Enter any Filipino kitchen and you’ll find a collection of common pantry items that are used to create the distinctive sour, sweet, and salty flavor profile of Filipino cuisine. There’s calamansi, our native citrus fruit, and vinegar, whose exact type will vary from household to household, for that ubiquitous acidic kick; soy sauce, patis (fish sauce), and bagoong (fermented seafood sauce or paste) to deliver a salty-umami punch; and various fruits and coconut products for adding sweetness. Together, these items unite Filipino kitchens despite the fact that the cuisine is also defined by marked differences due to regional taste preferences.
To get you started, I put together a list of some of the most common ingredients you'll find in a basic Filipino pantry. Although you may be hard pressed to find some of these items even in well-stocked supermarkets, these staples are becoming more accessible due to the proliferation of Asian grocery stores and online-delivery outfits like Amazon, Weee!, and SarapNow. And once you have them on hand, you'll be able to whip up some of our most popular dishes with ease.
Sawsawan and Other Seasonings
When you eat at any Filipino home or restaurant, you’ll notice small bowls or bottles containing vinegar, patis, bagoong, and soy sauce, as well as calamansi halves on the table. Collectively, these ingredients, or “galaxy of flavor-adjusters,” as food writer and cultural historian Doreen Fernandez calls them, are known as sawsawan.
Sawsawan are used to fine-tune meals to each diner's individual taste. As Fernandez writes in Sarap: Essays on Philippine Food, “the diner cooperates and participates, and the creation is communal. The sawsawan thus transforms not only the taste, but also the relationship behind the experience.” Sawsawan are not dish-specific; you can use them individually or mix them together for a quick dipping sauce to customize your food. Popular combinations include toyomansi (soy sauce and calamansi), suka at toyo (vinegar and soy sauce), and suka at patis (vinegar and fish sauce). There are no recipes or ratios involved when swirling these together, it’s completely left to the diners’ discretion.
The following ingredients are basic building blocks of almost every sawsawan and are also common flavorings found throughout Filipino cuisine.
Fermented Seafood Products
Many cuisines throughout Asia rely on fermented seafood to flavor their food. In the Philippines, we primarily use bagoong and patis to provide a salty, umami-rich boost to our cooking.
Bagoong, which means “fermented” in Filipino, refers to a broad category of sauces and pastes made from fermented seafood. There’s two main types: bagoong isda and bagoong alamang. The former is a sauce made from fish and can be labeled bagoong monamon, bagoong dilis, bagoong balayan, or bagoong terong (the name indicates either the type of fish used or the sauce's place of origin). Bagoong alamang, on the other hand, is a chunky paste made from shrimp or krill. Ginisang bagoong—a popular variation of bagoong alamang that's sautéed with onion, garlic, vinegar, and sugar—is what I keep at home. Its sweeter, more complex flavor works well in a variety of dishes, like pinakbet, a hearty vegetable stew, and kare-kare, our version of (really good) curry. It’s also great when spread on unripe green mangoes for a salty-sour snack.
Pungent patis “hits your nostrils” says Elizabeth Ann Besa-Quirino, a cookbook author, journalist, and food writer. The amber-colored liquid, which traditionally is a by-product of the bagoong fermentation process, has many uses in the Filipino kitchen—as a dipping sauce, as a source of salt, and as a flavoring agent. Besa-Quirino says that she often uses it instead of salt, a common practice for many Filipino cooks. Take sinigang (a refreshing sour soup) for example: if you scan the list of ingredients, you’ll notice there’s no salt; instead, the dish is finished with patis, which adds salinity as well as its own distinctive flavor.
If there’s one ingredient Filipinos can’t get enough of its vinegar. We use it to marinate, pickle, braise, stew, and season food. Historically, vinegar has been relied upon as a food preservative to ward off spoilage, which can happen fast in a tropical climate. There are three main types to choose from: cane vinegar, coconut vinegar, and palm vinegar. These vinegars come with varying levels of acidity as well as their own unique flavors and aromas.
