The ABCDE of Philippine Cuisine
A Culinary Opinion

Philippine cuisine is a fusion of influences: Malay roots, centuries of Hispanization of our tastes buds,
indelibly tweaked, in small or great fashion, by China, the South East Asian neighbors, the Middle East, India, Europe and the Americas – the sea-faring traders, colonizers and cultural conquerors. From these exotic roots and potpourri of sauces, spices and styles, the Filipino palate has gone through a long process of evolution, with its culinary landscape further enriched by its many indigenous cultures and regions, many of its provinces contributing a signature dish or two.

There is no culinary epicenter . . . And the rabid regionalism that plagues the country also plagues our food culture.  

It will not be an easy feat to define a "true" Filipino cuisine from this culture-rich culinary past. The rabid regionalism that plagues the country also afflicts its food culture. I have read and heard, more than one too many times, Pampangueños claiming their province to be the epicenter of Philippine cuisine. Jesus H. Christ! Forgive the blasphemy. But that is culinary megalomania, a reflection of the rabid regionalism that besets us. I have tasted the results of their meaningful attempts to improve classic Tagalog cuisine, tweaking, subtracting and adding, almost always transforming delectable food into unrecognizable and unpalatable dishes. Um. . . O.K. Pampanga does make great desserts; but great desserts don't make an epicenter.

But tweaking is so widespread, crossing provincial lines, hopping from island to island, classic dishes so altered the only recognizable thing left is the name. Tinola, a classic soup in the Tagalog area with its chicken, green papaya or sayote, sili leaves, ginger and hint of patis assumes a different identity in some Visayan tweaked version with malunggay leaves, sans sayote or papaya, ginger or patis.

And what about 'masa' cuisine? Indeed, their day-to-day dining is mediocre and budget-limited fare. But what fills up the rural tables during their fiestas and celebrations is an incredible array of native cuisine and delicacies. Where do they fit? What do they contribute to the national cuisine? Or should it only include the culinary preferences of the middle class and and the fine-dining bourgeoisie, their foods tweaked into "fusion," embellished by condiments – saffron, tarragon, basil, cilantro and the etcetera of chef-styled cooking – quite alien to the masa's taste buds.

In a country that has classified its citizenry into ABCDE, Filipino cuisine should submit to this alphabetic rating. For those unfamiliar with this Philippine caste system, an overlapping sociological classification based on economic and social status – "A" refers to the burgis, the landed gentry and nouveaux riche; "B," the middle class; C, D and E comprise the "Masa" – the working class, probinsyanos, the proletariat. And the AB and CDE dining tables starkly differ.
The CDE Cuisine
"Masa" cuisine can not be excluded in the discussion of true Philippine cuisine – they make up more than 60 percent of the population. And how the CDEs eat or prepare their food is far far different from the A and most of the B. The CDEs' gastronomic experience is wide-ranging, adventurous, fringe, third-world exotic, devoid of pretentions and ambiance. There are no fancy cookbooks to create from, just hand-me-down folk recipes, endlessly undergoing tweaking and experimentation, wasting nothing, finding use for everything from top to bottom, brain and bones, entrails, toes and dangling parts. The yucky-and-yummy fare – pinikpikan, sisig, balut, pig's brain, bat-and-ball, adidas, IUD – are consumed with unflinching gusto. Add to that bayawaks (lizards) and snakes from fortuitous encounters in the forests; rural escargot, snails (papaitan and baragan) from rice-paddy streams, delectably boiled in coconut milk, garlic, onions and ginger. Oh, don't forget the dogs (asocena) and goats. Both favorite bacchanalian side dishes (pulutan), the barkers are preferred for being less expensive (P200 for a medium-sized dog, although black dogs, preferred in some provinces demand a much higher price) or free from the rapidly diminishing population of stray dogs, preyed upon by pulutan-seekers, usually prepared as kaldereta, adobo sa toyo or adobo sa gata. Goats are most often prepared as kaldereta; with nothing thrown away, the lungs, heart, liver and skin – with onions, garlic, peppers, vinegar, and red and hot chili peppers – become a bleating version of bopis.

Of course, the masa's feasting table is not all yucky-but-yummy. There is a rich variety of dishes, as rich as the cultural diveristy and the many provinces that contribute their signature dish or two. Some dishes have crossed provincial lines and survived the rabid regionalism, adopted into provincial menus with the inevitable modification or two. Although the Mindanao south is said to more influenced by Malay cuisine of Malaysia, Brunei and Sumatra, my curbside CDE interviews with the Visayans and Mindanaons come up with the same favorite dishes: adobo, kaldereta, lechon, etc.

