Filipino food: A historical odyssey

| January 4, 2016 | 0 Comments
Shrimp and sweet potato fritters (Photo: Larry Dickenson)

Shrimp and sweet potato fritters (Photo: Larry Dickenson)

The Philippines, an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands east of Vietnam, boasts the longest discontinuous coastline in the world. Its topography features mountains, plains, coral reefs and a vast number of lakes, rivers, streams and springs, while its tropical climate includes rainy and dry seasons. With 100-plus ethnic groups, the gastronomy of this nation is unique and complex, unlike any other in Southeast Asia. It not only encompasses food from land and sea, but also dishes and culinary techniques introduced throughout history from China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Spain, Mexico and the U.S.
Over the centuries, the profile of Filipino cuisine has evolved from its initial very basic roots to a diverse cuisine, thanks, in part to its history. However, Ambassador Petronila Garcia confirms that “foreign influences, although certainly major, have not been directly
adopted, but rather have been “indigenized” to suit Filipino palates and ingredients.
Originally, Filipino dishes were boiled, steamed and roasted. Locally raised pigs, chickens, water buffaloes, fish and seafood were the primary ingredients. But, the number of ingredients expanded dramatically when, in 3200 BC, Austronesians from Taiwan and southern China’s Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau settled in what is now the Philippines and introduced rice cultivation and other agricultural practices.

Purple heirloom rice from the mountains is the only rice exported from the Philippines, exclusively to Canada. (Photo: © Kewuwu |

Purple heirloom rice from the mountains is the only rice exported from the Philippines, exclusively to Canada. (Photo: © Kewuwu |

By the 10th Century, the Philippines began direct trade with Hokkien China, trading such items as spices and sea cucumber in exchange for silk, porcelain, ceramics and such staple foods as soy sauce, bean sprouts, tofu and fish sauce (patis). In addition, stir-frying and preparations of soup bases, siopoo (steamed filled buns) and simomai (dumplings) were introduced.
Perhaps more significantly, as a result of trade with neighbouring Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam, other foods and cooking techniques took hold, many of which are still used today. These include bagoong (shrimp paste), puso (rice wrapped and cooked in a triangular packet made of woven coconut leaves), randang (curry-like beef stew cooked in spiced coconut milk until almost dry and the beef is tender), kare-kare (oxtail with vegetables cooked in peanut sauce) and coconut milk-infused dishes such as laing (pork or shrimp cooked with dried taro leaves and coconut milk) and ginataag menok (chicken sautéed in garlic, onion and ginger, then stewed in coconut milk). Since these particular neighbours were also trading with countries to the north and west of them, elements from Indian and Arabic cuisine (e.g., kurmah, satti, biryani) began to make their way into Filipino gastronomy.
It is worth noting that many of the influences mentioned in the pre-Spanish periods have only been seriously explored in more recent years. The written history of Filipino food culture really began in earnest in 1521 with the arrival of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition for Spain. The expedition’s chronicler, Antonio Pigafetta, took notes on a dinner served to him and his crew on Limasawa Island: “pork in its sauce served on porcelain platters… roasted fish with freshly gathered ginger and rice, turtle eggs, chicken and peacocks.”

300 years of Spanish rule
Although Magellan was killed in an inter-tribal skirmish, the expedition did return to Spain. A second Spanish expedition in 1561 only succeeded in naming the country “Las Islas Filipinas” — after the Spanish king, Felipe — but a third expedition in 1571 did establish colonies in Cebu and Manila, and Spain ruled the country for more than 300 years until 1898 when a successful revolution resulted in the Philippines’ independence.
There’s no question the Spanish brought new ingredients, in particular, olive oil, saffron, paprika, ham, cured sausages and cheese, and thus, new flavours. New cooking styles and dishes from different regions of Spain appeared, notably callos, an ox tripe and shank stew; gambas, shrimp in spicy tomato sauce, and paella. These dishes remain popular today and the Spanish also brought other European cuisines. Rellenong manok is deboned whole chicken stuffed with ground pork, whole sausages and hard-cooked eggs. Filipinos applied the same technique to bangos, a silvery milkfish.
During that period, the Spanish also introduced ingredients from old Spanish colonies and the Americas — tomatoes, corn, potatoes, chili peppers and avocados. New techniques included sautéing other ingredients with garlic and onion, a method that remains prevalent in Filipino cuisine today.
With the Philippines being ruled by Spain, but administered through Mexico, Mexican specialties became, and continue to be, part of the Filipino culinary profile, often with names remaining the same, though the ingredients and cooking techniques were altered. For example, Filipino tamales wrapped in banana leaves are made with rice, not corn; balbaco is boiled beef shanks, not slow-roasted meat cooked in a pit; and pipian, chicken and greens cooked with rice, uses peanuts, not pumpkin seeds.

