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26 top Filipino iconic dishes

What’s your pleasure, buhaghag or malabsa?

In the vastness of our archipelago, with so many diverse cultures and cuisines, we can only conclude that our country is not only truly one of the most beautiful countries because of its natural resources, but it is also endowed with some of the warmest, most hospitable, happiest people on the planet, having one of the most malinamnam cuisines there is. It is celebratory food meant to be shared.

The Philippines holds a unique position as the only country in Asia influenced by both sides of the Pacific — from its neighbors in the region of Malaysia and Indonesia, including China and India, and Mexico during the two and a half centuries when the Galleon Trade flourished. Add to the cooking pot Spain and the United States, and you have a vibrant mix of all these cultures, which, rather than confusing, gives modern-day Filipinos a particular personality that is comfortable with himself and, at the same time, at home with the rest of the world. It is definitely more fun eating in the Philippines. 

1. Rice to the occasion – Central to any Philippine meal is rice, whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner, from north to south of the archipelago. Have you ever noticed that a great majority of our ulam (viand) is saucy? The sauce or broth is placed on the rice to wet it, or even to stretch the ulam along with the rice (Ilocano lahoy; Tagalog and Visayan bahog; Pampango ambula). But even when the ulam is fried and sauce-less, there’s the banana ketchup, liver sauce, toyo or even the fried chicken gravy to get by with (a popular fast-food chain advises customers not to have it as a “soup”). Karinderias, no matter how humble, always give broth, whether nilaga or sinigang, for free with one’s meal. There are also two opposite camps on how the rice should be cooked: buhaghag (loose and fluffy) or malabsa (sticky). It is imperative that it be served steaming hot. And then there are the rice noodles (bihon in pansit luglog, Malabon, guisado) and kakanín or rice cakes (bibingkâ, palitaw, mochi, bilo-bilo, biko, inangit, suman, tupig, patupat, sinukmani, budbod, nilidgid, iraid, barubod, moron, etc.) and arroz caldo or goto, all for merienda in between the rice meals. In most farmlands of Central Luzon, eating rice with carabao’s milk is a pretty common breakfast fare, sprinkled with rock salt, tuyô or ripe mango, while in Batangas, a coffee-growing province, the hot brew is poured over rice. In Pampanga, we have the duman, the green glutinous rice harvested when still young (similar to the Tagalog pinipig, but not quite), eaten like a cereal with carabao’s milk or hot tsokolate. The Mexican champurrado made with corn flour and chocolate is given a Pinoy twist using glutinous rice, tsokolate and tuyô flakes that could cure any rainy-day blues. The savory fiesta rice dish bringhé of Pampanga and Bulacan (a.k.a. balensiana in the Visayas) is made of glutinous rice, cooked with chicken broth, coconut milk, chicken gizzards, flavored with patis and turmeric, and then topped with hardboiled egg and raisins.

Chicken and pork adobo

2. Adobo In the Filipino context, adobo generally refers to the meat stew (a.k.a. CPA or Chicken/Pork Adobo) simmered in vinegar, garlic, black peppercorn and bay leaf. It is perhaps the country’s most popular dish, spawning countless variants, such that it is inaccurate to call it a singular dish. Adobo is a cooking technique of braising any meat (chicken, pork, beef, quail, duck, venison, seafood, frogs, etc.) or vegetable with the aforementioned ingredients, with regional variations or personal preferences of adding soy sauce (from the Chinese), achuete (Mexican achiote or annatto), onion, coconut cream, lemongrass, or turmeric. It can be made like a saucy stew or thickened with chicken liver, or the cooked adobo meat pulled apart to be deep-fried into crispy flakes, first introduced to the public by Glenda Barretto of Via Mare in 1975. 

