The Philippines, while brimming with rich flavors and culinary traditions, often remains in the shadow of other Asian cuisines. This guide aims to highlight and simplify our unique dishes for those unfamiliar with Filipino food.
It's time that Filipino cuisine is not only celebrated, but also made accessible and enjoyable for everyone. Let's discover the savory, sweet, and tangy flavors that our food brings to the table.
What is Filipino Food?
Filipino food is hard to pin down due to its vast diversity. Describing it is a bit like describing the plot of a telenovela – there's a lot going on.
It has an intricate interplay of flavors—savory, salty, sweet, sour, and lots of umami. The preparation varies, including sautéing, stewing, grilling over charcoal, and the ever-popular frying.
Rice is a staple and the perfect pairing for "ulam" (main dishes). While Adobo, Lumpia, and Pancit are favorites, there's so much more to explore. This includes the notorious Balut—an embryonic duck egg—that some might consider an acquired taste.
Just as with any cuisine, the essence of exceptional Filipino food lies in the selection of quality ingredients coupled with the right cooking techniques.
History and Influences
To truly understand Filipino food, it's essential to know where it all started. Long before the world became a melting pot, early Filipinos were feasting on root crops, tropical fruits, game meat, and seafood.
With over 7,000 islands and a rich history of trade and colonization, the Philippines is a fusion of flavors, drawing influences from Spanish, Malay, Chinese, American, and indigenous roots.
When the Malays arrived, they introduced rice cultivation and new spices. The Chinese brought in soy sauce, tofu, and noodles, shaping classics like Pancit.
The Americans came with canned goods, hotdogs, and hamburgers, which were soon integrated and "Filipinized" into dishes like Spaghetti Filipino-style.
Today, Filipino cuisine stands as a reflection of its rich past, blending indigenous traditions with foreign influences to create a taste that's uniquely its own.
Daily Meal Rundown
The daily meal routine in the Philippines reflects the cultural significance of food in Filipino society, with opportunities for family members to gather, share stories, and bond.
Aga-almusal (Early Breakfast)
Meanwhile, street vendors sell various rice cakes—from the amber-colored Kutsinta to the purple Ube Kalamay and the classic white Puto. And for some, the day truly starts when they hear the familiar call of the Taho vendor marking a favorite start to the day for many Filipinos.
It's the main morning event! A classic silog breakfast is loved for its trio of sinangag (garlic fried rice), fried eggs, and proteins like Tapa, Longganisa, or Tocino. Alternatively, a warm bowl Lugaw (Rice Porridge) or Champorado (Chocolate Rice Porridge) can also hit the spot.
This is the heaviest meal of the day for many. Sinigang (sour soup) and Almondigas are frequently prepared. Sautés like Ginisang Togue (with mung bean sprouts), Ginisang Munggo, or Ginisang Sayote (with chayote) are quick and easy to make.
Merienda (Afternoon Snack)
A delicious break in the afternoon! Favorites include Halo-Halo (Shaved Ice Dessert) to combat the heat, while others might enjoy a warm bowl of Ginataang Bilo Bilo or Arroz caldo, a chicken rice porridge.
Empanadas, Pandesal with Cheese Pimiento, or snacks made with saba bananas are popular treats, such as Banana Cue (Caramelized Bananas), Maruya (Fried Banana Fritters), or Turon (Banana Spring Rolls).
One can whip up a quick and delicious fried fish or torta (omelet), or make something special like Bistek Tagalog or Salpicao. Some might enjoy leftovers from lunch, like Adobo, Binagoongan with fermented shrimp paste, or Pochero, a tomato-based stew.
Exploring Regional Variations
The Philippines has more than 7,000 islands, each with its unique flavors. Here are some notable regional variations within Filipino cuisine:
Ilocos is known for its crispy Bagnet and vegetable-packed Pinakbet, while Batangas is famous for its hearty Bulalo, a rich and flavorful soup with beef shank and marrow bones.
Cebu is renowned for its succulent Lechon, often touted as the country's best. Iloilo serves up the hearty Batchoy, a rich noodle soup with pork and innards served with a sprinkling of crunchy chicharon (pork cracklings).
Negros not only sweetens the palate with treats like Piaya, a muscovado-filled flatbread, but also showcases dishes such as Inasal—a marinated grilled chicken with lemongrass—and Kansi, a sour beef soup that gets its unique tang from batwan fruit.
Davao is known for its tropical fruits, including durian and pomelo. It has dishes influenced by the Muslim population, like Beef Rendang and Chicken Piaparan with turmeric and coconut.
General Santos is famous for its tuna industry, serving fresh seafood and dishes like Kinilaw na Tuna (Tuna Ceviche) and Balbacua (Oxtail Stew). Cagayan de Oro has Sinuglaw (Grilled Pork Belly and fish Ceviche) and Pastel, a sweet bun filled with custard.
Due to Zamboanga's proximity to Malaysia and Indonesia, their food has a distinct Moro influence. Each region contributes unique ingredients, preparation techniques, and flavor profiles, making Filipino cuisine rich and varied, with much to explore.
Certain ingredients really set Filipino cuisine apart. They're the must-haves, the non-negotiables. Without them, things just aren't the same.
