+63 (0) 32 402 01 07 mabuhay@kapwatravel.com

The many colours of Filipino food

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.

Filipino food is eclectic.

 

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.

The Filipino table. On the left side, a typical island grill of fresh seafood, chicken and vegetables, served with rice and dipping sauce on a mesa covered in banana leaves. Plates and cutlery are optional. photo by Bea. On the right side, a more formal version of the same concept – to bring everyone together with food. Photo by Olivia

 

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.

Bar snacks aka “pulutan”

 

Chicharron

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.

Chicharon bulaklak. Pig intestines boiled and then fried; ideal pulutan food. Photo by Olivia

 

Balut

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.

BBQ stick

Various cuts of meat and innards are marinated, skewered then grilled for an easy to eat snack.

A staple of road-side grills, pork marinated, skewered and basted in a sweet salty sauce. Photo by Olivia

 

Longanisa

The Philippines version of pork sausage. Sweet, salty and requires cooking on a pan or on the grill.

Longanisa is the Philippines’ own pork sausage. Not cured or smoked, it requires cooking on a pan or over a grill. (By the way, it looks much more appetising once its been cooked.)

 

Empanada

Pastry filled with meat and vegetables then baked. From our Spanish heritage.

Lumpia

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.

Fried lumpia aka Lumpia Shanghai, typically made with a mince meat filling wrapped in a very thin crepe and deep fried. Served as snack or starter. Photo by Olivia

 

The non fried version. Lumpia sariwa is a mix of julienned vegetables like sweet potato, cabbage, carrots, ubod (palm heart), bean sprouts with cooked ground pork, then wrapped in a thin crepe and topped with a sweet sauce and crushed peanuts.

 

Kinilaw

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.

Fish kinilaw is very similar to ceviche, using vinegar and / or citrus to cure the fish. Photo by Olivia

 

Sisig

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.

Sisig served on a sizzling plate. Photos by Olivia

 

Fried Kangkong

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”

Battered and fried water spinach. Photo by Olivia

 

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.

Crunchy green mango served with fermented shrimp paste (bagoong)

 

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.

Singkamas (Mexican turnip / jicama) is peeled and sliced then dipped into sukang puti (white vinegar) and rock salt

Soups

Soups are served in big pots for all to share. A delicious way to get your rice nice and soggy.

Sinigang, some other soup and Lomi

Sinigang

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

Sinigang, a tamarind based soup, is available in different versions – fish, seafood, beef. This one is made with pork as its star ingredient.

 

Tinola

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).

Mongo

Mung bean soup. Every Filipino kitchen has their own version. Healthy and inexpensive.

Bulalo

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.

 

Main Dishes

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.’

 

Adobo

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.

Pancit

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.

Variations on a theme. The one in the middle is Pancit Bihon Guisado. The two on either side are Pancit Malabon and Pancit Palabok. One has thicker noodles with the sauce served on top while the other has thinner noodles with the sauce mixed through. Photos by Olivia

 

Kara-Kare

Stewed meat, usually ox tail or pork hocks with vegetables in a sauce made from peanut butter.

Dinuguan

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.

Bicol Express

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.

Sweet Spaghetti

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.

A favourite at kids parties, Filipino style spaghetti is sweetened with sugar and often has hotdog pieces mixed in.

 

Kangkong

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.

Kangkong or water spinach, sauteed with garlic as a side dish (though this version photographed also has some meat through it). Photo by Olivia

 

Pinakbet

A vegetable dish with pork and bagoong added for flavour.  Vegetables include okra, eggplant ampalaya (bitter gourd) and pumpkin.

Pinakbet on the left is a worthy accompaniment to meat dishes. Photo by Olivia

 

Kaldereta

A dish of meat and vegetables. Meat is traditionally goat (kambing) but can also be pork or beef. Vegetables include potatoes, carrot, tomatoes.

Chicken Inasal

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.

Bistek

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

Lechon

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).

The star at a celebratory meal is the lechon. Here is one surrounded by the secondary dishes.

 

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.

Sweet treats of the Philippines

 

Leche Flan

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.

Mango Float

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.

Maja Blanca

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.

Sans Rival

Layers of merengue, buttercream and cashew nuts. Without a doubt, my favourite Filipino dessert.

Halo halo

A mix of candied fruit and jellies, beans (yes, beans), crushed ice, milk, ube ice cream and flan… halo-halo, which literally translates to “mix-mix”, is a favourite afternoon refresher for Filipinos.

 

Bibingka

Rice cakes, a little sweet and a little salty, cooked in banana leaf, comes in many varieties including Bibingkang Mandaue, Bibingkang Malagkit, Bibingkang Casava

Bibingka. Filipino rice cake cooked on banana leaf.

 

Ginataan

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

Tsokolate

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.

Afternoon treat. A modern take on the traditional Tsokolate (hot chocolate), mango and suman (sticky rice). Photo by Olivia

 

Taho

Tofu custard, sago balls and brown sugar syrup. Traditionally sold by vendors on the street calling out “Tahoooooo”

Turon

“Saba” or cooking banana, sliced and wrapped in fine crepe (like lumpia) then deep fried

Ensaymada

A soft, sweet pastry bread filled and topped with cheese. Brought over from Spain.

Ensaymadas with hot chocolate. The perfect afternoon merienda. Photo by Booge

 

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.

Packaged puto. Based on the colour, it is safe to assume that it’s ube flavoured

 

Packaged kutchinta. The one on the left is pre dusted with desiccated coconut.

 

Puto Bumbong

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.

Suman

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.

Wrapped inside these banana leaves is a sticky rice and coconut milk combination that has been steamed.

 

Breakfast

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.

Waiting for a platter of rice to complete this Filipino breakfast. Photo by Olivia

 

“Silog” Breakfasts

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.

Tapsilog. Tapa (spanish style cured beef), fried garlic rice and egg. Photo by Olivia

 

Tocilog breakfast. Tocino (sweet pork), garlic rice and fried egg. Photo by Olivia

 

Champorado

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.

Pandesal

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.

Fresh ingredients can be found at the local markets

 

Bagoong

Fermented shrimp paste. Used in many dishes or put on the side of one’s plate for extra flavour.

Suka

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.

Patis

Fish sauce. Fermented, salty, strong and stinky but essential in the Filipino ingredient cupboard.

Banana Ketchup

A sauce resembling ketchup made from mashed bananas instead of tomatoes

Atchara

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.

After a typhoon knocked the papaya trees down, our neighbours collected the unripe fruit and made enough atchara to share with everyone

 

Calamansi

Closely related to the cumquat, used in any of the same ways that lemons or limes would be used… and then some.

A bowl of calamansi fruit, cut in half and served with sili (fresh small chillis) Photo by Olivia

 

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.

Dried Fish

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.

Kesong Puti

White cheese made from Carabao milk. Often used to top bibingka.

Ube

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.

Malunggay

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

Rice

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.

The number one staple ingredient in the Filipino diet, rice comes in many varieties for many purposes.

 

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.

Got inspired? Then please share! 😀