The Filipino comfort food

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz - The Philippine Star

Food is an integral part of any people’s culture. According to public historian Ambeth Ocampo, there is more to food than just nourishment, taste or preservation. The Philippines is fortunate that its food has a distinctive taste. Unfortunately, it has not reached the status of some other Asian foods like Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai and Indian. There are now many groups and personalities that are pushing to make Filipino cuisine take its rightful place as a globally distinctive one.

It was Doreen Gamboa Fernandez who first started writing about Filipino cuisine and started its journey on becoming globally accepted. Today, there are more books being written about it. Here are two of them.

The first is “The Ultimate Filipino Adobo: Stories plus Recipes from the Heart” by Claude Tayag, published by Anvil Publishing, 2024. I have closely followed Tayag in his regular TV show which unfortunately he has stopped producing.

In the Foreword, food scholar and historian Felice Sta. Maria writes: “‘The Ultimate Filipino Adobo’ is a book rich with recipes and stories about a cooked dish unique to the continuing culinary epic. It will not be found in other cuisines from the European Age of Sail.” The most interesting thing about Sta. Maria’s Foreword is her historical revelation that as far back as 1609, the word for adobo was being sought by Spanish missionaries and other colonials. According to her, “Filipino adobo is an expression of gourmet heritage.”

She expresses the belief that the gourmet heritage of Filipinos can compete in the world.

Claude Tayag, the author of the book, is from Pampanga, considered the culinary capital of the Philippines. In his Introduction he writes that the term adobo can refer to the cooking method and the cooked dish. He says that the Pinoy adobo is the country’s most popular dish, although countless variants had been created so it would be inaccurate to call it a singular dish.

According to him, in Filipino cooking, most of the dishes are named after the manner those are prepared. He writes: “Thus we have adobo and paksiw (cooking with vinegar and a variation of spices and seasonings), sigang (boiling with a souring fruit), kilaw (washing with vinegar any fresh seafood, eating it raw), ihaw (grill), prito (fry), laga (boil), etc.”

According to Tayag, a cooked dish conforms with the maker and not a codified recipe.  Therefore, there is an infinite room for interpretation, depending on personal preference, availability of ingredients, religious beliefs and dietary and budgetary constraints. In addition, there is a myriad of sauces available to adjust the dish’s flavor to one’s liking. For this purpose, you have toyo, patis, suka, calamansi and sili on the table.

One of the most intriguing statements that Tayag wrote in the book is: “I have always believed that Filipino cuisine is perhaps one of the most democratic and egalitarian cuisine in the world. The Pinoy cook has no ego. It is an interactive cooking. It is a living thing that keeps evolving.”

The book is divided into six chapters and an Epilogue.  Chapter I’s title is “The Filipino Adobo;” Chapter 2, “The Classics: Variations on a Theme;” Chapter 3, “Pre-Hispanic Adobos;” Chapter 4, “Adobo by the Book and by Cooks;” Chapter 5, “Postcards from Everywhere to Home;” Chapter 6, “Claude’s Adobo Interpretation: Doing it my way” and the Epilogue, “How Baboy the Pig.”

In his book, Tayag defines adobo in the Filipino context as a cooking method with vinegar as its primary liquid sauce. He also states that this is not a national dish, because we have no national dish.

I have always thought that our national dish was either the lechon or the adobo. One of the most interesting sections of the book is Tayag’s description of the most popular vinegar in the country. There is the baseline vinegar made from sugarcane juice. The sugarcane vinegar is traditional in the sugarcane-growing provinces. There is the palm vinegar which is less sharp but sweeter than coconut vinegar. This is best for cooking paksiw. In Panay and Negros Occidental, there is the sinamak, the coconut vinegar infused with garlic and siling labuyo. Then there is the sukang tuba, which is the most commonly used vinegar in the country. This coconut sap or tuba is clear and sweet, containing about 10-18 percent sugar and could be had as a thirst-quenching drink.

The other unique feature of this book is that it has the lyrics and melody of the song “Adobo ni Inang,” music and lyrics by Nonoy Gallardo and sung by Celeste Legaspi.

A close cousin to the Filipino adobo is the humba. This is the equivalent of the adobo in Chinese cooking.

The book settles the issue that the Filipino adobo’s recipe cannot be standardized. However, we can all agree that the adobo is the ultimate comfort food for Filipinos.

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