The fundamental flavors of Filipino cuisine are deeply rooted in my memories. Growing up in a Filipino family, my palate was steeped in a fierce balance of sour, salty, sweet, and savory umami funk. While many of my friends ate chicken nuggets and mac and cheese from their divider plates, I found chicken adobo, rice, and broccoli with dressing. And I savored every last bite. My grandparents were from the Philippines, from two different parts on the island of Luzon; my paternal grandparents lived in Baguio and my maternal grandparents were from the Province of Pangasinan. I spent the majority of my early childhood with my maternal grandma, and still remember the fragrances and sounds of her kitchen. Even though she lived in San Francisco, the flavors at her table were those of the Philippine Archipelago over 7,000 miles away. I can still hear the spattering pop of black peppercorns and onions hitting her trusty cast-iron pan, and smell the pungent vinegar wafting through the air and twitching my nose.
These notes are a part of a song that everyone who grew up in a Filipino family knows by heart. Chef Anna Swann of Ulam, a Filipino pop-up restaurant in Dallas, agrees. "For me, the big flavors of Filipino cuisine are sour, sweet and salty, and there's a delicate balance between at least two of those flavor profiles in every dish," she says. "I think what differentiates us from other Asian cuisines is our love of that sour power. Hello, sinigang!"
Swann's Adobo Chicken Wings, her take on her dad's adobo recipe, show the interplay of comforting sweetness and vibrant acidity in a single savory dish, and how those flavors can team up to balance each other out. "In Filipino cuisine, we lean into the salty sweet combo...and we do it really well," Swann says. "Adobo is sour and salty, but you add some sweet kamatis to garnish and it's a beautiful layering of flavors."
I asked a few of Food & Wine's favorite chefs cooking Filipino food today to tell me about the ingredients they lean on to bring the flavors of their heritage into their cooking. Whether it's your first time cooking Filipino food or you're a seasoned vet, these staple items are a fantastic base to stock up your pantry so you can taste those layered flavors in action. From my nana's kitchen to yours, happy cooking!
Coming from the Spanish word for "bacon," sweet and slightly peppery tocino is the crown jewel of cured meats in the Filipino community. It's the hero of tosliog, the Filipino breakfast dish of sinangag (garlic rice) with egg and tocino. Traditional preparations of tocino involve curing thinly sliced pork belly in a variety of spices and seasonings like sugar, soy sauce, anise wine, and annatto. After the curing process, the meat is sautéed, giving the tocino a beautiful, caramelized coating. While pork belly is the most common cut for tocino it can also be made from pork shoulder. When drawing up the inspiration for the signature Tochino Burger at PogiBoy, Chef Paolo Dungca wanted to give a nod to his childhood and take people on a trip down memory lane. "We used to have [tocino] for breakfast every weekend with garlic rice, egg, and tomato salad," he recalls. "It brings back those family memories of growing up. We wanted to put tocino on the menu to give people the at-home feel when they eat it, in the form of a burger." $8 at sarapnow.com
A symbol of long life, thin, rice bihon noodles are a beacon of celebration. In Filipino households, they're often served at birthday or New Year's eve parties for good luck and good health, and are a must-have in every pantry for their versatility. The noodles cook in a flash and are the perfect blank canvas for a variety of flavors, acting like a sponge and absorbing all the dry and wet seasonings. The most common place you'll find them is in pancit, the staple noodle dish of the Philippines. While pancit is a general term that refers to a variety of traditional noodle dishes throughout the islands with different types of noodles, proteins and flavor profiles, the use of bihon is so popular that bihon and pancit are often thought of as being synonymous. If you're new to sourcing bihon noodles, you can find the packages at your local Asian grocery store or online. $4 at groceryfilipino.com
Jufran Banana Ketchup
Like standard ketchup, banana ketchup is a condiment often paired with hot dogs and hamburgers. If you've had the experience of dining at a Jollibee, it's that glorious sweet and tangy sauce served over their spaghetti. The condiment was invented by Maria Orosa, a Pinay food chemist. She seized the opportunity to use foods native to the Philippines to help her community become more self-reliant. Orosa dedicated her life to studying preservation and fermentation techniques to make the most out of the ingredients around her. Her experiments led her to make a mixture of mashed bananas, vinegars, and spices creating the world's first banana sauce which is now known as banana ketchup. While this condiment is still the most popular amongst the Filipino community, it's been spotted on the shelves of major supermarkets, with the Jufran brand leading the charge. If you can't find it at the store, it is readily available online at amazon.com. $3 at sarapnow.com
Datu Puti Vinegar
The Philippines have a hot, tropical climate, and home cooks have long used souring liquids like vinegars to preserve their food. Sugarcane is an important part of the archipelago's agriculture, and fermented cane juice is what makes up this much-loved vinegar, which is less acidic than a standard distilled white vinegar. Though the base of this vinegar is sugar, the flavor is still punchy, with underlying fruity notes that make it an ideal addition to dipping sauces paired with grilled meat and fried lumpia. Striking the perfect balance between sweet and sour is at the heart of Filipino cooking, and using vinegar is an easy way to get that delicious, salivating sourness. It's also the perfect counterbalance for rich, salty flavors from soy sauce. Ulam's Anna Swann notes that Datu Puti was the vinegar of choice for her father's chicken adobo recipe, so for her interpretation of the dish, she stayed true to her father's selection. "This is what he used, so I guess it always stuck," she says. "It's what we had in our pantry growing up and you always saw it in the kitchens of aunties, uncles, lolo and lola's, and apongs. You never forget that label!" Datu Puti offers both regular and spiced versions of their vinegar. $2 at justasianfood.com
Silver Swan Soy Sauce
Soy sauce is a common sight in everyone's pantries these days and an ingredient familiar throughout the world. Silver Swan is the go-to brand in the Philippines. It is a dark soy sauce, giving any dish it comes across that shiny, caramel color. It's also slightly more viscous, so a little goes a long way. You can use it in everything from fried noodle dishes to dipping sauces, or simply pour a bit over a steamy bed of white rice. Silver Swan can be easily found online; $4 at justasianfood.com