By Rew Shearer
Not many Kiwis know anything about Filipino cuisine. It’s something of a mystery. If asked, most would assume that it’s something like Thai, or Malaysian. Those with a little background might assume a Spanish influence.
How would you describe Filipino cooking in a few succinct words?
Probably, “it’s complicated”.
While it is fair to say that there are Spanish influences, there are also Chinese, Malay and even American components to modern Filipino cuisine – in addition to diverse regional cooking styles.
Something as classically Spanish as empanada or adobo sits alongside Chinese-style chop suey, siopao, or spring rolls. Malaysian combinations like chilli and coconut milk appear in Filipino dishes like ginataang manok.
Perhaps if there is one Filipino essential, besides rice (English has one word for rice … Filipino has at least seven), it’s pork. From sisig, (chopped pork with onions and chilli), to dinuguan, (pork intestine cooked in blood), to lechon baboy (a whole spit-roasted pig, essential at big gatherings), pork is much loved.
It appears in noodle dishes (pancit, bihon) and soups (lapaz batchoy includes meat and chicharon – a form of crackling) and entrees (tokwa’t baboy: pork and deep fried tofu with onions, soy sauce and vinegar).
The popular crispy pata is pork hock, cooked so that the meat is succulent and tender and the crackling is crisp. Add sawsawin (dipping sauce) and rice and eat it with your fingers and you’re immersed in Filipino deliciousness.
Only in the far south of the Philippines, where Islam is a dominant faith, is pork less commonly eaten.
Chicken and beef feature in plenty of Filipino cooking and fish – ocean fish as well as freshwater fish such as tilapia and bangus. Lamb is not popular and is rare in Filipino fare, although goat’s meat features in a number of dishes.
While vegetables feature in many recipes, from vegetable-rich soups like tinola or sinigang to the classic pork-and-vegetable dish pinakbet, there is a strong preference for cooking them. Salads and other raw vegetable dishes are not common and a Filipino eatery will seldom sell a salad.
Likewise, there is an expectation that meat will be well-cooked. The European taste for rare-cooked beef, for example, is not traditionally shared by Filipinos.
There are so many ways to define Filipino food and so many different flavours and variants, that finding a defining dish is next to impossible. But one guaranteed to take the eater back to the streets of Manila or the copra-scented provinces is ‘silog’.
There are many, many different ‘silogs’ – tapsilog, tocilog, bangsilog, hotsilog, longsilog, the list goes on – but central to all of them is meat, sinagag (garlic fried rice) and a fried egg (itlog). The smell of freshly fried garlic rice symbolises breakfast all over the Philippines.
It may not be high-end cuisine, it may not be complex or glamorous, but it is the Philippines and it’s about as typical as Filipino food can get.