There was a group of six of us sitting around the table at Neros and the subject of how and why we first came to the Philippines came up. The guys each stated why they came there and then it was Shaggers turn but before he could answer I butted in and said well there could only be one reason for Shagger to come to the Philippines and that’s right there on the stage. This provoked a knowing chuckle from all the guys, except Shagger, who upon hearing my remark turned to me and said “actually mate I came here for the chicken adobo”.
Shaggers remark caused yet another round of guffaws from the guys but at the same time it got me thinking about some of the dishes that are symbolic of Philippine cuisine and an integral part of Filipino culture. When spending time with the Filipina it is almost inevitable that you will be exposed to Filipino cuisine and if your anything like me you will have probably been curious about certain dishes and wonder what the heck they are composed of and why are the girls so fanatical about them.
At first glance Filipino cuisine seems basic and bland but it is in fact quite the opposite. There are numerous dishes and even more variations in their preparation and cooking so much so that a simple dish such as Chicken Adobo will vary from region to region throughout the Philippines. There have been numerous influences on Filipino cuisine including Chinese, Spanish, English and American. These influences have all in some way been fused together along with local produce to create the unique cuisine of the Philippines.
Perhaps the signature dish of Filipino cuisine is Chicken Adobo. What curry is to Indian cooking adobo is to Filipinos. Pinoys and pinays have been known to wax lyrical about their chicken adobo to the point where it has become an iconic symbol of Filipino culture. Bands such as the Black eyed peas have paid homage to adobo in their songs and there are numerous websites and cook books dedicated to the different recipes’. Chicken adobo is nearly always associated with fond memories of childhood or happy times and Filipinos all seem to have a personal experience with this dish.
Although there are numerous variations in the adobo recipe’ they basically all include vinegar, soy sauce and pepper corns. These are the three ingredients that can be found in all adobo recipe’s and combine together to create the unique adobo flavor. Adobo is often referred to as the Filipino national dish and all Filipinos seem to know how to cook it.
Like most dishes in Philippine cuisine Adobo is always served with rice.
One of my favorite Filipino dishes is Sinigang. Sinigang is a mixture between a stew and a hearty soup. There are numerous different ingredients used including sea foods, pork, chicken beef and many different vegetables including eggplant, onions, tomatoes, beans, white radish and these are all stewed in a Tamarind broth.
Sinigang na Hipon
Sinigang na bangus
Bangus is a local fish and in this dish they use guava leaves giving the broth a sweeter taste.
Pork sinigang or sinigang na baboy
Beef sinigang or Sinigang na baka
This is an interesting dish in that it has contradictory flavors these being the sour taste of Tamarind and the strong earthy flavor of beef.
Beef Kaldereta as the name implies is basically a beef stew and is a result of the Spanish influence on Filipino cuisine. The main flavor is created through stewing the beef and extensive use of tomato paste. Just as in adobo Filipinos will sometimes use vinegar which acts as a meat tenderizer and also gives the stew a slightly sour tang. Other common ingredients in the Kaldereta are carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, bell peppers, onions and garlic.
One of the first Filipino dishes I tried was KareKare. Basically this is composed of meat normally pork, beef or oxtail combined with some vegetables and all stewed in a peanut flavored sauce. Most often the main vegetables used will be string beans eggplant and sometimes jack fruit. KareKare is often eaten with a salty shrimp paste named Bagoong as a side dish.
The pancit canton is composed of long noodles and includes basic meats and vegetables mixed in with the noodles. Pancit Canton demonstrates the Chinese influence on Filipino cuisine and will often be used as a quick dish in times of celebration such as birthday parties and New Year celebrations. Pancit Canton is also a comparatively quick and easy dish and is cheap to make. It also comes in an instant meal form.
Pancit Bihon is composed of glass noodles mixed with various meats and vegetables.
Tinapa or smoked fish is sometimes referred to as food for the masses or poor peoples food. Tinapa are small salt water fish which are smoked. The Filipinos buy them and them fry them in oil creating the fried fish smell that permeates throughout so many of their houses. Another way of cooking them is on the grill and many of the poorer Filipinos will purchase the Tinapa in bulk, grill them then resell them right of the grill in a kind of street side operation. Tinapa is often eaten with rice using tomatoes and lettuce leaves as the vegetables accompanying it.
Bicol Express is a stew that originates from the Bicol Region and is composed of pork onion garlic chilies shrimp paste all gently simmered in a coconut milk sauce. Bicol express normally contains several chilies and has a reputation for being their hottest dish. This is an interesting dish because in most of their dishes unlike their South East Asian neighboring countries they tend to shy away from spicy food however the Bicol Express is loaded with chilies and has a reputation of making its eaters horny and supposedly it increases sexual potency.
