Filipino food is rich in history and shaped by our tropical climate. This warmth gives rise to unique vegetables you simply won't find elsewhere.
Growing up in the Philippines, these veggies were regulars on my plate. I might have taken them for granted, but distance has a way of making the heart grow fonder, giving me a newfound appreciation for them.
If you haven’t had the chance to try them or just want a refresher, let me guide you through these Filipino vegetable gems that make our dishes undeniably special.
The Philippines, with its strategic location in the heart of Southeast Asia, has long been a crossroads of trade and cultural exchange. This has led to an infusion of diverse crops from different regions, such as tomatoes from the Americas or chayote from Central America.
However, many of our favorites, like malunggay (moringa), ampalaya (bitter gourd), and kangkong (water spinach), have been here for ages. These native staples are not just important for our meals, but they also hold significant places in our culture.
Our Tropical Climate
The warm and humid climate of the Philippines provides the perfect environment for a diverse range of vegetables to flourish. Many of them are uniquely adapted to thrive in our island ecosystem, making them not only delicious but also a symbol of our nation's agricultural heritage.
12 Unique Filipino Vegetables to Know and Love
Have you ever heard of the charming folk song "Bahay Kubo"? It's not just a melody, but a journey through all the awesome vegetables we have in the Philippines. This guide introduces you to the unique ones, some highlighted in that very song.
Scientific Name: Moringa oleifera (from Moringaceae family)
Other Names: Drumstick tree, Horseradish tree
Appearance: Malunggay leaves are small, deep green, and can be oval or oblong in shape. They grow on tall and slender trees that also produces long, thin pods known as drumsticks.
Taste: The leaves have a slightly nutty taste with a hint of spinach flavor.
Drying and grinding them produces a powder used as a supplement and in cooking. On the other hand, the pods are often sautéed or incorporated into soups.
Availability: Malunggay leaves are sold fresh in bundles, while the immature pods or drumsticks can be purchased separately. In the US, they are available frozen, sometimes labeled as 'Horseradish leaves.'
Pechay (Bok Choy)
Scientific Name: Brassica rapa subsp. chinensis (from the mustard, crucifer, or cabbage family)
Other Names: Pok choi, Pak choi, Chinese cabbage
Appearance: Pechay has broad, dark green leaves and crisp, white stalks. It grows in clusters with its leaves extending upwards and outwards, somewhat resembling a floral arrangement.
Taste: The leaves have a subtle flavor, with a hint of earthiness. The stems are crisp and mildly sweet, with a gentle peppery note.
Availability: Pechay is sometimes available in Asian supermarkets. A more common variant is Shanghai bok choy with vibrant green leaves and pale green stems.
Kangkong (Water Spinach)
Scientific Name: Ipomoea aquatic (from the morning glory family)
Other Names: Swamp cabbage, Water convolvulus, Water morning glory
Appearance: Kangkong has arrow-shaped leaves and slender, hollow stems. The vibrant green leaves can get quite large. It typically grows in water or damp conditions, with little to no care.
Taste: The leaves have a mild spinach-like flavor, while the stems are crunchy with a hint of sweetness.
How It's Cooked: Kangkong can be added to soups, like Sinigang, or made into Adobong Kangkong or Stir-fried Kangkong with just garlic. You can also make kangkong salad, crispy fried kangkong, or as an appetizer with shrimp paste.
Availability: Kangkong is everywhere in the Philippines and is widely consumed. In the US, it's sometimes sold in Asian supermarkets.
Sigarilyas (Winged Bean)
Scientific Name: Psophocarpus tetragonolobus (from the legume family)
Other Names: Cigarillas, Four-angled bean, Goa bean, Asparagus pea
Appearance: Sigarilyas has elongated pods with four distinct ridges or "wings" running along its sides. The beans inside are edible, as are the leaves, flowers, and tuberous roots.
Taste: Sigarilyas has a crunchy texture similar to green beans, with a mild sweet and nutty flavor.
