cuisine is a fusion of influences: Malay roots, centuries of Hispanization
of our tastes buds,
indelibly tweaked, in small or great fashion, by China,
the South East Asian neighbors, the Middle East, India, Europe and the
Americas – the sea-faring traders, colonizers and cultural conquerors.
From these exotic roots and potpourri of sauces, spices and styles,
the Filipino palate has gone through a long process of evolution, with
its culinary landscape further enriched by its many indigenous cultures
and regions, many of its provinces contributing a signature dish or
|There is no culinary
epicenter . . . And the rabid regionalism that plagues the country
also plagues our food culture.
It will not be an easy feat to define a "true"
Filipino cuisine from this culture-rich culinary past. The rabid regionalism
that plagues the country also afflicts its food culture. I have read
and heard, more than one too many times, Pampangueños claiming
their province to be the epicenter of Philippine cuisine. Jesus H. Christ!
Forgive the blasphemy. But that is culinary megalomania, a reflection
of the rabid regionalism that besets us. I have tasted the results of
their meaningful attempts to improve classic Tagalog cuisine, tweaking,
subtracting and adding, almost always transforming delectable food into
unrecognizable and unpalatable dishes. Um. . . O.K. Pampanga does make
great desserts; but great desserts don't make an epicenter.
But tweaking is so widespread, crossing provincial lines, hopping from
island to island, classic dishes so altered the only recognizable thing
left is the name. Tinola, a classic soup in the Tagalog area with its
chicken, green papaya or sayote, sili leaves, ginger and hint of patis
assumes a different identity in some Visayan tweaked version with malunggay
leaves, sans sayote or papaya, ginger or patis.
And what about 'masa' cuisine? Indeed,
their day-to-day dining is mediocre and budget-limited fare. But what
fills up the rural tables during their fiestas and celebrations is an
incredible array of native cuisine and delicacies. Where do they fit?
What do they contribute to the national cuisine? Or should it only include
the culinary preferences of the middle class and and the fine-dining
bourgeoisie, their foods tweaked into "fusion," embellished
by condiments – saffron, tarragon, basil, cilantro and the etcetera
of chef-styled cooking – quite alien to the masa's taste
In a country that has classified its citizenry into ABCDE, Filipino
cuisine should submit to this alphabetic rating. For those unfamiliar
with this Philippine caste system, an overlapping sociological classification
based on economic and social status – "A" refers to
the burgis, the landed gentry and nouveaux riche; "B," the
middle class; C, D and E comprise the "Masa" – the working
class, probinsyanos, the proletariat. And the AB and CDE dining tables
The CDE Cuisine
"Masa" cuisine can not be excluded in the discussion of true
Philippine cuisine – they make up more than 60 percent of the
population. And how the CDEs eat or prepare their food is far far different
from the A and most of the B. The CDEs' gastronomic experience is wide-ranging,
adventurous, fringe, third-world exotic, devoid of pretentions and ambiance.
There are no fancy cookbooks to create from, just hand-me-down folk
recipes, endlessly undergoing tweaking and experimentation, wasting
nothing, finding use for everything from top to bottom, brain and bones,
entrails, toes and dangling parts. The yucky-and-yummy
fare – pinikpikan, sisig, balut, pig's brain, bat-and-ball,
adidas, IUD – are consumed with unflinching gusto. Add to that
bayawaks (lizards) and snakes from fortuitous encounters in the forests;
rural escargot, snails (papaitan and baragan) from rice-paddy streams,
delectably boiled in coconut milk, garlic, onions and ginger. Oh, don't
forget the dogs (asocena) and goats.
Both favorite bacchanalian side dishes (pulutan), the barkers are preferred
for being less expensive (P200 for a medium-sized dog, although black
dogs, preferred in some provinces demand a much higher price) or free
from the rapidly diminishing population of stray dogs, preyed upon by
pulutan-seekers, usually prepared as kaldereta, adobo sa toyo or adobo
sa gata. Goats are most often prepared as kaldereta; with nothing thrown
away, the lungs, heart, liver and skin – with onions, garlic,
peppers, vinegar, and red and hot chili peppers – become a bleating
version of bopis.
