Ever since I was a child growing up in the suburbs of Long Island, I've had a love-hate relationship with the question of what, exactly, Filipino food is. As the only Filipino-American (and Asian-American) in my elementary school class, I was both elated and nervous whenever someone asked me about it. While I'm proud of my heritage and I find Filipino food delicious, I had a difficult time articulating my thoughts on the subject, and I was always afraid that the words I'd cobble together would fail to capture the essence of the cuisine. When I asked other Filipinos what they thought Filipino food is, I found that I wasn't alone. Arlyn Osborne, a recipe developer and food writer, says, “it’s so many things and it’s different for so many people.” Marvin Gapultos, a cookbook author, says, “it’s got so many different flavors, it’s hard to explain.”
In her book Sarap: Essays on Philippine Food, food writer and cultural historian Doreen Fernandez attributes the difficulty Filipinos have with describing their cuisine to the many cultural influences Filipinos have adopted as their own. After all, there are dishes with Spanish names like embutido and lechon and dishes with Chinese names like lumpia and pancit, all comfortably coexisting alongside dishes with indigeneous names like kinilaw and sinigang. “The reason for this confusion,” Fernandez says, “is that Philippine cuisine, dynamic as any live and growing phase of culture, has changed through history, absorbing influences, indigenizing, adjusting to new technology and tastes, and thus evolving.” Add to that a varied population that’s spread across an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands and it’s no surprise that Filipinos have a hard time distilling a diverse, complex, and continually evolving cuisine into a few choice words.
While Filipino food might be difficult to describe as a whole, it's a relatively simple task to outline why specific dishes are delicious and worth seeking out. And I've found that it's at its most approachable when described through the lens of its most popular dishes, like adobo, pancit, and lumpia.
Since courses aren’t characteristic of Filipino meals, I've grouped dishes into five overarching categories―rice, soups and stews, pulutan, fiesta food, and sweets―which represent the main ways in which we share food, and provided a few recipes as examples for each category. Although this list is far from exhaustive, it serves as a good starting point for becoming better acquainted with this rich and nuanced cuisine.
In Filipino homes, food is served family-style in large bowls or platters and everyone is encouraged to help themselves. There's always plenty of white rice, and the dishes meant to be served with that rice line the center and, sometimes, the perimeter of the table. Any empty space is usually taken up by small bowls of vinegar, fish sauce, bagoong (fermented seafood sauce or paste), and slices of calamansi (a ubiquitous citrus fruit), all of which are used to season the food to each diner's individual taste. For larger celebrations, there’s a traditional way of eating known as “kamayan,” in which food is placed directly on banana leaves to be shared by all.
Rice is an intrinsic part of daily life in the Philippines. Filipinos begin and end their day with it–we eat it for breakfast, we eat it for dinner, we eat it at lunch, and we eat it in sweets and snacks. Rice is so fundamental that it also symbolizes prosperity and wealth, and so it’s common practice to bring rice into a new home first before anything else.
White rice―steamed and served plain―accompanies every meal. “I cannot imagine a meal without rice,” says Elizabeth Ann Besa-Quirino, a cookbook author, journalist, and food writer. “Every Filipino dish was meant to be eaten with rice. A lot of our dishes are saucy in nature and rice was meant to catch those sauces.” Yana Gilbuena, a Philippines-born chef, says plain rice serves a purpose. “Our dishes are already very bold in flavor. You need the rice to not compete with that and instead complement it.”
Any leftover cooked rice is used to make sinangag, or garlic fried rice. Pairing this with an egg gives you the building blocks for silog, a popular breakfast staple of which there are endless variations. To make the meal more complete, cooks add a salty protein, such as slices of fried Spam to make Spamsilog, tapa (cured beef) for tapsilog, corned beef for cornsilog (my personal favorite), or crispy bacon for bacsilog.
Arroz caldo is the Filipino equivalent of congee, but with a Spanish name.This hearty chicken and rice porridge, which is often used as a cold remedy, is seasoned with garlic, ginger, and patis (fish sauce) for a comforting dish that’s suitable as part of a meal or as an afternoon snack.
Soups and Stews
Soups and stews play a central role on the Filipino table and are consumed year-round. The dishes in this category run the gamut from soups with light broths to hearty stews with a thick gravy. In Filipino, “sabaw” means soup and broth, and it's common to hear people ask, “Do you want more sabaw?” during meals. When eating, it’s customary to sauce your rice, although how much sabaw you add, a little or a lot, is up to you. I prefer the latter and take the extra step of mixing the rice and sabaw together until each grain is fully coated and glistening.