Cane vinegar is the most commonly used vinegar in the Philippines and the most widely available abroad. There are two kinds available: white cane vinegar (or sukang maasim, which means “sour vinegar”) and sukang Iloco. White cane vinegar, made from fermented sugarcane syrup, is a good all-purpose vinegar, since its mild flavor works well in numerous applications. Sukang Iloco, which takes its name from the Ilocos region, is made from sugarcane molasses and has a slightly sweet flavor, reminiscent of sherry vinegar. I keep a bottle of each in my pantry but I find that I reach for white cane vinegar most of the time due to its versatility and flavor, which I became accustomed to growing up.
There are also two types of coconut vinegar: coconut palm vinegar (known as sukang tuba) and coconut water vinegar (or sukang niyog). Made from the sap of a coconut palm, sukang tuba is often used to make sinamak, a popular spiced vinegar steeped with onions, ginger, garlic, black pepper, and chiles. Yana Gilbuena, a Philippines-born chef and recipe developer, calls for it in her recipe for kinilaw, a bright dish of marinated raw fish. Sukang niyog is made by fermenting water from mature coconuts. Neither vinegar tastes overtly like coconut; they both have a slightly sweet aroma and a more assertive flavor profile in comparison to cane vinegar.
Palm vinegar, otherwise known as sukang Paombong (named after a town in the Bulacan province), is the most labor intensive to produce. As Fernandez writes in Tikim, workers must shake or “kick the branch 20 times once a week for six to seven weeks” of a nipa palm to stimulate sap production for harvest. As the sap ferments, it continues to sour over time, becoming darker in color due to its high iron content. Flavorwise, it’s sweeter than coconut vinegar with a pleasant salinity.
If a dish calls for a specific vinegar, it’s best to source the vinegar indicated. However, most of the time, vinegars are used interchangeably, giving the cook leeway to use their preferred vinegar or whatever they have on hand. Gilbuena always uses coconut vinegar because it has a sweetness that she’s fond of, and cookbook author Marvin Gapultos is a fan of Datu Puti’s white sugarcane vinegar, which is ubiquitous in the Philippines. You can also substitute rice, apple cider, or white distilled vinegars. Arlyn Osborne, a recipe developer and food writer, likes rice vinegar for cooking, while Besa-Quirino uses apple cider vinegar, which she says mirrors the flavor of palm vinegar.
Introduced by Chinese merchants, soy sauce is another staple ingredient that's used in a number of different ways: Filipinos use it as a marinade, a condiment, and a dipping sauce. It’s also one of the main ingredients in adobo, our national dish. We have our own version of soy sauce made from fermented soybeans, wheat, salt, and caramel coloring; it's thinner in body, darker in color, and saltier than Chinese light soy sauce or Japanese dark soy sauce. Much like vinegar, you can usually use whatever soy sauce you like, Filipino or otherwise. However, Besa-Quirino says she prefers using a Filipino brand like Silver Swan when cooking Filipino dishes because it tastes just like home.
While we aren’t known for mouth-blistering flavors, chiles are present in many Filipino dishes. We like to use siling labuyo—small red chile peppers that pack a fiery punch. It’s quite difficult to source this pepper outside of the Philippines, so many recipes call for Thai chiles in its place, as they have a comparable spice level. Siling labuyo are typically diced up fine and mixed into various sawsawan like suka at toyo to make a spiced vinegar or added to meat-laden dishes like bicol express and sizzling sisig to cut through the richness. You’ll also see the chile leaves added to soups for a subtle peppery note.
Another chile we’re fond of is siling mahaba, also referred to as green finger chile. It has a moderate heat level and can be found in Filipino or Asian supermarkets. This slightly curly pepper is added whole to soups and stews for its nuanced heat and vegetal flavor. If you can't find siling mahaba, a jalapeño pepper or an Anaheim pepper works just as well.
Filipinos can’t get enough of tiny green calamansi, an unripe citrus fruit that's also known as calamondin, Philippine lemon, and Philippine lime. A hybrid of a mandarin and a kumquat, its flavor is one of a kind. Besa-Quirino says it’s “more piercingly sweet than a lemon,” while Gilbuena likens it to a “combination of tangerine with lemon.”
