Savoury umami-rich sauces that linger on the tongue. The bright, sour flavour of green mango and calamansi. Coconut milk’s mellow, velvety sweetness. Filipino food encompasses a plethora of flavours so diverse as to make the cuisine difficult to characterize. With more than 7,000 islands, the archipelago features flavours that vary greatly by region. “Bicol is known for its spicy or coconut-infused food, Pampanga for its pork dishes and Negros for its chicken inasal,” explains Karla Ramos, a Filipino food and lifestyle blogger.
Certain dishes have Indigenous roots, while others were created under the influence of Chinese traders and Spanish and American colonists. A new evolution is also underway, spearheaded by Filipino immigrants who have integrated American and European traditions into their cuisine. It’s this marinade of cultural influences drawn from the country’s rich history that produces its singular, seductive flavours.
For all its variety, there are a few elements that travellers can count on tasting when in the Philippines. “Expect each bite to pack a punch of flavours, and for at least two or three bold tastes to compete,” says Jacqueline Chio-Lauri, editor of The New Filipino Kitchen. Meals are traditionally served from communal plates set in the middle of the table. “There’s a strong sense of inclusivity — everyone is welcome.” Here, discover some of the best ways to experience the flavour of the Philippines.
The main event
Whether it’s your first time travelling to the Philippines or you’re visiting a Filipino restaurant in your hometown, you’d be remiss not to order adobo, the country’s national dish. The name is derived from the Spanish adobar, meaning to marinate, but adobo is actually an ulam, or main dish, that Filipinos were making long before Spanish colonization. It refers to a way of cooking by marinating and braising either a meat or vegetable (most commonly chicken) using vinegar, garlic and pepper. Red annatto seeds and turmeric are sometimes used to give adobo its red and yellow colour. Whatever the hue, expect a burst of sweet, sour and salty notes. Head to Grace Park or Purple Yam in Manila to try the dish or better yet, snag an invitation to a family dinner. “The best adobo is really the homecooked version,” says Ramos.
Although most tables are set with cutlery these days, before the Spanish conquest, Filipinos ate kamayan, or with their hands. The custom is still practised today during picnics and family events. During social gatherings, grilled seafood, pork and rice are served on top of a banana leaf and everyone scoops up the food with their fingers. The Kamayan chain of restaurants in the Philippines has outposts across Manila, where the dining experience begins by handwashing in a giant clamshell basin. Look for kamayan pop-ups all over America, too.
I dip, you dip, we dip
At the heart of any Filipino meal are the dipping sauces, or sawsawan, that anchor the table. These widespread soy sauce and vinegar-based condiments add a spicy, salty, sour, sweet, umami — or some combination thereof — kick to the main dish. The idea is to allow diners to adjust the flavour profile to their liking. “You’re invited to concoct or use any sawsawan as you please,” says Chio-Lauri. “The concept is to accept everyone’s individuality and to make all who partake in the meal content.”
Filipinos have a love affair with sweets. Main courses are often laced with sweet undercurrents, and dessert punctuates most meals. There are native desserts such as kakanin (sticky rice cakes), foreign-influenced dishes such as sylvana (a cashew and meringue cookie) and custards such as leche flan. Perhaps the most beloved dessert of all time, however, is halohalo, a shaved ice sweet that translates into “mix-mix.” It combines shaved ice with sweets like fruit, jam, ice cream, Jell-O cubes and a sprinkling of toasted rice in a glass. All the elements are meant to be mixed together for the perfect bite. Head to Milky Way Café or Razon’s in Manila to try halo-halo.
In addition to time-worn recipes, Filipino food is perpetually evolving. As Filipinos settle across America and the world, new incarnations of traditional dishes that incorporate global elements are popping up on menus. “These include things like tucking longanisa (Filipino sausage) into a hot dog bun, folding adobo into a slider roll or adding cherry, berry or other local fruits to halo-halo,” explains Chio-Lauri. “It could also be an adaptation such as making a meat-laden dish vegan.”
This story was originally published in the 2020 May/June issue of Canadian Geographic.