Filipino food can be considered an underdog when it comes to internationally-acclaimed cuisines, but according to an article by Vice, it’s been slowly gaining traction and charming palates from around the world.
The slow rise of the global popularity of Filipino cuisine might be due to its complexity, with its various elements and the wide variety of culinary traditions in the archipelago alone. Food website Pepper.ph says that the food traditions of the more than 80 ethno-linguistic groups in the Philippines can be hard to capture. Add the fact that most ingredients that are staples in Filipino cuisine can be hard to come by internationally, which makes authentic Filipino cuisine difficult to achieve in other countries.
This only proves the fact that the only place to enjoy the best Filipino food is in the Philippines itself. Here’s a list of local food dishes you definitely have to try.
When it comes to being hailed as the country’s national dish, adobo comes close. Derived from the Spanish word adobar or to marinate, it’s a household staple in perhaps every region of the Philippine archipelago. Adobo is characterized by the flavors of dark, salty soy sauce and vinegar. The vinegar acts as a meat tenderizer and also provides a refreshing sour taste to the soy sauce. These foundational ingredients are flavored by the additions of garlic, black peppercorns, and dried bay leaves, which provide an earthiness to the dish’s base. The most popular varieties of adobo are made from chicken or pork, meats which absorb the adobo marinade well.
Made famous worldwide because of the late Anthony Bourdain, this method of cooking pork is something that cannot be missed by any foodie. The region of Cebu, where the late Bourdain also had his first taste of lechon in his show No Boundaries, is most known for lechon. This is possibly because the first ever recorded history of lechon in the 1920s stems from that region. However, good lechon isn’t just found in Cebu anymore, as tons of locations around the country have added their own spin to the recipe. In fact, lechon has become somewhat of a staple in Filipino celebrations — where there’s a party, there’s sure to be a beautifully brown and crispy whole lechon pig.
To describe sinigang to someone who is completely foreign to the dish can be quite difficult. An article by Spot.ph defines the essence of sinigang as adaptability— the recipe changes per location, per season, using only what proteins, vegetables, or seasonings are available. What cuts through all varieties of sinigang is that all of them highlight a souring agent to the dish. Commonly used are sampaloc, kamias, or batwan in the Visayas region. These are usually combined with garlic, native red onions, or other ingredients that give the dish a depth of flavor. The soup base is then combined with a protein, the most common being fatty cuts of pork or fresh seafood, which provides an indulgent richness to the refreshing, tangy broth.
Definitely not for the faint-hearted, sisig is an incredibly rich dish that you might commonly find at a drinking table. Sisig has its origins in Kapampangan culture and tradition, with a Sisig Fest happening every year in Angeles City, Pampanga. The dish, a common pulutan or bar chow to accompany alcohol, is made of pig cheeks, ears, and tails. This choice of meat comes from making use of discarded pig heads. Don’t let that turn you off, though, as sisig has gained international acclaim through its fatty richness and soft, chewy texture, cut through by the tanginess of a generous serving of chili, garlic, onions, and a dash of calamansi.
Another dish with origins in Kapampangan culture, kare-kare is made out of flavorful oxtail and tripe stewed in a thick peanut-flavored gravy. It’s served with a side of blanched vegetables and the local shrimp paste, bagoong. The dish is hearty and rich, pairing well with the salty bagoong and a hefty serving of rice. It is beloved among locals as a popular showstopper in potlucks, fiestas, and other celebrations. Along with lechon and the roasted pork dish crispy pata, kare-kare made it to Taste Atlas’s 100 Best Dishes for 2019, giving this unique entree the recognition it deserves.
Pancit Palabok or Pancit Malabon
With a creamy sauce flavored with shrimp and pork and an orange hue from annatto, pancit palabok is a popular noodle dish, with plenty of varieties across each region. Topped generously with chicharon bits, pieces of shrimp, and green onions, and served with a boiled egg and calamansi on the side, pancit palabok has variations based on the noodles used. Palabok commonly uses thin rice noodles, while malabon and luglug are variations that use thicker ones for people who prefer noodles with a bite. Some pancit palabok or malabon varieties also add crab fat to the sauce and add pieces of squid as garnish, staying true to its rich but fresh seafood elements.
With its pine trees, cold breeze, and thick fog Tagaytay is known to locals as the place where you can enjoy a steaming hot bowl of bulalo. Another broth-based dish, bulalo is made by slow-cooking beef shanks and bone marrow with some cabbage, Chinese pechay, and corn in an already flavorful broth, making the end result delightfully beefy but refreshing to the palate. Fatty bone marrow is indeed the star of this dish, being somewhat of a local delicacy, but equally as important are the soft pieces of beef and the fresh vegetables.
Served with a perfectly cooked sunny-side-up and garlic rice, tapsilog is a filling and satisfying quintessential Filipino breakfast dish. The main highlight is a cured, marinated, and sometimes smoked meat called tapa, stir-fried with tons of garlic. Tender, but with a little bite, tapa is commonly made from beef. The name tapsilog comes from the other elements of the breakfast meal, namely sinangag, or garlic rice, and itlog, or the egg. It’s served with picked papaya (atsara) and vinegar as a condiment. Although meant to be a breakfast, tapsilog is a meal locals can enjoy any time of the day, so popular that you’re bound to find it sold in any restaurant, carinderia, or even food stalls in public malls or markets.
Perfect for the country’s humid climate is the popular dessert halo-halo, which is made with finely shaved ice and a milieu of sweet ingredients. Halo-halo is commonly topped with ube halaya, ube ice cream, and a small slice of leche flan, with a pour-over of creamy condensed or evaporated milk. According to Culture Trip, the name literally means “mix-mix”, an ode to the fact that halo-halo is best enjoyed when all the various ingredients are mixed together into a creamy refreshing dessert to cool you off. Staple elements to the classic halo-halo are sago or small tapioca pearls, nata de coco, sweetened macapuno, sweetened monggo beans, sweetened banana and jackfruit, ice cream, ube halaya, and leche flan, but a part of halo-halo’s allure is you can adjust the ingredients to your liking.
The turon, made from deep-frying saba bananas wrapped in rice paper, is a cheap but filling snack popular with Filipinos across the country. Although they may look like lumpia or egg rolls, the coating of caramelized brown sugar should help you picture the warm, sweet filling inside it. The crunchy wrapper and brown sugar contrasts with the tangy sweetness of the banana inside, usually also combined with jackfruit to highlight the flavors of perfectly ripe tropical fruit. The turon is such a staple in Manila that you are most likely to find quite a few food stands by the streets that serve turon piping hot and fresh from the fryer, just the way it’s meant to be enjoyed.
Fancy a cool drink to ward off the Metro Manila heat? Check out our post on the best sangria spots in Metro Manila.
If there’s one thing Jonah De Jesus loves, it’s food. He practically grew up in the kitchen, following his mom around as she put together delicious dishes (although he was sometimes more of a hindrance than a help). Although he eventually ended up taking a Bachelor of Arts in Communications, that love for all things gastronomical followed him well into his adulthood.
When he’s not watching reruns of Parts Unknown or trying to imitate Gordon Ramsay in the kitchen, Jonah spends most of his time scouring Manila for all the newest and best places to eat.