Sour notes in sinigang

3. Sinigang is a clear broth soup dish made with a sour fruit (kamias, sampalok, santol, kalamansi, alibangbang, bayabas, batuan, labóg, etc.), depending on the maker’s personal preference, region, season, and what seafood, meat or vegetable is on hand or afforded. The cooked dish is enjoyed and loved by all, transcending all economic boundaries. Though sinigang is basically a very Tagalog thing, Pampangos have their bulanglang bayabas (guava), the Visayans their tinola/tinowa/tuwa, and Bicolanos their cocido, both clear broth seafood soups made lightly sour only with tomatoes and a dribble of kalamansi at most. Not to forget the sinigang sa miso (always with fish), the last addition to the sinigang tradition, using miso introduced by the Japanese farm workers in Mindanao in the early 1900s.

4. Pansit - Undoubtedly, one of the indelible contributions of China to our culinary landscape is the pansit/pancit. It may come in different forms and ingredients, stir-fried or wallowing in a rich broth, eaten as merienda or as a viand together with other dishes making up a meal, but what remains essentially the same is the filling, heartwarming comfort it has given to generations of Filipinos. Take your pick of miki (fresh wheat noodles), canton (dry wheat), bihon (rice noodles), or sotanghon (known as vermicelli, glass noodles or soy bean thread). From north to south, here are the most popular noodle dishes loved by the locals: Miki soup, Batil Patung, Cabagan, Luglog/Palabok, Malabon, Guisado, Canton, Sotanghon, Mami, Lomi, Lucban, Kinalas, Batchoy and Udóng in Davao. 

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5. Lechon – what Filipino fiesta or special family occasion be without the lechon or whole roasted pig with its shiny, taut, crispy crackling? Though the manner of roasting a whole pig on an open pit remains the same all over the archipelago, the way it is prepared and served differs. In the Ilocos region, the pig is stuffed with karimbuwaya, a cactus plant (Indian spurge tree, Euphorbia neriifolia) with succulent petal leaves that emit a certain citrus aroma and have a subtle sourness to them. This stuffing is served as a siding, together with a thick black sauce made from the pig’s blood and vinegar called dinardaraan (think of a meatless dinuguan). Meanwhile, in the Central Luzon and Southern Tagalog areas, a sweet/sour/salty and peppery sauce made with pork liver accompanies the unseasoned lechon, while the Visayans favor stuffing the pig with salt, peppercorn, lemongrass, garlic, leeks, star anise, etc., resulting in a very aromatic (albeit a tad too salty) lechon, making the liver sauce unnecessary. At most, only vinegar is commonly served as a dipping sauce.

Kare-kare: East meets West in this original fusion dish only a Pinoy could concoct.

6. Kare-kare – this peanut-based stew of oxtail and tripe is the quintessential fusion dish that could have evolved only in a Filipino kitchen. During the very brief British occupation of Manila in 1762-64, some 500 Sepoys or Indian soldiers employed by the British invading forces from Madras, India, deserted and chose to remain and settled in Cainta and Taytay areas in Rizal province. They intermarried and assimilated with the locals. With these two towns on the path of pilgrims on the way to Antipolo, many of these new settlers filled the need of pilgrims to eat along the way, opening roadside eateries that came to be called karinderia/karihan. According to writer Dr. Ricardo Soler, the term comes from the Indian dish kaikaari, which the Sepoys introduced, defined as “a sauce, gravy, or stew of vegetables cooked with many spices.” Hence, the term karinderia was coined, following the Spanish practice of adding eria to a noun to mean a place where one can have kaari, by now to mean any dish served in such eateries (have you ever wondered why a lot of karinderia dishes are saucy? Read “Rice to the occasion” above). Anyway, when the Sepoys ran out of their ingredients for kaikaari, they began to incorporate local ingredients, leading to what is now known as kare-kare, the oxtail (the cattle was introduced by the Spaniards) stew made orange by atsuete/achiote and mani/peanuts from Mexico, petsay and sitaw (yard-long beans) from China, and accompanied by the indigenous banana heart and bagoong alamang or shrimp paste. The name kare-kare is coined after the Malay convention of repeating words to mean faux or “lookalike,” as in kaari-like. East finally meets West.

