By Justin Calderón
Nov 19, 2021
A NATION OF 7,600 ISLANDS spread out across a coral triangle, the Philippines is practically a byword for biodiversity. The most definitive Filipino food thus tends to draw inspiration from the nation’s rich natural resources, including its native flora (acacia, red cloves and pigweed) and fauna (wild boar).
However, international cultural influences are just as important in the Filipino kitchen as the nations’ indigenous Austronesian roots. Throughout history, a variety of cultures, including the Spanish, Chinese and American, have influenced Filipino food in a manner that made Filipino dishes as colorful and motley as the Filipinos themselves.
In this way, experiencing traditional Filipino food is a multicultural journey that cuts a cross-section through the nation’s history. In 960 A.D., Chinese immigrants first wandered through the Philippine islands, introducing the indigenous people to pancit canton (Chinese noodles), and spring rolls (the Filipino lumpia) along with soy sauce, fish sauce and tofu.
Then in 1500, when Spanish crusaders set off in search of the Spice Islands, they stumbled upon the Philippine archipelago, which was brimming with an array of flavor-rich delicacies. Throughout 300 years of colonization, the Spanish added to these local traditional dishes methods of sauteing, braising, and slow cooking, along with the use of tomatoes, garlic and canned meats.
After the Spanish-American War of 1889, Americans took over the Philippine islands, introducing easy-to-cook recipes and fast food staples, such as fried meats, burgers and hot dogs. Condensed milk and dulce de leche soon became popular additions to Filipino desserts, which began to showcase more Westernized variants of traditional confections.
Today, what ends up being served out of kitchens across the Philippines, from Luzon in the north down to Mindanao in the south, is a fusion of these grafted-on foreign cultures and local traditions. Yet, despite this immensely eclectic heritage, the distinct Filipino go-to flavors — that garlic-filled adobo, crispy pork flank or spicy noodle stir-fry — whether featured on street meats and barbecues, or soups and desserts, remain unfailingly familiar to the many millions of Filipinos in the worldwide diaspora, those that make up the balikbayan.
For the new or not-yet initiated, Filipino food is recognized by its unique meat preparation methods (with a large focus on pork) and host of native spices, such as star anise, cloves, cinnamon, and cardamom. In particular, a distinguishing feature of Filipino food is its low chili content, which makes the Philippines stand apart from other culinary traditions of neighboring Southeast Asian countries.
This list of Filipino foods aims to showcase the most definitive plates of the nation that will make any balikbayan instantly homesick and hungry.
Often unofficially referred to as the Philippines’ national dish, adobo is a more of a cooking process than a specific dish, and typically used as a marinade for meat-based plates. Adobo sauce is prepared on a low flame with vinegar, cooking oil, soy sauce, and aroma-rich spices, such as peppercorns and bay leaves.
The protein used in adobo usually comes from either chicken or pork, but some seafood variants are a common occurrence in Filipino homes.
Try this (seafood) version: Adobong pusit, or squid adobo, is a seafood-version of the traditional chicken adobo, and commonly found on the many coastlines of the Philippines. It’s a dish that creates instant homesickness for Panlasang Pinoy, a Filipino food blogger, who says that adobong pusit “brings in a sense of nostalgia which reminds me of the good times that I had when I was still home.”
Lechon, or Filipino-style suckling pig, is spit-roasted whole pig that is cooked over an open-pit barbecue. Making lechon with an authentically local touch requires using indigenous wild boars, which are stuffed with a crushed and seasoned mixture of garlic, star anise, tamarind and chives. The pig is then rubbed with soy sauce, adding a Chinese flavor to a roast pig meat that would also be familiar to Spaniards.
While spit-roasted pigs may be available in other countries as well, what makes lechon uniquely Filipino is coconut lumber. Coconut lumber is used (instead of charcoal) to create a fire that makes the pig skin glisten and glow while adding a hint of crunch to the skin. Served with a dip made of liver, bread crumbs, vinegar, sugar, and spices, lechon is often the centerpiece of seasonal fiestas across the Philippines.
Puso is a Filipino rice cake that is boiled in woven packets of tropical leaves and hung out for two to three hours to allow the rice to soak up the leaves’ flavor. Originally parcelled in tropical leaves to allow travelers to carry rice on journeys, puso preparation today remains unchanged from these origins.
Palm leaves, coconut leaves, or pandan leaves (a tropical, pointy plant) are split into narrow strips and are then interwoven into octagons, rectangles, or diamonds to hold the rice. Puso is then prepared by adding a seasoning of choice to make the rice cakes savory or sweet. You can see these rice cakes being consumed as a side of most Filipino food, but most commonly with tuslob buwa.