Culinary critics say there is nothing unifying about Philippine cuisine. Well, there are – its saltiness and. . . rice.  

Spices, Sauces and the Salt
The Basics
CDE condiments are basic: soy sauce, vinegar, patis, bagoong, luya, garlic, pepper, sugar, salt . . . and. . . VETSIN. In whatever combination or proportion, it is usually salty. . . um. . . capitalize that: SALTY. And no matter the degree of saltiness in the dish, there are small condiment plates and bottles of salty sauces on call – patis or toyo or bagoong, laced with vinegar, garlic, sili – to dip into. This ubiquitous saltiness of foods and sauces requires the tempering plateful mounds of rice that accompany all the three meals of the day – and the saltier the meal. . . and the greater the amount of rice consumed.
This is the side dish of food-enhancing native pickles, made from a variety of vegetables, sweetly countering the ubiquitous saltiness. The most commonly used is papaya, but just about anything can be thrown into the pickling jar: bamboo shoots, singkamas, ampalaya, garlic, onions. For most of the masa, this is too extravagant for daily fare.
Gata / The Coconut Milk
Gata, the milk expressed from the coconut fruit, appears in an endless variety of rural dishes, always prepared fresh for the meal. In short notice and with generic flourish, most rural folk will whip up a lunch or dinner of "ginatang-something" with your ingredient of choice: ginatang manok, ginatang tilapia, ginatang hipon, or just ginatang-gulay with all the vegetables they can gather. Gata is also used as base for tinuto, a version of laing, where small pieces of fish or shrimp is wrapped in taro or kamoteng kahoy leaves, cooked in the coconut milk with onions, ginger and tomatoes.

It's the rice, man. It's the rice. . . lots and lots. . . and lots of rice. The sine qua non of Filipino food. Without it, much of Philippine cuisine will fail.  

Rice is the staple – lots and lots. . . and lots of rice. The savoring of Filipino food requires rice. Without the rice, Philippine cuisine will have to be redefined.
Everything gets dumped and doused on rice – the soup, the stew, often, even the noodles. . . everything. Without the rice, rural folk feel weak, dizzy, ill. Rice is the essential survival food–in times of scarcity, any salty condiment is all that is needed to flavor the rice. A friend offers an observation and unscientific explanation for the Filipino's belly paunch, male and female – It's the rice, man. It's the rice – consumed in amounts proportionate to the saltiness, sweetness, sourness, or sili-hotness of the sauce, soup or "ulam." Although usually consumed plain and steaming hot – breakfast might be served with leftover rice redone as "sinangag," fried in oil, garlic and salt. For city guests, lunch or dinner may be served with steamed rice wrapped in banana leaves, flavored with pandan or lemongrass, or in the south islands as "pusong kanin" or glutinous rice prepared with spices, coconut milk and prawns.

The "lechon" is the socio-economic statement of the Filipino feast. While it also descriptive of a style of cooking, lechon-manok, -baka, or -baboy, the fiesta lechon is the bamboo-skewered whole roasted pig – with the optional apple-in-mouth – splayed in all its glory on the center of the feasting table, its golden-brown crispy skin beckoning you to snap off a morsel for a delectable cracking-and-chewing delight. It costs from P3,000 pesos for a do-it-yourself to P8000 for the high-end, professionally stuffed and spiced version. In many provinces, the sweet, vinegary and liver-based lechon sauce is essential for dipping and dousing; in some provinces, it is simply dipped in vinegar or catsup.

For weddings or fiestas, how many lechon are served is a measure of the family's station in life and often, a detail of lasting impression. For many, the whole lechon as a single fare is simply unaffordable; butchered, it provides ingredients for a dozen feasting entrees: pochero, embotido, afritada, mechado, morcon, adobo, dinuguan, sisig, etc.

Nutrition concerns? Maybe for a sliver of the population.
But for most – Zilch. Zero. Nada. Bring in the fatty red meat and the deep fried.
Saturated fats? cholesterol? LDL? Trans fat?. . . Huh?

The Meats: Pork, Beef and Chicken
The masa are meat-eaters. And from the population of the mooing, clucking, bleating, barking, the snorting comes a great variety of dishes – adobo, longaniza, mechado, afritada, menudo, pochero, kaldereta, balitchang – many surviving the test of time and provincial lines, undergoing the essential tweaking, becoming established in the regional rural menu for the feasting tables of fiestas, celebrations and weddings.
Of the meat dishes, when the budget allows, adobo has become a popular daily fare, and with its salty vinegar and soy sauce ingredients, weather-tolerant to last a few days without refrigeration. A classic chicken and/or pork dish, Spanish-rooted from "adobado," it has been adopted by many provinces and tweaked with cooking styles and flavors, wet or dry, into many regional versions: adobong-imus, adobong-biñan, adobong-pampanga, with as many variations in the south – as in Mindanao, where the adobo is tweaked and thickened with coconut cream. A Visayan version adds sugar to sweeten the classic say sauce, garlic and vinegar mixture.There are occasional halfhearted lobby efforts to name it "the" national dish.
In the Tagalog area, kaldereta is goat – beef the common meat substitute – in a mixture of red and green peppers, onions, garlic, tomatoes, liver.