7. Bulalo - If there’s one singular dish Batangas is identified with, it is bulalo, with the province being a major cattle producer. Though it is just basically nilagang baka, the boiled beef shank and kneecap (called bulalo in Tagalog) is slow-cooked for hours with onions, leeks, salt, and pepper, until much of the collagen and fat has melted into the clear, flavorful broth. It is variably served with some petsay, cabbage, carrots, potatoes, or corn on the cob, depending on the whim of the cook. According to urban legend, the present-day bulalo as we know it was popularized by Rose and Grace Restaurant, a Batangas institution since 1970. It served the typical nilagang baka just like everybody else, but it was able to brand it as bulalo with the use of uniformly cut shanks with bone marrow, making it attractive to patrons, and serving it piping-hot in large bowls. Meanwhile, the same nilagang bulalo is called pochero in Cebu, kansi in Iloilo, and pakdol in Tacloban.

Pampanga’s sisig: The perfect beer match, according to Anthony Bourdain

8. Sisig - No respectable Filipino eatery worth its fat would be without sisig, that yummy, cholesterol-laden Pampango pulutan served on a sizzling plate. In its present popular form, it is basically a concoction of pork ears, cheek, and jowl, first boiled, then grilled over charcoal until almost charred, chopped and mixed with boiled chicken liver, onions, and kalamansi, and spiked with fresh chili. Aling Lucing Cunanan of Angeles City is credited with having invented the present-day version of sisig in the mid-1970s, doing a makeover on the sisig matua, grilling further the boiled pig’s head and mixing it with chopped chicken liver. Another local establishment, Sisig Benedict (owned and operated by the late Benedict Pamintuan), gave sisig a new presentation, serving it on a hot skillet for that crunchy finish. But even then, sizzling sisig was only popular among the Angeleños and the accidental tourists. It wasn’t until cousins Mario and Dan Tayag opened Trellis Restaurant in Quezon City in 1980 that many Metro Manilans had their first taste of this Pampango delicacy. This started the restaurant/grill genre bandwagon, and the sizzling craze caught on. In some joints in the metropolis, it is served with a raw egg that will cook on the hot plate (making it an ulam to be eaten with rice), or is mixed with mayonnaise and what-have-you. For the more health-conscious, cholesterol-free variants have been concocted out of squid, tuna, shrimp, tofu, or chicken. Nowadays, it seems that just about anything served on a sizzling plate is called sisig. But nothing beats the genuine article, in all its artery-clogging, uric acid-elevating glory.

9. Pork barbecue - Where there’s smoke, there bound to be pork barbecue. No children’s party is ever complete without this grilled pork on bamboo sticks. The pork meat (as well as chicken) is marinated in a distinctively Pinoy blend of a sweet/salty mixture made with soy sauce, sugar (or 7-Up — the carbonation is believed to be a tenderizer), banana ketchup and chili. The popularity of this treat goes beyond regional boundaries — by mid-afternoon, one will find barbecue stands sprouting on practically every street corner nationwide, especially in the provinces, serving other pork and chicken cuts as well. It is also a favorite pulutan or ulam eaten with rice and atsara (from the Indian achaar or pickled vegetables and fruits). Chicken barbecue and inihaw na liempo (grilled pork belly) follow the same manner of marinating and cooking.