Source: @buwa_sa_banawa (2)
Tuslob-buwa (which translates to “dip in bubbles”) is a common street food that is used as a dipping sauce, usually for puso rice cakes, and comes from Cebu in the center of the Philippines. This sauce is prepared with pig parts — including the pig’s brain — soy sauce and vegetables, and blast-cooked on a pan to produce bubbles.
Pig’s brain is a common leftover from many pork-based dishes in the Philippines, and therefore constitutes the base of many other dishes, as people looked to be more resourceful with food scraps. To prepare tuslob buwa, oil or lard is used to fry the pork, which is then sauteed in onions, shrimp paste, garlic, and chilies. Lard gives tuslob buwa a greasy consistency, making it balance with the dryness of Filipino rice cakes.
Balut, or fertilized duck embryo, is a popular street food found across the Philippines (as well as in Vietnam, where rush-hour motorcycle drivers like to grab them for a snack on the go). To be consumed, balut typically needs to be between 14 to 21 days in age, making this particular Filipino dish a time-sensitive delicacy.
Boiled within their shells, the duck embryos maintain a white and mushy inner texture. The eggs are (typically) eaten by first cracking them open, slurping the eggs white, scooping out the yolk with fingers, and then eating the partially grown duck — beak, bones and all.
Nilarang, a seawater eel soup, is an ode to Filipino ingenuity in the kitchen. With eels forming the core of this soup, nilarang is usually prepared in a vegetable broth and given a sour flavor with fermented black beans, but this soup can take a variety of other forms. Depending on the choice of vegetables, it can be chewy, crunchy, fibrous, or even sweet.
Nilarang is partially popular in the Philippines due to the belief that it works as an aphrodisiac. Thus, couples who find it hard to conceive believe that consuming nilarang will improve their chances. Traditional Filipino foods like nilarang (and, indeed, a few others on this list) have origins based in hardship, having mostly were invented by communities without access to more expensive ingredients.
Sisig is a grilled concoction of meat parts, commonly including pig cheeks and brains and sometimes chicken livers, all of which are seasoned with chili peppers and calamansi onions.
This is one of the few Filipino foods with a high spice index, owing to hot chili peppers used in the base. Sisig originated in Pampanga, a city many consider the culinary capital of the Philippines, and is usually served with a helping of warm rice and an alcoholic beverage.
8. Kare Kare
Oxtail, eggplant and Chinese cabbage come together with pork or beef in the Filipino dish of kare kare. Often served with shrimp paste, kare kare can be found in a variety of seafood variants as well. Sweet and spicy puso (rice cakes) usually accompany kare kare to add a healthy dose of carbohydrates to this protein-rich dish.
Cooked in a sour broth, sinigang is a tamarind-flavored stew. Essentially a hearty soup made of tamarind, tomatoes, onions and garlic, sinigang’s acidic aroma lingers in the streets where visitors follow locals to the queue to get a taste of this chili-topped dish. Small dried fish, known as tuyo, are usually added as a crispy topping to sinigang to further enhance its texture.
Lumpia is the Filipino take on Chinese spring rolls. Enveloped in a paper-thin flour and cornstarch wrapper, lumpia is usually made with a filling of ground pork, minced onions and carrots. A common street food, lumpia is often served with banana ketchup, a distinct local condiment made of the tropical bananas abundant in the Philippines and exported all over the world.
Try this (sweet) twist: Turon is a lumpia-style dish made of a tropical Filipino banana called saba. The sugar-soaked saba is deep-fried to give it a starchy consistency and the banana is then topped with caramel sauce. Turon is usually served with slices of ripe jackfruit, making this traditional Filipino food a sweet treat.
Courtesy of Astoria Hotels and Resorts (2)
As Christmas rolls in, bibingka, a rice-based dessert dish, started to be prepared in earthen pots all over the Philippines. Muscovado sugar, butter, grated cheese, and desiccated coconut come together in this decadent delicacy that has become a must-have festive staple.
The head chefs at the Astoria Hotel in Manila tell us that “bibingka gives us a sense of appreciation for the Filipino tradition of cooking using earthen pots and leaves.” They channel this appreciation into a special cake, which they call the bibingka cake, based on the three most-loved bibingka flavors — traditional sugar, dulce de leche, and ube.
12. Pancit Canton
Pancit canton is a Chinese noodle dish with origins from southern China that came to the Philippines along with Chinese immigrants. Stir-fried vegetables, pork and shrimp give pancit canton its base flavors and textures, which are further elaborated upon by pairing the noodle dish with lechon or lumpia.
Today, pancit canton is the Filipino version of the fortune cookie. After the meal is finished, especially on birthdays and celebratory events, a noodle is pulled from a stack and the length of the noodle is said to determine the length of a person’s life.
Try this unique twist: The chefs at Astoria Hotel and Resorts in Manila have experimented with this classic dish to create the Pancit Canton Fiesta Cake, a savory round-shaped dessert that acts as both a conversation piece and a celebratory cake.