Kusinera Diaries

What makes Negros Occidental unique? For starters, the culture of hacienda homes, palatial residences of hacenderos erected in the middle of their sugarcane plantations to afford a 360-degree view of the farms. These estates were a magnet for laborers, male farm workers who did all the tasks from planting to harvesting. The owners provided houses for their families, and the wives were hired to run the hacienda homes taking care of cooking, the laundry, cleaning the interiors, and watching the children.

While scores of these antebellum houses continue to dot the landscape of Negros, very few remain resided. Scions of hacenderos have moved closer to city centers to enjoy modern conveniences. But in the exodus, some brought with them certain heritage benefits that endure to this day. One of them is the culture of having a home cook, or kusinera.

It is a luxury that some homes in Negros still have their kusineras living close by or staying in. Three such homes allowed the Negros Season of Culture crew into their kitchens to document and taste family favorites, and honor the home cooks behind them.


There was never a time in her childhood that her mother did not cook merienda, says Millie Kilayko, reminiscing the distinct aroma that wafted from their kitchen. The driving force behind the multi-awarded Negrense Volunteers for Change Foundation recalls that they have always had kusineras helping out up and down the generations.

Alicia and Millie Kilayko

Today, Millie’s kusinera, Alicia, recreates scenes from Millie’s childhood, enjoying steaming bowls of their grandmother’s Chicken Binakol, chicken cooked in a soup of coconut water. What’s distinct with their binakol is that it’s cooked in bamboo. It was Millie’s mother, “Nyora Carmen”, who taught Alicia how to cook, giving her access to cookbooks and cooking classes.

Now at 66, and still enjoying her cooking for Millie’s family and guests, Alicia can’t imagine herself elsewhere. For a time, she left to start a family, but later found herself returning to her “Inday Millie” like a homing pigeon. It’s clear how Millie values Alicia’s presence in her own life. “The thought of Alicia telling me she would retire is something that still haunts me,” Millie confesses.


The imagination of artist Lisa De Leon-Zayco goes beyond her mosaics; her kitchen is very much an extension of her creativity and effervescence. Take, for example, the inventiveness of her signature “pinaksyo” or “paksiw” dish using kikiro, or spotted scat fish, a family favorite. Not particularly fond of vinegar, Lisa replaced her souring ingredient with a Negrense icon, the batwan.

Mingga with Lisa De Leon-Zayco

Lisa developed this ingenious take on the paksiw with her trusty kitchen aid, Mingga. For three decades now, Mingga has worked as kusinera to Lisa’s family. “Mingga makes it better than what I imagine it to be, and it’s a special dish for us,” Lisa admits referring to the Kikiro Paksiw.

Lisa’s family has always enjoyed food and cooking, with family members looking forward to Mingga’s versatile viands. Lisa is quick to add that Mingga is “Lola Ming” to her children and grandchildren, and that Mingga and her kin are not just an appendage at holiday get-togethers and special occasions, but are very much a part of it because they are family. Lisa insists upon Mingga, “We will grow old together”.


For someone who, in her younger years, swore never to dabble in the world of food, Reena Gamboa finds herself leading the Slow Food Community Negros and curating the foremost Negrense experience in Casa A. Gamboa. This is her grandparents’ home that Reena turned into a bed and breakfast, and an events place. Here, guests are served authentic Negrense dishes. A challenge, no doubt. But Reena has great help.

“Mommy is in charge, she’s the creative one,” Reena shares proudly about her mom, Lyn. “She can turn a simple dish into something special.” One such dish that their friends and family rave about is the Adobo Stuffed Chicken. It’s a recipe that needs deft hands: whole deboned chicken filled with sticky rice and pork adobo, sewn back and roasted in the oven.

Dalla with Reena Gamboa

And then, there’s Dalla, the Gamboas’ kusinera, who has since become an expert in making this complex dish. Dalla has been the family’s home cook for over two decades now. She believes she has been destined to work in the hearth: “Na destino sa dapog”. She has learned to make dishes with the trickiest of techniques, and often Reena turns to her for food research.

More than the recipes they have mastered, Alicia, Mingga, and Dalla have found their place in the lives of these Negrense families. They are loved and valued so that they’re no longer just servants or household staff. They are as indispensable as family.

Text By: Kimee Santiago
Photos and Video By: Unit A Creatives
YT Link: https://youtu.be/jmq-WJ6uNBk

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