I spent several months in the Philippines, enamored with its incredibly friendly people and over 7,000 islands with waters that seemed to me an impossible color of blue. The country is one of dichotomies; on one hand quite conservative in its religion and policies, but on the other an extremely fun-loving culture rooted in entertaining friends and family. I have written at length about the reasons why I love the Philippines, but they include exploring the beautiful landscapes, a lot of shared meals and an astounding amount of karaoke.
(Photo: Palawan’s El Nido and the Bacuit Bay)
People are necessarily known to travel for the Philippine cuisine. There are restaurants that are cropping up in recent years in the United States—Jeepney and Purple Yam in New York, Qui in Austin and Milkfish in New Orleans are some examples. But unlike Thailand or Japan, it’s not a country people travel to for food. Instead, they talk about balut (fertilized duck embryo) and pig’s blood with a grimace, since those aren’t prevalent in North America. Dismissing the Philippines as a food destination is a mistake, however, because there are some delicious dishes to try.
Here is some of my favorite Philippine cuisine.
When I was seven, I apparently asked my mother for rice for breakfast, not wanting to eat bread. This was before I knew I was a celiac and couldn’t eat bread; I simply wanted to eat rice instead. Imagine my glee when I first made it to the Philippines and saw that a hugely popular breakfast option was tapsilog, made up of rice with dried cured meat or fried ham, rice and a fried egg cooked sunny side up.
Simple, with textures that match quite well together, it was a breakfast that filled me up and kept me full until a late lunch. The key here is mixing up the yolk with the rice then adding some of that fried meat for crunch. In my humble opinion, this is far more satisfying than cereal.
Palabok means spices or seasoning, and it’s what gives this noodle dish its distinct tastes. Light rice noodles are quickly dipped into hot water to soften before serving with a variety of toppings, flavored with fish sauce and garlic, and tinted orange because of annatto seeds (or achuete).
The toppings vary depending on the area of the Philippines that the dish is made—as with any large country, each region has its own variety of popular foods. The most common I tried included fried pork belly, fried shrimp, rushed pork rinds, salted smoked fish, hard boiled eggs and green onions. Add a squeeze or two of calamasi lime juice at the end of assembly to round out the flavors.
There’s another pancitdish—pancit luglug, but the luglug refers to a thicker noodle. I chose this dish both because it was one of my preferred things to eat, but also because as a celiac it contains no soy sauce (it has fish sauce) and uses rice noodles.
Pancitpalabok is a comfort food in the Philippines and you can see why. It’s essentially pad thai on steroids, salty and acidic, flavorful and satisfying, exactly what you want for dinner after a long day.
I chose this distinctive dish because it’s an oxtail stew that surprises upon a first bite—it has peanuts! The added nuttiness of the peanuts and some toasted rice powder gives this slow-cooked dish a really deep flavor, one that’s perfectly absorbed by vegetables like banana heart, eggplant, cabbage (called pechay in the Phillippines), and sometimes green beans.
The origins of this dish are in dispute, as with many other country’s foods—think hummus, for example. While kare-kare is definitely Pinoy, some say that the dish was from an area in Central Luzon called Pampanga. Others insist that it was created with influence from South India during the British Occupation of the Philippines during the 1760s and was essentially an improvised version of curry.
Regardless of origin, this dish remains one of distinct flavors. It’s usually served with shrimp sauce (called bagoong), and a side of calamansi lime for squeezing.
I stayed with a family from the Bicol province of the Philippines, they joked that their region was the only one in the country that made spicy dishes so as to reflect their strong personalities. They taught me how to make a wonderful ginataang langka—unripe jackfruit simmered in coconut milk, tomatoes, ginger and chili.
I’ve eaten this dish in other parts of the Philippines, sometimes with pork, other times with shrimp, but it can be made quite easily if you find yourself with a lot of young jackfruit at your disposal.
This is a dish I rarely see on the food roundups from the Philippines, which is a shame! Its creamy coconut flavor is heightened by the rich jackfruit, and with the added punch of chilies, it remains one of the most memorable of the meals I enjoyed while I traveled in the country.
(Photo: coconuts are what make this unripe jackfruit dish so delicious)
Sinigang(prounounced sin-ee-gong) is a hot and sour soup with pork that’s found throughout the Philippines. No sinigangthat I tried was precisely the same, but each one got its wonderful sourness from tamarind and calamansi lime juice. Like Vietnamese canh chua and Thailand’s tom yum, sweet and sour combinations are extremely comforting.
For the meat, mostly pork—though I did try a fabulous fish sinigang in Palawan. Stewed in tomatoes, onion, garlic and occasionally ginger, and full of vegetables like okra, radish, water spinach or bok choy, and cabbage, the whole bowl is served with a side of rice. And, invariably, a big smile.
It was hard to pick just five dishes. How could I leave out halo-halo or lumpia or satisfying lechon guisado? I went with the meals that I missed the most, but I think the answer is simply to travel there yourself so that you can eat them all.