This baker brings Filipino flavors to her ube brownies and mango chili cookies
It’s expensive to come home, especially when you’re in the Philippines.
“When I moved to the United States, a lot of things were new to me. My sister and I didn’t know anyone but our father,” says Kei Ann Mandanas.
“When I came here, there weren’t many options in terms of Filipino food, or maybe it’s not the version I’m used to. I wanted to create something that would keep me connected to what is familiar to me, what I grew up with, and what my family would be proud of.
Mandanas grew up cooking alongside her grandparents in the Philippines, then learned cooking from her father when she moved to Tucson in 2010.
His mother, father and sister are all nurses. Owning her own home bakery, she may be the black sheep, but she doesn’t seem to care.
Mandanas bakes treats with Filipino flavors – chili mango, buko pandan, ube. She even tried vegan lumpia. Ate Kei’s Filipino Sweets (ate means elder sister in Tagalog) offers treats at four Tucson cafes and makes regular appearances at local markets.
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She knows that Filipino food can be hard to find in Tucson – her all-time favorite Filipino dish is the one that can’t be found here. In the Philippines, Dinakdakan pork dish is cheap and accessible to everyone. If she wants it here, she asks her father to do it.
“Coming from an immigrant background, you want that taste of home,” she says. “For me, some of the things I do remind me of cooking with my family and being with them. I want to be able to share that with people. »
Mandanas knows people in Tucson who are from the Philippines but haven’t had a chance to visit in many years. This is partly because many people come to the United States to support their families overseas. That’s partly because it’s not cheap to fly thousands of miles.
“Obviously the treats themselves won’t solve anything,” Mandanas says. “But at least they bring you some comfort where you’re from.”
She often sets up shop at the weekend markets in St. Philip’s Plaza, selling her treats and meeting all manner of visitors. She met a person who had just moved to Tucson from the Philippines the previous week – this person had found Ate Kei’s Filipino treats on Facebook and had gone to the market to say hello.
“Filipinos love to feed you guys,” Mandanas says. “Whenever you stop by my stall, I almost always have samples. Even if you don’t buy anything, I just want you to try it and see what other Filipino flavors there are. I don’t want to be locked into a certain flavor – I want people to try all these different things that I grew up with.
Mandanas like to experiment with food, creating new flavors in the kitchen. Her favorite treat right now is the mango chili cookie. She knew she wanted to cook something with the national fruit of the Philippines – and she was inspired by the Mexican chili and mango candy she loves.
Buko pandan cookies, inspired by the green Filipino dessert with jellies, reign supreme among customers, followed by its ube-flavored treats like vegan cookies and brownies. Ube is a purple sweet potato that is often described as vanilla and a bit nutty.
This summer, she plans to launch Filipino Drinks and Scrambled Ice – a smoothie-like frozen dessert made from pink milk with banana extract and toppings like marshmallows and sprinkles. In the Philippines, people sold the treat outside of schools, from coolers attached to their bikes.
“It’s really nostalgic for a lot of Filipino kids, especially those growing up in the 90s and 80s,” Mandanas says.
Eventually, she would like to expand even more with items like vegan pancit and vegan lumpia. Mandanas sister is vegan, so it’s important that she also falls in love with food.
“That’s the thing with Filipinos – we want to keep everyone happy so more people can try this food,” Mandanas says.
But until she can perfect those recipes, she’s focusing on the baked goods she’s known for.
“My family is ingrained in me, don’t release stuff just to release stuff, it has to be something you like and people would like,” she says. “I don’t want to do something to put a Filipino (label) on it – I want my mom or grandma to eat it and say it’s really good.”
Although Mandanas cherish street food in the Philippines, he truly misses the community and his family.
“Filipinos, you can throw anything at them – challenges, barriers – for whatever reason, we just find a way to laugh about it,” she says. “That’s how you get through difficult situations.”
Where to find Ate Kei’s Filipino Sweets
Ate Kei’s Filipino sweets are also making appearances in local markets. Follow the bakery on Instagram or Facebook to see where they’ll be next or to place an order for a dozen or more treats.