10. Pakbet/pinakbet The Ilocanos’ most popular contribution to Philippine cuisine is perhaps the pakbet (pronounced pak-butt). Yet, this seemingly simple vegetable stew elicits much debate as to what the genuine article is, perhaps in the same way adobo does. But what is “authentic” nowadays? As with most classic traditional dishes, it has been transformed into different variants and interpretations, although each adaptation credits its origin by calling it still by its original name. The traditional pakbet has the bittersweet ampalaya, whose bitterness defines much of Ilocano cooking; the slimy okra; sitaw or yard-long beans; sigadillas or winged beans; lima beans; small green finger chilies (that have no sting); eggplant, and sometimes kamote. Ilocano tradition dictates how specific the veggies are cut and placed in a palayok or earthenware pot in layers, doused with bagoong isda (salt fermented anchovy paste), covered and steamed in its own juices, with an occasional shaking of the pot. After all, its original name comes from pinakkebet or pikakulubot, meaning literally “to cook till wrinkled.” And if the gods are kind, chicharon (pork rind) or bagnet (lechon kawali or crispy fried pork belly) may be added. But the non-Ilocano version (more popular outside of the Ilocano homes) is the use of bagoong alamang or shrimp paste, to be sautéed with onion, garlic and tomatoes. Kalabasa or squash is included in the stew, a big no-no to an Ilocano purist. Adding shrimp, pork or chicharon is the de rigueur practice in this version.

11. Lechon kawali/bagnet another Filipino dish Pinoys can’t seem to get enough of is this deep-fried pork belly, with its layers of meat and fat, topped with a blistery, crunchy crackling. It is a kind of lechon but cooked in a kawali (wok, same kwali in Malaysia and Singapore) a.k.a. lechon carajay in some provinces (carajay is a synonym of kawali). Lechon kawali is usually served with spicy vinegar or, of late, the sweet/salty/peppery liver sauce. While up north in the Ilocos, its bagnet is paired with KBL, a quasi-salad of chopped kamatis (tomatoes), bagoong isda (fish paste) and lasuna (shallots). It is popularly sold in big chunks in the wet markets all over the Ilocos, in Camiling, Tarlac, and in Bocaue, Bulacan. 

12. Crispy pata - Who can resist crispy pata or deep-fried pork legs with crisp, blistery skin and moist, tender meat inside? The pork legs are boiled till fork-tender, air-dried or kept in the ref overnight, and then deep-fried to a golden crisp. It is invariably served with atsara and a requisite dipping sauce made with equal amount of soy sauce and vinegar, a little sugar, chopped onions and chili. This ambrosial treat is claimed to have been invented by Rodolfo Ongpauco way back in 1958, a son of Barrio Fiesta’s founder Sixta “Mama Chit” Evangelista Ongpauco. The most unforgettable, out-of-this-world crispy pata I’ve tried is made by Ka Ambrosia “Ambo” Reynoso of Sta. Cruz, Marinduque. Its skin is crisp and light, with its meat literally falling off the bones and melt-in-the-mouth buttery fat and tendons. The octogenarian’s home-based business secret is choosing only the legs weighing not more than 1.4 kilos each, from young boars to the female gilt that hasn’t farrowed yet, or virginal li’l Miss Piggies. Milky Way in Makati serves a mean crispy patita, the hind leg of a suckling pig.

13. Kaldereta comes from the Spanish caldereta to mean the paprika-flavored lamb stew or the small cauldron it is cooked in (Spanish caldero; Filipino kaldero). Though its origin may have been Spanish, our collective grandmothers have modified it to suit our palates. The rich tomato sauce it is stewed in is made richer with the inclusion of canned pork liver spread, soy sauce, Spanish chorizo and olives, bell peppers (capsicum) and then the final dish is topped with grated cheddar cheese. Goat and beef are the Pinoy’s preferred meats for this delicious stew, a favorite pulutan during fiestas and special family occasions.

14. Bicol Express - Of all the regional Philippine cuisines, Bicolano cooking is perhaps the only one that can be homogenously characterized by its heavy use of coconut milk and copious amount of chilies, be it in the meat, seafood and vegetable dishes. The Bicol region encompasses the four southeastern Luzon provinces of Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur, Albay, and Sorsogon, and two island provinces of Catanduanes and Masbate. No self-respecting establishment in Bicol worth its coconut (pun intended), from the humblest turo-turo to any upscale bistro, would be caught dead without its iconic laing, pinangat, and Bicol Express. The latter, a.k.a. gulay na lada (gulay in Bicolano means cooked in coconut milk or ginataan, while lada means chilies), it comes in so many variants, as countless as there are households. 