If there’s one dish you’ve heard of, it’s probably adobo, which is regarded as the national dish. Despite the name, adobo existed prior to Spanish colonization and denotes both a dish and a cooking method of stewing meat with vinegar. Variations on this dish abound, changing from region to region and even household to household. One of the most popular versions of adobo features chicken or pork stewed with soy sauce, white sugarcane vinegar, black peppercorns, bay leaf, and garlic. Other versions swap in fish, squid, shrimp, or lamb for the protein and add coconut milk or turmeric to flavor the sauce; sometimes adobo is cooked dry, where all the liquid from the stew is evaporated off and the meat fries in its own fat, and sometimes it's left wet, since the stewing liquid is an excellent sabaw. While it’s not typical, there’s no rule saying you can’t add fruit or vegetables to the pot; for example, Gapultos’s family in the Philippines adds pineapple and Osborne’s mom tosses in chunks of potato. Because of the vinegar, which mellows over time and acts as a preservative, adobo always tastes better the day after it’s made and keeps well in the refrigerator.
Like adobo, there are many ways to cook sinigang, a refreshing, sour soup that includes meat or fish and vegetables. The sourness can come from unripe tamarind fruit and its leaves, unripe guava, calamansi, green mango, tomato, and kamias (a green sour fruit also known as bilimbi). Growing up, my mom mostly made pork sinigang, but it can also be made with chicken, salmon, or shrimp. As for the vegetables, I add long beans and radishes when making it for my family, just like my mom made it for us when I was a kid. However, taro, eggplant, cabbage, and okra are all welcome additions.
Dinuguan is a rich, slightly tangy pork stew that has a sauce composed of pork blood, vinegar, garlic, onion, and chiles; it’s often called “chocolate meat” to entice Filipino children into eating it. Traditionally, the dish is made with offal―intestines, liver, kidneys, and lungs―and it's a way to put every single part of the pig to delicious use. These days, it’s just as common to encounter versions with pork belly, shoulder, or ribs as those off cuts, in comparison, are relatively more difficult to prepare. Besides white rice, dinuguan is traditionally served with puto, a steamed cake made from ground fermented rice.
Pinakbet is an ultra-savory, one-pot vegetable stew seasoned with fermented seafood paste, and often includes eggplant, long beans, bitter melon, okra, and squash or sweet potato. The traditional version incorporates bagoong isda, a fermented sauce made from anchovies, but you’ll come across versions flavored with bagoong alamang (fermented shrimp or krill paste) or complex ginisang bagoong (a variation of bagoong alamang sautéed with onion, garlic, vinegar, and sugar). The overall flavor profile ultimately depends on the bagoong you use: Ones made with bagoong isda have a deeper, funkier flavor, while those that incorporate bagoong alamang have an edge of sweetness.
In the Philippines, it’s common practice to repeat a name twice, especially if that something is particularly good. Kare-kare, which translates directly as “curry-curry,” consequently also translates to "really good curry." Made with oxtail and tripe, the gravy is thickened with pounded toasted rice and peanuts, although it’s popular to use creamy peanut butter in place of the ground peanuts for a smoother finish. The addition of annatto, which gives the thick gravy its signature burnt orange hue, and patis, which deepens the umami flavor, produces a sauce that is earthy, slightly sweet, and extra savory. To help cut through the richness, it’s customary to add dabs of bagoong alamang or ginisang bagoong to your plate so that the sauce, bagoong, and rice mix together as you eat
Inuman sessions, or drinking sessions, are boisterous gatherings where friends and loved ones bond over pulutan―crunchy, salty, and fatty snacks that are best enjoyed with alcohol. This catch-all term is derived from the verb, pulutin, which means “to pick up.” Pulutan can be as simple as chicharron (fried pork rinds) dipped in vinegar, which Osborne enjoys, or they can be more complicated dishes that resemble a light meal, particularly when served with rice.
A popular pulutan is ukoy―deep-fried shrimp and vegetable fritters. Traditionally, ukoy feature head-on, unpeeled shrimp for extra crunch but dried shrimp and headless, peeled shrimp can be used, too. These fritters come in many different sizes, from large fritters that can be cut up and served family-style to small ones you can polish off in a couple of bites, and contain a medley of vegetables, like sweet potato, cabbage, squash, green papaya, scallions, carrots, and bean sprouts. These crisp bites are outrageously good when dipped into a spiced vinegar containing minced garlic and fresh chiles.
Sizzling sisig, deemed by the late Anthony Bourdain as his favorite Filipino street food, is a finely-chopped hash of pork ears, cheeks, snout, and organs doused in a spicy-tart dressing of soy sauce, calamansi juice, and chiles. You can mix in mayonnaise for added creaminess or top it with a fried runny egg for extra richness. Eaten with rice, it’s also considered a popular remedy for nausea and hangovers.
