Vien R. Guenther
What to Eat in the Philippines
Updated: Jan 6
Philippines, named after King Philip II of Spain, has three geographical areas - Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao - with 17 regions and 81 provinces. The food is very complex and diverse and each region has its own specialty and ways of cooking the national and local foods. The cuisine was heavily influenced by the Spaniards, adapted during the Spanish rule between 1521 to 1898, as well as by neighboring Asian countries - Chinese and Malay - and western countries. Philippines is one of the largest English speaking countries in the world. It’s our second language. Visitors won’t find it hard to communicate with the locals, especially when it comes to food. In Luzon, especially Manila, you will find pretty much any kind of delicious food you were craving for, may it be local or international cuisine. Rest assured, you won’t get hungry in the Philippines, even for picky eaters.
As one celebrated traveler said, Filipino food is underrated. Indeed! There is not enough representation of our food in the world, hence our cuisines are not very well-known compared to other neighboring Asian countries. Filipinos love food. We love to cook, talk about food and gather around food. It’s an important part of our culture. Someone once said, “Filipinos are always eating”. Indeed, an average Filipino eat five meals a day - breakfast, mid-morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack and then dinner. Rice is the main staple of course, that is eaten two or three times a day, paired with meat and vegetables, followed by a rich dessert, if there is any. On special occasions, feast days or holidays, every household makes sure that the table is full with food, a tradition that goes way back and was passed down through generations. The dishes served are not always local, but include food from other countries as well.
THE ALL-TIME FAVORITE FILIPINO FOOD
Although there are so many kinds of Filipino cuisine to try, there are three popular dishes that define the country, dishes such as adobo, pancit and lumpia. Here in the United States, you cannot go wrong serving or bringing these dishes to any potluck events. Even westerners love it, including my husband and his friends. So, let’s start with adobo.
Adobo is the national dish of the Philippines, named from a Spanish word “adobar” meaning “marinade". The name was coined by the Spanish when they recognized the similarities of how Filipinos preserved their food, which is using vinegar as the main ingredient. That is before refrigeration of course. Soy sauce, another ingredient, was an addition adapted from the Chinese traders. As my husband says, the smell of this dish is unpleasant when it’s cooking, but it’s really good when you eat it.
Adobo is made with either pork or chicken, or combined. I like it combined or sometimes using pork ribs, as shown here. Every household knows how to cook it, in as many variations as you can imagine. It just keeps evolving even today. As they say, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat”. Don’t take it literally though, we don’t eat cats. (But some claim we eat dogs! I don't know anybody that does.)
Pancit ("pahn sit") is usually served on birthday occasions, a tradition that signifies long life for the celebrant. But Filipinos cook it anytime, it’s an all-time favorite, even here in the U.S. It is eaten as a main meal or merienda (snack).
There are many types of pancit, depending on the region and noodles used. The most popular are pancit bihon and pancit canton. The main ingredient is either rice noodles or egg noodles with different types of meat (pork, chicken, shrimp, Chinese sausage) and vegetables (carrots, cabbage, snow peas and green beans). There's also pancit palabok, the ingredients and sauce for which are cooked separately. What distinguishes this dish from other pancit dishes is its garnishing of sliced boiled eggs, crumbled chicharon and shredded smoked fish.
Lumpia is one of the Filipino dishes influenced by the Chinese. Lumpia is either savory or sweet, eaten as an appetizer if it's savory, or snack if its the sweet kind. The savory kind is lumpiang shanghai, the most popular, made with ground pork, shredded carrots and spices then wrapped in rice paper and fried. There are other variations such as shrimp lumpia and vegetable lumpia, or lumpiang toge, made with vegetables, including toge (bean sprouts).