Bicol Express got its name from the express train that used to ply Tutuban Station in Manila to the southern terminal at Legazpi City in Albay and back. Legend has it that the late restaurateur Tita Cely Kalaw, the big-hearted lady from Lipa City, Batangas, who grew up in Naga City, where she developed her Bicolano taste buds, started her cooking career back in 1970 with a four-table hole-in-the-wall karinderia in the garage of an uncle’s house in Malate, Manila. Here, the legend goes, her brother Kuya Itring introduced the Bicolano dish gulay na lada to the uninitiated Manileños, naming it after the express train from Bicol, which they could hear coming and going from their kitchen. The fiery dish literally caught fire in Manila and spread all over the archipelago, such that today, even in the region of its origin, it is now popularly called Bicol Express, albeit in so many variants.

15. Cured meats: tapa, tocino and longganisa These cured meats are a favorite ulam for breakfast, eaten together with sinangag or garlic fried rice and fried egg (popularly known as si-log, after the sinangag and itlog/egg). In Pampanga, a sugar-producing province, the sweet-cured pork tocino was originally called pindang babi. Mrs. Lolita Hizon of Pampanga’s Best brand first marketed and popularized it in the late 1960s, naming it after the Spanish tocino (meaning bacon or salted pork) for its “sweet, ham-like taste.” On the other hand, tapa (from the Spanish tapa to mean beef jerky) is also curing any meat with salt and is sun-dried. Commonly used meats are beef, venison and wild boar.

Longganisa (also called chorizo in some regions) is one of the indelible culinary legacies from Spain. The Filipinos, in turn, adopted and adapted it with gusto to their regional context. In the Ilocos region, producers of sukang Iloko, salt and garlic that they are, the Ilocanos love their longganisa seasoned with the three, natural preservatives all. In Pampanga, sugar is used as the main seasoning (again, as a preservative) which, when cooked, gives the longganisa a cloyingly rich, sweet caramelized coating, much like the tocino. The bipolarity of these two schools of taste is like a tug-of-war between the salty and sweet — the former, popularly known nationwide as de recado (Spanish for seasoning; Tagalog sangkap), as salty and garlicky; and the latter, hamonado (from Spanish jamon) after the sweet, ham-like taste. Other variants have evolved using whatever locally available ingredient there is, or whatever local/regional taste dictates. Some have even made the town famous (i.e. Vigan, Lucban, Alaminos, Guagua, Cabanatuan, etc.) distinctive not only in taste, but in shape and size as well. Cabalen’s version breaks barriers by not being too cloyingly sweet and garlicky, has lean meat to boot, anathema to the market-bought longganisas oozing with chunks of fat.

16. Kinilaw - In the Kinilaw book co-authored by Edilberto N. Alegre and Doreen G. Fernandez (Bookmark, Inc.), they identified the distinctive qualities of kinilaw itself: “the freshness, sweetness of the raw — and of the process, cooking not in fire, but in liquid fire (vinegar) … Kinilaw is also a confluence of different degrees of tartness, of spiciness, of bitterness, of layers of softness and crunchiness — to bring out the sweetness. The cuisine does not improve, but rather highlights the innate quality of the food.” Indeed, kilaw (the cooking preparation) has been found in the thousand-year-old Butuan Balangay diggings, and has been pervasively practiced all over the archipelago. It can be made with any fish, seafood, meat, fruit — in fact, practically anything fresh that is abundant in the immediate surroundings. The souring agent commonly used is any white vinegar from sugarcane (tubó), coconut sap (tubá) to palm (nipa), or kalamansi and other sour fruits. In most parts of Mindanao, widely used are the endemic suwa (small native lime) and tabun-tabun (Hydrophytune orbiculatum), a fruit that resembles a chico whose core is scraped and mixed with the raw fish to remove its fishy smell and prevents stomach upsets. It also gives the kilawin a unique pakla or tartness that the locals look for. Other basic ingredients are salt, ginger, onions, chilies and coconut milk. A fairly recent addition to the kinilaw tradition is the sinuglaw, adopted by Cagayan de Oro City as its signature dish. It is the mixture of two emblematic Visayan dishes, sinugba nga baboy or grilled pork and kinilaw nga malasugi (swordfish) or tangige ( Spanish mackerel).

