Every culture boasts about the importance of their cuisine to their family and traditions, and Filipinos are no different. With a unique geographic location between the eastern and southeast Asian regions and a melting pot of cultural influences (thanks, colonialism), it’s a bit difficult to describe Pinoy dishes to those who have not tried any. Sweet, sour and salty flavors dominate our palates thanks to staple ingredients like vinegar, garlic and many vegetables and fruits native to the regions. In honor of Filipino American History Month during October, I’ll be sharing my favorite foods and other popular dishes from the Philippines.
There are a few basic things to know about eating like a Filipino. We eat everything with white (or garlic fried) rice to soak up all of the “sabaw” (broth) and flavor of our “ulam” (main dish). We eat everything with a fork and spoon, the latter of which to scoop up rice easier. And we also eat everything with some kind of sauce, whether it be patis (fish sauce), toyomansi (soy sauce with calamansi, a Filipino citrus) or vinegar.
Although my father is Chinese and as a culture, it is rife with tradition, I tend to relate more to my Filipino roots due to my mom cooking us food from the homeland since I was born. (It may also be due to the fact that my father’s family are Chinese people who live in the Philippines so many of their customs have regional influences, but that’s a different story.) Since coming to college and becoming friends with people from a vast array of cultures, I have been able to appreciate the cultural and personal significance of Filipino cuisine in my life more. Who knew I was so proud to be Pinoy?
Considered the unofficial dish of the Philippines, this savory stew is made by cooking a meat of your choice in vinegar, soy sauce, black peppercorns and bay leaves. My favorite kind is when my mom makes it with a balance of tender pork meat and some oily pork fat to add flavor, although chicken is a popular choice as well. As seen in the name, it has Spanish roots, and this way of marinating also allows it to last longer without refrigeration, making it a popular dish throughout the country. Quickly fry it with some dried-out rice and more garlic or toss it into a pot of pancit (which we’ll talk about later), and you’ve got another delicious meal.
I’m not going to lie, I get offended when I describe lumpia and people think of the thick Chinese egg rolls (which I’m pretty sure are an Americanized takeout creation) or the dainty Vietnamese fresh spring rolls (which are delicious, but much different). Lumpia shanghai, which is the meat version, are small, crispy fried spring rolls packed with flavor and dipped into soy sauce with garlic and pepper. A typical mixture that my mom would make includes pork, carrots, celery, onion and spices all ground up into a paste. I’ve become the designated lumpia wrapper in our household so at least I know I have a backup job.
Pancit is the classic stir-fried noodle dish in our country made with different kinds of noodles. Canton is a thicker egg noodle similar to chow mein while the other classic variation is made with bihon, thin rice noodles. My mom often mixes both, but I prefer a thicker noodle to carry the perfect balance of veggies, meat and sauce. Pancit is a staple at any Filipino celebration, and I can always count on it to be satisfying.
It’s a banana with langka (jackfruit) fried in a spring roll wrapper. Need I say more? Oh yeah, most versions are sticky with brown sugar glaze drizzled on the outside. You’re welcome.
Literally translating to “mix mix,” halo-halo is a cold dessert with a bunch of mix-ins to customize, but a classic base includes shaved ice, coconut shreds, langka, sweetened beans, condensed milk, sago and gulaman (different jellies) and even leche flan or ube ice cream.
My father doesn’t cook that often but on Sunday mornings, he would always fry up garlic with our older white rice to create silog, a.k.a. garlic fried rice. Silog is usually eaten with a runny fried egg and an ulam such as corned beef (my favorite), longanisa (sweet Filipino sausage), daing na bangus (marinated baby milkfish) or tapa (marinated beef strips).
It’s like congee, but much more flavorful. Arroz caldo is a garlicky, gingery, satisfying rice porridge with shredded chicken, fried garlic, ginger and saffron to warm you up, even if you’re sweating in the insanely humid Filipino weather.
Honorable mentions: pan de sal, lechon kawali, pancit palabok, empanadas, pork barbecue, pinapaitan, champorado, ensaymada, fried fish