Kare kare is a stew of beef, tripe, oxtail, and ham hock in thick peanut sauce mixed with different vegetables such as eggplant, pechay (Chinese cabbage), string beans, and banana blossom. This dish is served with shrimp paste called bagoong to add flavor to the mild-tasting peanut sauce. Today’s version of kare kare uses peanut butter. With its thick sauce, it only means it has to be eaten with steaming hot rice.
Slow cooked until meat is tender, with the ham hock having a gelatinous texture, the vegetables should remain softened, resulting in some restaurants serving the vegetables on the side rather than mixing it all together. It has an orange color, a result of annatto.
Will it come as a surprise that “kare kare” comes from the word, “curry”? Word repetition is the Malay style connoting something faux-like (or “something like [object]”). Thus, kare kare is a faux-like version of curry. After all, kare kare doesn’t resemble any Indian curry dish, except for its orange color.
Unbeknownst to many, the British briefly occupied Manila from 1762-1764 bringing with them 500 Indian soldiers, known as Sepoys. When the British withdrew, the Indian soldiers deserted and remained in the Philippines. They successfully assimilated to Philippine society and married local women, eventually settling in Pasig, Taytay, and Cainta.
These Indian settlers then introduced kaikaari, a saucy dish of vegetables and oxtail. Since curry was not available in the Philippines at that time, the Indians used local ingredients like peanut and annatto.
The cultural role of kare kare in Philippine cuisine extends to the birth of roadside eateries known as karenderias. Cainta and Taytay are pilgrimage towns, and these former Sepoys set up roadside stalls, serving “kaari” to devotees on their way to their pilgrimage to Antipolo.
Pilgrims would dine along the way first to these “kaarihans” where curry is served. Later, “eria” was added following the Spanish grammar. Hence, “karenderia” means a place where there is “kaari.” At present, all towns in the Philippines have karenderias (also spelled as karinderia or carinderia) or small eateries along the streets serving affordable meals.
Kare kare itself evolved from the classic recipe with new variants such as seafood and even “crispy” kare kare. Some recipes use oxtail and beef, some only used pork. In Pampanga where the modern recipe was first introduced, it is served during fiestas and special occasions taking pride in cooking authentic kare kare – cooking its peanut-based sauce from scratch.
There are many dishes you must try before temporarily saying paalam to the Philippines, but kare kare is available all over the country, served in most Filipino family restaurants. Kare kare is not an everyday home-cooked meal in the Philippines due to the level of difficulty and meticulous preparation of its different ingredients. That is why this dish is a bestseller among many restaurants – most Filipinos can only have kare kare when dining in a restaurant. So the next time you dine in a Filipino restaurant, ask for a serving of kare kare. Sarap!