FOOD

These famous New York doughnuts are proudly Filipino

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Kora is Kimberly Camara's tribute to her late lola, Corazon. The doughnut shop has steadily gained quite a following with, at one point, an almost 10,000-person waitlist. Photos by KENNETH CAMARA/Courtesy of KORA

Kimberly Camara tells her childhood stories through doughnuts: snow days spent eating champorado, afternoons learning how to cook traditional Filipino food, and meals ending with her grandmother’s special leche flan.

“My grandmother passed away in January 2020,” said Camara. “She was a huge influence on me in my personal life, even in my cooking career, because the reason I do what I do is because of her.” Camara described her late grandmother, Corazon, as that lola, always in the kitchen cooking. She wanted to find a way to pay homage to her. “After she passed away, I remember finding her recipe book and feeling like, oh my god, this is it. To make her recipes and continue her legacy in this way is the way to do it.”

Thus, Kora was born. But “Kora didn’t start out as Kora,” Camara said.

Kalamansi Amapola (brioche, calamansi curd, poppy cream, calamansi glaze, torched meringue, and graham crunch). Photo by KENNETH CAMARA/Courtesy of KORA

At the beginning of the pandemic, she and her boyfriend, Kevin Borja, had been part of the massive 2,000 employee layoff in New York City. Camara, who worked as a research and development cook, and Borja, a server, were left uncertain about their future. They were separated during the first three months of quarantine, where Kimberly went back home to live with her parents in Queens.

To fill in the gaps of time, she turned to baking. “Like the entire rest of the world, I was doing a lot of baking,” she said. “I actually had this leftover brioche in my freezer. I had initially planned to make them into burger buns and just bake them off in the oven.”

After she had defrosted the dough, rolled them into perfectly round balls, letting them rise one final time, she was met with an unexpected obstacle. “I opened the oven door and it was filled with pots and pans as I feel every Asian household has,” she described, laughing. “There was just so much stuff in there and I was like, I do not feel like taking all of this out and putting it back in. So I was like, you know what, I’m just gonna fry them like doughnuts.”

Brioche, as a dough, is flexible — and that’s what made it the perfect vessel to tell stories.

“I ended up with these beautiful, fluffy brioche doughnuts,” she said. On a whim, she decided to fill her doughnuts with the ube pastry cream from a birthday cake she made her friend two days prior. “I took my first bite and I was like, Oh, I would sell this, and I think people would buy this. I would buy this. So I figured, let me keep myself busy.”

Camara never expected Kora to grow as big as it did, even having a 10,000-person long waiting list at one time.

The Balikbayan Box tasting menu made in collaboration with King Umberto (Pistachio bombolini) and Eat Offbeat (Jalebi and rosquillas de anís). Kora made the Jian Dui (buchi-buchi) and ube flavors. Photo by KENNETH CAMARA/Courtesy of KORA

“I thought it was gonna be more of a seasonal project for me during the pandemic,” she said.

The menu started out with four flavors, which she initially sold through a Google form posted on her personal Instagram profile:

1. Leche flan ni Lola — Brioche doughnut stuffed with my grandma’s famous flan.
2. Ube — Ube brioche doughnut, fresh ube custard, ube glaze, purple yam crisps, ube powder.
3. Halo-halo — Brioche doughnut, classic halo-halo mix-ins, cream, ube glaze, flan, pinipig, banana chip, maraschino cherry.
4. Buko pandan — pandan brioche, coconut & sago cream, pandan glaze, flaked coconut, pinipig

“I knew that Filipinos would be excited about it, of course, but the reason I think other people have been flocking to Kora and getting excited about the doughnuts [is] the experience we create through giving people these doughnuts. It’s a learning experience,” said Camara, who said that they had always leaned into the Filipino-ness of their flavors, and to teach audiences who may be unfamiliar with them. “It’s a deeply emotional one too, especially for me. Every single flavor has a story behind it.”

When it comes to Kora, Kimberly’s approach to flavors is not about what will help them sell to customers or expand the business. Instead, she is driven by how to put a flavor out in its more delicious form, how to talk about the memories she has with them, and how to resonate with the memories other people might have with them, too.

