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The Big, Bold Flavors of the Philippines

Centuries of Malay, Chinese, Indian and Spanish inhabitants has influenced this global cuisine.
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Batad VillageCommunal dining is steeped in Filipino tradition. You may not find many upscale restaurants in the Philippines, simply because most Filipinos believe the best meals are informal and shared at home with family and friends. So when Willie and Elena Juan opened their cozy eatery in Manhattan’s East Village, their goal was to introduce authentic Filipino cuisine served with traditional hospitality. At Sa Aming Nayon, which translates from Tagalog to “in our hometown,” the Juans’ generous spirit makes guests feel like family.

“We definitely like to eat and eat often,” Elena says. “That means five or six substantial meals a days.” Even breakfast includes items like tapsilog or tocilog—marinated beef or pork served with garlic-fried rice and two eggs—or champorado, chocolate rice porridge made with sticky rice and served with dried salted fish flakes. Between meals, Willie adds, meriendas are savory-sweet snacks enjoyed throughout the day. On the restaurant’s extensive menu, the mixture of words in Malay, Chinese, Spanish and Tagalog illustrates centuries of invaders—and influences—to the islands.

Early Invaders Create a Global Melting Pot

The first inhabitants of this archipelago of more than 7,100 islands are speculated to have come from the Asian mainland via Taiwan some 20,000 to 30,000 years ago. When the Malays arrived around 3000 BC, they drove the natives to the mountainous outlying regions of Mindanao and Luzon. By the 14th century, Chinese, Indonesian and Indian traders had joined the Malays in this pivotal early trading area. Important ingredients and cooking methods introduced at this time included tofu, soy sauce, fish sauce and spring rolls, as well as the stir-fry technique.

In 1521, the country’s character was dramatically altered with the arrival of Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese navigator sailing under the flag of Spain. Two decades later, the Spaniards renamed the islands in honor of Prince Philip of Spain, the future King Philip II. The robust legacy of the Spaniards, influenced themselves by exploration of Mexico, brought to the Philippines chile peppers, tomatoes and foods sauteed with onions and garlic.

After more than 300 years, at the end of the 19th century, the U.S. claimed the islands. In 1946, the country reclaimed its independence as the Republic of the Philippines. The archipelago, with about the same land mass as Arizona, sits in the Pacific Ocean, about 500 miles off the coast of Southeast Asia.

Fruit“Traveling to the Philippines and tasting the different palettes and sets of flavors in each region is like a journey through history and a discovery of how our country came to be,” says Mitchelle Dy, a market specialist for the Philippine Tourism Office in New York. “Like our culture, our food is a combination of influences and adaptations of flavors and cooking techniques from the many distant visitors and conquerors that inhabited us. Starting with a Malay base, it is mostly a mixture of Hispanic, American, and Asian cooking styles adapted to mesh with the local produce.”

The humid climate ensures abundant crops of tropical fruits like mangoes, papayas, bananas, coconuts and pineapples. The proximity to water provides plenty of fresh seafood, including milkfish, tilapia, grouper and sea bass along with shrimp, squid and shellfish.

Bold Flavors: Sour, Sweet and Salty

In Filipino cuisine, big bold flavors are the norm, Dy notes, adding that what sets it apart from the slow, subtle flavors found in other Asian cuisines is the sudden jolt characteristic of these tastes. While similar to other Asian cuisines, Filipino food is less spicy, shares many commonalities with Spanish foods and has distinctive combinations such as very salty ingredients added to sweets that make it distinctive. Breakfast champorado, for example, has flavors similar to Mexican champurrado, a hot chocolate drink made with cream and thickened with corn flour. In the Filipino porridge, coconut milk replaces the cream and is thickened with glutinous rice, and the dish is often topped with dried salted fish flakes.

When chile peppers are not aggressively used, salt, vinegar and garlic are added liberally in preparing foods and as condiments. Sides of soy sauce, vinegar, shrimp paste and fish sauce are widely served to accompany and further intensify food. No Filipino would eat kare-kare, an oxtail and vegetable stew, without a dab of bagoong, or sauteed shrimp paste, on each bite. And when a recipe calls for garlic, you can be sure that it will arrive in generous heaps.

Vinegar is indispensible to many dishes. Willie Juan explains that sugar cane, the Philippines’ second-largest export crop, is the source of much of its vinegar. Or vinegar is derived from the sap of coconut palms, another important crop. Vinegar is essential in marinated uncooked fish dishes, or kinilaw, and paksiw dishes, where the fish is simmered in vinegar, often with ginger and other seasonings. And vinegar mixed with bird’s eye chiles, soy and crushed garlic is a common dipping sauce for fried foods, like crispy pig’s trotters (pig’s feet).

Nowhere is the Filipino taste for sour foods more apparent than in adobo, considered to be the country’s national dish. Preparation involves marinating pieces of meat and/or chicken in soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, bay leaves and black peppercorns. The meat is later cooked in the marinade. Contrary to the myth that the dish was introduced by the Spanish, adobo is an indigenous preparation that began long before the arrival of the Spaniards, who simply named it after the Spanish word for marinade. Further, the vinegar increased the meal’s shelf life—a much-needed feature before the advent of refrigeration.

Today, Filipinos cook adobo a number of ways with several different types of meat, fish and vegetables. The most typical meat is either chicken or pork, and varied cooking methods and styles include adobo sa gata, to which coconut milk is added to the marinade. Adobo flakes have also become very popular. This involves shredding cooked adobo meat and frying until crispy. The flakes are usually used as sandwich filling or mixed into pasta or white rice.

