5 Filipino Icons
Philippine food is one of the region’s most underrated cuisines. Here, ROBYN ECKHARDT gives the lowdown on the country’s most cherished dishes. Photographed by DAVID HAGERMAN
Published on May 13, 2010
Filipinos prize sourness, and they celebrate it in the form of sinigang, a tom yam–like soup of fish, chicken or meat tarted up with sour leaves or fruit. A casual eatery specializing in home-style comfort foods, Sentro 1771 combines house-made corned beef with daikon, string beans, okra and onions in a piquant tamarind-based broth that brilliantly counterbalances the richness of the meat. The restaurant also offers a lighter and more traditional, but no less tasty, seafood sinigang, a vessel of tangy fish-and-tamarind stock crowded with chunks of boneless firm-fleshed milkfish, prawns, tomato wedges, sliced banana blossoms and mustard leaves, and whole mild green chilies.
2nd floor, Greenbelt 3, Ayala Center, Makati; +63 2757 3940
For the country’s Christian majority, pork reigns supreme—an ardor embodied in lechon, or whole spit-roasted pig. Lechon actually describes the cooking process, but pig is so ubiquitous on the spit that the term has come to mean pork. While it’s generally considered special-occasion fare, Manila is dotted with eateries offering individual-sized portions. At Lechon Delight, a stall at Makati’s boisterous Saturday morning Salcedo Community Market, proprietor Boy Tan and his family dish up strips of unctuous meat crowned with shards of the bronzed skin prized by connoisseurs. Tan specializes in pig roasted á la Cebu, which is stuffed with ginger and onions and served with coconut-flavored vinegar.
Jaime Velasquez Park; Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
If pressed to name a national dish, most Filipinos would probably choose pork adobo, a comforting braise made with vinegar, plenty of garlic and black pepper. Though it’s local in origin (cooking with vinegar was a common means of preservation before the advent of refrigeration), historians believe its name was borrowed from a Mexican dish of meat stewed with wine and/or chilies. What sets a superior adobo apart? Deeply and evenly browned meat, something that, to the disapproval of some Filipino cooks, is occasionally achieved by using soy sauce. The cooks at Fely J’s Kitchen, a serene indoor–outdoor space in Makati, surely employ this shortcut. But even a die-hard purist would have difficulty resisting the restaurant’s version of this Filipino favorite: gorgeous mahogany-hued pieces of fork-tender pork shoulder garnished with sweet caramelized roasted garlic cloves.
2nd floor, Greenbelt 5, Ayala Center, Makati; +63 2728-8878
As with elsewhere in East Asia, Philippine meals generally revolve around rice, but pansit, or noodle dishes, figure prominently in the country’s snack repertoire. Pansit luglug, round rice noodles smothered with a smooth shrimp-flavored sauce tinted orange from annatto seeds, is often eaten for merienda, the late afternoon mini-meal meant to tide one over between lunch and dinner. Luglug, a Tagalog word, means to immerse anything in boiling water, and the snack’s name presumably refers to the way the rice noodles are heated and softened before they’re drained and doused with sauce. The pansit luglug served at Milky Way Café, a cheerful incarnation of a popular 1950’s Manila dairy bar, features a briny sauce and is garnished with slices of hardboiled egg, chopped scallion greens and crunchy bits of chicharron (deep-fried pork rinds) that contrast wonderfully with the texture of the thick, chewy noodles.
2nd floor, 900 Arnaiz Road, Makati; +63 2843 7124
Filipinos love sweets and whip up a localized version of Spanish chocolate—thick enough to stand a spoon in—with homegrown cacao that rivals Barcelona’s best. Cacao production dates back to the 1600’s, when trees were imported from Mexico by way of Spain. Indulge in the lavishly thick beverage at Café Adriatico, a nostalgic neighborhood hangout that gave birth to Manila’s café society when it opened in then-bohemian Malate nearly 30 years ago. Here, the tsokolate and tsokolate-eh (an almost pudding-like version) is served in a pitcher with a batirol, a traditional wooden whisk used for frothing. If you have a serious sweet tooth, sample the café’s puto (steamed rice cakes) or ensaimada, a buttery sweet bread served with a slice of aged Edam cheese.
1790 M. Adriatico Street, Malate; +63 2525 2509