One of the main reasons we human beings choose to travel is to experience different cultures, different peoples and of course different lifestyles. Part of the different lifestyles we desire to experience is food. Wherever you choose to go in the world, you will find food that is varied and different from that which you are used to at home.
I always find it disappointing when I read people who decry the style, standard or taste of food in different places, as they travel around the world. If you didn't want to try the local food, why did you come here? You may as well stay at home and eat your meat and two veg, your fish and chips, or your roast of lamb. The reality is that wherever you may be visiting or living, part of the excitement is the opportunity to try something different, something unique to that area of the world. Travel gives you the opportunity to broaden your taste buds, but more importantly it gives your gastronomy the opportunity to be thrilled, to be tantalized, and yes occasionally even to be horrified and repulsed. It's part of the thrill of travel. I say...embrace the new and exciting. Try anything and everything. Two things are for sure: You will forever be able to regale your friends with tales of the weird and wonderful new foods you have tried and; you may find some wonderful tastes and dishes that you can take back home and recreate in your own kitchen.
Every country has its signature dishes, its delicacies and its favorite foods. Certainly the Philippines is no different in that respect. In the more than three years I have lived here I have tried many different local dishes, some of which excited my taste buds to the point that they have become my favorite dishes and some dishes and tastes that my mouth quickly decided it could without, let alone my stomach. The thing is I was prepared to try them and open myself up to the possibilities. I have some awesome new foods that I enjoy now and equally I have some that I avoid like the plague...but that's all part of the joy of discovery. "When in Rome (or Manila), do as the Romans (or Pinoys) do". That has been my motto since the day I arrived here and it's not going to change any time soon.
So, what are the favorite foods of Filipinos? What are their tastes? What is their style of cuisine?
Like most post-colonial countries the cuisine of The Philippines is a melding of cuisines from the indigenous peoples, the Spanish colonialists, the American colonialists and other Asian influences. This melting pot of cultures produces a wide variety of different dishes that are uniquely Filipino and exciting.
Filipino tastes are different from much of what you find in Asia. While there is certainly spicy food available here, without generalizing too much, I think it is fair to say that Filipinos are not great fans of chili, curries, or hot, peppery dishes. They love sweet tastes, even in their meat dishes and they particularly like sour tastes. They are, of course great rice eaters and more fond of vegetables (gulay) than any other culture I have come across. Everything they eat comes, automatically, with the ubiquitous mound of hot, steamed rice.
There is not enough time in one article to cover all the different dishes available here, so I will just focus on a few that have come, for me, to define Filipino cuisine.
If I was to pick a signature dish that for me, defines Filipino cuisine, that dish would most certainly be: ADOBO. The word itself is Spanish in origin, however the Spanish colonialists actually applied the word to a dish already being made in Filipino cooking, as it resembled their style of Adobo. In very simple terms, Adobo is a dish, served on rice, of course, made from either usually pork (baboy) or chicken (manok), however I have seen and tasted seafood Adobos, as well as other meats. The method of cooking Adobo could best be described as "stewed in vinegar". The two main ingredients that give Adobo its special taste are the vinegar and soy sauce. All other ingredients are down to personal choice. Although I would call Adobo the Filipino signature dish, it is important to note that no two Adobo recipes are ever the same. It seems each family passes down their particular method of cooking Adobo, from Grand-mother (Lola) to Mother (Inay) to eldest daughter (Ate). Adobo recipes also vary from region to region across the country. Although each recipe is different, the overall taste and effect is similar.
I personally adore Adobo and it is interesting to note that most visitors who come here and are questioned about what food they particularly enjoyed, invariably put Adobo at or near the top of the list.
One area of cuisine that Filipinos are particularly fond of is an area I will give the generic term of "soups". Soups in the Philippines come in a dazzling array of tastes and varieties that bear little resemblance to what I would have called soup back in New Zealand. Put simply, these soups are just meat, fish and vegetables boiled together with a variety of different seasonings to produce a melange of scintillating tastes and gastronomic experiences.
Some of the varieties of soups that they make here include: Sinigang, Tinola, Ginataan, Bulalo and Batchoy. In addition to this stews, (often almost soups in appearance are also extremely popular here.
Sinigang is a soup/stew made from any meat or seafood, as well as vegetables. The choices are totally up to the individual, but it is the main ingredient (the tamarind) that gives Sinigang its individual taste; sourness. Sourness is a particular favorite in Filipino cooking.
Tinola is a clear, broth made with chicken (manok) and wedges of green papaya. In addition to the sourness provided by the green papaya and fish sauce, there is also a spiciness provided by chili and pepper leaves. The combination of sour and spicy is truly delightful.
