Like Rachel, the protagonist in Crazy Rich Asians, the sisters have managed to stay close to their family and pursue their passions. We pressed pause on our floss fixation for a moment to chat with Cat about the influence her Chinese-Filipino ancestry has had on her, her relationship with her business partner and sister, and — of course — the importance of good food.
Brrr ... Mama Cu moved from the tropical islands of the Philippines to chilly Canada for dental school.
Like Rachel’s mom in Crazy Rich Asians, your mom also immigrated to the U.S.Yeah, our mom really is the root of Cocofloss. She moved from the Philippines to attend a dental graduate program in Canada. She was 23 years old, fresh off the boat, and she was the only female in her class.
The importance of family — and the sacrifices parents will make for their children — is a huge theme in Crazy Rich Asians. Did that resonate with you?
Our parents have dedicated their whole lives towards helping me and my sister find success and happiness. They’ve always been so supportive. They’ve put in countless hours of uncompensated work toward my startup ideas and now Cocofloss.
The future founders
You seem super tight with your sister Chrystle, too.
Before I was born, my dad sat my sister down and told her that she was getting a baby sister and that her responsibility for the rest of her life was to take care of me. That’s a big thing to tell a four-year-old, but Chrystle drank the Kool-Aid.
Cat and Chrystle's dad commissioned this portrait of the family pups before Cat's startup, EnzoArt, became Cocofloss.
How did you two end up starting a company together?
Before Cocofloss, I went from working in investment banking and finance to launching an online platform for commissioning art. I worked on it for six months. My sister and my dad were basically my team. My dad was the only person who actually bought a piece from my art marketplace. 😆
The company wasn’t quite working, so I asked my sister what her challenges were as a dentist. She had been thinking about dental floss for years, but never had the time to get around to it. So we shifted our focus to floss.
Cat and Chrystle's grandpa (bottom right) in Plaridel, Philippines
Along with dental care, coconuts seem to be in your blood, too.
The whole coconut thing goes quite a ways back. When our mom’s dad was in his mid- to late-teens, he moved to the Philippines to work as an assistant for a Chinese businessman in Manila. There’s a big overseas Chinese population in the Philippines, similar to the Chinese ex-pats in Singapore that you see in Crazy Rich Asians.
Our grandpa found a mentor in the Chinese community and eventually he ended up managing a coconut trade and export business in a seaside town outside of the city. He also became mayor of a town called Plaridel. There was a big shed next to the house our mom grew up in that was always filled with coconut husks.
Cat adores coconuts.
What was your relationship to coconuts as a kid?
I was a coconut fiend. It’s such a big part of Filipino cuisine, which I love.
At Filipino parties, you typically have not one dessert, but like 12. Everyone brings one. Growing up, my sister’s and my favorite desserts were coconut cakes. We especially loved cassava cake, which is sweet and gooey, and bibingka, which is baked in a banana leaf, so it has this wonderful, mild banana-leaf flavor.
With all that sugar, you definitely needed to keep your teeth clean! How did you come up with the idea to add something so yummy to dental floss?
The idea to incorporate it in the floss came from Chrystle. When we started the company, oil pulling was all the rage. Chrystle’s dental patients were always asking her what she thought about it. She found it so weird that her patients were too lazy to floss daily, but they were willing to swish coconut oil around in their mouths for 20 minutes a day.
Coconut oil is a natural antimicrobial and it’s a really nice lubricant for floss. We hoped that by adding it to floss, we might inspire more people to make flossing a daily part of their self-care routine.
The Filipino word "tikoy" is adapted from the Hokkien/Fujian word for the delicacy, ti (sweet) ke (cake).
In Crazy Rich Asians, Rachel’s boyfriend Nick shares his memories of growing up eating his grandma’s dumplings. What are some of your other favorite food memories?
Each year, we would celebrate Chinese New Year with lots of food. My grandmother would make yummy pan-fried radish cakes with dried seafood and chives and another delicious cake called tikoy. It’s mostly rice and palm sugar that’s been battered and pan-fried, so not exactly healthy.
Also, sesame oil and hot sauce are two of my favorite condiments to put on anything. If I didn’t grow up in a Chinese household, I may not have been exposed to those two things, which are two of the biggest delights in my life.
Big parties also play a central role in Crazy Rich Asians. It sounds like there’s some similarities there as well.
There’s no such thing as a small get-together in Filipino culture. It’s always a party. If you’re having relatives over, you don’t invite just one, you invite the whole clan. We weren’t rich, but our mom was always hosting parties filled with every type of Filipino food.
I always felt like there was a lot of community, a lot of support, and a lot of love. We always had cousins or family friends around. In Filipino culture, family friends aren’t just Mr. and Mrs. Smith — everyone’s either tita or tito. I grew up with lots of “uncles” and “aunties.” I had to greet them all with a kiss at every get-together. As a kid, I hated this. Too many kisses!
Are there other values or traditions that you would attribute to your parents' Chinese or Filipino heritage?
My parents grew up in pretty tight-knit communities, where it felt like everyone knew each other. And with that came a big emphasis on hospitality. Like, if friends are visiting from out of town, you wouldn’t possibly consider letting them take an Uber. You’d pick them up from the airport, let them stay in your home, and treat them to dinner every night. Small gestures that show you care are so important in Chinese-Filipino culture.
Your family visited China when you were 14. What are some of your memories from that trip?
It was amazing to see exactly where my grandmother came from for the first time. We visited the Huangshan Mountain area. The mountains there look like Chinese brush paintings. You feel like you’re in the clouds, surrounded by very dramatic, very elegant cliffs.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, we have this grand, raw beauty, but Huangshang Mountain feels mystical. It looked and felt different than anything I’ve ever experienced. I can totally see how this landscape may have shaped the region's mentality and emphasis on harmony.
I also remember seeing a lot of beautiful jade in a variety of colors, textures, and shades. People in China wear jade bracelets for good luck or good fortune.
Coron, Palawan, Philippines
It’s a stunningly beautiful country — very vibrant, great food, and wonderful people. The beaches were like nothing I’d ever seen. The sand was so fine it was like flour.
It was so cool to eat in restaurants where everyone spoke the same dialect as my parents and where the food was the exact same food I grew up on — like fresh lumpia, which are kind of like spring rolls, but they’re fresh. It’s something that I’ve only ever seen my grandmother make. In the Philippines, they serve them at food trucks at the food mall downtown. I loved seeing my family’s traditions reflected in the everyday world around me.
Yield: 6 servings
Time: 40 minutes
Tip: Salted duck eggs are available at many Asian markets.
Recipe courtesy of The New York Times.