How It's Cooked: Often used in soups, like Sinigang, and dishes with gata (coconut milk). It can be blanched as a side with fish sauce, or sliced for stews and sautés.
Availability: Sigarilyas is not exclusive to the Philippines. It is also available in various Asian and international markets.
Pako (Vegetable Fern)
Scientific Name: Diplazium esculentum (from the lady fern family)
Other Names: Paco, Vegetable fern, Fiddlehead fern
Appearance: Pako has vibrant green fronds with curly, intricate patterns. The young, tender fronds are spirally coiled, resembling fiddleheads, which give them their alternate name, "fiddlehead ferns."
The leaves have serrated edges and spear-shaped, pointed tips. When young, they have emerald green color and a shiny appearance. Newly-emerged leaves are tightly coiled.
Taste: Pako has a crisp bite with a mildly grassy, earthy flavor. It is distinct from the usual greens and have its own unique, delicate texture.
How It's Cooked: Pako can be steamed or blanched and used in salads. It pairs well with salted egg and sauces with soy sauce, calamansi, vinegar, bagoong isda (fermented fish), or bagoong alamang (shrimp paste). Another popular way to prepare it is cooking it with gata (coconut milk).
Availability: Pako naturally thrives along riverbanks, hills, and lakes in its native regions. In the U.S., specialized Filipino or Asian markets, are likely to have this or a similar variety. It's important to source it from trusted suppliers to ensure it is safe for consumption.
Talbos ng Kamote (Sweet Potato Leaves)
Scientific Name: Ipomoea batatas (from the morning glory family)
Other Names: Sweet potato vines
Appearance: Talbos ng kamote has heart-shaped leaves and can be green to purplish. These leaves grow on long, trailing vines.
Taste: The leaves are mildly sweet with a slight vegetal bitterness, providing a refreshing and light flavor profile.
How It's Cooked: Often added to soups, like Sinigang or Kusidong Isda. Some steep the leaves for a soothing tea or simply boil them. Sautéing them with garlic and shrimp paste (bagoong alamang) or fermented fish (bagoong isda) is also common.
Availability: Talbos ng kamote is commonly found in local markets, as it's often grown in backyards and fields due to the widespread cultivation of sweet potatoes. In the U.S., you are likely to find them through online retailers or buy them frozen.
Ube (Purple Yam)
Scientific Name: Dioscorea alata (from the yam family)
Other Names: Greater yam
Appearance: Ube has rough, dark brown skin, often resembling the bark of a tree. This tuber can be cylindrical or slightly irregular in shape.
When cut open, its flesh is vibrant purple to lavender color, which is its most distinctive feature. The intensity of the color depends on the variety and growing conditions.
Taste: Ube is mildly sweet and earthy, distinct from regular yams or sweet potatoes.
How It's Cooked: Commonly boiled or steamed, then mashed or grated. Ube Halaya (Purple Yam Jam) is a popular preparation, where it's cooked with sugar and milk until thick and smooth.
Ube is a popular ingredient in rice cakes like Ube Kalamay and Ube Biko. Its unique purple color and mild sweetness add a special touch to cakes, ice creams, and pastries.
Availability: Ube is widely cultivated in the Philippines. Its popularity has surged globally. In the U.S., frozen ube and ube products are commonly available in Asian grocery stores and through online retailers.
Bataw (Hyacinth Bean)
Scientific Name: Lablab purpureus (from the legume or bean family)
Other Names: Lablab bean, Dolichos bean
Appearance: Bataw pods can be green or purplish around the edges. They can turn completely purple when mature. The beans inside the pod are flat and oval-shaped, while the young leaves have a triangular shape.
Taste: Bataw has a slightly sweet flavor with a bean-like earthiness.
How It's Cooked: Young bataw pods and leaves can be added to soups and stews, and stir-fried or sautéed with other vegetables and meats.
According to WebMD, consuming raw hyacinth beans in significant quantities may pose health risks as they contain cyanogenic glycosides. These chemicals can be toxic when not properly cooked or processed.