Of course, the masa's feasting table is not all
yucky-but-yummy. There is a rich variety of dishes, as rich as the cultural
diveristy and the many provinces that contribute their signature dish
or two. Some dishes have crossed provincial lines and survived the rabid
regionalism, adopted into provincial menus with the inevitable modification
or two. Although the Mindanao south is said to more influenced by Malay
cuisine of Malaysia, Brunei and Sumatra, my curbside CDE interviews
with the Visayans and Mindanaons come up with the same favorite dishes:
adobo, kaldereta, lechon, etc.
|Culinary critics say there is nothing unifying about Philippine cuisine. Well, there are – its saltiness and. . . rice.
Spices, Sauces and the
CDE condiments are basic: soy sauce, vinegar, patis, bagoong, luya,
garlic, pepper, sugar, salt . . . and. . . VETSIN. In whatever combination
or proportion, it is usually salty. . . um. . . capitalize that: SALTY.
And no matter the degree of saltiness in the dish, there are small condiment
plates and bottles of salty sauces on call – patis or toyo or
bagoong, laced with vinegar, garlic, sili – to dip into. This
ubiquitous saltiness of foods and sauces requires the tempering plateful
mounds of rice that accompany all the three meals of the day –
and the saltier the meal. . . and the greater the amount of rice consumed.
This is the side dish of food-enhancing native pickles, made from a
variety of vegetables, sweetly countering the ubiquitous saltiness.
The most commonly used is papaya, but just about anything can be thrown
into the pickling jar: bamboo shoots, singkamas, ampalaya, garlic, onions.
For most of the masa, this is too extravagant for daily fare.
Gata / The Coconut Milk
Gata, the milk expressed from the coconut fruit, appears in an endless
variety of rural dishes, always prepared fresh for the meal. In short
notice and with generic flourish, most rural folk will whip up a lunch
or dinner of "ginatang-something" with your ingredient of
choice: ginatang manok, ginatang tilapia, ginatang hipon, or just ginatang-gulay
with all the vegetables they can gather. Gata is also used as base for
tinuto, a version of laing, where
small pieces of fish or shrimp is wrapped in taro or kamoteng kahoy
leaves, cooked in the coconut milk with onions, ginger and tomatoes.
|It's the rice, man. It's
the rice. . . lots and lots. . . and lots of rice. The sine qua
non of Filipino food. Without it, much of Philippine cuisine will
Rice is the staple – lots and lots. . .
and lots of rice. The savoring of Filipino food requires rice. Without the rice, Philippine cuisine will have to be redefined.
dumped and doused on rice – the soup, the stew, often, even the
noodles. . . everything. Without the rice, rural folk feel weak, dizzy,
ill. Rice is the essential survival food–in times of scarcity,
any salty condiment is all that is needed to flavor the rice. A friend
offers an observation and unscientific explanation for the Filipino's
belly paunch, male and female – It's the rice, man. It's the rice
– consumed in amounts proportionate to the saltiness, sweetness,
sourness, or sili-hotness of the sauce, soup or "ulam." Although
usually consumed plain and steaming hot – breakfast might be served
with leftover rice redone as "sinangag," fried in oil, garlic
and salt. For city guests, lunch or dinner may be served with steamed
rice wrapped in banana leaves, flavored with pandan or lemongrass, or
in the south islands as "pusong kanin" or glutinous rice prepared
with spices, coconut milk and prawns.
