I am supposed to come home to the Philippines this summer of 2020 to spend two weeks with my family but since the lockdown started, I had to push back with my travel plans and reschedule them some other time. Not being able to be home means that I would miss yet another year of tasting my mom’s rendition of my favorite traditional Filipino dishes. Though I’m able to cook most of them, I still find myself missing something that tastes just like the ones I grew up eating.
I would characterize Filipino cuisine as something homey and warm. The food we have is quite saucey and many have identified the primary tastes as salty, meaty and a bit on the sweeter side. Onion, garlic and ginger (sometimes interchanged to tomatoes) are probably the Filipino cuisine equivalent of mirepoix, or Holy Trinity. It is difficult as well to find a Filipino viand that you would skip the white rice for because most, if not all, of our food are made to perfectly pair it with.
There has been a lot of debate in respective circles in the late 2000s about how Filipino food is such a delectable cuisine however, it hasn’t really taken off as much as its other Asian brothers and sisters such as Thai, Viet, Chinese or even Japanese cuisine. Should you see a Filipino joint outside of the Philippines, it is almost always a fusion or a small eatery but rarely a fine dining one.
In my humble opinion, the best way to enjoy the authentic Filipino flavors is always at home. Even being a local, sometimes it is difficult to find a restaurant that serves on-point classic Filipino dishes as the quality and taste seems to suffer from cost-cutting.
In retrospect, the ingredients list in a Filipino dish are somewhat easy to gather and it shouldn’t take a genius to make your own version, and yet it is always in the technique that the home-cooked version always trumps the restaurants. If you’re living abroad like me, certain ingredients may be trickier to find especially fresh produce and Asian grocery stores only have select options, so it is often that we have to adjust a thing or two in our food. I am only lucky that I’m living in the part of Dubai where a lot of Filipinos live, so the grocery store nearby has a lot of Asian goods in stock.
If this would be your first time to try out Filipino food, these dishes would be the first ones I’d like for you to try:
Adobo. This is probably the most common Filipino dish, and level 1 food that every foreigner has tried. It’s traditionally a braised meat, usually pork or chicken, that is cooked in a broth mixture of soy sauce and vinegar. Every household and region have their own version of it like Adobo sa Puti (adobo with vinegar but without the soy), Adobo sa Gata (adobo with a dash of coconut milk) or Adobo Ilonngo (adobo cooked with annato oil/turmeric); but that is the basic profile of the dish which you can find in Tagalog or Southern Luzon region. My own take of this dish usually incorporates lots of garlic, whole peppercorns, bay leaf, star anise, chilies and honey to make it a well-rounded broth. It is said that unlike other dishes, Adobo becomes a much better dish after you have reheated it for a few days because all the aromatics have completely seeped into the meat and sauce.
Sinigang. This dish is often likened to Thai’s Tom Yum which is equally as good but I’d have to put the bias on my home country’s take, of course. The difference between the two is found in the aromatics used. While Tom Yum cannot be what it is without the use of lemongrass, galangal, chili paste, shrimp stock and kaffir lime leaves; Sinigang won’t be what it is without a souring agent (traditionally crushed Tamarind), lots of tomatoes and fish sauce. I would say it is a perfect combination of sour, salty and spicy. be posting more in depth about this very soon when I will make my own version next.
Laing. This is a more regional dish, hailing from the province of Bicol. What makes this dish truly unique is its use of Taro leaves, coconut milk and lots of chili peppers. If you must know, Filipino dishes in general are not known to be that spicy unless the maker or eater of the dish has a preference for it; but the Bicol region is known for this love affair. Laing is made more flavorful by the use of meat, like pork belly or shrimp as a topping. To be honest, I was intimidated by this dish growing up but once I had a taste of it, it is something that I needed to have if it was available.
Sisig. This is a classic Filipino pulutan dish (roughly translated as accompaniment to alcohol) that every Filipino loves. Traditionally, this dish’s main meat is comprised of pig mask (snout, cheeks, ears) that gives it a mix of crispy and chewy texture but latter versions have emerged as an adaptation to what is commercially available such as tuna, chicken, beef, pork belly, squid and even mussels. You can almost always find this in every beer house and they will serve it in a sizzling hot plate, optionally topped with a drizzle of mayo and egg.
Inihaw na bangus. Literally translates to grilled fish, this has probably made its way to every Filipino families’ beach days because it’s a tradition to grill meats and seafood while the young and the old are enjoying a dip in the water. It’s ridiculously easy to make; you would only need a large milkfish butterflied in half (cleaned and gutted thoroughly as we won’t be eating its internal organs) and a garnish of tomatoes, onions, peppers and lemon. You would also need a dipping sauce out of soy sauce, dash of vinegar, more chilies and onions. It is a hard-to-screw up dish as you only need to prep it and let it have its daytime in the grill but the flavor is such a satisfying and comforting feel.
Kare-Kare. Out of the dishes listed in this post, this will probably be the most labor-intensive to produce as it requires the main meat, usually oxtail and/or tripe or beef chunks to be ultimately tender to best enjoy the meal. What’s unique about this dish is the use of peanut butter in the stew as well as bagoong (shrimp paste) to flavor it, which are not that common with other Filipino dishes. Bagoong, when used in other Filipino food, is usually used directly as an ingredient rather than a flavoring, in case you’re wondering. After some years, the main meat used has also been evolutionized to pork (usually belly or knuckles) as well as seafood (usually shrimp, crab and/or squid). I would say that due to the effort that is required to make this dish, it rather makes its appearance only on select occasions such as birthdays, special family gatherings and whatnot.
Now that I am writing about it, I have realized how much love I have for Filipino food. Oftentimes, because it’s the food that I grew up on and is quite familiar with me, I take it for granted but introducing them to other people to try reminds me of why they’re actually good and why many have enjoyed Filipino food. I think I am not alone when I say that I genuinely enjoy watching videos on Youtube of foreigners trying our food.
These are only select dishes that are quite easy to find or can be recreated at home but there are still a lot which you could try should you visit the Philippines, happen to pass by a Filipino eatery or have been invited to a Filipino party next time.
If you have tried these before, let me know what you think! Or better yet, share with me your own favorite Filipino food!