We're very excited to welcome writer, photographer, and cook Michael Harlan Turkell to the virtual pages of Serious Eats. In this series, Michael will share some of his favorite takes on grilling recipes from around the world, all focused on the interplay of vinegar and the grill—something he knows quite a bit about, as he traveled far and wide while writing his awesome vinegar-focused cookbook, Acid Trip.
I'll admit it: I must have walked by Johnny Air Mart hundreds of times without going in. The modest grocery sits on Avenue A in New York City's East Village, with a display of large white bottles of Datu Puti cane vinegar lining the front window. Specializing in Filipino products, from frozen packets of calamansi juice to ube ice cream and longaniça sausage, the mart's an offshoot of Johnny Air, a cargo company that operates between New York and the Philippines.
My friend King Phojanakong, who grew up in nearby Stuyvesant Town, is the chef and owner of one of my favorite restaurants, Kuma Inn on the Lower East Side. There, he introduced me to his Thai-Filipino style of cooking (his mother is from the Philippines, his dad from Thailand). It's where I fell in love with the dark and vinegary Filipino marinade known as adobo. (Though it shares the same name, it is not a variant of the vibrant red sauce found in Spanish and Portuguese cuisines.)
Adobo is comprised of almost equal parts vinegar, soy sauce, and water and perfumed with aromatics like garlic, whole black peppercorns, and bay leaves. It's traditionally used for stewed meats, most often chicken or pork. The proteins are usually marinated overnight, braised, then either eaten straight from the pot or removed from the marinade, chilled to set, and finished over direct heat for a crispier texture. That's often done in a pan or on a griddle, but I've found that I like grilling even better for this; it adds another layer of flavor with the smoke, while giving the exterior of the meat a nice char as well. The high salt and vinegar content in the marinade, meanwhile, acts as a preservative, inhibiting the growth of bacteria and allowing for a longer shelf life—especially useful in the peak of summer.
At Kuma Inn, King makes tender adobo chicken wings following his mother, Tita Em's, recipe. Coated in the sauce's pungent aroma, the wings are so big and juicy, easily pulling apart with each mouthwatering bite. When I asked King for tips on making adobo, he told me to get a bottle of Datu Puti from Johnny Air Mart. That recommendation forever changed my adobo game.
Datu Puti is a brand name, but since its inception in the 1970s, it's become the omnipresent vinegar in Filipino food around the world. The clear white cane vinegar is made from crushed sugarcane juice that's boiled down to syrup and then fermented. While Datu Puti has a nice round texture, similar to that of rice vinegar, it's a bit stronger than that, but not nearly as harsh as distilled white vinegar. Datu Puti owes much of its widespread recognition to its exceedingly successful mukhasim marketing campaign (mukha means "face," asim means "sour"), built around models posing with puckering faces—even famed boxer and national hero Manny Pacquiao made an appearance in the ads.
To adapt adobo for the grill, I began with King's mother's recipe and adjusted it to concentrate the flavor—without the long cooking and reduction that's intrinsic to stewing and braising, the adobo needs to start off with a little more intensity.
After combining the marinade ingredients in a saucepan and bringing them to a boil to extract the aromatics' flavors, I let the marinade cool down, then add it to a zipper-lock bag with my meat of choice. All kinds of cuts of chicken and pork can work well, but here I'm using bone-in pork chops.
I tested marination times from as little as one hour all the way up to two full days, and found that there's a sweet spot of about eight to 24 hours, during which the salt and flavors will have had enough time to brine and flavor the meat well, but not so much that the acid in the marinade starts to give it a chalky texture.
Then, when I'm ready to grill, I take the meat out of the bag, pat it dry, and throw it right over the hot coals of a two-zone indirect fire. A two-zone setup is almost always a good idea, since you can shift the meat over to the cooler side if it threatens to burn on the outside before reaching doneness in the center.
Once the chops are ready (about 135°F/57°C in the center for medium), just let them rest for a few minutes before cutting into them. If you're feeling ambitious, you can also cook up some sticky rice a day ahead, chill it well, then form it into handball-sized balls. Brush those rice balls with more of the marinade, and throw them on the grill as well, brushing with more marinade and turning as they cook, until they're browned and crispy outside and heated within.
When you make adobo this way, you'll taste the vibrancy of cane vinegar in it. From here on out, you'll always want to have a bottle of Datu Puti in your pantry.