Filipino food has long intrigued me, not just because its delicious but there’s also the mystery of why its not more popular. Why, given a fairly substantial population of Filipinos in the US, and abroad for that matter (Filipinos are some well traveled folk) are Filipino restaurant numbers not up there with their Chinese and Thai counterparts? I’m not alone in my perplexity, my Filipino sister-in-law laments the dearth of Filipino restaurants in Minnesota and this topic invoked some serious discussion at a recent event I attended.
My first encounter with Filipino food came when my brother brought home the love of his life, who just happened to be Filipno, and she and her family took us under their wings to educate us on their culture. Those first forays, well maybe it was biting into that first fresh steaming lumpia, whetted my appetite to explore this under appreciated, or at least, undiscovered cuisine.
Just as I was dusting off my Filipino cookbooks and hinting that my husband take me to Daly City (the Bay Area bastion of Filipino cooking) to sample the offerings of various restaurants, I stumbled across a symposium on Filipino food offered by the amazing Asian Culinary Forum, a non-profit dedicated to promoting Asian cuisines. I took a cooking class on souring agents – a classic Filipino ingredient with Amy Besa. Margarita Araneta Fores (of Cafe Bola and Cibo restaurants in Metro Manila) was also in attendance. A Filipino food and wine paring event led by Master Sommelier, Reggie Narito, followed the cooking class, which was interesting given that Filipino food is thought to be extremely tricky to pair with wine given those souring agents such as vinegar. The final session I attended was a fascinating panel discussion focused on cultural and culinary encounters – what defined national dishes?
The Scarcity of Filipino Food in the US
I found the discussion about Filipino food in the US fascinating, and was curious if you had sampled this wonderful cuisine? The symposioum attempted to introduce a diverse audience to this cuisine and also expand our tastes beyond lumpia – think egg rolls, pancit – noodles + good stuff, and adobo – see below. The 3 most commonly recognized Filipino foods are
- kinilaw – a take on cerviche
- sinigang – a fish soup
The key to Filipino cooking, according to Amy is that its seasoning is subtle, and the focus of flavor is sour. That sour taste primarliy comes from:
- juice from sour fruits, such as quava
- juice from citrus
The conversation brings me back to adobo which if you took a psychology test that went something like this: spaghetti – Italy, tacos – Mexico, hamburgers – America, sushi – Japan… well, you get the idea, of what food would be associated with the Philippines.
What it’s not (in context with the Philippines)
The basic definition of adobo is Spanish for sauce, seasoning, or marinade. You’ll find this wonderful spice mix in used in Latin American and Southwest US-style cooking (the Goya brand is a good example of the prepared version).
The noun form describes a marinade or seasoning mix, and like salsa no two are the same, Puerto Rican adobo, a rub used principally on meats, differs greatly from the Mexican variety. The term adobo also applies to marinated dishes such as chipotles en adobo, a condiment in which chipotles (smoked jalapeño peppers) are stewed with tomatoes, garlic, vinegar, salt, and spices – most canned chipotles are found this way. The spices vary, but generally include some variety of pepper, cumin and oregano. Some recipes include a citrus juice, and often a bit of brown sugar to offset the bitterness.
What it is
In Filipino cuisine, adobo refers to a common cooking process indigenous to the Philippines. When the Spanish took over administration in the Philippines in the late 1500’s, they discovered a local cooking process of stewing with vinegar, which they called “adobo” because if its loose resemblance to that more generic definition of a sauce or spice treatment. However the Filipino adobo is uniquely its own. I loved Amy Besa’s description, that adobo is the most democratic of dishes, it has its core ingredients (vinegar, meat, garlic, pepper corns, Bay leaf, and salt) but after that the interpretation, and ingredients are determined by the cook. Although, soy sauce does not seem to count with the purists.
The Soy Sauce Conundrum
Many Filipinos, and Asian food lovers disavow soy sauce as not a traditional ingredient in adobo, yet the fellow standing next to me in the cooking class spoke fondly of the adobo his mother made back in the Philippines where she had a bottle of vinegar in one hand and a bottle of soy sauce (toyo) in the other and pour them simultaneously over the meat. Even in Amy Besa’s and Romy Dorotan’s cookbook, Memories of Philippine Kitchens, their chicken adobo recipe includes soy sauce.
