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(Photo by Herchelle Taghap)

Seattle couple's take-home Balikbayan Boxes celebrate Filipino culture, cuisine

At Archipelago in Hillman City, husband-wife team Aaron Verzosa and Amber Manuguid proudly celebrate their cultural and culinary heritage. Verzosa is a Filipino American chef born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, and Manuguid is a Seattle-based artist and designer-restaurateur who is "focused on creating joyful and meaningful experiences."

These days, their Balikbayan Box offerings showcase an assortment of "food, memories, and stories." Their colorful collections (think salty, sweet, spicy and aromatic) allow families to cook together, feeding two to four people (boxes must be ordered at least four days in advance). No one ever knows exactly what they're getting, though each box contains a mix of seasonal produce, meat and seafood, plus a few special surprises, too.

In 2016 Verzosa left an incredible job working for Modernist Cuisine to take care of his father, whose health had brought him to his final years.

"As a chef, it was the first time in over ten years that things slowed down for me, when I wasn’t working in kitchens," he said. "It’s too easy in an industry where family and loved ones can take a back seat. It was this precious time with my family that allowed me to evaluate an industry I was able to place on the back-burner for the first time."

He says that this "low and slow stewing of reflections," mixed with cooking and talking about Filipino food with his family spoke to a more complete image of what he wanted to accomplish upon returning to professional cooking .

"After extensive talks with Amber, it was clear that even in our naive understanding of building a restaurant, we found it necessary that the mirror of fine dining must better reflect people like ourselves and our culture."

So why did they decide to share these gifts with the PNW community?

"Our ancestors created building blocks that are both intensely delicious and uniquely beautiful," said Verzosa. "There are a tremendous amount of codes or keys within our culture that we believe are vital in unlocking the flavor potential of our region."

More importantly, they hope that sharing their dishes in the way they do empowers guests — Filipino or not — to understand that the food being served is a part of their culture as well.

"Our culinary identity as a region and community is not defined by products and seasons alone," he explained. "But by its people over time. It’s important for readers to understand that our ancestors have been a part of the PNW community for well over a hundred years, and like so many who have immigrated to this country, have contributed in shaping the region. From labor unions, to agriculture, to education, to the hospitality industry, to the military, to politics– Filipinos have done so much to push our region forward, and we want to build awareness of that through our food."

The couple is mindful to source from PNW Filipino and Filipina-American farmers and businesses, since they believe it's crucial for not only restaurants to be reflective of the communities they serve, but moreover our entire food system.

"We connect with businesses that share our same heritage, because of the importance it plays in addressing the socio-economic inequality present in our lives."

Products they offer, for example, may range from wine from Elephant Seven, "an amazing family-owned Filipino-American producer out of Walla Walla," to ceramics from Alexa Villanueva, who they deem an incredibly talented local Filipino-American ceramicist located here in Seattle.

The couple's biggest challenge has been pushing forward as new parents. They set out on their journey with the intention of finding life balance.

"With our son Apollo being born, it’s definitely given us an understanding of the difficulties and hardships parents are dealing with during the pandemic," said Verzosa.

Yet the duo says the biggest reward has been "the ability to be a part of a community and platform that allows us to inspire and showcase the beauty and art inherent in our culture."

"We love how it connects immediately to our identity almost without even opening it [the Box]," he said. "There’s an almost limitless opportunity for us to include the trappings of our culture for guests to unpack and enjoy within the comforts of their home. As new parents, we really love when people connect with us more about how they may need the experience adjusted for their household. The box itself and our heritage demands emphasis on family, so this experience for us has been a unique opportunity to express that."

As for surprises found within the boxes, this changes with the season. Past examples have included art, stories, snacks and special produce. An example: "One of our farmers had dropped off these super spicy peppers she had been growing, and we had a guest coming that same day who we knew loves spicy food. So we adjusted their box to highlight them more. That’s one of the fun parts about the folks who get boxes pretty frequently; we get to know them a little more with each box."

For regular guests, they always include a story, a dish or something no one else has yet tried. And for holiday boxes, they've included decoration kits, flowers, traditions - things they hope add to the delight of the unveiling.

"We hope to create an experience that starts with picking it up from us, holding it by the rope it's tied up in, getting home to then unpack the surprises with the family, to finally, the feast and stories shared at the dinner table. And of course...leftovers."

Want to support more small businesses like Archipelago? We're proud to collaborate with Intentionalist, an online guide that makes it easier for you to find/connect with diverse local businesses owned by women, people of color, veterans, members of the LGBTQ community, and people with disabilities.