An underrated and misunderstood cuisine that is now taking the West by storm
One of the greatest blessings of my life is being born and bred in the Philippines — a tropical archipelago teeming with 7,000+ islands in Southeast Asia. Travelers around the world have been captivated by its exotic beaches, warm weather and even warmer people. Pugilists and their fans know my country for Thrilla In Manila and Manny Pacquiao. Fashionistas have been awestruck by Imelda Marcos and her shoes. The rest of the world was swept away by the peaceful People Power uprising of 1986 against the Marcos dictatorship.
What I feel remains relatively unknown about my home is our food, which is slowly receiving some international acclaim. Rightfully so, as Filipino cuisine is a hot mix of flavors borrowed from its Asian neighbors and the culinary relics of colonialism. The gastronomic pairings, substitutions, and possibilities for food, in a country with a colorful national history, are endless.
Seeing how standout Filipino restaurants in the US are waving our flag in the international food scene fills me with joy. For a long time, I could not understand the world’s misunderstanding of the comfort food I grew up loving. I have always believed that Filipino cuisine deserves to be up there alongside Thai, Indonesian, Vietnamese and Malaysian, so to finally see the tide shifting in our favor is a source of national pride. I intend to make that indelible by contributing to the emerging discourse on Filipino cuisine and highlighting the nuances in our food that is challenging to duplicate elsewhere.
For inspiration, I grabbed a seat by the bar at Gallery By Chele, a stellar local restaurant that infuses modern techniques with Filipino and Southeast Asian ingredients. Through their five-course menu, I will explain typical Filipino fare while illustrating some of the possibilities you can sample or play around with in your own kitchen.
Filipinos eat other things besides pork and SPAM because our country is surrounded by water.
We owe Anthony Bourdain and his love for our beloved lechon for putting us on the epicurean world map. Cebu, Philippines knows how to roast pigs well and deserves to be on every foodie’s bucket list.
While I have eliminated processed food from my diet, I remember growing up with and loving SPAM, a mainstay in erstwhile PX goods stores. Its deep-fried thinly-sliced version pairs well with ketchup, rice and a fried egg, the last two being a typical breakfast food combination you can alter with other meats and fish. The result is a staple food portmanteau: SPAMSILOG, short for SPAM + sinangag + itlog. Sinangag is leftover rice sauteed in oil and garlic — smells and sounds absolutely wonderful in the morning — while itlog is the Filipino word for egg. Other delightful combinations include tapsilog, tocilog, and bangsilog, all normally consumed in the morning.
Pork and beef dishes dominate menus in most Filipino restaurants in Metro Manila because they are usually more affordable than fish and seafood. It is a logistical issue more than anything since the capital city is a bit far from the sea. We love edible marine dwellers, contrary to some local expats’ initial perceptions.
A personal favorite fish dish is the kilawin, the Filipino word for ceviche. It ferments sea bass or tuna in vinegar (though I soak the fish first in calamansi or lime to minimize the fishiness). It is then mixed with ginger, red onion, garlic, salt, and pepper. Some kilawin recipes have coconut milk, but I prefer to leave it out especially when pairing the dish with beer.
Fruits endemic to the Philippines are superfoods rich in vitamins and antioxidants.
I could now feel my tongue cringe from tangy memories of sucking large cotton fruit seeds and spooning the white pulp that used to cover them.
One such fruit that is abundant in the Philippines is the santol, which is packed with antioxidants that can lower your risk for cancer and boost your immune system. It contains iron and pectins, a soluble fiber that can reduce bad cholesterol. The best kind is both sour and sweet, with a softer pulp, and is enjoyable to eat on its own. The grated pulp rind, when cooked in coconut milk and mixed with pork and some chili, creates the perfect side dish called sinantolan, a dish that always compels me to eat more rice.
Our country is the second-largest producer of coconuts in the world, so the fruit has multiple uses in the Filipino kitchen. I personally love fresh coconut juice that I sip straight out of a shell, which afterward is cracked open so I can spoon out the coconut meat. I love Vita Coco too but prefer to go au naturel, especially because I can and it is more affordable. I can get a piece of coconut here anytime, anywhere for $0.50.
Coconut milk, which is the extracted juice of ground coconut meat, is my favorite by-product of this superfood. Apart from the sinantolan, coconut milk is essential in our local curries and top vegetable dishes such as the laing. Spicy laing, which is made of taro leaves, coconut milk, and chili, goes very well with crispy pata or deep-fried pork belly and rice.
Other native fruits such as mangoes, mangosteens, and pomelo occupy the centerpiece of any feast, and a huge space in my heart. They are perfect to eat on their own and can add depth to any dish. Unfortunately, most fruits, even those that are grown here, can be expensive so their natural goodness and nutritional value are not within reach for most people.
Filipinos have age-old curing and fermentation techniques.
One of the hazards of being a bonafide foodie is persistence, in the attempt to discover something homegrown and unique to a particular destination and bringing some of that back home.
