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Filipino cuisine has recently been tagged as the ‘next big thing’ to look out for in the culinary world. With the country’s variety of influences throughout its rich history, its traditional cooking techniques, and the Filipinos’ knack for combining flavours and making the most of any and all ingredients at their disposal, what results is unpretentious, no-frills food that’s simply delicious.
It’s the Filipino dish everybody knows — the mighty adobo. It is made by stewing meat (usually chicken, pork, or a combination of both) in soy sauce and vinegar, adding peppercorns and bay leaves for that special flavour. Bonus leftovers tip: pull the meat from the bone and fry ’til crispy for some tasty adobo flakes.
This rich stew is made with peanut sauce and, customarily, oxtail, but other meatier cuts of beef can also be added in. Many Filipinos will consider kare-kare incomplete without a serving of bagoong (fermented seafood paste) on the side.
One of the top contenders among the best Filipino dishes (alongside adobo) is perhaps the famous lechon. After all, it is hard to top a tasty, fully-roasted pig with perfectly crisp skin and juicy meat. Find the best of this sinful treat on the island of Cebu, but this is almost always served at any grand Pinoy gathering or fiesta.
Sinigang is a Pinoy classic. A delicious sour broth usually made tangy by tamarind (sometimes kamias), it’s filled with different vegetables and a meat of choice. Popular variants include sinigang na baboy (pork), sinigang na hipon (shrimp), and sinigang na isda (fish).
If you can’t get your hands on an entire lechon, a scrumptious crispy pata is an equally sinful alternative. It’s a dish that takes the entire pig leg and deep fries it to perfection. Serve with a soy-vinegar dipping sauce on the side with some chopped up garlic and chilli, and you’re on the road to your next favourite guilty pleasure.
Served sizzling on a hot stone plate, sisig is a favorite pulutan (beer chow) among Filipinos. The meat is primarily chopped up parts of the pigs’ face — in the Philippines, no cut of the animal goes to waste. Some recipes use either mayonnaise or raw egg (to be mixed in while hot) to give it a creamier texture but the classic way is to incorporate pig’s brain into the dish.
One of the more popular Filipino dishes among foreigners with Pinoy friends (due to its customary presence in Filipino birthday parties) is pancit (noodles), of which pancit guisado is perhaps the most well-known variant. This noodle dish is served as a symbol for long life, hence an essential at birthday feasts. The sautéed noodles are complemented by sliced vegetables and meat (all cooked in broth, soy sauce, and fish sauce) and kalamansi is squeezed over upon serving.
The perfect company for a cool, rainy day in the Philippines is a nice hot bowl of bulalo. This tasty soup is made by slow-cooking beef shanks and bone marrow (still in the bone) in some water with fish sauce, onions, and peppercorn, and later adding in some vegetables. Especially known for this dish is the province of Batangas in the country’s Southern Luzon region.
A merienda (snack in between meals) favourite in the Philippines is Pinoy pork barbecue. While this skewered sweet meat goes wonderfully well with the ubiquitous plain rice during meals, there’s also nothing like catching yourself hungry in the middle of the afternoon and conveniently walking down the street over to the vendors grilling them road-side for only PHP15 ($0.30) a stick.
Vibrantly orange and jam-packed with different textures and flavours, palabok is another well-loved way of cooking pancit. It is mixed in with a shrimp sauce, which gets its recognisable colour from annatto powder. It is finished off with a variety of toppings such as slices of hard-boiled eggs, crushed chicharon (pork rinds), tinapa (smoked fish) flakes, and spring onions.
A hearty Filipino breakfast typically consists of meat, sinangag (garlic fried rice), and itlog (egg). Each dish name varies slightly depending on the meat that goes with the rice and egg. So for example, a plate of tapa (cured beef), sinangag, and itlog, is called tapsilog. A plate including tocino (sweet cured pork) instead of tapa is called tocilog. While one that uses longganisa (sausages) is known as longsilog. These generous breakfast servings are a great way to kickstart a day.
Bistek Tagalog or the Filipino beef steak is a delicious blend of salty, sour, and sweet flavours. Thinly sliced beef is marinated in a mixture of mainly soy sauce and kalamansi, fried, and then topped with caramelised onions. The onions are just sweet enough to cut into and balance the strong salty and acidic tastes infused into the meat.
Another dish frequently expected to make an appearance at Filipino gatherings is the Pinoy’s version of the egg roll, lumpia. These deep-fried rolls are filled with minced meat and vegetables and served with a sweet and sour dipping sauce. Being so easy to make, lumpia is almost automatically part of a Filipino feast when food for the large Filipino family has to be cooked in copious amounts.
Kaldereta is a Filipino beef stew made extra rich and tasty by tomato sauce and liver paste. Goat meat can also be used in place of beef and mixed in is a merrymaking of vegetables, which typically include carrots, bell peppers, and potatoes.
Another Filipino stew, albeit a more eccentric one, is the dark-tinted dinuguan. It’s made by cooking pork and innards in pig’s blood and vinegar. It’s often eaten with puto, a slightly sweet steamed rice cake, which complements its savoury taste.
Inihaw na liempo or grilled pork belly is juicy cuts of perhaps the tastiest part of the pig, marinated and grilled, basting the meat as it cooks. Depending on the desired taste, a typical liempo marinade can be a mixture of any of the following: soy sauce, fish sauce, banana ketchup, garlic, kalamansi, brown sugar, salt, and pepper. Eat with your hands, your sawsawan (dipping sauce) of choice, and a generous serving of plain rice — perfect.
Gata or coconut milk is basically culinary gold. Anything cooked in gata is bound to turn out fantastic. For anyone needing a break from the typical meat-heavy Filipino dishes, simply cook your favourite vegetables in some coconut milk. It works exceptionally well with squash and string beans, and some chilli can be added for an interesting kick.
This flavourful grilled chicken, the best of which is made in the city of Bacolod, sits in a special marinade of vinegar, kalamansi, ginger, and lemongrass. It owes its appetising golden-brown colour to annatto oil, which is also poured over the plain rice it is served with. Dip the chicken in sinamak (spiced vinegar) for some extra zest.
Kilawin, also called kinilaw, is the Filipino ceviche. Seafood is often used, such as tuna and tanigue, which is then cured in vinegar and kalamansi. Onions are usually added in, as well as some chilli for a more complex blend of flavours. Kilawin is normally served as an appetiser or as pulutan (beer chow) when drinking.
Frequently eaten at breakfast and merienda, arroz caldo is a rice porridge, taking its flavours from ginger, garlic, onions, and a tasty broth. Cuts of chicken and hard-boiled eggs are also added in and individual servings are finished off with fried garlic bits, chopped green onions, and a drizzle of kalamansi.
Though not everybody has access to a backyard and a space to charcoal roast an entire pig, there’s still a way to enjoy the guilt-inducing goodness of lechon — by cooking it in a kawali (wok). Pork belly is cooked in boiling water (usually with bay leaves, peppercorn, and salt) until tender, air-dried, given a salt rub, and deep fried until golden brown. The aim is perfect crackling skin and tender meat. Enjoy with lechon gravy or spiced vinegar.