In the Philippines, at least for the traditionalists, the salting of adobo comes from salt and not soy sauce or other sauces as is common in other Asian countries, notably China, which supplied soy sauce to the Filipino kitchen repertoire. Note the different coloring agents in each adobo. Amy said that the different agents reflect the region in the Philipines that makes this adobo. In this chicken adobo, they use fresh turmeric which is common in the northern part of the Philippines. In the pork adobo they use achuete, or annato, which is preferred in the central Philippines. While the coloring for this chicken adobo may show northern Philippine influences, the use of coconut milk is more indicative of the southern region. So this dish is truly showing its democratic roots.
A further caveat – do not stir the adobo for the first half hour, or the vinegar will get “angry”. We did not have side by side taste comparisons, and we did not stir our adobo for at least a half hour. We were too busy chatting, and that vinegar was downright pleasant.
6 chicken thighs, about 3 pounds
1 T sea salt
½ T freshly ground black pepper
In a pot put:
1 can coconut milk
20 cloves of garlic (no typo)
3 bay leaves
1 T whole peppercorns
2 c coconut vinegar
1 ½ T freshly chopped fresh tumeric
10 Thai chilies
Wash the chicken thighs and pat them dry. Lightly sprinkle both sides with salt and pepper. [Some attendees mentioned that their mother’s used to wash the chicken first in vinegar as a way to further insure that the chicken was ready for consumption.]
In a large pot combine the coconut milk, garlic, bay leaves, peppercorns, vinegar, turmeric, and chilies. Add the chicken thighs and bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until cooked through ~ 15 minutes. Remove the chicken and set aside.
Simmer the sauce until the oil renders from the coconut milk.
Return the chicken to the pot until they are nicely browned. Turn the thighs a few times until the reach the desired color, a rich golden brown.
25 pork spareribs – 7 pounds, cut between the bones into individual ribs
2 T sea salt
1T freshly ground black pepper
3 c coconut vinegar
2 c water
30 cloves of garlic (no typo)
5 bay leaves
2 T smashed peppercorns
2 jalapeño chilies
Wash the ribs, and pat them dry. Lightly sprinkle with salt and pepper. Toss them with 2/3 of the achuete oil, and save the rest.
Put the coated ribs in a large pot, and add the vinegar, water, garlic, bay leaves, peppercorns and jalapeños. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 1 ½ hours. When the meat is tender, pour in the rest of the achuete oil and remove from heat.
Let the adobo rest for a few minutes. [You may want to cook down the cooking sauce until it is nice and thick and use it to top the meat at serving.]
Just prior to serving, grill or broil the ribs until they are nicely browned and then drizzle the sauce on top.
1 c vegatable oil
2 oz achuete seeds
5 cloves garlic, smashed
2 bay leaves
3 Thai chilies
1 tsp peppercorns
Combine all the ingredients in a heavy pot. Simmer and cook for 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool for a few minutes, then strain to serve.
You will want to double this recipe. This oil a great addition to rice, other veggies – it will be a “go to” seasoning in no time.
- Living in an apartment, I had to make some adjustments. I do not have ready access to a grill, so after boiling the meat, I smoked them on my stove top smoker, and it was good!
- It took a bit of hunting but I finally found some coconut vinegar at the May Wah supermarket on Clement St. here in SF. Coconut vinegar is used almost exclusively in Filipino cooking, so if you know of a Filipino food store, I’d head there first. If you cannot find coconut vinegar, other vinegars work as well, and it might also be fun to play with the different types. For the pork, Amy spoke of using apple cider vinegar.
- I can get fresh turmeric with relative ease, and strongly recommend the fresh over dried varieties.
Maybe the sound of something cooked with a souring agent or vinegar is not your thing, but have you considered dill pickles, Crazy cake, German potato salad, and sauerkraut? All good stuff, and all made with vinegar – don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, and I have to tell you that the aroma a simmering adobo gives off, is like a moth to a flame – I get people seated at my dinner table just by lifting the lid off my adobo, and letting people follow their noses.