Long overlooked, Filipino food is finally recognized for its diversity and ingenuity. Here are some essential Filipino foods you must try at least once on your Globe Aware volunteer vacation in the Philippines!
BY ANDREW COLETTI AND CRAWFORD SMITH
OCT. 17, 2023
The first food in the Philippines was shaped by the environment. Early human inhabitants of these mountainous islands had a diet rich in tropical produce and seafood, adopting rice as a staple once it was introduced around 3400 B.C.E. Subsequent centuries of interaction with foreign cultures, including long periods of colonization by Spain and the U.S., introduced new dishes and ingredients. Further innovations were born out of scarcity and hardship, as resourceful chefs found ways to make use of limited resources. These many factors have created a modern cuisine like no other in the world: One in which unlikely flavor combinations and diverse international influences come together in delicious harmony.
Long overlooked by mainstream American culture, Filipino food is finally being recognized in the U.S. for its diversity and ingenuity, something that culinary experts have been predicting for years. Here are some essential Filipino foods you need to try at least once.
In a 1975 essay, legendary Filipino food writer Doreen Fernandez argued for sinigang to be recognized as her country's quintessential dish. For Fernandez, it was the simplicity and adaptability of sinigang that made it so representative, and the way the dish makes use of the bounty of the land with indigenous ingredients. Fernandez saw sinigang as something all levels of society can make and enjoy, with whatever fresh ingredients are at hand.
So what is sinigang? Put simply, it's a sour soup, one of many found across Southeast Asia, such as Thai gaeng som or Vietnamese canh chua. Sour soups or curries are typically flavored with an acidic fruit, but exactly which fruit is used can vary widely. For sinigang, tamarind is a popular choice, but other options include guava, green mango, or calamansi, a local citrus variety. The soup also typically includes fish or meat with assorted vegetables, such as tomatoes, long beans, eggplant, or radish. Sinigang is easily customizable to the taste of chef and diner alike since it's often prepared with light seasoning so that diners can adjust their own bowl to their liking with sawsawan (dips) like chili and fish sauce. The tart flavors of sinigang are designed to complement rice, the Filipino staple.
When immigrants from the Fujian province in China settled in the Philippines and Indonesia, they introduced both countries to a rolled pastry stuffed with a filling called lumpia, meaning "moist cake." This was the origin of Filipino lumpia, one of several foods on this list derived from Chinese influence. Similar to spring rolls, lumpia have a simple wrapper made from flour and water and stuffing that may include meat, vegetables, or both. They are fried until golden and crispy and served with a dipping sauce.
One popular lumpia is lumpia Shanghai, which is rolled smaller and thinner than other lumpia varieties and stuffed with a Chinese-influenced mixture of pork, egg, and minced carrot. While other lumpia may be paired with Filipino condiments like garlic vinegar or banana ketchup, lumpia Shanghai is often served with a more Chinese-style sweet and sour dipping sauce (though this dish doesn't have anything to do with the city of Shanghai). A sweet version of lumpia, stuffed with gooey, sugar-coated fruit slices, is called turón or banana lumpia for its most typical filling, though it may also be filled with other fruits like mango or jackfruit.
Adobo, meat marinated in soy sauce and vinegar, is one of many Filipino dishes with Hispanic influence, thanks to Spain's colonial rule of the islands for nearly three centuries. In different parts of the Spanish-speaking world, the word adobo has different meanings for specific food preparations, but it literally means "marinated." In Spain, the original adobo was meat cooked after being marinated in vinegar, first to preserve it and later primarily for flavoring.
Spanish adobo was introduced to the Philippines during the colonial era (16th to 19th centuries), where it fits right in with a local appreciation for sour flavors and several indigenous styles of food preparation involving vinegar or sour juice, such as kinilaw, a raw fish salad, and sinigang. Filipino adobo was adjusted to local tastes with the addition of soy sauce, itself introduced from China, in place of salt. Most recipes also include garlic, bay leaves, and black pepper, but Filipino adobo varies widely from one region to another. It can be made with any protein, with or without vegetables, and different regions add different ingredients to the sauce, such as coconut, turmeric, or mashed pork liver.