The Seafood
Unless they live by the coastline, the CDE's fish food fare is limited to the few affordable species: tuyo, daing, dilis, galungong, occasionally, bangus. The shrimp, crabs, lobster and most other fishes are hauled to the big cities for burgis and middle class consumption.
A fish dish that has become part of the national menu and appears in rural feasting table is the escabeche – poached or deep fried fish, usually lapu-lapu (grouper), in a vinegar- and sugar-based sweet-and-sour sauce with ginger, garlic, onions, carrots red peppers, tomatoes and ketchup and thickening cornstarch. Alas, like many other things in this hustle-and-bustle world, "instant" sauces has brought about the demise of the classic sauces, replaced by generic instant sauces, the escabeche sauce one of those fatally bastardized.

Soups are usually not served in the fiesta tables, with the obvious encumbrances of bowls and the usual balancing acts of buffet dining. And unlike most countries with their signature soups - the French onion soup, the Greek lemon soup, the Spanish sopa de ajo, the Italian minestrone – that is intended to start a meal, the Filipino soups – tinola, sinigang, bachoy, bulalo, miswa, and nilaga – is often served as the main entree or the other entree, teeming with meats and/or seafoods, vegetables, and liberal doses of familiar condiments. often doused on white steaming mounds of rice. . . lots of rice. The soups are also endlessly tweaked, acquiring regional identities– the bulalo tweaked by addition of langka; the papaya or sayote disappearing from the visayan tinola, the sili leaves replaced by malunggay, the patis and ginger removed.

Pansit and Spaghetti
Although noodle dishes are found in some soup and stews– miswa, bachoy lomi – the CDE noodle dish that has reigned supreme is the pancit – bihon, canton, gisado, lulog, malabon, molo, palabok and sotanghon. It's a busy kind of food-form, and whatever its roots, Chinese as most would suggest, its many forms serves as a testament to its place in the national palate and the ubiquitous presence of at least one or two of them in most feasting table.The "long life" that the noodle promises has made the essential birthday or anniversary celebration dish. It is not unusual to see it eaten over. . . yes. . rice; and just as amusing, used as a filling for sandwiches. Personally, my favorite is pancit malabon; the rare occasion of a perfect plateful can bring tears to my eyes and salivation way past the last spoonful.

But alas, the pansit's reign has been challenged in the Tagalog rural areas by "spaghetti." But there's nothing Italian about rural spaghetti. This is Pinoy spaghetti with no subtleties of condiments or flavors, prepared ground meat in sweet, sweet tomato sauce, and when the budget allows, slices of hotdogs.

Philippine cuisine offers stews of contrasting ingredients: Pochero (chicken, pork or beef stew with banana in tomato sauce), pinakbet (a meat and vegetable stew), kare-kare (oxtail, beef and occasionally, tripe, with variants that may include seafood or chicken in peanut sauce) and dinuguan (pork-blood stew) and kaldereta (goat or beef stew). All of these are often eaten with rice, except for the dinuguan, which is eaten with puto (rice cakes) when eaten as merienda fare.

It has
Chinese origins, but it has been around long enough and tweaked so many ways it earned culinary citizenship. It comes as lumpiang-frito, -hubad, -sariwa, -shanghai, -ubod – egg rolls filled with a sundry of ingredients: vegetables, chicken, shrimp, pork, ubod (heart of palm, shrimp – each enhanced by a sauce prepared from vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, chili pepper, kalamansi, bagoong, or for lumpinag-shanghai, the time-tested sweet and sour sauce.

Sweets and Merienda Fare
Urban-suburban fine-dining is dismally lacking in dessert fare; mall food courts offer a limited variety – the turon, halo-halo, leche-flan, bibingka are familiar and spotty offerings. In the provinces, there is a bountiful offerings for the sweet tooth needs. Vendors ply the streets their bilaos filled with various choice sweet snacks for the day - turon, suman, maruya, rice cakes. Ice creams carts, bells ringing, roll down the dirt roads. Balut vendors with their basketful of warm duck embryo eggs come in the late afternoon. The mornings find the local markets with a goodly array of native delicacies: puto, kutsinta, kalamay, sinukmani.Ther are the fresh young coconuts to quench the thirst, tubers pulled out of the ground and rendered into a snack. My favorite, sagobe, a truly rural rendition, can be whipped up in short notice – a sweetened dessert of bananas, sago, gabi, bilo-bilo, ube and jackfruit in a thickened coconut milk sauce.