Foreign Legacies

While the Spanish cannot claim credit for bringing adobo to the Philippines, they certainly left their imprint with local versions of many Spanish and Mexican dishes, including paella, tamales and chorizo, which is called longaniza locally. The spices used to flavor these sausages differ depending on the region. One of the most noteworthy versions is lucban longaniza, from the Quezon province. It has a strong garlicky flavor and are less sweet than the longanizas from elsewhere in the Philippines.

LumpiaTraces of Indonesian and Malaysian cuisines are also evident especially with the use of peanuts and coconut. Kare-kare is one of many stews simmered in a savory peanut sauce, and sariwa’ng lumpiag, or fresh spring rolls, is often served with a sweet and tangy peanut sauce, as are sates, small skewers of grilled meat or poultry. Coconut milk and its meat appear in many guises from soups and sauces to custards and sweets, including brittles, candies, tarts and preserves.

The Chinese who came to the Philippines to trade and subsequently stuck around brought noodle dishes called pancit to Philippine cuisine. The term originated from the Hokkien pian i sit, which refers to a convenient or quickly cooked recipe. These dishes are generally stir-fries. Pancit dishes are often served at birthday parties, as it is believed they promote long life for the celebrant.

While a large bowl of rice is the standard accompaniment for most stews or a main course, rice has an array of uses in Philippine dishes. Toasted ground glutinous rice is used to thicken kare-kare, and many Filipino cakes and pastries are made using ground rice and/or ground roots like cassava (yucca root) or ube (purple yam). Bibingka is a rice cake baked with coconut milk, typically baked on a banana leaf and topped with salted eggs. This slightly sweet cake is usually served warm and is mostly eaten during the Christmas season.

A more typical end to a meal is halo-halo, is a traditional Filipino treat that consists of a blend of fruits, sweet preserves, evaporated milk, and shaved ice is topped with a scoop of ice cream, a little flan and ube (purple yam powder).

It’s worth noting that Filipinos are quite conscious of the aesthetics of their foods. While unpretentious, food is presented with care. For example, in the sariag lumpiag served at Sa Aming Nayon, the handmade wrapper is filled with a colorful mixture of vegetables—including julienned carrots, shredded bok choy and diced jicama—cut into different shapes. A romaine leaf, peeking out from the edge of the roll, is a simple accent that adds color and texture.

Some dishes grab the attention of other senses. “Sizzling sisig—a mixture of pork belly, ears and snout flavored with hot chile sauce and topped with an egg—has been very popular,” Willie Juan notes. “The sizzling sound and the aroma always make a great combination to capture the attention and satisfy the craving of new and old customers alike.”

And new customers beyond Filipinos are a growing occurrence as the cuisine becomes more familiar to a diverse group of people. Says Willie, “Our first customers were Filipinos but now all kinds of people come to eat here.”—Joanna Pruess


Anchovy sauce
(bagoong isla): a strong-flavored sauce made from fermented anchovies, used both on its own and as an ingredient in other preparations

Annatto seeds: flavorless, dried reddish seeds used as a coloring agent  

short saba variety is most typically used; boiled, fried or grilled for recipes as varied as soups, desserts and banana ketchup; banana palm blossoms and leaves are also used

Bitter melon:
gourd with a green, ridged, edible skin and a very assertive flavor

(pak choi): also known as Chinese or Napa cabbage, used especially in stir-fries and stews

inexpensive food source also known as yucca or manioc; a long, very starchy root used in desserts and sauces, also fried, used for alcoholic beverages, and made into tapioca pearls

Chile peppers:
bird’s eye chilies (siling labuyo) are minced and used raw in dipping sauces; siling mahaba are finger-length green chiles used in cooking

milk is widely used both in a thick, cream form and a thinner liquid; meat is often grated and used in preparations; the soft macapuno variety contains no liquid inside the shell

Fish sauce
(patis): salty, fermented sauce with translucent, amber-colored liquid; similar to Thai or Vietnamese fish sauces

often squeezed over cooked foods, such as noodle dishes and fish; small calamansi variety is used often, bearing a more floral and less acidic taste than other varieties

Long beans
(sitaw): sauteed or boiled, similar to Western green beans

(pancit): made from many different sources, including rice (behon), mung bean (sotanghon), cornstarch (luglug) and wheat

Purple yam powder
(ube): ground from a large, purple-fleshed tuber; used in desserts and as a flavoring or coloring agent

central to many Filipino meals; glutinous variety (malagkit) used in dessert cakes and balls or toasted and ground into a powder for thickening soups and stews; pinipig is immature, light green rice pounded into flakes, eaten raw or toasted for a dessert topping

Sauteed shrimp paste
(bagoong): intensely flavored, thick liquid made from salted and fermented baby shrimp, used as a condiment and seasoning

Spring roll wrapper
(lumpia): very thin, delicate, crêpe-like pancake used both for fresh and fried spring rolls; slightly thicker when used for frying

(sampalok): fruit that is often boiled, then strained to add characteristic sour taste to many dishes; also sweetened for use in drinks and desserts

(gabi): brown-skinned root with purplish or gray flesh, about the size of an orange; used like potatoes, also sliced or diced into soups and desserts

(sukang): a culinary essential, with local varieties less acidic than grape varieties; sukang paombong is made mostly from sugar cane; sukang niyog is coconut vinegar

Water spinach
(kangkong): leafy green vegetable that grows in water, with long, thin leaves and hollow stems


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