17. Lumpia - Fresh, fried or hubad, the lumpia is more proof of the Chinese presence in our veins. We even have our very own Shanghai lumpia, those cigar-size fried rolls filled with ground pork and water chestnut (apulid), served with a sweet chili sauce, but is nowhere to be found in the place it was named after. Another offshoot is the fresh lumpiang ubod, containing strips of coconut pith sautéed with shrimps or pork, perfected in Sugarlandia, Bacolod. The original lumpia was introduced by the early Chinese settlers, mostly Hokkienese/Fookienese from southern Fujian province. It is a symbolic dish served during the lunar New Year, which translates to “spring roll,” because Chinese New Year is actually the spring festival, celebrating spring as an important season in cold-weather countries. It’s basically a crepe stuffed with sautéed spring vegetables. Chinese and Filipino cultural elements were mixed through the centuries of intermarriage and assimilation between early Chinese immigrants and native Filipinos, forming a hybrid culture and cuisine called Tsinoy/Chinoy that is unique to the Philippines.

18. Bistek Tagalog the name bistek is borrowed from the Spanish bistec, in turn after the English “beefsteak.” In the Pinoy context, it is a manner of cooking tougher (hence cheaper) cuts of beef which are sliced thinly, pounded till the stringy parts are broken, then marinated with two flavors the Tagalogs love – the saltiness from soy sauce and the sour/citrusy flavor of kalamansi. The cooked beef is topped with sautéed onion rings. In Pampanga, this manner of cooking is called bistig, and is also made with pork, carabeef and bangus, thus named bistig babi, bistig damulag and bistig bangus, respectively. While in Fely J’s restaurant in Makati City, their version is named Bistik Tagalog ng Kano (colloquial for American) using US Black Angus sirloin but still with the same soy sauce and kalamansi seasoning, a.k.a. toyomansi.

19. Tinolang manok Our inimitable comfort soup is cooked with native chicken (if available), giving the broth a more intense flavor, wedges of green papaya, young pepper leaves, ginger and black peppercorns. The sawsawan of choice is patis, but make mine with mashed chicken liver and kalamansi.

20. Chicken inasal The Ilonggo way of grilling over a charcoal pit is called inasal (from its root word asal, after the Spanish asar meaning to grill or roast, i.e. cochinillo asado). It is slow-grilled, placed high above the heat, cooking it slowly, giving it a smoky flavor. It also conjures a different kind of marinade with a unique blend of suka or kalamansi, infused with garlic, achuete (for that orange color), lemongrass, and salt or at times soy sauce. It is this inasal thing that has caught fire in the national arena. In fact, many fast-food chains have sprung up, cashing in on this Ilonggo phenomenon. One has the choice of the different chicken parts: pecho (breast), pa-a (leg), pakpak (wings), isol (butt or tail), baticulón (gizzard) and atay (liver). One last thing: one of the bottles you’ll find in the condiment tray in any inasal joint is a bottle of orange-colored oil. This is achuete oil, a.k.a. CX motor oil, which is dribbled over rice, another very Ilonggo thing. The original oil used is actually chicken fat, definitely more flavorful, but for health reasons, it has been replaced with vegetable oil. Give us chicken fat or none at all!