The "lechon" is the socio-economic statement of the Filipino
feast. While it also descriptive of a style of cooking, lechon-manok,
-baka, or -baboy, the fiesta lechon is the bamboo-skewered whole roasted
pig – with the optional apple-in-mouth – splayed in all
its glory on the center of the feasting table, its golden-brown crispy
skin beckoning you to snap off a morsel for a delectable cracking-and-chewing
delight. It costs from P3,000 pesos for a do-it-yourself to P8000 for
the high-end, professionally stuffed and spiced version. In many provinces,
the sweet, vinegary and liver-based lechon sauce is essential for dipping
and dousing; in some provinces, it is simply dipped in vinegar or catsup.
For weddings or fiestas, how many lechon are served is a measure of the family's station in life and often, a detail of lasting impression. For many, the whole lechon as a single fare is
simply unaffordable; butchered, it provides ingredients for a dozen
feasting entrees: pochero, embotido, afritada, mechado, morcon, adobo,
dinuguan, sisig, etc.
concerns? Maybe for a sliver of the population.
But for most – Zilch. Zero. Nada. Bring in the fatty red meat
and the deep fried.
Saturated fats? cholesterol? LDL? Trans fat?. . . Huh?
The Meats: Pork, Beef
The masa are meat-eaters. And from the population of the mooing, clucking,
bleating, barking, the snorting comes a great variety of dishes –
adobo, longaniza, mechado, afritada, menudo, pochero, kaldereta, balitchang
– many surviving the test of time and provincial lines, undergoing
the essential tweaking, becoming established in the regional rural menu
for the feasting tables of fiestas, celebrations and weddings.
Of the meat dishes, when the budget allows, adobo has become a popular
daily fare, and with its salty vinegar and soy sauce ingredients, weather-tolerant
to last a few days without refrigeration. A classic chicken and/or pork
dish, Spanish-rooted from "adobado," it has been adopted by
many provinces and tweaked with cooking styles and flavors, wet or dry,
into many regional versions: adobong-imus, adobong-biñan, adobong-pampanga,
with as many variations in the south – as in Mindanao, where the
adobo is tweaked and thickened with coconut cream. A Visayan version
adds sugar to sweeten the classic say sauce, garlic and vinegar mixture.There
are occasional halfhearted lobby efforts to name it "the"
In the Tagalog area, kaldereta is goat – beef the common meat
substitute – in a mixture of red and green peppers, onions, garlic,
Unless they live by the coastline, the CDE's fish food fare is limited
to the few affordable species: tuyo, daing, dilis, galungong, occasionally,
bangus. The shrimp, crabs, lobster and most other fishes are hauled
to the big cities for burgis and middle class consumption.
A fish dish that has become part of the national menu and appears in
rural feasting table is the escabeche
– poached or deep fried fish, usually lapu-lapu (grouper), in
a vinegar- and sugar-based sweet-and-sour sauce with ginger, garlic,
onions, carrots red peppers, tomatoes and ketchup and thickening cornstarch.
Alas, like many other things in this hustle-and-bustle world, "instant"
sauces has brought about the demise of the classic sauces, replaced
by generic instant sauces, the escabeche sauce one of those fatally
Soups are usually not served in the fiesta tables, with the obvious
encumbrances of bowls and the usual balancing acts of buffet dining.
And unlike most countries with their signature soups - the French onion
soup, the Greek lemon soup, the Spanish sopa de ajo, the Italian minestrone
– that is intended to start a meal, the Filipino soups –
tinola, sinigang, bachoy, bulalo, miswa, and nilaga – is often
served as the main entree or the other entree, teeming with meats and/or
seafoods, vegetables, and liberal doses of familiar condiments. often
doused on white steaming mounds of rice. . . lots of rice. The soups
are also endlessly tweaked, acquiring regional identities– the
bulalo tweaked by addition of langka; the papaya or sayote disappearing
from the visayan tinola, the sili leaves replaced by malunggay, the
patis and ginger removed.
