How do you describe Filipino cuisine?
This rather straightforward question has left many tourists and foodies at a lost for words. There seems to be no definite answer to it. Maybe that’s why Filipino cuisine has yet to join the ranks of the other more esteemed and established Asian cuisines.
Posing the Question
I pondered on how to describe Filipino cuisine after it was asked in one travel show. The array of flavors, preparations and ingredients that make up the different foods in the Philippines make the possibilities endless. Looking more closely, I admit I found it hard to find a common ground among the different Filipino foods.
Rather than getting discouraged, it sparked my curiosity even further, and I resolved to see if I can try to, at least, describe what is Filipino cuisine.
Answers from Haydn
Surprisingly, I found what I can consider to be my best effort in defining Filipino cuisine while looking for a book in my dad’s library. Along with the book, I found a CD of Haydn’s Variations on a Theme—a musical composition that starts out with a series of measures that is then followed by variations of the same series of measures, each with its own distinctive character.
I saw a striking similarity between Haydn’s composition and Filipino cuisine. Just like the composition, much of the variations of popular foods in the Philippines have an underlying theme. The choice of ingredients and the way of cooking is what makes the difference to each Filipino food recipes that they bring that almost-but-not-quite impression.
Variations as Seen in Adobo and Sinigang
Adobo—one of the most popular foods in the Philippines—is one of the best examples of the variations seen within Filipino cuisine. There are so many ways to cook adobo that it warranted author and self-proclaimed ‘Adobo Queen’ Nancy Reyes-Lumen to come up with a cookbook on the different kinds of adobo. Flipping through the pages, it’s amazing to see on how many different kinds of adobo are there, from the classic chicken and pork adobo with its rather oily salty-sour sauce to vegetables with practically no sauce at all. Despite all the different appearances, one thing remains the same: each variation of adobo is cooked by stir-frying the the meat or vegetable, and seasoning this with a combination of soy sauce, vinegar and pepper.
Sinigang is a little bit more complicated. It’s best described as a soup with a translucent broth mixed with some form of souring agent and includes your choice of meat and a host of vegetables. But just like the adobo, anything goes when it comes to the ingredients and the choice of souring agent (sampaloc is the most popular, but other variations use guava and even kamias). The variations of this Filipino food can even be seen on how sinigang is served. Most restaurants serve this with all of the ingredients swimming in the soup while others (like the one that Tony Bourdain visited during his show) serve all of the ingredients and the soup separate. But as with adobo, there is still one theme amidst all of the variations.
Understanding Filipino Cuisine
By definition, the word ‘cuisine’ refers to a characteristic style of cooking practices and traditions, which is often associate with a specific culture.
The variations seen in the different foods in the Philippines are just a reflection of the Filipino people’s inert ability to adapt to ever-changing economic situations in the country. It also reflects the country’s cultural diversity and heritage seen among the Filipino people. This is what makes Filipino cuisine so unique, and needs no apologies for what many people naively consider to be a lack of standardization and objectiveness.
What’s your native cuisine? How do you describe it? Do you agree to what others say about your native cuisine? I’d love for you to share your thoughts here.