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Everything You Need to Know about Filipino Food: The Next Great American Cuisine

If you ask anyone to name their favorite dishes from Chinese, Japanese or Thai cuisine, chances are you probably going to receive responses like dim sum, sushi, or pad thai, respectively. But if you ask those same people to name their favorite dish from Filipino cuisine, chances are you probably get a simple shrug as a response from them.

The food of the Philippines, contrary to its neighboring Southeast Asian countries, is often misunderstood by many. A little over a decade ago, when the popular delicacy balut (duck embryo) was shown in the reality TV show Fear Factor, it immediately gave viewers an assumption that Filipino food is a crappier version of more popular Asian cuisine. Those who were less familiar with the cuisine even dismissed what it has to offer.

The Philippine cuisine came to the spotlight when the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain visited the Philippines multiple times. The first was in 2008 for the food and travel show No Reservations, where he traveled to Cebu, the country’s second-largest city, and called lechón (slow-roasted whole roasted pig) “the best pig ever.” The second was in 2016 for the show Parts Unknown and his final visit was as a speaker at the World Food Congress 2017.

Bourdain, from what it looks like, fell in love with the Philippines — an archipelago made up of 7,107 islands. It’s not only home to a vast number of cultures, but it also has a deep history shaped by colonialism: 333 years of Spanish colonization, three years of Japanese occupation, and 48 years of American rule.

History and Culinary Influences

Pansit Palabok (Rice noodles with shrimp sauce). Justin Walker

With a hundred years of colonization, the Philippine cuisine is an amalgam of culinary influences from Spanish, Chinese, and American traditions. When the Spanish arrived in 1521 and controlled the Philippines until 1898, they brought Spanish ingredients, including tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, and onions. They also introduced dishes like chicken or pork adobo, the country’s national dish that’s actually a cooking method, afritada (chicken or pork with vegetables simmered in tomato sauce), and embutido (Filipino-style meatloaf).

During the 16th century, a big wave of immigrants from the Chinese coastal provinces of Fujian and Canton introduced cooking techniques like stir-frying and steaming, and brought their own specialties across the South China Sea, award-winning cookbook author Amy Besa writes in Memories of Philippine Kitchens. They are mostly noodles and spring rolls hence you’ll find saucy noodle dish pancit luglug mixed with vibrant orange savory sauce; pancit canton, and lumpiang shanghai (fried spring rolls). The pancit canton has its roots in noodle soup dishes from China, while the lumpia finds its origins in Chinese spring rolls. Siopao (steamed buns filled with meat) and siomai, typically served at Cantonese restaurants, has become a Filipino merienda or snack.

The American settlement in the Philippines began during the Spanish colonial period. After Americans defeated in the Spanish-American War in 1898, the Spanish ceded to the United States. From that time through 1946 — the year the Philippines gained independence, the Americans influenced Filipinos with iconic American foods like burgers, as well as canned meat like corned beef and Spam. They also introduced technology like microwave and fridge. Moreover, they brought in the fast-food culture and the Philippines later adapted it by opening Jollibee, a Philippine original hamburger joint equivalent of McDonald’s.

Staple Dishes

Chicken adobo and rice.

No meal is complete without steamed white rice, a staple food of the Philippines. Filipino food often has strong flavor notes, so rice is necessary to balance it out. Philippine cuisine centers around the combination of sweet, bitter, sour, and salty notes, writes Doreen Fernandez in her book Tikim: Essays on Philippine Food and Culture, and it is truly fascinating to see how the cuisine is multifaceted.

Philippine dishes often range from very simple, like a meal of rice and salted fish, to extravagant paellas and lechón for fiestas. But for everyday meals, adobo is perhaps the most popular and quintessential dish in the Philippines. Whether cooked with pork or chicken, it is simmered in soy sauce, vinegar, bay leaves, and peppercorns. Other popular dishes are sinigang (meat or seafood in sour broth), pinakbet (a colorful medley of squash, eggplant, bittermelon, beans, okra, and tomatoes stir-fried with shrimp paste), and kinilaw (Filipino-style fish ceviche).

