Adobo heritage

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Poor Ramon Lopez must be discombobulated by the firestorm generated by his department’s plan to standardize the Pinoy adobo.

I have to qualify that it’s Pinoy because there is an adobo spice rub / marinade popular in Latin America. It includes spices that aren’t found in our braised pork / chicken adobo, notably ground cumin, paprika and chili, and it lacks that indispensable ingredient in all versions of Philippine adobo – vinegar.

The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) has since clarified that the intent of its Bureau of Philippine Standards to come up with a standardized recipe for adobo (in consultation with several Pinoy chefs and foodies) is meant chiefly for international promotion of Philippine cuisine.

DTI Secretary Mon Lopez can tell critics that vinegar – preferably the strongly flavored such as sukang Iloko or Paombong – is one of the essential adobo ingredients. The others are the salty element – either rock salt or soy sauce or a combination – plus garlic (preferably the pungent native variety from the Ilocos Region), black pepper (ground, cracked or peppercorns) and bay leaves.

Permutations of Pinoy adobo cannot omit those basic ingredients. So yes, it’s possible to standardize a basic adobo recipe, without preventing anyone from tweaking it to personal tastes. Some regions use achuete or annatto for red adobo; others put coconut cream.

I have two favorite variations: my adobong puti (with non-iodized rock salt rather than soy sauce) has either dried rosemary or herbes de Provence. My soy sauce version has onions and chili.

Sometimes I use leftover red wine that has sat out too long and acidified into vinegar. Pinoy expats with no access to sukang Iloko use cider vinegar, which is sweetish. There’s a debate on whether adobo should be sweet, like Pinoy spaghetti, because it could then taste more like Asian braised pork belly.

Those who are trying to standardize “authentic” Pinoy dishes such as adobo and sisig have emphasized that no one is stopping Filipinos from adapting the recipes to personal tastes.

But there really is a basic taste for each dish. You can cook beef and even kangkong (water spinach) and puso ng saging or banana heart the adobo way and it will still be called adobo. Some may put pineapple in their adobo, but not tomato sauce, for example. And if you use tausi instead of soy sauce or sea salt, it won’t taste like adobo but closer to humba.

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Mon Lopez can point out that we’re not the only ones trying to preserve and promote “authentic” local dishes.

Thailand has been at it for nearly two decades now, as part of its “cultural diplomacy” and tourism promotion. Like Taiwan, food is one of the biggest tourism attractions of Thailand. And its officials have fretted about substandard Thai food being served in other countries, or so heavily fusion the dish has become unrecognizable from the original.

As far back as 2003, the Thais have tried promoting “authentic” cuisine through a short-lived program to provide official recognition to dining establishments overseas that serve certified authentic Thai dishes.

In 2013, Yingluck Shinawatra’s administration launched a $1-million program under the National Innovation Agency of the Ministry of Science and Technology, to standardize the preparation of Thailand’s most famous dishes and condiments.

These included pad Thai noodles, the chili paste nam prik, and of course tom yum goong, the spicy sinigang whose unique ingredients include kaffir lime, fresh coriander, the fragrant Thai ginger galangal and lemongrass. For foreign tourists, the Thais serve a mildly spicy version, with the bird’s eye chili on the side. 

The “Thai Delicious” program aimed to come up with “authentic” Thai recipes, train local and foreign chefs working domestically or abroad as well as produce institutional food items using the recipes.

As in the Philippines, the Thai effort has been criticized by those who think cuisines should be dynamic and given free rein to evolve. But the effort continues, to conform with the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage initiated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

The Thais apparently have their sights set on their cuisine’s inclusion in the Unesco list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

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Since 2010, the Unesco list has included the gastronomic meal of the French, Mexican cuisine, Turkish coffee culture, Japan’s Washoku traditional dietary culture, Malawi’s Nsima culinary tradition, the Mediterranean diet and Singapore’s hawker culture.

Individual food items and preparations are also on the list: the traditional Turkish ceremonial wedding stew Keskek, Korean kimchi preparation and sharing, Georgia’s ancient Qvevri wine making in large-egg-shaped terracotta clay pots, Armenia’s traditional bread lavash, Morocco’s argan oil, Arabic coffee, Tajikistan’s traditional meal Oshi Palav, Uzbek palov or rice pilaf, Italy’s Neapolitan pizza making, Azerbaijan’s dolma or stuffed dishes, and flatbread making in Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey.

Last year’s inclusions were Malta’s culinary art of making the flattened ring-shaped sourdough bread ftira, and couscous making in Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia.

Apart from bragging rights, inclusion in the Unesco list is a tourist draw. What can we offer to that list? Lechon comes to mind. Also, balut production, bagoong and patis making (although the Thais might compete in this category).

As for adobo, seeing the reaction to the DTI plan, if we offer up the dish for inclusion in the Intangible Cultural Heritage list, Unesco might tell us to get our act together first.

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