University of Wisconsin Stevens Points states that mature beans, much like lima beans need to be boiled well before consumption to eliminate possible toxins.
Availability: Bataw may not be readily available in mainstream supermarkets. However, you may occasionally come across it in specialized Asian or Filipino markets.
Kundol (Winter Melon)
Scientific Name: Benincasa hispida (from the cucurbits or gourd family)
Other Names: Winter gourd, Ash gourd, White gourd, Chinese preserving melon
Appearance: Kundol is a large, oblong or round fruit with a pale green, waxy skin. The flesh is mild and white.
Taste: Kundol has a mild and slightly sweet flavor that takes on the taste of whatever it's cooked with.
How It's Cooked: Known for its ability to absorb flavors, it is often used in soups, stews, and sautés. It can also be candied or sweetened like Minatamis na Kundol.
Availability: Kundol may not be widely available in mainstream supermarkets. However, you can sometimes find it in Asian or international markets.
Patola (Sponge Gourd)
Scientific Name: Luffa (from the squash or gourd family)
Other Names: Chinese okra, Angled luffa, Ridged luffa, Ridged gourd, Smooth luffa
Appearance: Patola is an elongated, slender gourd with a green, smooth or ribbed skin. Its flesh is tender and pale white. When sliced, it reveals a spongy texture inside with small seeds.
Taste: Patola has a soft, sponge-like texture with a mild and slightly sweet flavor.
How It's Cooked: Patola is often used in sautés, like Ginisang Patola, and soups, like Almondigas with meatballs and misua.
Availability: Patola is available in local markets in the Philippines. In the U.S., it may be available in some Asian or international markets.
Upo (Bottle Gourd)
Scientific Name: Lagenaria siceraria (from the gourd or squash family)
Other Names: Calabash gourd, Long melon
Appearance: Upo is usually long and cylindrical, resembling a bottle in shape. It has a smooth, light green skin, with white and spongy flesh.
Taste: Upo has a tender and juicy bite with a mild flavor that easily absorbs the tastes of the ingredients it's cooked with.
How It's Cooked: Upo is often sautéed with aromatics and some meat. It can also be added to soups like Misua or Chicken Tinola.
Availability: Upo is found in local markets in the Philippines as it is widely cultivated. In the US, Asian markets are the best bet for finding fresh bottle gourd.
Mustasa (Mustard Greens)
Scientific Name: Brassica juncea (from the mustard, crucifer, or cabbage family)
Other Names: Brown mustard, Indian mustard
Appearance: Mustasa has dark green leaves with jagged or fringed edges. The leaves are typically oval or lance-shaped.
Taste: Mustasa has a crisp texture, with a peppery and slightly bitter taste.
How It's Used: A leafy green often sautéed, pickled, or used in salads.
Availability: Mustasa is widely available in local markets in the Philippines. In the U.S., you may find it in Asian or international markets.
Discover More Varieties
Beyond these unique Filipino vegetables, many other ingredients contribute to the rich complexity of Filipino cuisine. The holy trinity of flavors–bawang (garlic), sibuyas (onion), and kamatis (tomatoes)–often takes the limelight.
Gabi (taro) adds a creamy richness to Sinigang or Ginataang Bilo Bilo. Ampalaya (bitter melon) lends a distinctive bitter note to Ampalaya con Carne, while kalabasa adds sweetness to dishes like Pinakbet.
Talong (eggplant) transforms into a creamy Tortang Talong (Eggplant Omelet) or a delicious eggplant salad, while mani (peanuts) and patani (lima beans) bring in nuttiness hints that add both comfort and excitement.
Labanos (radish) and okra are great on Sinigang, while soups like Arroz Caldo wouldn't be the same without luya (ginger). Lastly, linga (sesame seeds) provides an irresistible crunch to sweets, such as Palitaw.
These vegetables might not steal the spotlight, but they are indispensable in Filipino recipes, contributing to the diverse array of flavors and textures that define our cuisine.
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