9 Things You Should Know About Filipino Food
From savory to sweet, the flavors of the Philippines are as vast as its islands.
Growing up in the Philippines and stewing in the centuries-old roots of its colonizers—Spain, the United States, Japan—I always looked outwards, dreaming of elsewhere. I scoffed at most things local. But now, a decade after living far and away from my motherland, I realize that I was wrong. Why was I oblivious to riches all around me in that tropical paradise?
My cuisine, often maligned, misunderstood and pigeon holed here in the West, is as vast and diverse as its over 7,000 islands. But there are hallmarks of its distinct flavor, recognizable across the diaspora, singing to our lonely souls in our homes away from home. Let’s break them down, element by element, these building blocks of Filipino food.
Rice is life
Kanin, or rice, is the staff of life for Filipinos. No meal, including midday merienda (a snack or light meal), passes muster without rice on the plate. It is a blank canvas, steamed plain, to be painted with the accompanying ulam (main entree) or jazzed up with garlic as seen in sinangag, which is a dishof garlic-potent fried rice. White rice is also the foundation of kakanin, the category of sticky sweet bites, including the varieties of suman, puto, and bibingka, enjoyed as breakfast, dessert, or snack.
Coconut reigns in dishes both sweet and savory
From the root to the trunk to the leaves and fruit, every element of the coconut (niyog) serves a purpose, including in Filipino cuisine. Coconut meat, juice, and milk are key ingredients in both savory and sweet preparations. Coconut juice is good to simply drink, of course, but it also makes the brothy base in dishes such as Binakol Na Manok, a.k.a. chicken in coconut soup. Then there’s an entire spectrum of guinataan dishes—which is to say, foods cooked with gata, or coconut cream or milk. Grated coconut flesh often accompanies rice cakes, otherwise known as kakanin. Or sweetened and transformed into macapuno, this coconut component makes its famous appearance in the iconic shaved iced dessert halo-halo.
Sour flavors are always welcome
Filipinos are suckers for the pucker of asim, or sour, flavors. From the generous use of vinegars of all kinds—sugar cane, palm or coconut—in adobo, paksiw, kinilaw or extra sawsawan, to citrus superstar calamansi as juice or seasoning to using fruits as souring agents in sinigang, to enjoying raw, sliced, green mangoes with bagoong, asim gives us life.
Salty is a term of endearment
The salt (alat) harvest from the seas and ocean that surround the Philippine archipelago are both means of food preservation and flavoring that helps bodies survive and thrive through intense humidity. Seafood and meat are salted and dried, eaten by themselves or used to season dishes. Also the use of patis (fish sauce), bagoong (fermented seafood paste) and soy sauce as introduced by Chinese traders.
Tamis, or sweetness, isn’t exclusive to dessert
The tropical life is indeed sweet. The Filipino-style spaghetti that uses a liberal amount of sugar or banana ketchup graces every birthday feast. The caramelized grilled char on the slices of pork barbecue. Fiesta or celebration food like menudo (pork and liver tomato stew), embutido (steamed meatloaf), rellenong bangus (stuffed milk fish) and chicken macaroni salad’s savory flavors are often accentuated by raisins.
It’s never too hot for broth
Hot soup seems counterintuitive for the Philippines’ balmy, humid climates. But it is balm to the deluge of the monsoons, that marks the one of two seasons of the country. Sabaw, which are Filipino soups, include classic tinola (ginger chicken soup), bulalo (beef shank soup), or nilaga (boiled meat soup). These are typically thin and light, but full on flavor from the slow cooked meat and bone of the land and seas, complemented with the bounty of vegetables available all year.
Sauce it up
“Sarsa pa lang, ulam na,” which translates to “the sauce is already an entree” in Tagalog, is one of the best compliments a cook can get. The sauce from braises or stews like kaldereta (goat or beef stew), pininyahang manok (pineapple chicken), and palabok (annatto shrimp and pork sauce on rice noodles) is the best way to drench richness on each rice grain or around every noodle strand.
Seasoning is never an afterthought
Sawsawan is more than just condiments. Bottles of soy sauce, vinegars (suka), and banana ketchup, alongside little dishes of bagoong, liver sauce, chiles, and fresh calamansi (small, green citrus) populate many Filipino tables. Zero offense is taken if anyone chooses to spruce up their plate with their own personal additions of sawsawan—indeed, it’s expected.
For Filipinos, food is communal
One never eats alone as any one who’d share the dining space is automatically greeted with “Kain tayo?” or “Let’s eat?” as an invitation to partake in life and all the experiences that this earth has to offer. So, kain tayo?