It may not be the most well-known of cuisines and it does not yet have the universal appeal of say, Japanese, Chinese or Thai, but Filipino food is slowly inching its way into international consciousness.
Filipino food is eclectic.
It is an obvious mix of many influences including Indo-Malay, Chinese, Spanish and American. The country’s history, as well as its available ingredients and cooking methods are visibly represented in its cuisine.
Its flavours, more often than not, are strong and bold and combined in unexpected ways. The last decade’s craze of mixing savoury with sweet (bacon and chocolate, garlic in ice cream) has long existed within the kitchens of Filipinos. See below: Green Mango with Bagoong, Sweet Spaghetti, and Champorado with Tuyo (chocolate rice porridge with dried fish). Queso (cheese) ice cream, as another example, has forever been a favourite of Filipinos.
Pinoy food is social and familial.
Every gathering involves food, and not just a little nibble here and there. It includes a lot of it. Family, immediate and extended, is very important to Filipinos and sharing food at the table is an everyday bonding ritual. You will notice in most Filipino restaurants that the meals are meant to be shared rather than ordered as individual serves. Large bowls of soup, platters of rice, big plates of main and side dishes are passed around the table for everyone to take a serve from.
The traditional way of eating, called “Kamayan”, is by using one’s hands instead of cutlery. This is still widely practiced, though in most households today, the use of fork and spoon is normal.
As far as putting together a list of Filipino food, I could go on and on about the different dishes available, as well as the specialities from every region, of which there are many. They range from the light and simple (grilled fish with rice and a tomato onion salad) to the more complex and elaborately prepared (take your pick from many examples below).
But for the sake of this article, I will stick with mentioning the more well-known, easy to find bites that you might want to try during your time in the Philippines. Rest assured, there will be many tastes that comfortably appeal to the uninitiated. And others that… well, might require more adventurous palates. Either way, getting to know a culture through its menu is a must, in my opinion. So have a look and see if anything gets your mouth watering.
A special thank you to my cousin Olivia for providing most of these photos. Unlike me, she has the presence of mind to take nice pictures before diving in and consuming the subject.
Street Food, Starters and Savoury Snacks
Vendors appear on the side of the road to cater to people who are out and about. Everything from fried fish balls and siomai to taho and “dirty” ice cream. Snacks can be found everywhere. And wherever there are beers, there will be some “pulutan” available.
Pulutan refers to bar snacks or anything small to pick on with your drinks.
Deep fried pork rinds, eaten as it or dipped in vinegar and enjoyed with a beer. Pictured below is chicharon bulaklak which instead of pork rinds uses intestines.
The infamous 16-21 day old fertilised duck egg, Cooked an sold as street food or pulutan. Of course they tell you it increases potency. But then again, don’t they say that about anything that seems unpalatable? Foreigners are often dared into trying this when visiting the Philippines. I have watched this “delicacy” come back up quicker than it was consumed. Not for the feint hearted.
Various cuts of meat and innards are marinated, skewered then grilled for an easy to eat snack.
The Philippines version of pork sausage. Sweet, salty and requires cooking on a pan or on the grill.
Pastry filled with meat and vegetables then baked. From our Spanish heritage.
Our version of the spring roll and hailing from the Chinese influence. We have Lumpia Sariwa (meaning fresh) aka fresh lumpia served cool or at room temperature containing fresh vegetables and Ubod (meat from the heart of the coconut tree). Fried lumpia (Shanghai) is filled with meat and finely diced veggies then deep fried to crunchy goodness.
Similar to ceviche from coastal Latin America and the Caribbean, kinilaw is fresh raw fish cubed and mixed with diced onion, chilli and tomato. A vinegar and or citrus dressing is mixed through which cures the fish.
Served on a sizzling plate, made from pigs face (ears, snout, etc) chopped down til its unrecognisable. A lot tastier than it sounds, often served as “pulutan” or beer snacks.
Kangkong is a leafy green vegetable, also known as water spinach. When turned into a bar snack, it is battered and fried and no longer resembles something that might be healthy for you. But it goes great with beer. For the healthier, traditional version, see the sauteed Kangkong under “Main Dishes”
Green Mango with Bagoong
Unripe mango, peeled, sliced and served with shrimp paste. The super sour / tart taste and crunchiness of the green mango, in contrast with the bagoong’s fishy saltiness is the perfect example of the Pinoy’s love of combining strong flavours.
Singkamas dipped in Suka
Singkamas is a root vegetable that was brought over from Mexico where it is known as jicama. Its texture can be likened to a hard crunchy apple and its flavour very delicate. The vegetable is peeled and sliced, can be eaten as is but often accompanied by a strong vinegar and salt dip.
Soups are served in big pots for all to share. A delicious way to get your rice nice and soggy.
A brothy soup made with vegetables and meat or seafood. What gives the soup its distinguishing flavour is the Sampaloc’s (Tamarind’s) tangy sourness
Another brothy soup. This time ginger and onion are what gives the broth its flavour and vegetables include sayote and malunggay (moringa) and other available greens. The most popular version is Tinolang Manok (Chicken), but can also be made with Baboy (Pork) or Isda (fish).
