why Is Filipino Cuisine One Of The Richest Food Cultures In The World

“It is so much more than a restaurant. Musang, to me, is a movement. It’s a space that is sustained by and in service of community,” she states.

To think that, back in 2007, Miranda never even dreamt of opening a restaurant, nor even finding a career in cooking. Right after graduating at the University of Washington, the sociology major packed her bags and moved to Florence, Italy where she attended culinary school and doubled as a restaurant chef and English tutor.

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Melissa Miranda (Photo: Andrew Imanaka)
Above Melissa Miranda (Photo: Andrew Imanaka)

To pacify bouts of sadness, she cooked food that reminded her of family. “One Filipino dish I made when I was feeling homesick was kare-kare,” she says. “My dear friend Romina, who is Filipina-Italian, and I would experiment with Italian flavours in the dishes of our childhood memories. For example, we tried using red wine instead of vinegar in adobo.”

She discovered that the correlation between the two cuisines even go beyond food. “I realised that there are similarities in the two cultures particularly revolving around dining. Meals were always served to be shared, and many people would gather around the table in the spirit of togetherness. Hospitality is so important to both cultures and through food, I came to understand that,” she explains.

See also: Filipino Food—How Can We Go Further? Margarita Forés, Chele Gonzàlez, And More Speak Out

Armed with this thought and a relentless drive, she moved back to Seattle with a plan to pursue Italian cooking. Miranda even found a partner who was of Italian descent. But all that suddenly changed when, driving down Beacon Avenue, she noticed that her neighbourhood had a scarcity in Filipino representation. Inay’s closed, so did Kusina Filipina. Manila Fast Food and Video also ceased operations. The only remaining semblance of food from the Philippines was a grocery that sold, among others, white vinegar and bottled bagoong (shrimp paste) from the country. So, she decided to fill the gap by doing pop-ups.

“I’ve always been passionate about Italian food, but what really meant so much to me about creating Filipino pop-ups was that I was creating something that was so lacking in the city of Seattle. So many Filipino businesses had closed while I was away that it was really important for me to try to restore the rich culture and history that we have in this place,” she says.

One of the more memorable events she did was called Feast of the Seven Fishes, held at Bar del Corso on January 5, 2017. Apart from a menu that featured seven different fish and seafood cooked in traditional Filipino techniques and served in family-style portions, palm and banana leaves from friends who owned a flower shop decorated the Italian restaurant, a folk group named Rondalya provided live music and a set of performers even carried out an entertaining candle dance. The warm reception to the dinner fuelled her even more; still, she wasn’t convinced enough to open what many of her friends and customers had been urging her to, which was a restaurant 

See also: Filipino Cuisine: Do We Really Need International Recognition to Push the Industry Forward?

Miranda went to the Philippines for almost three months to learn about her roots and the cuisine. She spent time going to farms as well as sampling the different fare, mostly those in Pampanga.

While in Bangued, Abra, she went to see a healer hoping she could help remedy her back pain. As the tiny lady worked on her body, she noticed a tattoo on Miranda’s arm. In her own dialect, the tattoo artist remarked, “Why does she have an owl tattoo? She should have a musang.”

Though short, her trip proved to be significant. “I came back with a will to empower my community to believe that our food is significant. That it’s complex and multifaceted,” she says. “To be able to be in the United States and see the recognition for Filipino culture is so meaningful, because we feel that pride from all over the world.” 

See also: Two Filipinos Named Best New Chefs 2021: Meet Carlo Lamagna and Thessa Diadem

She flew to Europe after her sojourn in the Philippines to reflect and see if it was really in her fate to open a restaurant. “I took time to ask myself, is this what I want to do?” After thinking of her passions and reminding herself why she got into food in the first place, she knew what to do.

Soon as she got back to the US, she launched a Kickstarter and got fully funded. She spotted a place in Beacon Hill and soon got the keys to it. Musang opened in January 2019. A year after, it was named Restaurant of the Year by Seattle Met.

“We were humbled by the outpouring of support. Since the beginning, we’ve been blessed with community members coming to support our business. But it’s been more than just supporting our business— it’s a willingness to learn about our food and culture, whether you’re Filipino or not,” she says.

In its basic definition as written on its site, Musang is a community-driven restaurant in Seattle, Washington that focuses on the education of Filipino cuisine through fare such as adobong lechon kawali, black cod escabeche and short rib kare-kare.

But we know it’s much more than that.

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