Pansit and Spaghetti
Although noodle dishes are found in some soup and stews– miswa,
bachoy lomi – the CDE noodle dish that has reigned supreme is
the pancit – bihon, canton, gisado, lulog, malabon, molo, palabok
and sotanghon. It's a busy kind of food-form, and whatever its roots,
Chinese as most would suggest, its many forms serves as a testament
to its place in the national palate and the ubiquitous presence of at
least one or two of them in most feasting table.The "long life"
that the noodle promises has made the essential birthday or anniversary
celebration dish. It is not unusual to see it eaten over. . . yes. .
rice; and just as amusing, used as a filling for sandwiches. Personally,
my favorite is pancit malabon; the rare occasion of a perfect plateful
can bring tears to my eyes and salivation way past the last spoonful.
But alas, the pansit's reign has been challenged
in the Tagalog rural areas by "spaghetti." But there's nothing
Italian about rural spaghetti. This is Pinoy spaghetti with no subtleties
of condiments or flavors, prepared ground meat in sweet, sweet tomato
sauce, and when the budget allows, slices of hotdogs.
Philippine cuisine offers stews of contrasting ingredients:
Pochero (chicken, pork or beef stew with banana
in tomato sauce), pinakbet (a
meat and vegetable stew), kare-kare
(oxtail, beef and occasionally, tripe, with variants that may include
seafood or chicken in peanut sauce) and dinuguan
(pork-blood stew) and kaldereta
(goat or beef stew). All of these are often eaten with rice, except
for the dinuguan, which is eaten with puto (rice cakes) when eaten as
It has Chinese origins, but it has been around
long enough and tweaked so many ways it earned culinary citizenship.
It comes as lumpiang-frito, -hubad, -sariwa, -shanghai, -ubod –
egg rolls filled with a sundry of ingredients: vegetables, chicken,
shrimp, pork, ubod (heart of palm, shrimp – each enhanced by a
sauce prepared from vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, chili pepper, kalamansi,
bagoong, or for lumpinag-shanghai, the time-tested sweet and sour sauce.
Urban-suburban fine-dining is dismally lacking in dessert fare; mall
food courts offer a limited variety – the turon, halo-halo, leche-flan,
bibingka are familiar and spotty offerings. In the provinces, there
is a bountiful offerings for the sweet tooth needs. Vendors ply the
streets their bilaos filled with various choice sweet snacks for the
day - turon, suman, maruya, rice cakes. Ice creams carts, bells ringing,
roll down the dirt roads. Balut vendors with their basketful of warm
duck embryo eggs come in the late afternoon. The mornings find the local
markets with a goodly array of native delicacies: puto, kutsinta, kalamay,
sinukmani.Ther are the fresh young coconuts to quench the thirst, tubers
pulled out of the ground and rendered into a snack. My favorite,
sagobe, a truly
rural rendition, can be whipped up in short notice – a sweetened
dessert of bananas, sago, gabi, bilo-bilo, ube and jackfruit in a thickened
coconut milk sauce.
The typical urban-suburban A and B cuisine is far removed from the CDE
fare. Firstly, I don't think too many in the "A" group spend
much time or suffer sweat in the kitchen. There are cooks who orchestrate
the meals. Their spice racks are more varied, the usual toyo, patis,
suka and etcetera of rural condiments are joined by basil, tarragon,
saffron, oregano, cumin, parsley, and others; their recipes further
tweaked by burgis additives – sherry, olives, shitakes, etc, imparting tastes and textures too strange and, often, unacceptable to the CDE palate. Dining
at home is probably more continental than native. Soups are varied,
occasional from-scratch, more often, instant native from ready-mix-packets
or Campbell's. Rice is still the staple, but the boring steaming white
is occasionally substituted by tweaked paella versions of arroz valenciana
and paella pobre. Deserts are rarely native, but more often, ice cream
and cakes. When the A and B dine out, they do not usually seek out Filipino
cuisine, but instead do Italian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese,
Thai or Spanish. The options for native dining-out that won't put a
hole in your pocket are quite limited – Barrio Fiesta, Kamayan,
and the many mall food courts that specializes in regional cuisine.