The menu has since expanded and evolved to include flavors like itlog na pula, the turon-inspired churron, sans rival (which has Tanduay rum buttercream) and Pili & J. The flavor is inspired by Camara and Borja’s own love story, which brought together Filipino pili nuts and Andean raspberry in an ode to the PB&J sandwiches of their respective childhoods.

Borja, who is Ecuadorian, has felt wholeheartedly accepted by the Filipino community, in telling these stories about universal experiences where all are able to relate. “Especially as minorities living at this time, we all really do need to find where we can all mesh,” he said. “If that means, in our company, something as simple as leche flan, something as simple as champorado and the flavors that are influenced by other cultures and that we all share. Everyone has their own version of it, which is, again, why it makes it more beautiful because whether or not you are Filipino, you recognize it, or you recognize some version of it.”

The sari-sari box with the flavors leche flan ni lola, ube, churron, keso, and halo-halo. Photo by KENNETH CAMARA/Courtesy of KORA

Where Camara handles the recipes, Borja is behind communicating these flavors in a more approachable manner, particularly to those who may not be familiar with ube or halo-halo.

“Being guest-facing for so long has given me a certain ability to just take a dish and break it down and make it a little simpler,” he said. “I really try to find the similarities between them. For example, halo-halo is a shaved ice dessert, and me being Ecuadorian and Latino, we have a very similar concept.” He often begins with learning what it is and then finds a way to make it more relatable without losing the essence of the ingredient or the flavor. “So, I guess, in order to make it more approachable, it was quite easy because we’re already doing that through the vessel of the doughnut where obviously here in America everyone recognizes. It really was just breaking down the ingredients and explaining why they’re together in the dougnuts.”

He likened the experience to tasting wine. “I’ve always led with that. With wine, you don’t really tell someone that it tastes like apricot or it has these fruity notes. You can suggest that it imparts some sort of fruity notes, but you don’t necessarily have to tell them that it’s pear or apple. In terms of that, it’s really just leading with the sincerity of what I know with the guidance of Kimberly.”

“There’s a story, there’s a feeling for me attached to every single one of the flavors,” said Camara. “There’s a point of human connection there through the flavors and through the stories that are shared. Maybe it’s like champorado for me, and these memories that I have of coming inside on a snowy day and having a nice warm bowl of champorado. But for somebody that’s not Filipino, maybe it’s another dish, but they can connect with the memories of something that their grandma cooked for them that was really exciting and heartwarming for them, and they can pull back from those times.”

“It’s just being unapologetic and genuine,” Borja emphasized.

Apart from Camara and Borja, who handle the ingredients, orders, and deliveries, Camara’s brother, Kenneth, has taken all of Kora’s photos from the beginning. “We do all of our shoots still out of our apartment,” said Camara as she moved to a different spot during our interview to free the table up for a shoot.

A cross-section of the ube flavor. Photo by KENNETH CAMARA/Courtesy of KORA

Kora, which started as an homage to Lola Corazon, is a family business.

“This has been a good way for me to express myself and to talk about my grandma,” said Camara. The Leche Flan, which has been a staple in their menu since the very beginning, uses Lola Cora’s recipe. “My Lola’s Leche Flan,” she calls it. “The secret to Lola Cora’s heirloom leche flan recipe — the inspiration for Kora’s own recipes and vision — was not just in the proportions or cooking time. The secret to her leche flan’s luscious flavor and texture was in lovingly creating each one with her hands alone,” she wrote on Kora’s Instagram.

“Many opportunities have arisen for wholesale, for buying us out,” Borja said. “We’ve had people in our inbox like, ‘Hi, I am Prince Something from Saudi Arabia, I’d love to fly you out right now, we can open two to three locations in the next six months, this can be big’.”

To stay true to why they started this, they’ve said no to the offers.

“I deeply feel like I don’t wanna franchise,” said Camara. “I just feel like I always want to be so close to this business because of how it started and why it started.”

“It really does take a lot of labor to produce one of these boxes. But, I feel like right now, what keeps driving us — at least for me, on my end — is seeing those faces,” said Borja. “There’s nothing like seeing these people when they finally pick up and they’ve been waiting two to three weeks, months, some people a whole year, and they finally get this. It’s just a certain feeling and it doesn’t disappoint.”