Calamansi is primarily used as an ingredient in marinades or soups, in dipping sauces, and as a seasoning agent―freshly squeezed over pancit or fish―for a sour smack. It’s also common to see the juice used in sweet applications, from cakes and ice cream to cold drinks. The fruit itself is difficult to source in the US, and if you do find it, it’s likely already ripe. According to Gilbuena, you can get a close-ish approximation by mixing one part freshly squeezed lemon juice, one-half part freshly squeezed lime juice, and one-quarter part granulated sugar by volume. It’s worth keeping an eye out for frozen calamansi juice at a well-stocked Asian or Filipino market, which Gilbuena likes to use. Steer clear of bottled extracts, which contain a lot of preservatives.
Go to any Filipino store and you’ll see bottles of bright-red banana ketchup lining the shelves. Made with bananas, vinegar, and sugar, and dyed red to resemble its more well-known counterpart, banana ketchup was developed during World War II to fill a shortage left by traditional tomato ketchup. Just like its facsimile, banana ketchup has a bright, tangy, and sweet flavor but with a thicker, jelly-like consistency.
You’ll find a number of brands on the market, including UFC, Papa, Jufran, Mafran, and Del Monte. The flavor profile of each differs slightly; some will be more salty or sweet and others less so. Spicy versions are also available if you like heat. Besa-Quirino, Gilbuena, Osborne, and I all prefer Jufran for its tangy-sweet flavor. You can use it just like tomato ketchup―as a condiment, served alongside tortang talong, fried chicken, or with eggs for breakfast (as Osborne prefers), and as an ingredient in Filipino spaghetti sauce.
Mang Tomas All-Purpose Sauce
Mang Tomas All-Purpose Sauce, better known as lechon sauce, was originally developed as an accompaniment to lechon, the whole, spit-roasted suckling pig that serves as a centerpiece at Filipino parties. Created by Tomas de los Reyes, a famous lechonero in Quezon City (just north of the capital, Manila), this versatile condiment is made from pork liver, sugar, vinegar, breadcrumbs, and a blend of spices. Gilbuena describes the flavor as “earthy, salty, vinegary, and a little peppery.” Like Besa-Quirino, most Filipinos like to pair it with crispy lechon kawali or fried chicken for dipping. It’s best stored in the refrigerator after opening, where it’ll keep for no more than six months.
Known as achuete in the Philippines, and annatto or achiote elsewhere, these small, dark red seeds arrived via the Manila Galleon trade, a global trade route that brought grains, fruits, vegetables, and dishes from Mexico to the Philippines between 1565 and 1815. Cooks prize annatto for the rich, orange-red color it lends to food along with its delicate, earthy, and peppery flavor. Seeds are either steeped in oil, which can be used on roasts or barbecues, or crushed for seamless blending into sauces for kare-kare and pancit palabok. You can find Mama Sita’s brand achuete powder, sold in handy 1/3-ounce packets, in Asian and Filipino markets. Stored away from light and heat in an airtight container at room temperature, both seeds and powder will keep for a long time.
Garlic, onion, and tomato form the basis of Filipino cooking. Many dishes begin by browning garlic, adding onions and tomatoes and cooking them until soft and translucent, and finishing with meat or seafood and vegetables. Outside of this trinity, each ingredient finds its way into other dishes.
Garlic is integral to the flavor of Filipino dishes and is used without restraint. “The more garlic we have, the better,” Besa-Quirino says. We fry it up crisp to use as a garnish, mix it with vinegar for sawsawan, serve it raw atop lumpiang sariwa (fresh vegetables encased in a crepe-like wrapper drizzled with a savory-sweet sauce), and add it to fried rice. As far as onions go, we like to use red onions, which become sweeter than other kinds when cooked, and thinly sliced scallions for garnishing. Tomatoes are used to provide acidity, as in sinigang, or sliced and eaten fresh with fish. Recipes will often call for plum tomatoes due to their firm texture and low water content.
Another popular aromatic is ginger. It’s stirred into sawsawan, added to soups like arroz caldo, and mixed into palapa, a spicy-sweet condiment made with chile, onion, and coconut that’s widely consumed in Mindanao, the second-largest island in the archipelago whose food has roots in Arabic and Malay cooking.
Fiilipinos favor a variety of banana called Saba. Plump and stout with a firmer, starchier texture, Saba bananas have a complex, lightly sweet flavor that has hints of peach and lemon. This cultivar is famously used in banana ketchup and can be found in many other applications, both raw and cooked. It’s great in turon, a crispy, twice-fried banana roll, and halo-halo, a sweet, shaved-ice dessert. It’s challenging to track down fresh Sabas in the US, but frozen ones are readily available in Filipino markets. Ripe plantains are the closest substitute, given their flavor profile and starchy texture.
