Filipino Food 101: A cheat sheet to understanding the cuisine of the Philippines

 

Filipino food is often the underdog as far as the international food scene is concerned.

Just last month, an Australian writer based in Jakarta drew the ire of Pinoys online when she called Filipino food “bland” and the “worst in the region.” She made this statement in response to a ranking of Southeast Asian cuisine by a Cornell University professor who had placed the Philippines dead last in his list of the region’s greatest cuisines.

The two aren’t alone in their views about Filipino food. A survey by London-based firm YouGov released in March revealed that the Philippines has the fourth least popular cuisine out of the 34 featured in the study — and only 36 percent of people who have tried it actually like it.

We at Coconuts Manila can’t take this sitting down. Filipino cuisine carries so much history, variety, and flavor — but outside of our country, it’s pretty misunderstood. So, we put together this primer on understanding the food of the Philippines. In it, we’ll also cover what goes into making five dishes that are considered quintessentially Filipino.

 

Flavor profile

At its core, Filipino food is big on three flavors: salty, sweet, and sour. A balance of all three is found in most landmark dishes, from savory entrees to desserts.

Chef Jam Melchor, the founder of the Philippine Culinary Heritage Movement, told Coconuts that the best way to get a taste of authentic Filipino food is to go to the provinces, where fresh produce is used and dishes are still cooked the traditional way. And that’s exactly what we did.

We headed to Malolos City, the capital of Bulacan province that is about 40km north of Manila, last month. There, we met with aunt-nephew cooking duo Rheeza Santiago Hernandez and Niko Santiago, who whipped up five dishes that showcased the variety in classic Filipino food.

 

Growing up in the kitchen

Niko Santiago cooking puchero. (Photo: Jacques Manuntag/Coconuts)
Niko Santiago cooking puchero. Photo: Jacques Manuntag/Coconuts

“If my life were 100 percent, I’m in the kitchen 90 percent of that,” the 35-year-old Niko said in Filipino as he prepped the ingredients for the meal ahead.

His aunt Rheeza said Niko was a born cook who learned to prepare rice as early as 4 years old. 

May vetsin [siya] sa dila (he has MSG on his tongue),” Rheeza said of his nephew, a family joke that means he has good taste in food.

While Niko is the cook, Rheeza is the history buff who views food as an important part of the country’s heritage. She created the menu for that day and admitted that unlike other provinces, Bulacan is not known for any culinary specialties because most of their staples are considered national dishes.

For Rheeza, however, their heirloom recipes are significant because they’re tied to historic events. “That’s our edge, that our food tells stories,” she said.

 

Adobo

Adobo, which literally means “to marinate” comes in various forms. Other regional variations include adobong pula (red adobo), found in Luzon’s Batangas province and Visayas’ Iloilo, that gets its color from atsuete (annatto) oil. The province of Laguna, on the other hand, has the adobong dilaw (yellow adobo) made with turmeric.

Adobong atay at balunbalunan. (Photo: Jacques Manuntag/Coconuts)
Adobong atay at balunbalunan. Photo: Jacques Manuntag/Coconuts

A prime example is adobo. The one they prepared was an adobong atay at balunbalunan (chicken liver and gizzard adobo). Rheeza said this was served during the Malolos Congress, when the proclamation of Philippine independence was ratified in 1898.

The adobo recipe known internationally is made with chicken, pork, toyo (soy sauce), suka (vinegar), garlic, and peppercorns. But there’s was an adobong puti (white adobo), which leaves out the soy sauce.

It started, as most Filipino recipes do, with sauteed minced garlic and red onion. Once tender, the liver and gizzard were added over a low fire and cooked until the meat’s juices oozed out.

Sautéed garlic and red onion. (Photo: Jacques Manuntag/Coconuts)
Sautéed garlic and red onion. Photo: Jacques Manuntag/Coconuts

Then, sukang paombong (coconut water vinegar) was added along with salt, pepper, and the secret ingredient —  a pinch of sugar. The sugar, Rheeza said, gives an umami edge similar to that derived from MSG.

We’re not sure how to back that up scientifically but can say that the adobo was very savory, leaving no room for us to miss the soy sauce. The pieces of meat were dense and retained their shape even after a spoon and fork cut through them. The liver was creamy, with its bitter flavor mellowed by the oily and slightly acidic sauce that coated it.