American favourites arrive
The independence of the Philippines and the establishment of the First People’s Republic was rather brief as the U.S. — with its military power and modern technology — gained control of the archipelago for the next half century, until 1946, with only a brief interruption due to Japanese occupation between 1942 and 1945. American rule added sandwiches, salads, hamburgers, fried chicken, steaks, cakes, pies and Spam, “plus milk chocolate,” adds Ambassador Garcia. It also brought the innovations of pressure cooking and freezing.
The Americans, the Spaniards and others brought their traditions, however, there have always been several other culinary influences in the Philippines, due to the many local languages and the complex geographic location of the islands. It has only been relatively recently through migration, increased domestic tourism and mass media that Filipinos have begun discovering foods and specialties of the different islands and regions within their own country. Today, many of these dishes are being prepared beyond their original communities and becoming part of the national cuisine (this includes dishes such as sisig, originally a Pampanga dish of boiled and then broiled finely chopped pig cheeks; Ilonggo inasal, a grilled chicken marinated in annatto oil from Western Visavas, and, pinakbet, a mixed vegetable stew from the far northern island of Luzon).

Other defining ingredients
So what else defines Filipino cuisine? Unlike the subtle delivery of flavours in most other Asian cuisines, the complex, bold and deep flavour of Filipino dishes — regardless of the region — is principally achieved through the use of souring agents and by combining sour and salty, as well as sour or salty with sweet, to convey a tanginess and a counterbalance. Indeed, very sour, unripe mangoes are paired with salt of bagoong, a shrimp paste; sweet brioche-like rolls or rice cakes are topped with grated salty cheese; champorado, a sweet cocoa rice porridge, is served with tuyo, salted, sun-dried fish; and dinuguan, a savoury pig’s blood and innards stew, comes to the table with puto, sweet, steamed rice cakes.
Suka, the primary souring agent, is a vinegar made from the juice of pressed sugarcane or the sap of the nipa palm grown in brackish water or the sap of coconut or sugar palms. It is an indispensable ingredient in the Filipino kitchen. Sour fruits, such as tamarind, calamansi, a local lime; kamias, small green acidic fruit; unripe mangoes, pineapple, guavas and native tomatoes, plus various types of leaves are also used.
Even prior to the arrival of the Spanish, early Filipinos used the technique of immersing food in vinegar and salt to keep it from spoiling. Three important cooking techniques employ sourness as a basic flavour. Paksiw is a way of cooking fish in vinegar and water, with salt, peppercorns, garlic, ginger and chives, to give the fish a distinctive taste, but this technique can also be applied to chicken and meat. Kinilaw involves marinating fresh seafood, meat or vegetables in vinegar or the juice of sour fruit, then removing the food from the marinade and adding other ingredients to enhance the flavour and texture. Sinigang involves cooking meat or seafood in a sour soup known as sabaw, with different combinations of sour fruits and leaves to attain the desired level of sourness, which ranges from subtle to mouth-puckering. This dish rates as the one most representative of Filipino taste. In adobo, the most celebrated, world-famous Filipino dish, vinegar stands out as the critical ingredient when meat, seafood or vegetables are marinated in vinegar and garlic, then sautéed in oil and finally simmered in the original marinade with water, soy sauce or coconut milk and various seasonings, among them bay leaf, black peppercorns and chilies. In addition, vinegar functions as a dip for snacks and appetizers (see recipe below for an example).
White rice is a must with virtually every meal. While most often steamed, leftovers fried with garlic are served for breakfast, along with eggs and sausages or cured meat. Rice flour is used to make cakes, sweets, other pastries and noodles. Pancit — noodles made from rice, mung beans, wheat and eggs — is a staple, second to rice, with every town, province or region having its own version differing by noodle, sauce, garnish and cooking technique. As an aside, Eric Tamayo, minister and consul general at the embassy, pointed out that a purple heirloom rice from the mountains is the only rice exported from his country and only to Canada.
Fish — specifically tilapia, milkfish, grouper, tuna, swordfish and seafood, from shrimp, clams, mussels, crabs and oysters to squid — plays a major role in Filipino cuisine. Fish salted, smoked, sun-dried, pan-fried or deep-fried and served with rice and vegetables for a simple meal, is the most common among a multitude of other more elaborate fish dishes including escabeche, which is sweet and sour; relleno, in which the fish is deboned and stuffed; and kinilaw, the Philippines’ answer to ceviche.
Filipinos are fans of pork and have the “snout-to-tail” commitment, in which every part of the animal — cheeks, snout, ears, organs, knuckles and blood — is consumed in some practical way. It could be to make head cheese or dinuguan, the thick brown pork blood stew sometimes deceptively referred to as “chocolate meat” particularly by parents. Lechon de leche, spit-roasted piglet stuffed with fragrant tamarind leaves or lemon grass, ranks among the most festive foods.
While most dishes incorporate garlic and onions, some also ingeniously combine the abundant tropical fruits — from coconuts and bananas to papayas and pineapples — and such vegetables as Chinese and Napa cabbage, eggplant and yard-long beans, with pork, chicken and seafood to create a myriad of tasty dishes.
Unlike Thai cuisine, Filipino dishes are not characteristically hot, other than particular ones, such as the wonderfully delicious Bicol Express, a pork belly and coconut stew laced with shrimp paste, chilies, garlic, ginger and onion. Ambassador Garcia explained that this dish, created in Bicol, can be so hot that a “phew” might follow the first bite, sounding like the whistle of the bullet train travelling between Manila and Bicol.
Desserts strongly feature Spanish recipes often rich in egg yolks, including leche flan, which is a mild custard. Many, such as maja blanca, a white coconut custard, substitute milk or cream with island ingredients such as coconut milk and cashew nuts for almonds. Local desserts highlight coconut, other tropical fruits, shaved ice combinations and rice-based sweets, while American favourites include cakes and pies.
At meals, all dishes typically arrive at once and are shared by everyone at the table. Small bowls of condiments, dips and sauces enable guests to enhance their food according to their taste. Today, a fork and spoon have replaced (for the most part) the tradition of eating with one’s hands.
Enjoy my interpretation of what I regard as an intriguing Filipino appetizer, served, of course, with a vinegar based sauce — it’s a delightful example of tamis (sweet) and asim (sour). Bon Appétit! Kain Na!
Shrimp & Sweet Potato Fritters
Makes 4 servings

