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Last month’s Lunar New Year festivities and the recent success ofCrazy Rich Asians got us thinking about our founders’ own Chinese heritage. Cat and Chrystle Cu’s parents were born and raised in the Philippines and then moved to the U.S. in the ’70s as young adults. But their grandparents on both sides are from China.
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.
Cu family, 2014, in Sicily
Yeah, our mom really is the root of Cocofloss. She moved from the Philippines to attend a dental graduate program on the East Coast. She was 23 years old, fresh off the boat, and she was the only female in her class.
Brrrrr... Cat and Chrystle's mom moved from the tropical islands of the Philippines to Canada for graduate dental school
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. I feel very fortunate that we’re all so close.
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. We’re still really close.
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.
Cat and Chrystle's dad commissioned this portrait of the family pups before Cat's startup, EnzoArt, became Cocofloss!
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.
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 and Chrystle's grandpa at the bottom right in Plaridel, Philippines
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.
Cat adores coconuts
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.
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 doesn’t sound very healthy now, but I think it’s mostly rice and palm sugar that’s been battered and pan-fried.
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.
The Filipino word tikoy (pictured above) is adapted from the Hokkien/Fujian word for this delicacy: ti (sweet) ke (cake)
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.
Growing up around a lot of family was so fun. 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. And in Filipino culture, family friends aren’t just Mr. and Mrs. Smith — everyone’s eithertita ortito. I had lots of “uncles” and “aunties” as a kid. As a kid, I had to go around and kiss all the aunties and uncles to greet them at every get-together. As a kid, I hated this. Too many kisses!
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.
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.
Huangshan Mountain (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
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.
Coron, Palawan, Philippines
Yield: 6 servings
Time: 40 minutes
Tip:Salted duck eggs are available at many Asian markets.
Recipe courtesy of the New York Times.