21. Paksiw/Daing na bangus Of all the basic tastes, it is sourness that is most dominant in Philippine cuisine. Vinegar is one of the most indispensable ingredients in the Filipino kitchen, and has been used for centuries not just for seasoning, but also as a natural preservative. In the pre-refrigeration era, it was common knowledge that cooking with vinegar would prolong the dish’s shelf life without refrigeration, most especially with our hot tropical climate. It is also widely used as a marinade, in pickling vegetables and fruits (i.e. achara and burong manga), and is the much-favored dipping sauce throughout the length and breadth of the archipelago. Thus, this formed our collective fondness for a touch of sourness in dishes like kinilaw, paksiw, sinigang and even adobo. The uninitiated may find the sourness initially a bit jarring to their taste buds. The paksiw is a dish cooked with vinegar, garlic and ginger, with its requisite vegetables of ampalaya, eggplant and green chilies. In the Visayas, it is called pinamalhan, literally meaning cooked until the vinegar has dissipated. Paksiw is traditionally served only for breakfast or dinner, but never for lunch. Don’t ask me why, but your guess is as good as any.

22. Tuyô/danggit/tinapa Daing is the general term of curing or preserving fish with salt and vinegar. It could be prepared with a wet marinade of vinegar, garlic and black peppercorns, or just sprinkled with salt and then sun-dried (tuyô means dry, or a type of dried fish). Tinapa is another way of preserving fish through smoking. Most coastal towns around the country have their own traditional ways of preserving the bounties from the sea. A major center of seafood is the Visayan Sea triangle with its impressive marine resources, which includes the islands of Panay, Negros, Cebu, Samar, and Masbate, hence a wide variety of dried fishes abound in their respective markets. Just like the paksiw above, daing/ tuyo/ tinapa is favored for breakfast and dinner fare and seldom for lunch.

23. Fried chicken - What is it with Filipinos and fried chicken? Even the burger chains are agog with the phenomenon, such that fried chicken outsells the burger, amounting to more than 60 percent of total sales. There’s the simply fried version exemplified by a homegrown institution, Max’s Fried Chicken, which traces its origins back to 1945, and the one coated in flour or batter, American “southern fried chicken” best represented by KFC and Jollibee’s Chickenjoy.

But going back to the hundred-million-peso question: what is it with Filipinos and fried chicken? Growing up in the early 1960s, I remember that chicken was only available live from the wet markets. It was a very tedious process for a housewife then to prepare a chicken dish for the family. One would have to kill the bird by wringing its head backwards, slitting its throat, letting the blood drip, then, holding it by its head, submerging the whole body in a cauldron of boiling water to make it easy to pluck its feathers. Though chicken was a staple meat, it appeared on the table always chopped up into serving pieces and made into nilaga, adobo, apritada, or pochero, and always accompanied by potatoes and other veggies as extenders. To cook fried chicken at home was a messy, grand production, compounded by the copious amount of cooking oil needed to fry it, as it wasn’t as affordable to the general public then. It appeared on the dining table especially during fiestas or someone’s birthday. But when Magnolia first came out with the dressed chicken in 1973, and the cooking oil became more affordable to the mass market, this paved the way for the fried-chicken frenzy cooked at home. Nowadays, it is available to the man on the street in fast-food chains and sidewalk food stalls. Still and all, it holds a special place in the Pinoy’s heart.

24. Pinaputok na isda – the grapevine has it that the original pinaputok was invented to recycle unsold fried fish. Instead of feeding it to the staff, it was stuffed instead with an onion/tomato salsa, wrapped in banana leaf and aluminum foil, then cooked again by steaming, frying, or grilling over charcoal, and voila, a new dish was born! It is the French en papillote or parchment-wrapped dish, if you will, with the fish grilled or baked cooking in its own natural juices with all its flavors contained in the pouch. It was at Villa Amanda’s Resort in Abucay, Bataan, that we had the best pinaputok na tilapia by far. We opted for the large pla-pla (hybrid tilapia), and it came with clean-tasting, moist, and milky-white meat, its belly and head oozing with natural fat. The large fish was newly caught as ordered from the moat surrounding the restaurant, stuffed with the salsa after being gutted and cleaned, then wrapped with banana leaf and foil, then directly into the charcoal grill. It couldn’t any get fresher than that.

