Coconut, Vinegar, and a Whole Lotta Pork: An Introduction to Filipino Cuisine
In restaurant circles, the dreaded F-word—fusion—is usually reserved to describe some sort of disparate multi-culti combination, like sauce soubise on top of tamales. But in the case of Filipino food, there's no stronger term to capture the essence of Asia's most unique, idiosyncratic, and underrated culinary tradition.
To novice eyes, the food of the Philippines, the archipelago of 7,000-plus islands due east of the Malay Peninsula, is weird. Hell, it's weird to me, and I grew up eating it. There's oddity in unfamiliarity, and this is a cuisine that doesn't quite resemble, in elements, execution, or intention, anything else in Southeast Asia.
And that's what makes it so fascinating. No sound bite can accurately answer the one question Filipinos get plenty: What is Filipino food? "The simplest way to put it is our food reflects our history," says Yana Gilbuena, founder of The Salo Project.
It's a history shaped by colonialism. The Spanish, led by Ferdinand Magellan, made landfall on the islands in 1521, and controlled the Philippines until 1898, introducing Iberian ingredients and touches from other colonial holdings, like Mexico, to the natives. Though the two countries are ancient trade partners, the 16th century also saw the first major wave of immigrants from the Chinese coastal provinces of Fujian and Canton, who brought their own specialties across the South China Sea. Then there's America, which took control of the archipelago from Spain following the Treaty of Paris until it officially became an independent republic in 1946.
Unlike neighboring nations like Malaysia, where many immigrants recreate their recipes relatively free of outside influence, the Philippines has seen these immensely different traditions commingle over the centuries, creating a remarkable Euro-Yankee-Latino-Malay amalgam—capital-f Fusion, fo' real—built on big, uncompromising flavors.
Regionality plays a huge role in Filipino cooking, as it's a geographically divisive country populated by dozens of ethnic groups. "Each island has their own flavor," says Gilbuena, who's originally from Iloilo City in the Western Visayas. But there are commonalities that inform the Filipino palate regardless of longitude and latitude.
The pillars of the pantry is a good place to begin, as they double as building blocks for the cuisine itself. For starters, you're going to find vinegar—most commonly sukang iloco, derived from sugarcane—in every Filipino kitchen. Used for marinating, braising, and glazing, as well as a table dip for entrées and pulutan (drinking snacks like chicharrón), vinegar is also the backbone of adobo, the Philippines' most lauded dish. (More on this in a sec.)
Vinegar is the most prevalent holdover from the pre-colonial era, a truly indigenous distinction. "The Filipino penchant for lip-puckering zest is not without reason," writes food blogger Marvin Gapultos in The Adobo Road Cookbook. "In the tropical climes of the Philippines, the preservative powers of vinegar were a culinary necessity for centuries, long before refrigeration was available."
Sour notes also crop up in the form of calamansi, the versatile citrus fruit that finds its way into innumerable dishes; sweet and sour tamarind, stirred into soups like sinigang; and green (unripe) mangos, an everyday snack. In fact, those mangos are often topped with another building block: bagoong, or fermented shrimp paste, which, along with patis (fish sauce), speaks to the aggressively salty/funky section of the Pinoy flavor wheel.
Given the environs, bananas, plantains, and coconuts pop up constantly, in myriad forms; banana ketchup is perhaps the most curious to outsiders. White rice is also a must with every meal of the day, starting with silog-style breakfasts—a breakfast meat, like longaniza, accompanied garlic fried rice, fried eggs and sliced tomatoes. In heavily Filipino Daly City, California, the joke goes that it's permanently foggy because all the residents are running their old-school R2D2-looking rice cookers ragged.
Unlike Thai cuisine, with which Filipino is often confused, heat is not a defining characteristic, though it does factor into individual dishes like Bicol Express, a pork and coconut milk stew garnished with sliced long hots.
It's tough to make many more blanket statements about Filipino food, given how much it varies from island to island, city to city and household to household. But this much can be said: Meals are rarely Western in structure. "Filipino, as a basic rule, is ordered family-style," says Ponseca, who encourages guests at Maharlika to approach chef Miguel Trinidad's menu with the fierceness of a tactical strike. "Get in there and get as much as your tummy can handle. These dishes are made to be enjoyed this way." Kamayan-style feasts at Maharlika involve a huge spread of shareable food laid out on banana leaves for diners to eat with their hands.
"We cook food in big batches to make sure everyone's fed," says Prometheus Brown, the Seattle-based rapper and poet who last year launched the "Food & Sh*t" Filipino dinner series with his wife, Chera. "It's not so much an individualized thing, with individual plates and individual portions. It's one big pot."