There are at least three different stories as to the origin of this comforting Filipino peanut stew, but it's often believed to be influenced by Indian cuisine, and the name might come from Tamil kari, the same word that is the root of English "curry." Kare-kare does bear a resemblance to the stewed meat and vegetable dishes of South India, albeit with fewer spices and a milder flavor profile, but some of its ingredients, like peanuts and the spice annatto or achiote, originated in the Americas and arrived in the Philippines during the era of Spanish colonization.
Kare-kare's nutty, savory broth is made with garlic, onion, and powdered annatto seed, which provides a reddish color and a subtle earthiness, as well as a mixture of toasted ground rice and peanuts (peanut butter may be used as a shortcut). It's traditionally prepared over coals in a clay pot called a palayok, with a rich, fatty meat, traditionally oxtail, and vegetables like baby bok choy or long beans, which are blanched or steamed separately and added to the stew after the meat. A more creamy variation called kare-kare sa gata is made with coconut milk. Typically, kare-kare is seasoned minimally but may be adjusted at the table with chili or bagoong (pronounced ba-go-ong), a fragrant, salty fermented shrimp paste.
Spanish ships traveled regularly between the Philippines and Mexico when both were Spanish colonies. This resulted in culinary interchange that can be seen in dishes like Filipino champorado, which originally derives from Mexican champurrado, a thick, sweet beverage made with chocolate and cornflour. In the Philippines, where rice, not corn, was the staple grain, corn was swapped for glutinous rice (also called sticky rice), creating a sweet rice porridge or pudding which also lacks the cinnamon of Mexican champurrado.
Champorado is made by melting Filipino tablea, concentrated tablets of pure roasted chocolate, into sticky rice porridge, along with sugar. The dish is traditionally served for breakfast, topped with a drizzle of evaporated, condensed, or coconut milk and a side of tuyo, a type of dried, salted herring. Bold and unique flavor pairings are characteristic of Filipino cuisine, and this combination of sweet, creamy chocolate porridge with salty, savory dried fish is a signature example.
Halo-halo means "mix-mix" in Tagalog, and this action describes what you're meant to do before enjoying this brilliantly-colored frozen dessert that Anthony Bourdain loved. Halo-halo consists of shaved ice layered in a glass with various sweet toppings or small portions of other desserts, such as ice cream and flan. Crispy puffed rice or other dry toppings may be added at the end, as well as a drizzle of evaporated milk. Cold, refreshing, and bursting with contrasting textures and flavors, every bite of halo-halo is slightly different from the last.
Originally inspired by kakigori, a Japanese shaved ice dessert introduced to the Philippines in the mid-20th century, halo-halo bears a resemblance to shaved ice dishes prepared with various toppings throughout East and Southeast Asia, such as Korean patbingsu and Singaporean ais kacang. However, the ingredients used in halo-halo are distinctly Filipino: jackfruit, banana, beans in syrup, jelly, ube (purple yam), and shredded fresh coconut, to name just a few of the nearly endless possibilities.
Ice cream with pandesal
Ice was first imported to the Philippines from the U.S. in the mid-19th century, and iced desserts like flavored sorbetes (ice cream) were first encountered in this time period. Limited initially to the tables of the elite, ice would become more accessible in the 20th century, during the American occupation. One of the first permanent structures built by the U.S. government in the Philippines was an ice plant, established in 1902. This paved the way for ice cream to become a widespread and familiar part of Filipino food culture, with ubiquitous sorbetero street vendors selling cones of "dirty ice cream," so-named because it's dirt cheap.
One thing that sets Filipino ice cream apart from other ice creams is that it may be made with the rich milk of carabao, a local type of water buffalo. Another unique feature is the range of flavors, which may include distinctive Filipino ingredients like ube (purple yam), sweet corn, keso (cheddar cheese), or macapuno (a sweet jelly that forms naturally inside some coconuts). Aside from a cone, Filipino ice cream may be eaten in a sandwich on a small white bread roll, called pan de sal, or pandesal. Though it might sound unusual from a Western perspective, ice cream sandwiches are also made with bread in some other Southeast Asian countries, such as Singapore.