Vinegar added to adobo. (Photo: Jacques Manuntag/Coconuts)
Vinegar added to adobo. Photo: Jacques Manuntag/Coconuts

Sinigang

Sour soup. Other forms of sinigang are made with different souring agents like kamias, calamansi, and even fruits like mango and watermelon.

The sour soup sinigang. (Photo: Jacques Manuntag/Coconuts)
The sour soup sinigang. Photo: Jacques Manuntag/Coconuts

Most modern versions of sinigang are now made with powders that instantly make sour soup out of boiled water. But Rheeza and Niko want nothing to do with that.

To this day, they still make theirs by boiling sampaloc (tamarind) in water, mashing it, and painstakingly squeezing out the juice through a sieve. It takes a lot more time but they said it’s worth it.

“With powders, there is an after taste … it’s kind of metallic,” Rheeza said. “Unlike when you use real [ingredients], first it has a slightly earthy taste.”

This earthy element adds depth to the dish that goes beyond the five basic tastes.

Rheeza preparing ingredients for the sinigang. (Photo: Jacques Manuntag/Coconuts)
Rheeza preparing ingredients for the sinigang. Photo: Jacques Manuntag/Coconuts

After extracting the sampaloc juice, they added more water, chunks of liempo (pork belly), and salt for boiling. Once the meat was tender, the vegetables were added including gabi (taro root), tomatoes, and onions. Last to join the pot were sitaw (green beans), labanos (radish), kangkong (water spinach), siling panigang (green finger chili), and okra.

The slow cooking process and use of real sampaloc gave way to a thick and cloudy soup that was sour but not painfully acidic, especially when poured over white rice. The pork was tender while the vegetables were slightly wilted and soft enough to bite.

Vegetables being added to the sinigang. (Photo: Jacques Manuntag/Coconuts)
Vegetables being added to the sinigang. Photo: Jacques Manuntag/Coconuts

Kinilaw

A raw seafood dish that is “cooked” in vinegar and similar in concept to ceviche. Apart from fish, shrimp, squid, clams, oysters, and crabs can also be used in kinilaw. A similar dish from the northern Philippines known as kilawin typically uses blanched or lightly grilled meat like goat, beef, carabao, pork, and chicken.

Bangus kinilaw topped with kesong puti. (Photo: Jacques Manuntag/Coconuts)
Bangus kinilaw topped with kesong puti. Photo: Jacques Manuntag/Coconuts

Like sinigang, kinilaw relies heavily on acid. It’s similar to ceviche in that seafood is “cooked” by mixing it with juice from citrus fruits and vinegar.

Niko started by deboning a whole bangus (milkfish), filleting the meat, and cutting it into 1 1/2-inch pieces. The fish was then “washed” using sukang paombong then squeezed, which helped get rid of the fishy taste. Juice from the citrus fruit calamansi was added, along with chopped onion, siling labuyo (chili pepper), bell peppers, ginger, and siling panigang. It was seasoned with rock salt, pepper, white sugar, and a splash of kakang gata (coconut cream derived from the first squeeze).

A little sprinkling. (Photo: Jacques Manuntag/Coconuts)
A little sprinkling of salt. Photo: Jacques Manuntag/Coconuts

By the time the mixture was done marinating for about 5 hours, the fish was tender and had turned into an opaque off-white color.

Each ingredient popped out on its own — a sweet-and-spicy raw onion comes out first, but you eventually get a kick from the chili pepper. It was not too spicy because the heat was toned down by the coconut cream, which also cuts the acidity from the vinegar and calamansi juice. We especially liked the slices of kesong puti (white cheese) that were used as a garnish because they added another layer of creaminess to the already rich dish.

Both Rheeza and Niko agreed that kinilaw is best paired with San Miguel beer, another Filipino dining staple.

Kinilaw and its ingredients. (Photo: Jacques Manuntag/Coconuts)
Kinilaw and its ingredients. Photo: Jacques Manuntag/Coconuts

Puchero

A beef and pork stew with a tomato base and ingredients like garbanzo (chickpeas) and chorizo.

A plate of puchero. (Photo: Jacques Manuntag/Coconuts)
A plate of puchero. Photo: Jacques Manuntag/Coconuts

Among all the dishes covered in this article, puchero is the one most rooted in Spanish cuisine.

Rheeza and Niko went for a traditional recipe that is said to be a favorite of the historical figure Marcelo H. del Pilar, who also hailed from Bulacan.