Filipino cooking also makes use of the banana blossom or heart―the magenta-colored flower that grows at the end of the banana fruit cluster. The tough outer layers are quite fibrous, but peeling those away reveals the lighter-colored inner blossom, which has a mild, nutty flavor. The blossom can be prepared raw or cooked: in salads, added to soups, and stewed in coconut milk. You may be able to find fresh banana blossom in the produce section of Asian markets, which benefits from a quick soak in salted water to remove its bitter sap and prevent discoloration. If you can’t procure a fresh one, you can substitute canned blossoms in brine; just rinse them before using.
Filipino cuisine uses a lot of banana leaves. The plant’s thick, wavy leaves are versatile: They can be wrapped around foods prior to steaming, baking, or grilling, and used to line pans for rice cakes like biko, bibingka, and many other native sweets. Both uses impart a distinctly tropical flavor and aroma to the final dish. It can be hard to track down fresh leaves in the US, however you can easily purchase frozen banana leaves in Asian markets as well as online.
The coconut palm is so revered in Filipino culture that we often refer to it as the “tree of life.” It’s used to make food, drink, fuel, hats, furniture, and even housing. “It’s our giving tree,” Gilbuena says. When it comes to food, the list of coconut products we use is endless. There’s coconut milk, cream, and water, used to flavor many dishes, from soups like binakol and stews like bicol express to desserts like buko pandan and tambo-tambo. We ferment coconut water to make coconut vinegar (as described above) and to make nata de coco, or coconut jelly, a chewy Filipino speciality that’s eaten as dessert on its own or mixed into fruit salads and halo-halo. We also use the soft, tender flesh of young coconuts, which is called buko, as well as niyog, the hard mature meat, in many desserts. In Mindanao, the flesh is burned to contribute a complex sweetness to signature dishes. Then, there’s macapuno, or coconut sport strings, a favorite of Gilbuena. The strings are preserved young coconut strips made from a variety of coconut that has soft, jelly-like flesh and contains very little water. Sweeter than your typical coconut, it’s commonly used in desserts. Macapuno can be found in Filipino or Asian markets and online.
Filipinos are obsessed with ube, our ubiquitous purple yam. This tuberous root, whose vividly purple flesh tastes like a cross between vanilla and pistachio, should not be confused with Okinawan sweet potatoes or taro, which have different flavors and textures. The smooth flesh is boiled and mashed to add flavor and color to many sweet treats, like ube halaya (purple yam jam) and ube ice cream. Although it can be particularly hard to find the root fresh, ube is available in other forms: powdered, frozen, and as an extract. Ube extract adds a deeper, more concentrated flavor to desserts. Frozen grated ube is easy to use; simply defrost it first. Powdered ube, on the other hand, can be trickier to work with since it must be reconstituted with liquid first, and textures can vary between brands.
Introduced by Chinese traders, noodles come in all forms. Varieties include bihon (rice vermicelli), yellow-hued canton, sotanghon (mung bean thread noodles), round cornstarch, miki (thick egg noodles), and misua (a thin wheat noodle also known as Chinese vermicelli); each one varies in terms of taste and texture. Pancit dishes will typically call for a specific noodle. Two popular examples are pancit bihon, which uses bihon noodles as its foundation, and pancit palabok, which is prepared with cornstarch or rice noodles. Any well-stocked Asian or Filipino market will have these on hand. To start, I recommend purchasing Excellent brand’s bihon and canton noodles for your pantry―both are high-quality noodles that can be used in an array of dishes.
Filipinos eat a lot of rice, so much so that a meal wouldn’t be complete without it. If you can only stock one type of rice, then fragrant, long-grain jasmine should be your go-to; it’s what you’ll serve with a meal. If your pantry has some wiggle room, add short-grain glutinous or sticky rice to your repertoire; it’s great for making bringhe, our version of paella, and a whole range of sweetened rice cakes like biko. If you want to go above and beyond, pick up a bag of pinipig―flattened immature grains of glutinous rice―which, when toasted, serve as a crunchy topping for desserts.