If you want something healthier, there’s lumpiang ubod/sariwa (fresh lumpia), made with sautéed vegetables and meat then wrapped in a delicate wrapper. Each of these dishes have different sauces for dipping. The sweet lumpia called lumpiang turon, is made of a certain type of banana, sliced, wrapped in rice paper and then fried. Although lumpia is time consuming to make, it’s worth the time and effort.
- SPECIAL OCCASIONS OR EVENTS-
Now, there are foods that are typically served during special events, fiestas and holidays. These are the times when most Filipinos go all-out, serving special dishes. Did I mention Filipinos love pork? I know, it's cholesterol overload, that's why some dishes are served only on special occasions, but that does not mean you can't eat them on ordinary days - restaurants serve them all the time.
To make the event really special, you will likely to see lechon at the center of the table. Lechon is the highlight of any special occasion. It takes hours of roasting a whole pig over hot coals with continuous rotating of the pig to create an even crispy golden skin and tender juicy meat. Cebu, in the central Visayas region, is well-known for their lechon, though you will find them all over the country, especially in Manila where some specialty restaurants mainly cater for lechon. An alternative for lechon if you have fewer guests is pork belly stuffed with herbs and roasted until the skin is crispy. There's also crispy pata (crispy pork leg) and many others.
Philippines is an island nation surrounded by water, so seafood is fresh and delicious. Seafood paella is a well-known dish served typically on special occasions. This dish is adapted from Spain with sticky rice as the main ingredient, plus meat such as chicken, chorizo and seafood such as shrimp, mussels and clams. Instead of the expensive saffron, annatto seeds are used to give it its typical yellow color. A variation of this dish is arroz a la valenciana and paella Negra (arroz negro) which is made with squid ink and calamari. Shrimp can also be cooked as simply as sautéed in garlic, butter and 7-up.
OTHER FAVORITE DISHES
Other favorite dishes are relyenong bangus (stuffed milkfish), relyenong alimango (stuffed crab) and many others. Kare Kare is a different type of stew, where instead of tomato sauce, it has thick peanut-based sauce with plenty of vegetables and meats of choice such as ox tail, beef, pork shank, or tripe. This is typically eaten with bagoong (fermented shrimp) on the side, but that's optional if you don't care for it. Other favorite meat dishes are sisig and morcon. Morcon is like a western roulade, made of thinly sliced beef stuffed with carrots, pickles, boiled eggs, hotdog and sausage then rolled, browned on all sides and simmered in tomato sauce until tender. Sisig, a cuisine of Pampanga province is made of chopped pork cheek, pork belly and liver. It is typically cooked and served-on a sizzling plate. Relyenong bangus is deboned and stuffed milkfish, a time consuming and difficult dish to make. Of course all of these dishes require steamed rice or fried rice. Your choice.
APPETIZER & SIDE DISH
One local side dish great with grilled meat or fish is grilled eggplant with diced tomatoes, red onions and salted eggs. Salted egg, raw eggs that are fermented in salted water for several weeks, is an acquired taste.
Siomai (Chinese dumpling) is made with ground pork, shrimp, dried shitake mushroom, wrapped and then steamed. It can be eaten as an appetizer or snack, dipped in chili sauce.
- FAVORITE COMFORT FOOD -
In the Philippines, there are dishes eaten on a regular basis such as sinigang, tinola, nilaga and many others. These are comfort food eaten at lunch or dinner, especially on rainy days, or winter time here in the U.S. Each region has their own version of these favorite comfort foods, so keep an open mind. What I explained here is what I, and my family, have learned to cook and eat growing up in Manila.
SINIGANG - The combination of sour and spicy makes this dish an all-time favorite soup. The sourness comes from using tamarind, an important ingredient for this dish. It can be cooked with either beef, pork, fish, or shrimp with plenty of vegetables such as, kangkong (water spinach), long beans, okra, eggplant and taro root. It can be eaten by itself, if you are on a diet, but it is best eaten with steamed rice.