Filipino Cuisine’s Influence in America

Filipino immigrants in the U.S. has quadrupled since 1980, when there were 501,000 Filipino immigrants in the US, according to a June 2020 report from the Migration Policy Report. That being said, the influx of Filipino-American chefs in the culinary scene has brought new ideas, creativity, and fun to the next level.

Nicole Ponseca

The Philippine cuisine may have very little representation for its familiar tastes and lackluster food presentation, but it is finally carving out its own place in the culinary world. In 2019, Fil-Am chef Tom Cunanan, owner of Bad Saint in Columbia Heights, Washington D.C., was named the best chef in the mid-Atlantic region at James Beard Award for his outstanding skills mixing traditional Filipino recipes with local ingredients. Think Inihaw ng Liempo, which consists of pork belly, achara and tamarind sauce, or Inasal na Manok, Bacolod-style grilled chicken, heirloom purple rice, and achara.

Nicole Ponseca, the owner of Jeepney in East Village, New York City, also wanted to educate people about Filipino food. “Filipino food wasn’t mainstream yet when I moved to New York in 1998 from San Francisco despite us being the second marginalized Asian community in the U.S. speaking English back home and fighting for the U.S. military,” Ponseca says. “I started researching why and had a few theories, and I used those theories to inform how I introduce Filipino cuisine.”

Before Ponseca opened her first restaurant — the now-closed Maharlika in 2011, Filipino cuisine was offered mostly in or mom and pop shops. Nobody in New York City was coming up with innovative and groundbreaking recipes. She then took the plunge and presented a menu of progressive Filipino foods like sinigang sweetbreads and shepherd’s pie with kaldereta. “When I have started this business, Filipino food was at nobody’s radar,” Ponseca says. “It’s wonderful how Filipino food has propelled forward in terms of perspective, growth, and mindset. It has gotten more mass appeal and it’s getting more familiarized with people more.”

Philippine cuisine indeed has evolved to be one of the hottest cuisines in the food world. Bourdain actually predicted the explosion of Filipino food in the U.S., comparing it to the popularity Korean food gained in the last decade. “I think Filipinos embraced America and were embraced by America in a way that other cultures might not have been,” says Bourdain in an interview in CNN Philippines. “A lot of traditional Filipino food has sour and bitter notes, which are very unfamiliar to American palates of a few years ago. American palates have changed drastically. I think there’s a really bright future.”

Short Rib Pares

(By Nicole Ponseca, author of I Am a Filipino: And This Is How We Cook)

Serves 4-6

Ingredients:

  • 4 beef short ribs, whole about 3-4 lbs
  • 3 quarts water
  • 1 medium onion, sliced
  • 6 cloves of garlic
  • 10 peppercorns
  • 3 bay leaves

For sauce

  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 ginger, finger length and julienned
  • 1 tsp patis or fish sauce
  • 3 pieces star anise
  • 1 tsp muscovado sugar
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Method:

  1. Fill saucepot with water and bring to boil. Drop short ribs in and boil for five minutes and reduce heat to simmer. Skim off impurities.
  2. Add onion, garlic, peppercorns, and bay leaves, and cook for two to two and half hours. (Note: do not boil or else the broth will get cloudy)
  3. When short ribs are cooked through, remove from braising liquid and set aside. Reduce liquid by half.
  4. To prepare the sauce, heat oil in a clean pan. Sweat onions, ginger for two minutes then add garlic and star anise and cook for an additional minute.
    Add one cup braising liquid and fish sauce then allow to thicken. Adjust seasoning. Return meat to pan and toss.

Ube Waffles

Ingredients:

Ube paste

  • 2 bags or 12 tablespoons ube powder
  • 12 oz butter, cubed
  • 2 cups confection sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 3 cans of coconut milk

Waffle batter

  • 6 cups flour
  • 4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 cup oil
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 8 eggs
  • 5 1/4 cups water
  • 1 cup of sugar
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 ube extract

Method:

For ube paste

  1. First, combine all ingredients except butter and stir over medium heat.
  2. Add butter cube by cube until fully incorporated.
  3. Cook until a paste-like consistency. Let it cook, stirring constantly so as not to burn the ube paste.

For waffle

  1. Combine all dry ingredients and separately combine all wet ingredients.
  2. Whisk both ingredients together.
  3. Combine with ube paste.

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