One of many Filipino dishes to pair sweet with salty are these chewy, melty rice cakes with a caramelized top. Bibingka is eaten year-round but is especially associated with the Filipino Christmas season, and can be topped with cheese, salted egg yolk, red bean, sugar, and coconut, among other possibilities. There are numerous different kinds of bibingka, including biko, sprinkled with coconut milk and brown sugar, and cassava bibingka, made with a base of grated cassava (yucca) root instead of rice flour.
The word bibingka refers to the unique cooking method used to produce the cakes: High heat is applied on top and low heat on the bottom to melt and caramelize the toppings. Traditionally, bibingka is baked in a clay pot lined with banana leaves and piled up with hot coals to apply heat from above. In a modern restaurant kitchen, this may be achieved in the top rack of a convection oven or by other methods.
Sisig is a classic example of pulutan, a small dish meant to be paired with alcohol. In fact, Anthony Bourdain called it "the best thing you could ever eat with a cold beer." It's a crispy, hearty stir-fry of chicken liver and pork parts with onion, sometimes also including an egg, and seasoned with chili, mayo, and calamansi lime juice. Sisig also pairs well with rice and may be made as a way of using up the leftovers from lechon, a whole suckling pig roast.
Sisig has changed quite a lot through its long history. The original version of sisig, dating back to the 18th century, was a sour salad served as a remedy. This became popular as a side dish, and in the mid-20th century, chefs started to add chopped, stir-fried meat from pig heads, such as the cheeks, snout, and ears to the salad so as not to let the meat go to waste. Chicken livers were added by a restaurateur in Angeles City, Philippines in the mid-1970s, creating the modern version of the dish.
Pancit is the Filipino name for noodles, and Filipino pancit are made from cornstarch or a mixture of cornstarch and rice flour, and there are several varieties that differ greatly in thickness. Pancit can be used to make many different noodle soups and stir-fried dishes, but one of the best known is pancit palabok, which is made with a type of noodle called bihon (when made with a thicker cornstarch noodle, it becomes the related dish called pancit luglug).
Pancit palabok is identifiable by its orangey broth, which is made with seasoned shrimp stock brightened with achiote or annatto, the same red spice found in kare-kare and popular in Latin American cuisines. Pancit palabok also includes a topping of shrimp, boiled egg, smoked fish flakes, pork cracklings, and toasted garlic, as well as calamansi juice, which provides an irresistible blend of contrasting flavors and textures to the dish.
In different Spanish-speaking countries, the word torta (cake) or the diminutive tortilla can refer to many different dishes with a cake-like or loaf-like shape, including both sweet and savory. This includes Spain's tortilla de patatas, made from egg, onion, and potato, and in the Philippines, the word torta has been adopted to refer to any omelet-like egg dish, regardless of its ingredients. One of the most popular of these Filipino tortas is tortang talong, made with long Asian eggplant. A whole eggplant is roasted until soft and smoky, the charred skin is peeled, and the eggplant is mashed flat, dipped in beaten egg, and fried, often without removing the stem. You can even flip the tortang talong in the pan by grabbing the eggplant stem with your hand.
The result is a crispy fried exterior that contrasts with the buttery-soft eggplant inside. Tortang talong can be eaten as a snack or for breakfast or lunch, and it's typically served with rice and condiments like fish sauce or banana ketchup, and variations may be topped with vegetables or meat.
Silog is a portmanteau of two Tagalog words that describe its two components: sinangag (fried rice) and itlog (egg; in this context, usually a fried egg). Like other fried rice dishes, Filipino sinangag is typically made with cold leftover rice from the night before. First, minced garlic is fried until golden and crispy, then removed from the now garlic-infused oil. This oil is used to fry the rice and, for some chefs, also the egg. The crispy garlic bits are mixed back into the rice before serving for extra crunch.