Pre-cooked meat for the puchero. (Photo: Jacques Manuntag/Coconuts)
Pre-cooked meat for the puchero. Photo: Jacques Manuntag/Coconuts

After garlic and white onions were sauteed, pre-cooked beef shank and pork belly were added to the wok. The meat was seasoned with pepper and fish sauce, which added umami and saltiness to the dish.

Tomatoes were added and then mashed along with tomato sauce and tomato paste. They poured some stock to loosen up the sauce and sugar to balance out the flavors. Completing it were the garbanzo, chorizo, chopped pieces of camote (sweet potato), fried saging na saba (plantain), cabbage, Baguio beans (green beans), and petsay tagalog (Filipino cabbage).

Puchero with garbanzo and chorizo. (Photo: Jacques Manuntag/Coconuts)
Puchero with garbanzo and chorizo. Photo: Jacques Manuntag/Coconuts

This was the heartiest among all the dishes, thanks to the sauce that dressed all the components — from the meat to the vegetables. It had an interesting contrast of textures from the crunchy beans and chewy petsay, to the dense chorizo and starchy garbanzo.

If you’re into puchero, then other popular tomato-based stews in the Philippines that you might also like are menudo, caldereta, and afritada.

 

Pinaso

A dessert that is a cross between a crème brûlée, leche flan, yema (custard candy), and a tart. Made with crushed plain crackers, evaporated milk, sugar, five whole eggs, and the rind of a dayap (key lime).

The dessert pinaso. (Photo: Jacques Manuntag/Coconuts)
The dessert pinaso. Photo: Jacques Manuntag/Coconuts

Pinaso literally means “scorched” and that’s exactly what was done do this dessert. It is believed to have dated back to the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade and is Mexican in origin, and is the most distinctly Bulakenyo dish of the ones we’ve covered in this article.

Rheeza said that this recipe is based on one from the American colonial period when cooks used ingredients from the K-rations of American G.I.s.

Without turning on the burner, Rheeza first dissolved the sugar in the milk inside a saucepan. She then added the eggs, followed by the crushed crackers. Once well-incorporated, she turned on the fire to low and mixed until it was dough-like, with a texture similar to that of mashed potatoes.

She added the dayap zest before flattening the mixture into a circle on a plate. A heaping serving of sugar was sprinkled on top and torched using a metal spatula.

The theatrics alone will satisfy diners. It was an all-sensory experience, from the sizzle and smoke that came right after the spatula hit the sugar, to the caramel scent that followed.

Scorching the dessert. (Photo: Jacques Manuntag/Coconuts)
Scorching the dessert. Photo: Jacques Manuntag/Coconuts

Like a crème brûlée, the sugar on top cracked when tapped but its custard was a lot denser, similar to cookie dough.

 

Beyond the basics

While adobosinigang, kinilaw, and puchero can be considered classics, these dishes really represent just a fraction of Philippine cuisine.

Chef Jam of the Philippine Culinary Heritage Movement told Coconuts that Filipino food cannot be defined in simple terms: “Filipino food is regional. So unlike other cuisines, our flavors [are] diverse. So, we’re defined based on the regions that we have,” he said. 

Flavor profiles vary depending on the area. For example, food in Luzon’s Bicol region tends to be spicy and makes use of gata (coconut milk).

The cuisine of the Maranaoans in Mindanao also pack-in more heat than food in other parts of the country and are made with halal meat because of the area’s Muslim population. The food there is more similar to those found in Indonesia and Malaysia, with dishes like piarun a manuk (spiced chicken with grated coconut) and kuning (yellow turmeric rice).

So while the food Rheeza and Niko prepared are worthy primers for newbies, they’re really only a gateway into a rich food culture that can never be bland.

A Filipino dinner. (Photo: Jacques Manuntag/Coconuts)
A Filipino dinner. Photo: Jacques Manuntag/Coconuts

Trending social media posts from #ProudPinoys are putting the country’s cuisine on the world map, alongside restaurants in the west that promote kamayan-style dinners (eating with hands), and award-winning local restaurants like Toyo Eatery, a movement that could soon bring Philippine cuisine to the same level of popularity as its Southeast Asian neighbors.

If you’re looking to explore Filipino food further, might we suggest checking out…

Restaurants in Metro Manila serving modern Filipino food that won’t break the bank

Palm Grill brings Southern Mindanao’s hard-to-find comfort food to the heart of Quezon City

Modern Merienda: Manam Cafe recreates classic Filipino snacks

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