25. Halo-halo One of the more plausible theories about halo-halo (another Malay language convention of repeating words to pluralize it, to mean maraming halo or many mixes. Puh-lease don’t translate it to “mix-mix”) is that it was introduced by Japanese settlers in the early 1900s, just as with miso and the udong of Davao. No matter, from their basic azuki or sweetened red mung beans placed on top of finely shaved ice (known then as mongo con hielo, spawning variants like mais con hielo and saba con hielo. Though we were already under the Americans then, Spanish was still in use, especially with food terminology). There is no specific recipe for halo-halo, anything and everything can go into the kaleidoscope. The most common ones are white beans, red mung beans, garbanzos, macapuno or coconut sport, kaong or sugar palm fruit, sago pearls, gulaman or agar-agar, saging saba, corn kernels, haleyang ube or purple yam jam, langkâ, kamote, melon, avocado, pinipig or rice crispies, etc. Whereas the Japanese summer treat has the shaved ice placed first in a bowl, topped with the azuki, then evaporated milk poured over it, the Pinoy version will have all the sweetened ingredients placed first in a cobbler, then covered with the shaved ice, topped with either leche flan or a scoop of ice cream for a special version, and only then is the milk poured. Getting to mix the stuff is a bit tricky, though, without spilling any of its content. In Pampanga, however, known for its extravagance when it comes to the affairs of the stomach, its halo-halo follows a minimalist tack, exemplified by the now-popular chains of Kabigting of Arayat and Razon of Guagua. The former has only pastillas de leche, yellow bean paste and cream-style corn, while the latter has saging saba, macapuno and is topped with leche flan. The linamnam (richness) of these select ingredients more than compensates for what it may lack in textural variety and visual appeal. Halfway through the serving, as the finely shaved ice mixes with the milk and filling, resulting in creamy stuff, it is simply irresistible to drink it straight from the goblet almost like a melted milkshake.

26. Sawsawan - Though technically this is not a dish (well, a side dish nevertheless), no Filipino meal is ever without sawsawan or dipping sauces. They are provided at every dining table in the country, whether at home or in commercial establishments. It is the real pampagana or appetizer that could make one’s meal more pleasurable. Doreen Fernandez ascribes it to a desire to fine-tune the taste of the dish to the preference of the individual diner, unlike in western cooking, where there’s the ego of the chef to contend with (thank God for our great, unnamed kusineros). Most common sawsawan are patis (fish sauce), toyo (soy sauce), bagoong alamang  (salt-fermented shrimp paste) and bagoong isda (salt-fermented fish), or any of the four mixed with kalamansi or vinegar and spiked with siling labuyo or bird’s-eye chili. Banana ketchup and sweet liver sauce are fast becoming staples as well. 

Also popular are the relishes or side dishes with any of the following combinations: chopped tomato, onion, green mango, salted egg, grilled eggplant, fresh mustard leaves, kamias, radish, cilantro, lató or seaweed of various kinds, and chili, as well as atsara of pickled green papaya and other veggies, burong manga (pickled mango), and burong isda (salt-fermented rice with fish). These quasi-salads go well with any fried or grilled meat and fish. Our penchant for adding sawsawan is a balancing act of tempering something salty with something sour. 

So, the next time you eat out, give the first bite to the kusinero as he intended the dish to be. If you don’t agree with his palate, feel free to concoct your own sawsawan. After all, you’re the one eating and footing the bill. But, on the other hand, you may miss the chance to discover other tastes and flavors. It’s truly more fun eating in the Philippines.

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