One might think of silog as a crispier take on steak and eggs because this classic Filipino breakfast pairing of rice and egg is often served with meat. Salty processed or cured meats, such as ham, hotdogs, or Spam, are popular, but other proteins such as adobo may also be used. The name of the resulting trio depends on the name of the meat added: for example, a combination of rice, egg, and longganisa sausage is known as logsilog. Perhaps the most famous silog is tapsilog, invented in the 1980s and made with beef tapa, a traditional Filipino sun-dried jerky. Silog is complete as is, but can be spiced up with sauces and seasonings like the Philippines' popular banana ketchup.
In recent years, balut's popularity in the Philippines has been declining due to a combination of globalizing palates and the loss of duck-farming spaces to urbanization. However, this dish remains well-known as one of the most unique Filipino delicacies. The technique of making balut is said to have originally come from China. A fertilized bird's egg, usually a duck's but sometimes a chicken's, is boiled after being incubated for 16 to 20 days to allow the embryo inside to develop. Depending on when the balut is harvested and prepared, the embryo may be little more than a grayish lump or may have feathers, bones, and a beak. Younger balut eggs have fully edible contents, but the egg white becomes increasingly tough and rubbery as the egg matures and may be discarded. Once cooked, the egg contains broth that may be sipped from the shell or poured into a cup, and has an intensely flavorful and savory taste reminiscent of organ meat.
Balut is traditionally sold as a street food or snack, paired with a cold beer and seasonings like chili, salt, and vinegar, but modern chefs have also developed restaurant dishes that use balut as an ingredient. Balut is consumed under different names in other Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and Cambodia, and in the U.S., some Asian markets sell raw fertilized balut eggs for people to boil at home.
During the U.S. occupation of the Philippines in the early 20th century, the American military presence in the islands introduced American recipes and processed foods from military rations. Ketchup was used to make a sweet sauce for spaghetti and chopped hot dogs, but when World War II led to a scarcity of tomato ketchup, Filipinos started making red-dyed ketchup from bananas instead. It became sweeter and spicier than tomato ketchup with an identifiable banana flavor. Born out of necessity, banana ketchup spaghetti has now become popular in its own right.
Today, this quintessential Filipino comfort food is often served at family gatherings and can also be found on the menus of fast food chains, including McDonald's locations in the Philippines. One of many Filipino dishes to boldly pair sweet and savory, Filipino spaghetti is made with sliced hot dogs, sugary banana ketchup, and a grated processed cheese such as Velveeta. The end result is nothing like American or Italian spaghetti, but something unique to the Philippines and its vibrant cuisine.
Roast pork with crispy skin is a dish with fans across the globe, but the people of the Philippines are particularly passionate about this meaty delicacy. The Filipino word for it, lechon, is derived from the Spanish word "lechona," which translates to "suckling pig" in English. A suckling pig is a young pig — specifically one that is still being fed exclusively with milk. The original Filipino lechon was made with whole suckling pigs roasted on a spit over an open fire until the skin became brown and crunchy like a pork rind. The crackling skin would contrast beautifully with the flesh of the young pig, which would turn lusciously soft over the hours of slow cooking.
The classic whole-pig style of lechon, known as "lechon de leche," is still popular, but there are other versions now as well. Lechon kawali and crispy pata are made with the belly and knuckle of a pig respectively, but other than that, they are prepared the same. First, the pork is boiled to tenderize it, then it's deep-fried to replicate the crispy skin of lechon de leche.
Lechon is a classic party dish for big gatherings and also a popular street food. One lechon street vendor, Mang Tomas, became famous for his version of the liver-based sauce that's typically served with the dish. The now liver-free Mang Tomas All-Purpose Sauce has become one of the Phillippines' most popular condiments.
Bicol Express sounds like the name of a train route, and that's indeed what it was named after. The dish was originally a nameless concoction served by vendors to passengers on trains heading to the Bicol region of the Philippines. That's one story, anyway — it may actually be influenced by Indonesian food or a recipe from Ilocos, a different area of the Philippines. No matter how it got its start, it became so popular and beloved that it is now prepared all over the country.