There might be more "B" sightings in the many mall food courts
that specialize in native cuisine; the burgis "A" maybe, deeply
For the Burgis and Middle Class
Although our cuisine is really a fusion of influences, "fusion"
is the de rigueur term for dining-out native cuisine. For the burgis
and deep pockets, there are fine dining places that offer limited classic
fare mixed in a menu of "fusion" dishes or "new"
Filipino cuisine. Some places offer "native cuisine" tweaked
with sherry, olives or some alien spice, or in presentations so severely
un-Filipino – of unrecognizable small offerings, soups served
in cups slightly bigger than those for double expressos, kare-kare artfully
presented in small bowls. It misses the whole point of Filipino food
– bold and familiar, served to the brim of plates, to be eaten
with great gusto. . . dumped and doused over lots and lots of rice.
The Top 10 in Philippine
And from this cursory review
of Filipino cuisine, I venture to make a list of a top 10, gathered
from my observations and countless curbside interviews. No two Filipino
souls will agree with all the 10 entrees, but many might nod in agreement
on a few of them. I welcome suggestions for inclusion in the list with
a willingness to nudge a few out of this democratic list. I hope a list
finally surfaces that can be considered representative of "true"
Philippine cuisine and a national palate that does not exclude the CDE.
Too, with more than 80 countries traveled and their cuisine sampled,
I dare a culinary opinion – Filipino food is not easy to love
and takes some getting use to. It serves a palate Filipinized from centuries
of influences, quite unique in the ways we prepare it, in the ways we
eat it., and in the ABCDE of it.
No brainer. . . It is the food item that is
familiar to the whole of the ABCDE spectrum. Never mind that it is a
death-defying culinary indulgence. oozing with cholesterol and saturated
fat. This centerpiece of the Philippine feasting table has spawned an
industry of lechon-makers and even has a festival named after it: "Parada
ng Lechon" in Balayan, Batangas.
"Adobado" Spanish origin, tweaked
from north to south, the day-to-day masa-affordable native meat dish
(usually chicken and/or pork, or the boondock versionn with dog or goat)
in its familiar vinegar, soy sauce and garlic sauce, with its classic
saltiness,except when tweaked with sugar. Balichang, a version from
Macau, from my grandmother's ancient travels, called "poor man's
adobo," prepared with bagoong and the real sour sampaloc fruit
A noodle dish should place in any list of
10. There just so many of them: pancit bihon, -canton, -gisado, -lulog,
-malabon, -molo, -palabok and -sotanghon. For festivities, the CDE usually
prepares pancit guisado, affordable and easy to make; pancit palabok,
when the budget allows.
North to south, it's a dish in everyone's list. Even in places that
features food from Pampanga with other Filipino dishes, kare-kare is
more often than not, the bestseller. The availability of ready-mix sauce
in packets has greatly simplified the making of what used to be a rather
complicated peanut sauce. It is one a few native dishes that retains
its basic tastes despite differing degrees of tweaking. Despite its
already rich sauce, the sine qua non is the morsels of bagoong that
accompanies each spoonful.
is a no brainer, simple and easy: sili leaves, papaya or sayote, chicken,
a little patis, pepper, and voila! It is the classic native soup that
will not overwhelm the other food offerings or the rest of the meal.
Sinigang is the
other soup; tamarind base and more complicated and so ingredient rich.
It can be overwhelmingly tasty and can stand alone as a single food
item that can carry a whole meal. Before the availability of packeted
instant sinigang soup base, preparing it would require a wildcrafted
or market search for sampaloc fruit. Of course, best with lost of rice.
Dinardaraan in the Ilocos, it is a dish that belongs to the Yucky-and-Yummy
list. Actually, this pork blood stew is more yummy than yucky. And if
you're not a Jehovah's Witness and blood isn't yucky turn-off, then
it's an all yummy-and-bloody-good dish.
