The Philippine archipelago contains over 140 ethnolinguistic groups, and its cuisine is therefore hugely diverse and cross-influenced. This characteristic, however, seems to have worked in its favour, as it’s a rapidly up-and-coming favourite international cuisine, with more popular restaurants popping up with every passing year. Traces of Malaysian, Indonesian, Indian, Chinese, Spanish and American influences can be found in the food, and personally I think it is one of the more successful fusions of the West’s love of animal products and sweet sauces with the East’s wonderful array of aromatic spices and flavours. An important ethos surrounding Filipino cooking seems to be the balance of sweet (tamis), sour (asim) and salty (alat) flavours – which I believe is important to keep in mind for any cuisine. Another crucial concept is that of “counterpoint”, where meals are presented with contrasting flavours, e.g. something sweet with something salty. A significant aspect to this balance seems to be the Philippine citrus fruit, calamansi, which is a recommended ingredient in most recipes that I have found, and is meant to taste like a slightly sweeter lime or lemon. Food is to be eaten with either flatware, or with the hands, but generally not with chopsticks, as in many surrounding Asian countries. A lot of the meal names sound surprisingly Spanish, such as empanada, paella, lechón, pastel, torta and chicharónes. Indeed, the Filipino language has a lot of Spanish influences, evidenced by my Spanish-speaking boyfriend being convinced a magical genie had granted him the power of total language comprehension when he could understand the plot of a Filipino TV show we happened upon one night. Because of the delicious and multitudinous nature of Filipino dishes, I had trouble choosing just four to present, so some additional honourable mentions include kare-kare (a peanut-based oxtail stew), sinigang (a sour soup), a wide range of local seafood (smoked, fried, grilled or baked), legendarily hearty savoury breakfasts, and sweet and savoury dishes based on ube, which is a purple yam.
The word sisig originally meant “to snack on something sour” and “salad”. The origin of this sour snack may have been a salad of unripe fruits (such as papaya or guava) dressed in salt and vinegar, but now more famously refers to the meat dish featured here. Sisig these days is a variety of pulutan, which literally means “to pick something up” and is the Filipino version of finger food or tapas. Pulutan are typically barfood, meant to be enjoyed as a snack, preferably with an ice-cold alcoholic drink. Sisig is most often made with various pig meats (including from the head and liver), finely chopped, then seasoned with the native lime/lemon calamansi, chillies and onions. Its popularity has meant that other varieties of sisig are now common, including using other types of meat, as well as fish and tofu. A fascinating woman dubbed “The sisig queen”, Lucia Cunanan, is credited with the honourable achievement of bringing sisig back into fashion in the 1970s, by introducing a hot-plate into the usual boil-and-broil preparation of sisig. This creates a crispy texture and novel serving method beloved by locals and tourists alike. The dish’s popularity continues to rise, however, evidenced by the inception of an annual festival in its honour in the 2000s, local enthusiasm for which was only dampened for a few years when the country went into mourning over the death of their sisig queen, Lucia Cunanan. Unable to source pig head and liver, I used normal pork muscle meat for my sisig, but I cooked and seasoned it similarly and topped it with a traditional fried egg.
Lechón liempo, sinangag, ensaladang labanos, lumpia and sawsawan
As excited as I was to begin cooking food from The Philippines, the planning for this week started off with a dramatic failure. For one of the first times I can remember, I was not able to cook the near-indisputable national dish. Before you write me off as a fraud and amateur, however, hear me out. The national dish is called lechón, which consists of a whole pig, spit roasted until the insides are fall-apart tender and the skin is crunchy. So renowned is this preparation that world-famous celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain even pronounced The Philippines as cooking the best pig meat on earth. It is usually made for large parties and celebrations, where people bring their own specialties as side dishes to the main attraction. I hope you see now that it would be fairly difficult for me to obtain an entire pig, build a spit-roast in the backyard of my (rented) property, and corral enough people to eat it all. Well, maybe not the last bit. My relatively humble gesture to this grand meal, however, took the form of lechón liempo, which is roasted pork belly, and shares similar spices, textures and flavours with lechón (albeit on a smaller scale). I marinated my pork belly with ginger, garlic, soy sauce, lemongrass and Chinese five spice, then roasted it and finally broiled the top to crisp up the skin. I have to say – my pork belly skills are improving. I think the main secret that I’ve discovered is using balls of aluminium foil to prop up the slab in places where it is uneven, thus ensuring a uniformly crispy skin with no burnt patches. However, should you fail at this, you can always microwave pieces of the skin alone on paper towel to achieve perfect crispiness. I served the lechón liempo with a number of side dishes, including sinangag, which is a popular fried rice flavoured with a lot of garlic, particularly popular for breakfast. Ensaladang labanos is a salad made with thinly sliced daikon radish, onion and tomato, flavoured with vinegar and green onions. Lumpia are Filipino spring rolls, filled with chopped vegetables (although sometimes also meat) and fried or served fresh. As an accompaniment to all of this I served sawsawan, which is a dipping sauce made with vinegar, onion, garlic, pepper, sugar, salt and chillies. The traditional sauce accompanying lechón is made of liver paste, breadcrumbs, garlic, sugar and vinegar, but I fancied a less-rich, cleaner sauce, which the sawsawan provided superbly.
The name pancit is derived from a Chinese term for “convenient food” and describes a noodle dish, the origins of which were introduced by Chinese settlers to The Philippines. The dish rose in popularity when it was adopted by street vendors (panciteros) who catered especially to women working in cigar factories. The long, hard hours that these women worked meant they had neither the time nor energy to make home-cooked meals, and a hot bowl of pancit was therefore a great relief after a long day of work. There is apparently a legend floating around that you should always eat noodles on your birthday, and pancit is therefore popular at birthday celebrations. The noodles must not be cut, however, as this grimly represents an untimely shortening to the long life and prosperity that the winding noodles symbolise. There are infinite varieties of Filipino pancit, and in the true spirit of home-cooking, I sort of made up my own recipe using elements from many. I combined prawns, tofu, boiled egg and pork belly in a light sauce of soy, garlic, lime, onion and annatto seeds, as well as veggies such as carrot, cabbage, snow peas and capsicum. Often the rice noodles are stir fried with this mixture, but I served mine separately, partly because I prefer the aesthetics, but also because I like to have more choice over the noodle-to-flavour ratios as I eat the dish. I love recipes that allow so much freedom in interpretation! Even though it wasn’t my birthday, I tried hard not to cut my noodles, so perhaps luck will be on my side?
“Adobar” in Spanish means marinade/sauce, which is precisely what makes this chicken dish so special. The marinade in question is composed of vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, bay leaves and pepper, and the chicken is then simmered in the same sauce until cooked. The process of cooking meat in salt and vinegar dates back to pre-Hispanic indigenous methods, when vinegar was frequently used to preserve meats. However, the vinegar also imparts a delicious flavour, while tenderising the meat at the same time. So many uses! Because it’s such an old and practical recipe, every household (and sometimes even family member) can have different recipes for their adobo, and it therefore tastes dramatically different across the country. Any meat or vegetable can be cooked in the adobo sauce, but chicken and pork are among the more popular variants. I reduced my adobo a lot to form a thick dark sauce that was very strong and tasty – just the thing to accompany lots of fluffy white rice. This recipe reminded me of a regular meal my Mum cooked in my childhood of soy-marinated baked chicken drumsticks. They were a particular favourite of mine and I had all but forgotten about them until I bit into the adobo. I have since confirmed that my Mum doesn’t remember where the recipe came from, and that, like many others, she probably made it up. Nevertheless, it was a nice surprise to recover my beloved childhood chicken memory!