I’ve consumed more than my fair share of lechon kawali―crispy, deep-fried pork belly―and I consider it the tastiest pulutan. The pork belly is prepared by parboiling it with seasonings such as garlic, black peppercorns, and bay leaf then dried out overnight in the refrigerator. From there, it’s sliced into thick nuggets and fried until golden and crispy and served with vinegar or lechon sauce, a versatile pork liver-based sauce that Gilbuena refers to as “Filipino gravy,” for dipping.
Filipinos also like to nibble on raw fish with their drinks, particularly when it’s served up in kinilaw―an indigeneous dish of raw fish marinated in vinegar or citrus juice. Similar to adobo, the name applies to both the dish and its method of marination, known as kilaw, which means “to cook in sourness.” Spanish explorers mentioned kilaw in texts dating back to 1613. Variations may include dungon (small young coconut), tabon-tabon (a bitter fruit), coconut milk, diced sweet mango, or sugar, all of which help tame the dish’s bracing acidity. While not as common, the kilaw method can also be used on grilled meat, such as goat, beef, pork, carabao (water buffalo), and deer, to produce a punchy dish called kilawin.
Filipinos love any excuse to come together, whether for a holiday, birthday, or to catch up with visiting relatives. These fiestas, a Spanish term that we’ve embraced, are a cornerstone of our country’s culture. As Fernandez writes in Tikim, fiestas represent many things: they are “a testimonial to labor and its fruits, an affirmation of human bonds, and a toast to the good life.”
At these gatherings, we indulge in a particular set of dishes, known collectively as fiesta food, that are, by and large, labors of love and require somewhat extensive preparation ahead of the celebration. The most famous of these crowd-pleasers is lechon, the fiesta’s crowning centerpiece of a whole spit-roasted suckling pig. As Yasmin Newman writes in 7,000 Islands, these dishes are mostly Spanish in origin, having arrived with the colonial ruling class, but with time they've become a part of mainstream Filipino life. One will never leave a fiesta empty-handed; it’s customary to receive “pabaon,” a neatly wrapped-up package of food, which is given as a gesture of friendship and goodwill and ensures that you’ll have something to eat the following day.
Embutido is classic fiesta fare. This cylindrical meatloaf, reminiscent of the American dish but with a Spanish moniker, is made with ground pork and studded with raisins, hard-boiled eggs, and ham or sausage. Embutido is traditionally steamed, though it’s common nowadays to encounter baked versions. Once fully cool, the meatloaf is sliced into rounds and served cold, warm, or even fried. Typical accompaniments include a tangy sweet and sour sauce and glossy banana ketchup, Filipinos’ fruity take on tomato ketchup.
Lumpiang Shanghai―tightly wound egg rolls stuffed with a pork and vegetable filling―are a perennial party favorite. Making lumpia is a fairly labor intensive process, so it's quite common for family members to set up an assembly line to produce large batches. Because of their diminutive size, these crispy, fried snacks are both easy to fill up on and the first to disappear from the table. My son is proof of that, he loves going back for more lumpia and quickly becomes too full to eat more than a bite of anything else.
In 7,000 Islands, Newman writes that “no party is complete without an oversized platter of noodles.” Introduced by Chinese traders, noodles, or pancit, symbolize prosperity, long life, and good luck. There are many, many kinds of pancit dishes. Two of the most common are pancit bihon and pancit palabok. Pancit bihon is made with bihon noodles (also known as rice vermicelli), shredded chicken, shrimp, carrots, and cabbage and seasoned with an umami-rich combination of soy sauce, oyster sauce, and fish sauce. Meanwhile, pancit palabok is a party on a plate: A bed of springy rice noodles is dressed with an orange-tinted, shrimp-infused annatto sauce and garnished with shrimp, crushed chicharron, hard-boiled egg slices, scallions, and citrus wedges for squeezing.
Since courses don’t exist in Filipino cuisine, sweets are not categorically considered desserts; rather they're consumed at any time of the day―as breakfast, as a snack, or as part of a larger spread. In 7,000 Islands, Newman writes “desserts do not finish Filipino meals; they complement the flavors already on the table.”
Sweets fall into three broad categories: native sweets, Spanish sweets, and American sweets. For the latter two categories, though their names betray their origins, these sweets have become firmly Filipino over time.
Native sweets largely consist of “kakanin,” a category made up entirely of rice cakes. There’s biko, a sticky, chewy rice cake topped with latik (which can be crispy coconut curds or creamy coconut caramel), and bibingka, a fluffy, lightly sweetened rice cake decorated with cheese and sliced salted duck egg. Leche flan, a dense custard rich with egg yolks, arrived with the Spaniards. We also enjoy our own takes on American fruit salad like buko pandan, a refreshing mix of pandan jelly, shredded young coconut meat (known as buko), table cream, and sweetened condensed milk. Last but not least is halo-halo, our iconic, over-the-top shaved ice dessert finished with leche flan and ube ice cream.