Ginataan literally means; "done in coconut milk". Ginataan therefore is a generic term rather than a specific dish created from a recipe. Many different soups made with differing ingredients, are given the name Ginataan. The one unifying factor is always the coconut milk used in cooking the soup. The coconut gives Ginataan its signature sweetness.
Bulalo is a dish I only tried recently for the first time and I was blown away by the taste of this soup. It is a specialty of the Batangas region in Luzon and without a doubt it gets my vote (as a non-traditional soup eater) as the tastiest, most exciting soup I have ever had. In its most basic terms, it is just a simple, beef shank stew/soup, but it is the depth and variety of spice and flavor used during the stewing process that gives Bulalo its rich, multi-layered depth of flavor. Bulalo has quickly become one of my favorite Filipino dishes.
Batchoy is a noodle soup which originated in Iloilo, on the island of Panay, in the Western Visayas. It is made using organs from the pig (baboy), as well as crunched up pork skin crackling and round noodles. It is the crackling, combined with the thickness of the broth that make Batchoy so satisfying and filling. Made all over the Philippines these days, Batchoy is a firm favorite for people in a hurry, who still want a real meal that will both taste awesome and fill them up.
One of the things I particularly love about Philippine cooking is that nothing is wasted. Offal, chicken feet, shanks, pigs trotters, everything an animal has can be used in some way in a Filipino dish. They waste nothing!
I couldn't leave this section about Filipino food without mentioning my all-time top Filipino dish: Lumpiang Gulay! Now I 'm probably best known as a person who would rather be seen dead, than eating vegetables (gulay). After all, if God had not meant for us to eat meat, then he wouldn't have made it so damn tasty. Right? But, Lumpiang Gulay truly does have me hooked. Basically all it is is a mixture of carrots, bean sprouts, cabbage, onion, garlic and if you like, a little pork mince or strips. The mixture is diced and then wrapped in spring roll wrapper and deep fried. Served with rice and spicy (maanghang) vinegar, it truly is "ma sarap" (in my version, ma sarap literally means "to die for"). I absolutely adore Lumpiang Gulay and could eat it every day if given the chance.
Finally, what are some of the unique Filipino delicacies that you can try to titillate your taste buds. A few are: Balut, Bagoong, Soup No.5, and Sticky Rice variations.
Balut is basically an eleven day old duck or chicken egg. The fetus is well formed by this time and trust me, it looks pretty gross as your eat it. Personally, I've only eaten it once and once was enough, however many Filipinos swear by this bizarre food.
Bagoong is fermented fish or shrimp paste and salt. To me, it has the most putrid smell of anything I've ever smelt, but most Pinoys seem addicted to this vile stuff. They love to smear this seasoning on just about anything, but especially on sour foods, such as green mango. I have come to appreciate the subtleties of the tastes of green mangoes over the past three years, but rest assured I will never grasp the subtleties of bagoong. I'll leave that one for the Filipinos.
Soup No.5 is Bull's penis and testes in a soup - 'nuff said ha! Give it a try and embrace your gastronomic fantasies.
Sticky Rice: There are as many delicacies made of sticky rice (kakanin) as there are grains of sand on the beach. Sticky Rice fulfills the Filipino need for sweetness. Some you might like to try include: Biko, Sapin-sapin, and Kalamay. Biko is made from glutinous rice cooked in coconut milk and palm sugar, then topped with caramel. Sapin-sapin is a layered glutinous rice cake made with coconut.the multi-colored layers makes Sapi-sapin a delight to the eye as well as the taste buds. Kalamay is a delicacy made of ground glutinous rice, coconut milk and brown sugar, often flavored with peanut butter, margarine or vanilla, but there are many, many others you may like to try also.
All the many and varied types and styles of sticky rice delicacies have two things in common; they feed the desire for the Filipino sweet tooth and secondly they are really, really yummy.
In conclusion, when you come here; yes there are plenty of McDonalds Stores and plenty of the local carbon copy, Jollibee, plus all the other usual fast-food suspects, but there are also many honest to goodness home-down, local food enterprises. From street food right through to fine dining, you can experience all the wonder and taste sensation that is Filipino food. Don't shortchange yourself by limiting your experiences. Enjoy the unique cuisine that defines the Filipino diet. I assure you, you won't be disappointed.
Having now written about all these amazing gastronomic delights available here in The Philippines, I'm as hungry as, so I'm off to have some Soup No.5 - YEAH RIGHT!