The AB
The typical urban-suburban A and B cuisine is far removed from the CDE fare. Firstly, I don't think too many in the "A" group spend much time or suffer sweat in the kitchen. There are cooks who orchestrate the meals. Their spice racks are more varied, the usual toyo, patis, suka and etcetera of rural condiments are joined by basil, tarragon, saffron, oregano, cumin, parsley, and others; their recipes further tweaked by burgis additives – sherry, olives, shitakes, etc, imparting tastes and textures too strange and, often, unacceptable to the CDE palate. Dining at home is probably more continental than native. Soups are varied, occasional from-scratch, more often, instant native from ready-mix-packets or Campbell's. Rice is still the staple, but the boring steaming white is occasionally substituted by tweaked paella versions of arroz valenciana and paella pobre. Deserts are rarely native, but more often, ice cream and cakes. When the A and B dine out, they do not usually seek out Filipino cuisine, but instead do Italian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai or Spanish. The options for native dining-out that won't put a hole in your pocket are quite limited – Barrio Fiesta, Kamayan, and the many mall food courts that specializes in regional cuisine. There might be more "B" sightings in the many mall food courts that specialize in native cuisine; the burgis "A" maybe, deeply disguised.
Fusion Food
For the Burgis and Middle Class

Although our cuisine is really a fusion of influences, "fusion" is the de rigueur term for dining-out native cuisine. For the burgis and deep pockets, there are fine dining places that offer limited classic fare mixed in a menu of "fusion" dishes or "new" Filipino cuisine. Some places offer "native cuisine" tweaked with sherry, olives or some alien spice, or in presentations so severely un-Filipino – of unrecognizable small offerings, soups served in cups slightly bigger than those for double expressos, kare-kare artfully presented in small bowls. It misses the whole point of Filipino food – bold and familiar, served to the brim of plates, to be eaten with great gusto. . . dumped and doused over lots and lots of rice.

The Top 10 in Philippine Cuisine
And from this cursory review of Filipino cuisine, I venture to make a list of a top 10, gathered from my observations and countless curbside interviews. No two Filipino souls will agree with all the 10 entrees, but many might nod in agreement on a few of them. I welcome suggestions for inclusion in the list with a willingness to nudge a few out of this democratic list. I hope a list finally surfaces that can be considered representative of "true" Philippine cuisine and a national palate that does not exclude the CDE. Too, with more than 80 countries traveled and their cuisine sampled, I dare a culinary opinion – Filipino food is not easy to love and takes some getting use to. It serves a palate Filipinized from centuries of influences, quite unique in the ways we prepare it, in the ways we eat it., and in the ABCDE of it.
1 Lechon
No brainer. . . It is the food item that is familiar to the whole of the ABCDE spectrum. Never mind that it is a death-defying culinary indulgence. oozing with cholesterol and saturated fat. This centerpiece of the Philippine feasting table has spawned an industry of lechon-makers and even has a festival named after it: "Parada ng Lechon" in Balayan, Batangas.
"Adobado" Spanish origin, tweaked from north to south, the day-to-day masa-affordable native meat dish (usually chicken and/or pork, or the boondock versionn with dog or goat) in its familiar vinegar, soy sauce and garlic sauce, with its classic saltiness,except when tweaked with sugar. Balichang, a version from Macau, from my grandmother's ancient travels, called "poor man's adobo," prepared with bagoong and the real sour sampaloc fruit pulp.
3 Pancit