I earlier mentioned, when pork was the topic, the province of Cebu. What I did not mention is that this island in the Visayas, where scuba divers from around the world converge, has a popular delicacy called danggit or rabbitfish, a small fish that is prolific in its waters. It is sliced open, salted and sun-dried, and can be purchased in huge volumes at the Tabo-an Market. I make it a point to pay the market a visit every time I go, even though I do come out of it smelling like fish. The hotel where I am billeted usually takes issue, and temporarily confiscates my box of dried fish which is meant to be fried and enjoyed with rice, eggs and tomatoes when I get home, so the smell does not stick in my quarters. Airlines also require that they are packed solid in a box to prevent any fish smell to waft through the cargo compartment. It is a sensible policy given that most Filipinos come to Cebu to buy boxloads of this and takeaway lechon, not just me.
Other types of fish that are smoked (tinapa) and cured (daing) include threadfin breams (bisugo), grey mullets (banak), sardines, milkfish, cuttlefish and even squid. Smoked and dried fish are considered poverty food because they are quite cheap, but in recent years, it has enjoyed some renown and some varieties are quite pricey. Dried fish flakes are also being used as a garnish in some avant-garde restaurant creations.
Another unexpected benefit of poverty is the local fermentation process using vinegar, salt and sometimes sugar. It is a result of a collective desire to preserve in-season fish and fruits for later enjoyment during the off-season. Burong isda or fermented fish uses snakeheads, milkfish, and catfish, while burong mangga or pickled green mangoes is an amazing side dish. An evolving Filipino palate would appreciate other types of pickled vegetables that are popular in Korean dishes.
Filipinos love side dishes and dipping sauces.
In a Filipino home, it is not unusual to find a bottle of soy sauce, Knorr seasoning, ketchup and vinegar in the middle of a lazy susan. Pickled papaya or what we call atchara, our local version of the sauerkraut, is also a mainstay in the refrigerator.
A breakfast ritual would entail having two plates: one for the main dish, and a smaller one for the dipping sauce. If the meal involves fried milkfish, I would slice a calamansi, squeeze it into the small plate and add some soy sauce (and red labuyo pepper, if that is available). I would then sprinkle some of the dipping sauce into the milkfish, then eat it with some fried rice, egg, and atchara. I usually put a spoonful of atchara on the side of my plate.
If the meal involves cured meats like beef tapa, longanisa or tocino, or dried fish, the dipping sauce would be a mixture of suka (vinegar), garlic and chili. While they also pair well with atchara, I prefer to eat salty meat and fish with ensalada, a side dish that uses green mangoes. A rare treat is the lato, or seaweed, which lets me taste the ocean in my mouth and goes well with just about everything.
Tomatoes are also great as a side dish, whether on their own or dipped in bagoong or fermented fish paste, or its other salty by-product patis or fish sauce. It is also paired often with slices of salted egg.
The purpose of the dipping sauce and the side dish is usually to balance high sodium with acid, but sometimes Filipinos just like salt with more salt then taper it off with rice. This is the reason why many poor Filipinos get by with a piece of dried fish and rice.
Filipinos can choose from a wide variety of baked specialties.
We also get by with a wide assortment of affordable baked goods, such as pan de sal, ensaymada, the kakanin, and bibingka. The kakanin selections alone are so vast that they have been written about in a book, and which I will discuss in more detail in a future post.
I grew up loving the pan de sal, a yeast-raised bread baked in a wood-fired oven. I would eat it at any time of the day, usually to save me from hunger pangs, not just during breakfast. I love it especially with Spanish sardines and scrambled eggs which I stuff in the middle of the bread and eat like a hamburger. Ham, eggs, and cheese also go well with it, which I find is perfect for merienda (afternoon snack).
The ensaymada is a Mallorca specialty that was inherited from our Spanish conquistadors and dates back to the 17th century. The bread is made of flour, eggs, sugar, water and mother dough, and is topped with butter and grated cheese. Lucky for me, my sister-in-law is able to turn it into a 10-star version and always serves it to me slightly toasted, because there is nothing quite like the decadence of burnt cheese.
Gallery’s finale stayed true to tradition and proved once again that there could be innumerable interpretations of local fare such as our beloved bibingka. It is a rice cake topped with cheese and salted egg and baked in clay pots lined with leaves. It becomes a prolific breakfast food during Christmas season, where bibingka and puto bumbong stands can be found outside churches and where churchgoers flock after the 9-day 5 AM masses leading up to Christmas Day. Gallery’s version is a mini cheesecake infused with the spirit of the banana leaf that cradled it.
Filipinos take their food seriously because for many people they are usually hard to come by. When they will enjoy their next full meal is usually unknown. For those of us who are luckier, we honor our blessings on the table. We say a prayer before we partake of it. We respect traditions that have been passed on through generations. And we give thanks by finishing everything on our plate. “Not everyone gets to eat as you do so you better finish everything” I have always been told. But it is also that familiarity with scarcity that has brought out in our food ancestors and their modern fans deft, resourcefulness and creativity in formulating our meals. There is always something new to discover, not just adobo.
I urge you to embark on a new adventure. Go to the Filipino restaurant nearest you, or try any of the dishes I have shared in your own home. Challenge your senses and constantly experiment. Learn about a new culture and learn about us. There is much to be desired in the unknown.
Food is our common ground, a universal experience. — James Beard