Mung bean soup. Every Filipino kitchen has their own version. Healthy and inexpensive.
Originating from Southern Luzon, beef, bones and marrow are cooked for a long time until the fat and collagen break down into the soup.
Arroz Caldo / Lugaw
Arroz Caldo is a comforting rice porridge, similar to congee but containing chicken and ginger. Lugaw is very similar but contains no chicken.
Made and served in big batches for all to share: meats, especially pork and chicken; all types of seafood and lots of vegetables.
However, vegetarians, and particularly vegans might struggle for choice as even the vegetable dishes will often contain meat product (especially pork) to “add flavour”. Or as my darling aunt, Tita Tessie who is a fabulous cook, likes to say: ‘Yes, yes it is vegetarian. I just put some pork to “bind” it.’
Any of you who have Filipino friends abroad have probably already come across this. It is arguably the most well known Filipino dish, very simple to make and the ingredients easy enough to find wherever you are. Made from chicken or pork or both, cooked in a vinegar, soy sauce, garlic and black pepper mix.
A noodle dish that comes in various styles with differing ingredients. You have Pancit Luglug, Pancit Palabok, Pancit Canton, Pancit Habhab. It goes on. A staple dish for birthday parties as the noodles represent a long life for the celebrant. Like the lumpia, an obvious clue to the Chinese influence.
Stewed meat, usually ox tail or pork hocks with vegetables in a sauce made from peanut butter.
There really is no way of making this sound delicious to my palate. Pork offal stewed in pig’s blood. Of course there is more to it than that, but really that is all I’m gonna say on it. Oh and Dinuguan means to stew in blood. Enough said.
Another stew. This one made with chilies, coconut milk, tiny shrimps and pork belly. Delicious! And if you’re in Cebu, you can try a variation called Cordova Express which has seafood.
Spaghetti Filipino style is in a category of its own. Our version of Bolognese bit with added sugar, hotdog pieces and noodles that are very far from al dente.
Many ways to cook water spinach; sautéed in garlic or cooked adobo style (with vinegar and soy sauce) or with oyster sauce. A delicious way to get your greens.
A vegetable dish with pork and bagoong added for flavour. Vegetables include okra, eggplant ampalaya (bitter gourd) and pumpkin.
A dish of meat and vegetables. Meat is traditionally goat (kambing) but can also be pork or beef. Vegetables include potatoes, carrot, tomatoes.
Originating from Bacolod City, it is a chicken marinated in calamansi, vinegar and spices, cooked over coals and served with rice and a soy sauce and vinegar dip.
Thinly sliced beef cooked with soy sauce, calamansi and onions.
Pork Dishes: Crispy Pata, Bagnet, Liempo, Kawali, Paksiw
There are so many variations of the fried pork / grilled pork theme that I really should have set up its own category. We might leave that for a future topic but for now, here’s a very abridged summary.
Crispy Pata is pork hock, comparable to the Germans’ Schweinshaxn deep fried to crunchy and chewy goodness. Served with a vinegar soy dipping sauce.
Lechon Kawali – pork belly boiled and then deep fried
Bagnet – like Lechon Kawali but DOUBLE deep fried and therefore crunchy throughout
Inihaw na Liempo – grilled pork belly
Paksiw – leftover Lechon is cooked the next day in a vinegar sauce
Filipinos love pork and the whole slow-roasted pork on a spit is almost expected at any big feast. If you visit an island shortly after they have had their local fiesta, it is often the case that there is no pig left living to speak of. Crackling is prized and there is no end to the versions of pork dishes produced the day after from its leftovers (see above Paksiw, for a start).
Filipino BBQ and Grill
This is not a dish, more like a category of its own. Meats and veggies are marinated and basted, often in sauces that have a combination of salty and sweet components. Served with dipping sauces and rice.
Desserts and Sweet Merienda
By now you may have figured out that Filipinos have a sweet tooth. Even savoury dishes will often have some sugar in its ingredient list. There is no shortage of sugary treats to be found wherever you travel in the Philippines. These are just a very few of them.
This cooked custard dessert is obviously inherited from the Spanish but has become such a part of the Filipino dessert table that we do claim our own version as ours.
A very easy to make ice-box cake. Broas (savoiardi / sponge fingers) are layered with cream, condensed milk and mangoes over a graham cracker base and then put in the freezer to set.
Kind of like a panna cotta, made from coconut milk and sometimes also sweet corn.
Brazo de Mercedes
Custard and soft merengue rolled into a log then sliced.
Layers of merengue, buttercream and cashew nuts. Without a doubt, my favourite Filipino dessert.