The Big Three: Gateway Dishes
If you come across one big pot simmering away in a Filipino kitchen and you dare to lift the lid, you've got a puncher's chance of that pot containing adobo. A prominent example of colonial mind-meld—conquistadors used their tongues to talk up local cooking, and it eventually became de facto Tagalog—adobo describes not only a dish, but a cooking technique. To qualify, a meat (chicken or pork, most commonly) must be braised in an elixir of vinegar, bay leaves, garlic, salt, and black pepper.
If that sounds boring to you, you've never had adobo. Something alchemical takes place when these ingredients get together, a universally celebrated innovation that inspires both creation and consternation. Everybody, their mom, her six sisters, and all their kids tout their own, adding in proprietary ingredients they'll swear creates a superior result. The "new-school" inclusion of soy sauce, in particular, is an endless topic of debate, the designated hitter rule of adobo preparation.
Adobo is the Philippines' proudest crossover dish, and we're always stoked when non-Filipinos pick up on it. The two remaining dishes in the gateway trifecta, meanwhile, have their roots in China. Inspired by the spring roll, lumpia are a must at the Filipino table, tightly wound wrappers filled with wildly personalized fillings (including banana) and deep-fried. Lo mein-like pancit, too, has countless variations, from the staple bihon and cellophane sotanghon to palabok, blanketed in hard-boiled eggs.
"When it's done well, you can't go wrong. It's universal," says Brown of this triumvirate. "Once they've had that good-ass pancit or adobo, they're hooked. They want to see what else is out there."
Our Love Affair With Pork
Seafood obviously plays an enormous role in the Filipino islander diet. Ubiquitous preparations here include kinilaw, the indigenous ceviche, pickled with vinegar, calamansi or both; and fried bangus, or milkfish. As is the case with many peasant cuisines, oxtail is a big deal, too—it's the base of kare-kare, a beef-and-peanut stew (thanks, Malayans) tinted orange with achiote oil (gracias, Mexico). And let's not forget the Philippines' lusty obsession with canned meat, especially corned beef and Spam (thanks, American Navy rations).
None of these proteins, however, come close to touching our special snout-to-tail relationship with baboy.
"Next to fish, the pig is the most important and accessible source of food for Filipinos," writes Amy Besa in Memories of Philippines Kitchens. Cebuanos enjoy the distinction of being top
dog hog when it comes to the preparation of lechon, or whole roasted suckling pig (fight you for the cheeks), but they spin on spits everywhere. Numerous dishes can be gleaned from the whole animal, including lechon kawali, deep-fried pork belly, served with Mang Tomas "all-purpose sauce" and/or vinegar for dipping; and my personal Pinoy porcine obsession, crispy pata, or deep-fried pork knuckles.
Pork shoulder is the go-to for "Filipino barbecue," a skewered and grilled street snack marinated and glazed in a garlicky, tangy and sweet sauce made with a base of Coke or 7-Up. The other white meat is also where to look for offal-based preparations. The Kapampangan specialty sisig is a headcheese hash of sorts, featuring finely chopped cheek, snout, ears (awesomely referred to as "face" on some menus) and organs doused in citrus and spices, tossed with white onion and served in screaming-hot cast-iron pan like Chili's sizzling fajitas. Dinuguan is a thick brown stew of pork blood, which multiple generations of Filipino parents have sneakily mischaracterized as "chocolate meat" to get their progeny to eat it.
You may have noticed that we haven't touched much on vegetables. (Servers at Maharlika sardonically refer to their meat-free sides as the "Filipino allergy section.") It's true that the cuisine is unabashedly meat-centric, but there are plenty of veggies that play an important role in day-to-day cooking. The indigenous dish pinakbet brings some of the most popular—eggplant, string beans, ampalaya (bitter melon)—together in a bagoong-flavored stew that sometimes includes coconut milk (gata).
Why Isn't It Bigger?
Filipinos are one of the largest immigrant groups in the U.S., up there with Mexicans and Chinese in terms of stateside population. So why is it that Filipino food still seems to lag behind other Asian cuisines in terms of mainstream acceptance, "next big thing" nods notwithstanding?
Reasons abound. One of the most common is the fact that it's always been a staunchly family-oriented cooking tradition. "To this day, the best Filipino food is usually found in homes with a tradition of excellent home cooking, rather than in restaurants," writes Besa.
"For some reason, we've always been very apologetic about our cuisine," says Gilbuena. "I even get it from my mom. 'What, you're serving them dinuguan? They're not going to eat it!'" She's out to change that mentality singlehandedly, currently traveling the country with the goal of staging kamayan pop-ups in each of the 50 states.
Ponseca, who was motivated to open her restaurants by what she perceived as a dearth of accessible options, is optimistic about integration into the mainstream. "It's only a matter of time before everyone in America has tried Filipino food," she says.