Sagobe is the classic
rural merienda, or even, dessert – a mixture of bananas, sago,
gabi, bilo-bilo, ube and jackfruit in a thickened coconut milk sauce,
best when served warm.
Turon comes a close second,
much easier to prepare and a common sidewalk merienda item: banana (saging
na saba) laced with jackfruit and macapuno, wrapped in springroll wrappers
and fried, better when caramelized.
Spanish-derived, the escabeche is the most popular celebratory
fish dish, its sweet-and-sour sauce a departure from the typical saltiness
of Philippine cuisine. Many prefer the fried to the poached. And the
sweet-and-sour still goes well over the rice.
Yeah, many to choose from: fried (lumpiang prito), fresh (lumpiang
sariwa) or naked (lumpiang hubad). I prefer the lumpiang ubod from the
heart of palm, fresh or fried. But the popular vote will probably go
to the Shanghai kind, with its beef and pork and sweet and sour dipping
In the Tagalog area, kaldereta is goat – beef the common meat
substitute – in a mixture of red and green peppers, onions, garlic,
tomatoes and liver. It is a favorite masa festivity dish, and
ranks high up as pulutan.
If you're not Filipino, it is not easy to fall in love with Philippine
cuisine. Reading web blogs, I can hear the sigh in some of them, wondering why Filipino food has not been able to find its
way into the culinary indulgences of the fine dining world. It is a rare occasion
when you will hear your American or European friends say: Let's do Filipino
today. Instead, often it's: "Let's do Chinese." Or, Italian,
or sushi, or Greek. Your visitors might try the familiar and benign
looking – the pansit or the lumpia – and find much of the
rest a little threatening and a little alien. Don't feel bad. The Filipino's
is a learned taste and a learned way of eating. It took a couple of
hundred years for our taste buds and palate to evolve, with the tweaking
still ongoing. While most people eat with their forks, and some with
their chopsticks, we choose the spoons for the most efficient way of
scooping the rice doused with sauce, soup or stew; or in the province,
more efficiently with their hands.
It's OK. . . but not as good as back home. Yes, the "back home"
kitchens of your motherland. . . the long wait is always worth it.
Filipino food is not for candlelight dining.
It is food served for the gusto – bold, tasty, chili pepper hot,
mouth-puckering tamarind sour, and SALTY. . . to be consumed with lots
of rice. Yes. . . rice – the sine qua non of every Filipino meal.
And if you're not a rice-eater, then the Filipino meal is bound to fail.
You can't eat it with french fries, bread, mashed potatoes, baked potatoes,
or a small side dish of rice pilaf, cous-cous or pasta. Yes, it's probably
better to take your foreign friends and visitors to the "fusion"
The CDEs probably have more access to true native
cuisine. In the big cities or en route, they will run into it in roadside
carenderias, in bus stops, in countless sidewalk turo-turos –
gobble-it-down places catering to the masa needs.
And if you're abroad, you'll probably find places
that serve Filipino food. But more likely, it's going to be "fusion"
or "new" Philippine cuisine. tweaked and adapted for a sundry
of tastebuds unfamiliar with Filipino food. You'll probably say: Hmm,
it's good, but not as good as back home. Many years in the
east coast, I have chosen to suffer the long absences and culinary deprivations,
and to indulge the cravings on the visits back home. Yes, back home.
. . the "back-home" kitchens of motherland. And the long wait
has always been worth it.
And don't do Chardonnays
or Cabernets with your Filipino food – they don't go well with
the saltiness and boldness of Philippine cuisine – the patis,
toyo, bagoong, the gata and the assaulting sourness of tamarind dishes.
It teams up better with beer. And lambanog, the best aperitif.
And eating out, you know you're really
enjoying your deliciously salty Filipino meal when you beckon the waiter
Pare, extra rice.