- Rice: At the heart of nearly every Filipino meal is rice, serving as the perfect accompaniment to a variety of dishes.
- Coconut Milk (Gata): Whether it's in the form of milk, oil, or shredded, coconut adds a distinct richness to many Filipino dishes.
- Vinegar: A prominent ingredient, vinegar is used in many Filipino dishes, imparting a tangy flavor that's unmistakably Filipino. Different regions have their own variations, from sugarcane to coconut vinegar.
- Soy Sauce: Often combined with vinegar or calamansi for marinades and sauces.
- Calamansi: A small, tart citrus fruit native to the Philippines that is used in marinades, as a condiment, or for juice.
- Bagoong (Fermented Fish or Shrimp Paste): A staple condiment that's intense, salty, and filled with umami, often used as a flavoring or dip.
- Fish Sauce (Patis): Used for seasoning in many dishes.
- Sili (Chili Peppers): Adds spice to dishes, especially in Bicolano cuisine.
- Banana Leaves: Used for wrapping and cooking food, imparting a subtle flavor.
- Garlic and Onions: The foundation of many Filipino sautés and dishes.
Flavors that Define Filipino Cuisine
- Salty and Savory: Many Filipino dishes emphasize umami flavors, often brought out using soy sauce, fish sauce, and fermented shrimp or fish paste.
- Sweet: Filipinos have a penchant for sweet flavors, evident in dishes like sweet-style spaghetti or Sweet and Sour Fish, and in marinades used for Pork Barbecue or Inihaw na Liempo (Grilled Pork Belly).
- Sour: The tangy flavor profile, primarily from ingredients like tamarind and vinegar, is a signature taste in soups, marinades, and sauces.
- Bitter: Some regional dishes incorporate bitter flavors, like Pinakbet with ampalaya, Ampalaya con Carne, or Papaitan, a bitter offal stew.
- Spicy: While not as prevalent as the other flavors, certain regions, especially Bicol, are known for their spicy dishes.
Must-Try for Beginners
If you're overwhelmed by the diverse range of Filipino dishes, I suggest starting with these signature dishes. Not only are they incredibly delicious, but they're also a breeze to prepare, even for beginners! So, 'Kain tayo!' (Let's eat!)
- Adobo: Perhaps the most well-known Filipino dish, it is a savory stew made of chicken or pork (or both) simmered in vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, bay leaves, and peppercorns.
- Sinigang: A sour soup, its defining taste comes from tamarind, tomatoes, and a variety of vegetables. It can be made with pork, shrimp, fish, or beef.
- Pancit: These are stir-fried noodles made with wheat, cornstarch, or rice noodles, combined with a mix of proteins and vegetables in a flavorful broth. Calamansi or lemon add a tangy twist.
- Lumpiang Shanghai: These are spring rolls filled with seasoned ground pork and vegetables, wrapped in thin pastry sheets, and deep-fried until crispy. Dipping sauces, like banana ketchup, add an extra layer of flavor to every bite. Try Lumpiang Sariwa, fresh and unfried version with sautéed vegetables wrapped in crêpes or thin pancakes
- Turon: These are banana spring rolls or lumpia made by rolling sliced bananas and sometimes jackfruit in sugar, then wrapping them in spring roll wrappers and frying until crispy. Consider trying Ube Turon – a variation that features sweet purple yam (ube) alongside traditional ingredients.
- Lechon Kawali: Deep-fried or air-fried pork belly with crunchy skin and tender, juicy meat. But here's the secret to making them even better – dipping sauce like Mang Tomas sauce (a type of lechon sauce), sweet chili sauce, or tangy spiced vinegar.
- Lechon: Celebrations in the Philippines are never complete without Lechon. It's a whole roasted pig, with its skin crispy and tender, flavorful meat.
- Leche Flan: Similar to French crème caramel or Mexican flan, it's a creamy custard dessert made with eggs, condensed milk, and caramelized sugar.
- Halo-Halo: A cherished Filipino dessert, it consists of layers of ingredients including shaved ice, sago or gulaman, syrupy fruits, sweet legumes, leche flan, purple yam (ube), and is often crowned with a scoop of ice cream.
In the Philippines, we take gatherings seriously. Whether it's a fiesta, a kamayan feast, or a celebratory get-together, we embrace any excuse to come together, eat together, and make memories together.
It's a culture that revolves around communal joy and the beautiful chaos of large gatherings. We've got something to please everyone's taste buds.
Whether you're a fan of savory classics like Caldereta, Embutido, Escabeche, and Kare-Kare, or you're all about the crispy, crunchy goodness of Lumpia, Sisig, and BBQ – we've got a variety of flavors to suit your taste.
But here's the best part: the party doesn't end at the table. We've got a tradition called "baon," where you'll leave with a container filled with your favorite dishes.
Don't be surprised if someone hands you a pack of leftovers; it's our way of saying the feast doesn't stop here. We're all about enjoying every bite and sharing the love, even after the party's over.
Filipino food is more than just sustenance—it reflects the country's storied past, varied influences, and sense of community. Whether you're enjoying a simple meal or partaking in a grand feast, Filipino food gives you a taste of its unique flavors and a glimpse into its welcoming culture.
If you've yet to experience Filipino flavors, now is the time. Here, every dish tells a story, and every story is worth savoring.
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