A noodle dish should place in any list of 10. There just so many of them: pancit bihon, -canton, -gisado, -lulog, -malabon, -molo, -palabok and -sotanghon. For festivities, the CDE usually prepares pancit guisado, affordable and easy to make; pancit palabok, when the budget allows.
4 Kare-kare
North to south, it's a dish in everyone's list. Even in places that features food from Pampanga with other Filipino dishes, kare-kare is more often than not, the bestseller. The availability of ready-mix sauce in packets has greatly simplified the making of what used to be a rather complicated peanut sauce. It is one a few native dishes that retains its basic tastes despite differing degrees of tweaking. Despite its already rich sauce, the sine qua non is the morsels of bagoong that accompanies each spoonful.
Tinola or Sinigang
Tinola is a no brainer, simple and easy: sili leaves, papaya or sayote, chicken, a little patis, pepper, and voila! It is the classic native soup that will not overwhelm the other food offerings or the rest of the meal.
Sinigang is the other soup; tamarind base and more complicated and so ingredient rich. It can be overwhelmingly tasty and can stand alone as a single food item that can carry a whole meal. Before the availability of packeted instant sinigang soup base, preparing it would require a wildcrafted or market search for sampaloc fruit. Of course, best with lost of rice.
6 Dinuguan
Dinardaraan in the Ilocos, it is a dish that belongs to the Yucky-and-Yummy list. Actually, this pork blood stew is more yummy than yucky. And if you're not a Jehovah's Witness and blood isn't yucky turn-off, then it's an all yummy-and-bloody-good dish.
Sagobe is the classic rural merienda, or even, dessert – a mixture of bananas, sago, gabi, bilo-bilo, ube and jackfruit in a thickened coconut milk sauce, best when served warm.
Turon comes a close second, much easier to prepare and a common sidewalk merienda item: banana (saging na saba) laced with jackfruit and macapuno, wrapped in springroll wrappers and fried, better when caramelized.
8 Escabeche
Spanish-derived, the escabeche is the most popular celebratory fish dish, its sweet-and-sour sauce a departure from the typical saltiness of Philippine cuisine. Many prefer the fried to the poached. And the sweet-and-sour still goes well over the rice.
9 Lumpia
Yeah, many to choose from: fried (lumpiang prito), fresh (lumpiang sariwa) or naked (lumpiang hubad). I prefer the lumpiang ubod from the heart of palm, fresh or fried. But the popular vote will probably go to the Shanghai kind, with its beef and pork and sweet and sour dipping sauce.
10 Kaldereta
In the Tagalog area, kaldereta is goat – beef the common meat substitute – in a mixture of red and green peppers, onions, garlic, tomatoes and liver. It is a favorite masa festivity dish, and ranks high up as pulutan.

Filipino Food
is for Filipinos

If you're not Filipino, it is not easy to fall in love with Philippine cuisine. Reading web blogs, I can hear the sigh in some of them, wondering why Filipino food has not been able to find its way into the culinary indulgences of the fine dining world. It is a rare occasion when you will hear your American or European friends say: Let's do Filipino today. Instead, often it's: "Let's do Chinese." Or, Italian, or sushi, or Greek. Your visitors might try the familiar and benign looking – the pansit or the lumpia – and find much of the rest a little threatening and a little alien. Don't feel bad. The Filipino's is a learned taste and a learned way of eating. It took a couple of hundred years for our taste buds and palate to evolve, with the tweaking still ongoing. While most people eat with their forks, and some with their chopsticks, we choose the spoons for the most efficient way of scooping the rice doused with sauce, soup or stew; or in the province, more efficiently with their hands.

Hmm. It's OK. . . but not as good as back home. Yes, the "back home" kitchens of your motherland. . . the long wait is always worth it.  

Filipino food is not for candlelight dining. It is food served for the gusto – bold, tasty, chili pepper hot, mouth-puckering tamarind sour, and SALTY. . . to be consumed with lots of rice. Yes. . . rice – the sine qua non of every Filipino meal. And if you're not a rice-eater, then the Filipino meal is bound to fail. You can't eat it with french fries, bread, mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, or a small side dish of rice pilaf, cous-cous or pasta. Yes, it's probably better to take your foreign friends and visitors to the "fusion" places.

The CDEs probably have more access to true native cuisine. In the big cities or en route, they will run into it in roadside carenderias, in bus stops, in countless sidewalk turo-turos – gobble-it-down places catering to the masa needs.

And if you're abroad, you'll probably find places that serve Filipino food. But more likely, it's going to be "fusion" or "new" Philippine cuisine. tweaked and adapted for a sundry of tastebuds unfamiliar with Filipino food. You'll probably say: Hmm, it's good, but not as good as back home. Many years in the east coast, I have chosen to suffer the long absences and culinary deprivations, and to indulge the cravings on the visits back home. Yes, back home. . . the "back-home" kitchens of motherland. And the long wait has always been worth it.

And don't do Chardonnays or Cabernets with your Filipino food – they don't go well with the saltiness and boldness of Philippine cuisine – the patis, toyo, bagoong, the gata and the assaulting sourness of tamarind dishes. It teams up better with beer. And lambanog, the best aperitif.

And eating out, you know you're really enjoying your deliciously salty Filipino meal when you beckon the waiter to ask:

Pare, extra rice.

by Godofredo Umali Stuart

by Godofredo Stuart

Philippine Cuisine:
The Yucky-But-Yummy




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