Rice cakes, a little sweet and a little salty, cooked in banana leaf, comes in many varieties including Bibingkang Mandaue, Bibingkang Malagkit, Bibingkang Casava
The word ginataan actually refers to any dish cooked in coconut milk. But more often than not when you mention the word on its own, you are referring to the sweet soupy dessert or merienda. Glutinous rice balls, tapioca pearls, jackfruit, sweet potato and banana cooked in sweet coconut milk
Hot chocolate. A tradition brought over from our trades with Mexico. Made rich, thick and sweet and served to accompany breads, cakes and sticky rice.
Tofu custard, sago balls and brown sugar syrup. Traditionally sold by vendors on the street calling out “Tahoooooo”
“Saba” or cooking banana, sliced and wrapped in fine crepe (like lumpia) then deep fried
A soft, sweet pastry bread filled and topped with cheese. Brought over from Spain.
Puto at Kutsinta
Puto is a steamed rice cake, usually white in colour, served as a side or simply warm with butter added. And although kutsinta is also technically a steamed rice cake, it is very different in texture and flavour, being sticky and chewy. The addition of annatto gives it a dark orange colour. Often these are served together, topped with desiccated coconut.
Traditionally bought and eaten after midnight masses at Christmas, puto bumbong is yet another steamed sticky rice variation. This one is cigar-shaped and a deep purple colour thanks to the ube powder.
Sticky rice cooked in coconut milk and wrapped in palm leaves (or banana leaves) and steamed. Served in various ways: as is, with sugar or fruit or hot chocolate.
Breakfast is very important to Filipinos. A piece of toast or bowl of cereal will not suffice. It is a serious meal and usually involves a serve of rice just as lunch or dinner would.
This is a plate which includes SINANGAG or fried garlic rice and ITLOG or fried egg. The variable star of the plate gives the dish the first part of its name. TAPsilog is tapa, sinangag and itlog. LONGsilog is longanisa, sinangag and itlog. HOTsilog is hotdog, sinangag and itlog and so on. There are many other versions, including ones with fish (Bangus – Bangsilog), corned beef (cornsilog). The list goes on.
Like a chocolate oatmeal but made from glutinous rice. Sounds delicious, right? Add some “tuyo” (dried fish) as Filipinos usually do and now you’ve brought your taste experience up a notch.
The Philippines national bread. Individual rolls ready to be sliced open and filled with whatever you want. Yes, these are also sweet.
Interesting Condiments & Ingredients Worth Mentioning
Here are some ingredients commonly used in Philippine cuisine that are not common outside the country. However some of them you may be familiar with from other Asian cuisines. The list of fruit and vegetables endemic to the Philippines is long, so I have only mentioned a couple here. Perhaps I will tackle the rest of that list in another article in the future.
Fermented shrimp paste. Used in many dishes or put on the side of one’s plate for extra flavour.
Suka is the Filipino word for vinegar. Sukang Puti refers to white vinegar which is prevalent in Filipino cooking. it is used often, widely and comes in many varieties. Sukang Maasim is made from cane sugar, sukang Paombong from the nipa palm, sukang Tuba from coconut sap while sukang Pinakurat refers to vinegar that has been spiced. That only scratches the surface of the list, with many regions of the Philippines sporting their own versions.
Sarsa or Lechon Sauce
A brown sauce ideal to have with lechon, made with ground Pork liver.
Fish sauce. Fermented, salty, strong and stinky but essential in the Filipino ingredient cupboard.
A sauce resembling ketchup made from mashed bananas instead of tomatoes
Grated green papaya, carrot, ginger and garlic pickled in a vinegar and sugar mix. Atchara is served as a side to add flavour and contrast to other dishes.
Closely related to the cumquat, used in any of the same ways that lemons or limes would be used… and then some.
Itlog na Maalat (Salted Duck Egg)
This also comes from our Chinese heritage. Eggs are soaked in brine for several weeks and then boiled. The shells are then dyed a purplish red colour to differentiate them from regular eggs.
Daing, Tuyo, Danggit, Dilis. These are only some of various types and sizes of fish that are sun dried thus preserving them and concentrating their flavours. They can be taken home and rehydrated for cooking or used as is. You can also get dried pusit (squid) for snacking.
White cheese made from Carabao milk. Often used to top bibingka.
A purple yam that is used extensively in Flipino desserts and snacks – everything from ube ice cream to jam to cakes. If you see a purple food item, there’s a good chance it’s ube flavoured.
Small green leaves (known in English as Morninga) used in everything from soups to tea. The tree it comes from grows abundantly throughout the Philippines
This one is obvious and of course everyone is familiar with it, but it had to be mentioned. Probably the most important ingredient in the Filipino household, comes in many forms and varieties. Every meal is served with cooked rice and all kinds of desserts, breads, snacks are made with rice or am ingredient derived from it.
I will add more photos and food descriptions to this list as I eat my way through the country. Hopefully this time I will remember to take some snaps before throwing myself at the food. Its hard work, but someone has to do it.
So what do you think? Is there anything here that you would like to try, have tried, wished you’d never tried? Anything you think I should add to the list and any photos you have that you would like to share? Let me know in the comments below.