Having grown up in the Philippines and simmered in Spain, the United States and Japan, my centuries-old settler roots, I was always looking out and dreaming of another place. I scoffed at most locals. But now, ten years after living far from his home country, he realizes he was wrong. In that tropical paradise, why didn’t I realize the wealth all around me?
My cuisine is often vilified, misunderstood, and pigeon-holed here in the West, but it is as vast and diverse as over 7,000 islands. But it has its unique flavor signature recognizable across the diaspora, singing to lonely souls in a home away from home. Let’s break down these Filipino food components element by element.
rice is life
Kanin, or rice, is the stick of life for Filipinos.No meals including lunch Merienda (snack or light meal), pass the master without rice on the plate. It is a blank canvas, steamed plain, on which the accompanying ulam (main entree) is painted or garnished with garlic, as seen in sinangag (a garlicky fried rice dish). White rice is also the basis for kakanin, a category of sticky, sweet foods such as suman, puto, and bibingka, enjoyed as breakfast, dessert, or as a snack.
Coconut reigns supreme in sweet and savory dishes
Every element of the coconut (niyog) serves a purpose, including in Filipino cuisine, from root to stem, leaves and fruit. Coconut meat, juices and milk are important ingredients in both savory and sweet dishes. Coconut juice is of course suitable for simply drinking, but it is also used as a soup in dishes such as binakor na manok, aka chicken in coconut soup. It will also be the base of Then there is the whole range of Ginathan dishes. That is, gata, or food cooked in coconut cream or milk. Grated coconut pulp is often served with rice cakes, also known as kakanin. Or, sweetened and turned into macapuno, this coconut ingredient makes a famous appearance in the iconic shaved ice dessert halo-halo.
sourness is always welcome
Filipinos are suckers for asim, or sour-flavoured pucker. From using all kinds of vinegars such as sugarcane, palm and coconut liberally in adobo, paxiu, kinilaw and extra sosawan, to using citrus superstar calamansi as a juice and condiment, to using fruit as an acidulant in sinigang. From using it to enjoying it raw and sliced, green mangoes, bagoons and asims give us life.
Salty is an expression of affection
Harvested from the seas and oceans surrounding the Philippine archipelago, salt (arato) is both a means of preserving and flavoring food, helping the body to survive and thrive in intense humidity. It is salted and dried and eaten as is or used as a seasoning in cooking. Also, the use of patis (fish sauce), bagong (fermented seafood paste), and soy sauce, introduced by Chinese merchants.
Tamis, or sweetness, isn’t just for dessert
Tropical life is really sweet. Filipino-style spaghetti with plenty of sugar and banana his ketchup is served at every birthday celebration. Caramelized char on slices of pork barbecue. Fiesta and celebration foods such as menudo (tomato stew with pork and liver), embutido (steamed meatloaf), rellenon bangus (stuffed milkfish), and chicken macaroni salad are often flavored with raisins.
Soup is never too hot
Hot soup seems counterintuitive to the Philippines’ warm, humid climate. But it is the balm against the monsoon deluge that marks him one of his two seasons in this country. Sabo, a Filipino soup, includes the classic tinola (ginger chicken soup), bulalo (beef shank soup), or niraga (boiled meat soup). These are typically thin and light, but full of flavor from slow-cooked land and sea meats and bones, complemented by an abundance of vegetables available year-round.
‘Sarsa pa lang, ulam na’, which means ‘the sauce is already an appetizer’ in Tagalog, is one of the best compliments a cook can get. Braise and stew sauces such as caldereta (goat or beef stew), pininyahan manok (pineapple chicken), palabok (rice vermicelli topped with annatto shrimp and pork sauce) are served on each grain of rice or around all noodle strings. It’s a great way to soak up the richness of the .
Condiments are not an afterthought
Sawawan is more than just a seasoning. Along with bottles of soy sauce, vinegar (ska) and banana ketchup, small plates of bagong, liver sauce, chili and fresh calamansi (small, green citrus fruits) line many Filipino tables. No offense at all if someone chooses to add their own sosawan to adorn their own plate. In fact it is expected.
For Filipinos, food is a community
Anyone who shares the dining space is automatically greeted with “Kain tayo?”, so you’ll never eat alone. or “Let’s eat?” as an invitation to experience life and all that this earth has to offer. So, Kane Tayo?
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