The Philippines is perhaps best known for its scenic coastlines. Look at any “World’s Best Beaches” list and you’ll find one (or more) sandy stretch from this beautiful, if far-flung, archipelago.
Far less famous, but equally intriguing, is the country’s vibrant cuisine.
Restaurateur Nicole Adrienne Ponseca has dedicated her career to attracting greater attention to the flavors of her Filipino heritage. “One of the main reasons why I think Filipino food never caught on until now lies within our history,” says Ponseca, operator of two award-winning Filipino restaurants, Maharlika and Jeepney, in New York City. “When you are colonized so many times and over so many years, your confidence in your own culture and beauty erodes.”
Another possible explanation lies in the nature of the Filipino palate. It’s a feisty fan of fermentation, big on sweet and sour flavors. The oldest cooking techniques were born of necessity. Meat had to stay fresh in 110-degree heat, not for hours but days, and no part of any animal was passed over. The Filipino palate craves combinations that, to the Westerner, can go far beyond curious into the realm of confusing and even intimidating.
Even in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, the native cuisine can be a hard sell. Consider the Raffles Makati, a five-star hotel property that, until recently, only served a few Filipino dishes, and the most Westernized ones at that. This year, that’s beginning to change, as the resort launches its first full Filipino menu, with a focus on traditional dishes collected from the country’s some 7,000 islands.
“Our out-of-town clients are going to need some convincing,” says Australian-born executive chef James Wade. “While intense, Filipino food is incredible and complex. It’s important for us to promote the best of it starting here in Manila, at our hotel properties. That’s a frontline for Filipino food expanding globally.”
In that same spirit, here is a quick primer on some of the more common Filipino dishes and ingredients:
This popular Filipino dish — not to be confused with the common Spanish preparation of the same name — is said to be made 100 different ways. Chicken adobo is very common, but don’t be surprised to encounter pork or squid as the protein. It’s reminiscent of a hearty, comforting braised stew, with tender meat and dark sauce. Adobo takes about 45 minutes to cook but can last outside for hours in the heat thanks to the stewing process and a lot of oil. It might be served dry or with coconut milk, with soy sauce or without. According to many Filipinos, the longer you keep it, the tastier it gets.
If you get a cold in the United States, the classic move is chicken noodle soup. In the Philippines, it’s balut, a.k.a. fertilized duck egg. You crack the egg, slurp out the liquid, then take in the protein fighting power of a tiny, half-formed duckling — feathers, beak, bones and all. “When I was younger, it was the first introduction many of my non-Filipino classmates understood in my cuisine,” says Ponseca. “And that introduction was via Fear Factor … of being bribed to eat a food we eat casually.”
Derived from the word for “bloodied,” dinuguan is a savory stew made with pig’s blood that Filipinos casually refer to as “chocolate meat,” notes Ponseca, who feels this genteel terminology isn’t helping the cause of furthering the native cuisine. “The French have boudin noir and Spain has morcilla. We, by contrast, use euphemisms.” First, you simmer the pork jowl and ear, then dice it when tender. Garlic, ginger and onion are sautéed, then pork cheeks and vinegar are added. You then add blood, fresh from the pig, and slow-simmer. It’s hearty and lightly gamey, and you might mistake it for thick gravy — if we hadn’t just explained all the blood stuff.
Possibly the craziest dessert on the planet, this sweet dish is found all over the Philippines. It’s got an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink sort of appearance, always containing shaved ice and evaporated milk and commonly topped with a mishmash of fruits, tapioca, plantains, chickpeas, coconut, young rice and/or sweet potato.
Another national culinary treasure, this hearty stew originated in the north and calls for oxtail and ox tripe. It’s heavy on the peanuts, with bright green additions of string beans and leafy veggies like spinach or morning glory. Kare Kare is a common meal on Sundays, when families gather together after church.
If you see it, grab at it. That’s the way it’s done down in the province of Cebu, where this hugely popular roasted suckling pig hails from. The crackling of the skin on the outside is essential. It’s served on special occasions and brought whole-hog to the home, wrapped in newspaper.
This Filipino version of spring rolls carries China’s cultural influence. A minced combination of meat, vegetables and spices — pork, chicken cabbage, bean sprouts and carrots, most commonly — is wrapped in thin pastry and deep-fried.
Pancit is the classic Filipino noodle dish, another contribution from the Chinese. Believed to represent long life, the noodles are often eaten at birthday celebrations and can be topped with a protein like shrimp or eggs.
The Filipinos do not shy away from using any part of the animal, and if you love a rich, intensely protein-packed type of flavor, then you’re happy they don’t. This dish is made from pig face — namely jowls, snout and ears — and it’s seasoned liberally with vinegar and chilies. The liver is often added in, and everything is cooked (and served) in an extremely hot skillet. Throw a raw egg on top and you’ve got arguably the world’s best post-workout meal.
Suka is vinegar, and it’s one of the staples of Filipino cuisine. It comes served on the side or splashed in recipes, with myriad flavor profiles from uber-hot chilies to coconut sap to the milder cane version. Sukang Paombong — or slightly sweet, sour palm vinegar — is one of the most common.
This bright purple tuber is actually a yam. It has a mild flavor, and it’s commonly consumed boiled like a potato or mixed into pastries or dessert for a punch of color. At Maharlika in New York City, it’s used to make purple-colored batter for a Filipino spin on fried chicken and waffles.