Perhaps the staple meat in the Filipino diet is pork and it is cooked and consumed in a number of different ways. Pork forms the basis for many dishes including the ever popular Sisig. It is a common belief in the Philippines that owning a piggery is a “good business” and it is not uncommon to see pigs being transported for slaughter whenever traveling. The sisig is reputedly a Pampangan dish created in Angeles. Throughout Pampanga and now Manila and beyond Sisig is considered the ultimate pulutan and is enjoyed during social get-tog ether’s. Normally Sisig will be accompanied by a cold beer or two and Filipinos will order it when engaged in drinking sessions as a side dish to be enjoyed either by itself or with rice.
Pork Sisig is the most famous but it is not exactly a heart starter. In fact for those suffering with cholesterol problems or hypertension then this is a dish certainly best avoided. Sisig is composed primarily of the pigs head the brains, the ears, the tongue, the snout etc . They will also use the pigs heart if available.
To make sisig the ingredients are chopped up into small pieces then marinated in water together with pineapple juice, salt and black pepper corns. This mixture is then simmered for about one hour. This mixture is then put onto a hot grill and combined with chopped up ginger, garlic onions, calamansi, salt, pepper and of course some chopped up chili to add that extra bit of zing.
Sisig is not restricted to pork and for those who are watching their diet sisig can be made from chicken, fish and even tofu. When you know what goes into sisig it can be a bit off putting but the end result is truly delicious and the crispy pork really does make the perfect accompaniment to a cold beer.
For lechon kawali pork is once again the meat used. To make this dish the Filipinos use pork belly (liempo) which is broiled in water with salt, pepper, garlic and laurel leaves. This is done for 35 minutes then it is deep fried in oil until crispy brown and served with a sauce composed of vinegar soy sauce onions and garlic. This is not exactly a healthy dish but it is truly delicious and like sisig can be enjoyed while enjoying a cold beer or two.
Kilawin literally means to cook in vinegar but this is in some ways misleading because the fish (primarily mackerel) is actually soaked in vinegar with shallots, chili, ginger, salt and pepper added. The dish is served cold and has a distinctive flavor. Normally Filipinos will eat this together with rice but I find it even better just by itself. This is a light dish and makes a perfect non fattening snack. It can be made from tuna or tanigue or lapu lapu.
Shanghai Lumpia was perhaps the second dish I was ever exposed to when trying Filipino food. This is basically the Filipinos answer to spring rolls or egg rolls and it has the advantages of being fast, light, cheap, easy to prepare and can be consumed quickly.
Shanghai Lumpia is composed of either ground pork or mince meat together with carrots diced onion, spices and all held together with raw egg. This ingredients is then poured into lumpia wrappers and deep fried until golden crispy brown. The lumpia are small and treated by Filipinos as finger food or a quick snack. The lumpia is always associated with party times and social gatherings and as such is a favorite amongst Filipinos.
Beef tapa or tapsilog are basically the same thing. The word tapa refers to salt cured meat which is normally beef although they use pork as well and the tapsilog is the name for a particular dish incorporating the beef tapa. Tap refers to the salt cured meat, si refers to the sinangag or garlic flavored rice and log which refers to the egg or as the Filipinos pronounce it Itlog. Tap-si-log. Tapsilog is primarily recognized as a Filipino breakfast dish although to be honest they seem to eat it at all times of the day especially when traveling. Tapsilog is also convenient and a number of fast food restaurants exist whose primary dish is tapsilog or other dishes utilizing beef tapa the classic one of these that springs to mind is Tapa King which has branches all over the Philippines. The Tapa especially when it is beef is usually tenderized but for me this is a bland dish and I am yet to find any what I call decent beef in the Philippines.
Tapa King advert
Another breakfast favorite is longanisa. The longanisa is basically a Filipino sausage and is most often served together with garlic rice and an egg. This is a long time favorite of the Flipinos and harks back to the Spanish influence when they introduced the sausage to the Filipino diet. Longanisa together with garlic rice and egg is considered a so called power breakfast and comes in many different variations and formats but the most common is certainly as a breakfast dish with garlic rice and eggs.
There are of course many other Filipino dishes far to numerous to mention here and as a result I have stuck with the main ones that you will more than likely be exposed to through your interaction with the girls. As said previously there are many books and websites dedicated to Filipino cuisine and as you read through them like me you will probably get a much better idea of the truly unique cuisine that is so much a part of Filipino culture. No visit to the Philippines is complete without trying at least one of these dishes but be warned like the Filipina it can become addictive and don’t be surprised if you find yourself seeking out Filipino food when back in your own country.
Bon apetite or as the Filipinos would say Mabuhay