The dish is made by simmering small pieces of fatty pork together with coconut milk and seasonings. The richness of the two main ingredients is enhanced by the intensely savory flavors of shrimp paste, garlic, onion, and ginger. The final key ingredient is chile peppers. While you can use a variety of chiles when cooking the dish at home to suit your own heat preferences, the traditional choice is siling labuyo, a type that's native to the Philippines archipelago. Bicol is known for producing particularly hot chiles, so Bicol Express is normally pretty spicy.
If you're from the southern United States, you might turn your nose up at using the term "barbecue" to describe anything that isn't slow-smoked over hardwood. But for our money, any time meat is being cooked over some kind of open flame, that's barbecue, and almost every culture has an excellent version of this idea.
One popular way to make barbecue in the Phillippines is to thread small pieces of marinated chicken or pork onto skewers and grill them over charcoal. It's an easy thing to find from street vendors in the country and is also made at home, often as part of a celebration. Regardless of what type of meat you choose, the marinade will be about the same — it's similar to some styles of American barbecue sauce. It starts with a ketchup base, but in the Philippines, this typically means banana ketchup rather than classic Heinz (banana ketchup tends to be sweeter than tomato ketchup).
Ingredients like garlic, chiles, soy sauce, and citrus add savoriness. Lemon-lime soda is a popular addition as well. The meat is marinated in this seasoning mixture before being grilled, and then the leftover marinade is used as a baste during cooking to build up a delicious caramelized coating. At the table, you can dip the chunks of meat into spiced vinegar.
Kinilaw is usually made with some kind of raw fish or seafood tossed in an acidic vinegar and citrus-based dressing that gently "cooks" the protein. Given its similarity to ceviche and the Spanish influence on many Filipino dishes, you might think that kinilaw is descended from ceviche, but it's actually an ancient dish from the pre-colonial era — it may be 1,000 years old or more.
Almost anything from the sea can be chopped up and used to make kinilaw. The sauce may include coconut milk or cream on top of the acidic components. Common flavorful mix-ins include onions, ginger, chile peppers, and garlic. Kinilaw is not a dish so much as it is a method — the word can refer to any type of fresh food that's mixed with an acidic sauce or eaten in a raw or semi-raw state. Sometimes, acidic dressings aren't used and the dish is served entirely raw, with no vinegar to "cook" the fish. Other times, the main protein is blanched or par-cooked before being mixed with the sauce; this is particularly common for kinilaw made with beef or other land animals rather than seafood.
There are few combinations of ingredients on Earth more comforting than chicken and rice. One classic Filipino dish based around these components is arroz caldo, a type of chicken and rice soup/stew. It's the perfect thing to soothe you when you feel under the weather. While the name is Spanish, the recipe reflects the influence of Chinese cuisine on Filipino cooks. It's basically a local version of congee, which is Chinese rice porridge.
To make it, chicken pieces are browned in a pan with oil. Rice and aromatics are fried in the chicken fat and then cooked with broth until a creamy, stew-like texture is achieved. The dish is usually flavored with onions, garlic, ginger, and fish sauce.
Arroz caldo is a creamy, soft dish, and it's often served with toppings that you can add at the last minute to give it some textural contrast and extra flavor. Common options include citrus wedges, sliced scallions, boiled eggs, and crispy fried minced garlic.
In English, dinuguan is sometimes called "chocolate meat" because of its rich brown color, but don't tuck into this thick stew expecting something sweet. Rather than cocoa, dinuguan gets its color from pork blood. The blood thickens the broth and adds a deep iron-y flavor to the stew. The dish also often contains various cuts of pork offal like liver, lungs, ears, and snout. The meat is simmered together with classic Filipino seasonings like vinegar, garlic, and chiles.
The origins of dinuguan are as murky as the color of its sauce. Its use of blood and off-cuts suggests that it was invented by poor cooks during the colonial era when the ruling Spanish reserved the premium parts of the animal for themselves. It may have roots in the indigenous cuisine of the Philippines and reflect a Spanish influence — the blood sausage morcilla is a very popular Spanish dish. Either way, blood is a very popular ingredient in Filipino cooking. In addition to dinuguan, there is a popular dish made with chunks of coagulated blood grilled on skewers that is whimsically called "betamax."