5 oz (150 g) fresh or frozen shrimp (count: 30-40)
3 ½ oz (100 g) sweet potato, peeled and cut into fine julienne strips/strings
2 tsp (10 mL) peeled, slivered and chopped fresh gingerroot
3/4 tsp (4 mL) finely minced fresh garlic
Pinch  salt and crushed black peppercorns
2 tbsp (30 mL) egg white
1 1/3 tbsp (20 mL) cornstarch
1 tbsp (15 mL) cold water

Spicy Garlic Vinegar Sauce
3/4 cup (180 mL) white vinegar
1 ½ tsp (8 mL) finely minced fresh garlic
½ tsp (3 mL) granulated sugar
1/3 tsp (2 mL) sriracha

1. To make the Spicy Garlic Vinegar Sauce, whisk together vinegar, garlic (1½ tsp or 8 mL), sugar and sriracha. Set aside.
2. Peel shrimp, leaving tails attached, if possible. (This is optional. If the tails aren’t delicate, remove them.) Cut each shrimp lengthwise in half. (Note: The tails will remain attached to only one of the halves.)
3. Place shrimp, sweet potatoes, gingerroot and garlic in a bowl, season with salt and crushed black peppercorns and toss. Add egg white and toss again.
4. In a small bowl, combine cornstarch and water to form a smooth mixture. Drizzle over shrimp mixture and toss.
5. In an 8-inch (20-cm) diameter skillet, heat oil (with a depth of 1 1/4 inches or 3 cm) to 350 °F (180 °C).
6. Before frying, divide the shrimp mixture into 8 portions, distributing the shrimp and sweet potato strips equally.
7. Working with one portion at a time, add it to the skillet to form (more or less) a round fritter (diameter: about 3 inches or 7.5 cm). Cook fritter until golden brown (about 45 seconds). Using 2 pancake flippers, turn fritter over and cook the second side for about another 45 seconds before transferring to a paper towel-lined tray to drain.
8. Repeat process to make 7 more fritters.
9. For 4 individual servings, offer 2 fritters per person. Pass Spicy Garlic Vinegar Sauce at the table. (Note: This appetizer is best eaten with a fork and knife.) Serve as quickly as possible after cooking. Don’t wait more than 40 minutes.

Margaret Dickenson is a cookbook author, TV host, menu/recipe developer, protocol, business and etiquette instructor. (

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Category: Delights

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Margaret Dickenson wrote the awardwinning cookbook, Margaret’s Table — Easy Cooking & Inspiring Entertaining (

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