TINOLA - This dish is mainly chicken and green papaya with chili leaves and plenty of ginger. You can also substitute bokchoy or napa cabbage with this dish. This is a nice comfort food since its gingery taste soothes the tummy, especially if you are feeling sick. It is best eaten with steamed rice, or by itself as well.
NILAGA - This is a mild-tasting dish, or soup. Nilaga means boiled, but the combination of ingredients put into this dish makes it so good. Some might find this bland, but it requires bone-in beef or pork with plenty of vegetables such as cabbage, carrots, potato, green beans, corn and bokchoy to make it extra good. It's a total comfort food among Filipinos.
BEEFSTEAK (BISTEK) - A thinly sliced beefsteak, braised in soy sauce, calamansi juice (or lemon), garlic, ground black pepper and onion cut into rings. Fried thinly-sliced potatoes are optional.
STEWS - Introduced by the Spaniards, this is like a typical stew in other countries, except for some of the spices used. It's basically meat, carrots, bell peppers, peas and potatoes, simmered until tender and the sauce is thick. In the Philippines there are many types of stews - caldereta, afritada, albondigas, menudo, estofado, picadillo, mechado, putsero (puchero) and many others. Some of these stews are served on special occasions only due to their complicated ingredients and ways of cooking them, though most are regularly cooked at home.
DINUGUAN (PORK BLOOD STEW) - This is one unique dish stew in the Philippines that you might not find appetizing, but is an all-time favorite among the locals. It's called dinuguan, or pork blood stew. Blood is an important ingredient for this dish, as well as bite-sized pork, vinegar and spices. Each region has its own twist on this dish, so what you had in one area is not the same as in another. If you are visiting and are adventurous about food, this is something you might want to try.
Filipinos love soup anytime of the year. Each region has its own specialty. Though you can find ramen, Filipinos always crave the local noodle soups such as lomi, arroz caldo, or lugaw. These soups were introduced by the Chinese migrants in the Philippines. Arroz caldo is made of sticky rice (malagkit) and bone-in chicken pieces, heavily infused with ginger and garnished with toasted garlic, scallions and ground black pepper. Lomi is made of thick egg noodles, with ham, meat balls, pork and vegetables (cabbage and carrots). The La Paz Batchoy and Molo soup are a little time-consuming to make but are really good. These soups originated in Iloilo, in the southwestern part of the Visayan region.
DESSERT, PIE & PASTRIES
Filipino desserts are rich. There are cakes of course such as brazo de mercedez and many types of pastries, but the local favorite dessert is leche flan, a custard made of egg yolks, condensed milk and evaporated milk then steamed. There is also fruit salad with shredded young coconut as the main ingredient, canned fruit cocktail and other native fruit preserved, plus cream and condensed milk. Tarts are made of local fruits such as mango, while pie, called buko pie, is made with young coconut. Egg pie is made with egg custard.
SNACKS (MERIENDA) & DRINKS
Snacks such as puto (steamed rice cake) is one of many popular Filipino favorites. There are many variations of this snack, topped with cheese, or salted egg, or both. There are assorted snacks, or kakanin (tagalog words for "kain" meaning to eat and "kanin" meaning rice) made with sticky rice such as suman wrapped in banana leaves then steamed, puto bumbong, biko and many others.
Another local favorite snack is called ginatan made of assorted root crops - sweet potato, taro root, cassava, and other ingredients, cooked in coconut milk until thick. Bibingka, or rice cake, is traditionally baked between coal fires, one at the bottom and one on top, topped with salted eggs and sprinkled with fresh grated coconut. Its another local favorite snack. Empanada, a pastry dough stuffed with ground pork, potatoes and peas and then fried, is a very filling savory snack.
For drinks, mango juice simply made with sugar and ice is a refreshing drink anyone will love. Halo Halo is also one of the best refreshing afternoon snacks you might want to try, with layers of different sweetened ingredients, topped with shaved ice and evaporated milk and then garnished with ube halaya and leche flan.