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For Philippine visitors who come and leave with a new-found love for the country’s rich, complex cuisine, they may wish to take some key ingredients with them to be able to recreate their favorite Pinoy dishes, and even be able to introduce them to friends and family back home. We’ve come up with a handy list for just that. So before hopping on that flight, hit the Filipino supermarket and make some space in your suitcase for these Filipino cooking essentials.
This brown, pungent liquid is used both as a condiment and as a vital ingredient in many Filipino dishes. Patis, the Filipino’s version of the popular Asian condiment fish sauce, is very salty. So as an ingredient, it is often used in place of salt for Filipino soups, such as nilaga, bulalo, and tinola. While as a condiment, its salty taste is often balanced out with kalamansi (Philippine lime) juice and the mixture is used as a dipping sauce to accompany many Filipino viands.
Though tiny—even smaller than a pingpong ball—this green citrus fruit is jam-packed with a lot of flavor. The kalamansi is the Philippines’ lime. And because Filipinos are very fond of playing with flavors, they use condiments to enhance the taste of (usually already flavorful) dishes. Kalamansi is commonly combined with soy sauce or fish sauce to create such condiments. Since transporting the fresh fruit might prove quite the hassle, many Filipino supermarkets sell them in either powder or liquid concentrate form, which are easier to pack and take home.
This next one is an acquired taste. Bagoong is a paste made through the fermentation of fish or shrimp. It is made slightly differently from one region to the next, and it can vary in color (from pink to brown) and in consistency (from watery to thick). It smells and tastes very strong—pungent and salty. Though the smell might not be all that appealing, it is a condiment with a very unique taste and is capable of adding a whole new layer of flavor to a dish. In the Philippines, it is the star of a dish called binagoongan, and is considered almost essential when eating kare-kare or green mangoes.
Gata, or coconut milk, is culinary gold. It is said that anything cooked in gata inevitably turns out delicious. And this is quite true. Paired with rice and spiced up with some chili for a kick, a gata-based dish is heavenly on the palate. And the best thing about it is that it can be used for seemingly everything—vegetables, pork, chicken, seafood, and even dessert! Making it easier to bring home, gata is also sold in powder form.
Ube, or purple yam, has been gaining international popularity recently for the fun purple hue it contributes to dishes. In the Philippines, this has long been used to flavor local desserts, such as ube halaya, ube-flavored rice cakes, and ube ice cream. While many restaurants abroad are jumping on the purple-dessert bandwagon and incorporating ube into their own desserts, bring some home with you and make family and friends try ube-flavored desserts the original Filipino way. While cooking with the fresh crop is certainly best, ube flavoring now comes in various forms that are easier to take home.
One bizarre Filipino invention that many foreigners can’t believe exists is banana ketchup. It is much sweeter than tomato ketchup and Filipinos love having it alongside hotdogs and fried chicken. It is also the key ingredient in making Filipino-style spaghetti, which is distinctly sweet and is usually topped with slices of hotdog and grated quick-melt cheese. So if you happen to end up liking sweet Pinoy spaghetti, take a bottle or two with you.
Like ube, pandan is a common flavor added to Filipino desserts. This is a must for anyone who grows fond of the creamy and refreshing snack known as Buko Pandan. The green, fragrant flavoring now also comes in powder and liquid extract form.
Growing up, Filipino children become especially fond of the original Knorr liquid seasoning, as it goes great with plain white rice and with almost every meat viand. It looks like soy sauce but instead of being just plain salty, it has traces of sweetness and umami, making it a well-balanced concoction of flavors that works well with many things. In addition to being used as a condiment while eating, it is also used as a flavor-infusing marinade, as well as a tasty ingredient for dishes like beef salpicao and stir fry.
For the least amount of trouble, both in taking ingredients home and in the actual cooking of Filipino dishes, take ready-made mixes with you. Simply make a list of the local dishes you want to recreate back home, and scour the supermarket aisles for conveniently packed powders or sauces and it’s very likely they’ll be there. Nowadays, there are instant recipe mixes for most, if not all, Filipino favorites, like sinigang, kaldereta, kare-kare, and afritada.