Just recently I had my third visit to the Philippines (courtesy of TBEX & The Philippines Tourism Board), one of my favourite places in the world. People ask me about Filipino food all the time. What’s it like? What’s their national dish? And previously I didn’t really know how to describe it. However, after my most recent trip I have A LOT more to say about the cuisine on offer in the Philippines.
A Guide to Filipino Food
What Exactly IS Filipino Food?
Wikipedia describes it as “Austronesian”, which is a bit of a broad umbrella term for anything from around the Australia/Africa/Asia area. Not very specific. It’s much more exciting than that! Essentially it’s similar to Asian food but with distinct Spanish and American influences that make it like nothing else in the world.
Filipino cuisine is all about contrasting and complimentary tastes. They love to pair sweet with salty or sour. AND because the Philippines is made up of over 7,000 islands there are several location-dependent variations of all Filipino food. I can’t really explain it, but I’ll give you some examples and hopefully you’ll work it out for yourself, or, even better, just taste it and see!
Popular Filipino Foods
HALO HALO – I firmly believe that this was created by a person who was either pregnant and craving, high as a kite and had the munchies, or was moving out and trying to use all of the strange ingredients left in the cupboard. A Halo Halo is different depending on who is making it. However, ingredients can be, but are not limited to, cheese (yep, you read that right), shave ice, sweet potato (ube) paste, sweet potato ice cream, corn, jelly, custard, tapioca pearls, banana, milk and more depending on how you like yours. I know what you’re thinking, “WTF”, right? BUT, it actually doesn’t taste as bizarre as it sounds. The trick is to mix it all up!
BURNT RICE ICE CREAM– WAY better than it sounds. It basically tastes like coffee or mocha flavoured ice cream. I need to find this in Dublin.
CHILLI ICE CREAM – Does what it says on the tin. It’s a bright red/pinky colour and is basically ice cream with a serious kick. It comes in grades 1-3. I tried grade 1 and needed a gulp of water with each spoonful. I imagine it would be good with chocolate cake.
PILI NUT – This nut is ONLY commercially produced in the Philippines, nowhere else in the world. The Bicol region is the main production centre, from here pili nuts are exported across the globe. In the Philippines pili nuts are mainly used in candy or brittle, usually coated in chilli. My favourite is when they are coated in a honey glaze and sprinkled with chilli powder. Pili nuts are also used in fusion dishes with pasta.
BICOL EXPRESS – This is a type of meat stew made with pork, coconut milk, onion, chillies, garlic and shrimp past or fish stock. I didn’t actually try this because I’m vegetarian, but my travel companions seemed to enjoy it!
PASTILLAS DE LECHE – I LOVED THESE. Filipinos are big fans of breads/pastries and they make them well. Literally translated Pastillas De Leche means “milk tablets”. They are essentially little sugary logs made from evaporated milk. Traditionally they are made from carabao milk. Whatever they are, they taste amazing.
LONGGANISA– Basically a Filipino sausage. It varies depending on what region you are in, but either way it’s easy to see the Spanish influence here. It’s usually made with pork but chicken and beef options can be found. Different regions use plenty of garlic, oregano or vinegar for flavouring.
PINANGAT – This varies slightly depending on the region. However, in Bicol it consists of taro leaves, meat, chilli and coconut milk. I had a vegetarian version of this in a sushi roll and it was amazing.
LECHON – This is another obvious Spanish influence. It’s what you might call a hog roast or pig on a spit in the UK/Ireland. Lechon is the national dish of the Philippines. Cebu (where I first learned to free dive) was acknowledged by celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain as having the best lechon in the world! Lechon is extremely popular for special occasions.
ADOBO – Often considered the unofficial dish of the Philippines. It usually consists of meat (pork or chicken) cooked by immersion in vinegar, garlic, bay leaves, black peppercorn and soy sauce. It is then served on white rice. All of the ingredients can be changed according to personal taste. You can even get “adobo flavoured” noodles, crisps and nuts in the Philippines.
BALUT – The notorious developing bird (usually duck) embryo. This is boiled and eaten straight from the egg itself. Usually you season it with salt, chilli, garlic and/or vinegar before tucking in. Apparently it is a powerful aphrodisiac. It would want to have some serious magical powers to get me to eat it. Personally, i find it horrifying. That, however, did not stop me and the group from pressuring one travel blogger into trying it. He did not enjoy it.
CHOCO MUCHO – OK! So many this isn’t a traditional Filipino food, but choco muchos are a popular local snack. I LOVE them. They’re chocolate bars that come in several different flavours (cookies & cream, dark chocolate, caramel etc). I’ve never been able to find them outside the Philippines, so needless to say on my recent trip I made sure to indulge! If I could get a sponsorship deal with them I would take it. haha.
Where Have I Seen Filipino Food?
EVERYWHERE. Filipino food is lighting up the internet. Check out Jean’s guide to why eating is more fun in the Philippines. And that’s not all, here’s some of the most prominent examples of Filipino food in the media.
COACHELLA – Coachella is arguably the most talked about festival on the face of the planet. There is not a single social media outlet that Coachella does not take over once every year. This year (2016) the famous Filipino dessert, Halo Halo (I’ll tell you all about it in just a second), made an appearance at Coachella thanks to Chef Isa Fabro and it went down extremely well. LA Weekly named it as one of it’s favourite Coachella snacks. It was even mentioned in FHM.
GWYNETH PALTROW’S BLOG! – Goop.com, Gwyneth Paltrow’s famous lifestyle blog, featured a recipe for the classic Filipino dish, chicken adobo (more details below).
MAN VS FOOD – This crazy show hosted by Adam Richman basically documents his (or his guest’s) attempts to take on stomach-stretching food challenges across America. In one episode Adam headed to LA to visit the White Rabbit food truck. This is a Filipino fusion food truck and is home to the 6lb Filipino burrito challenge; 45 minutes to eat 6lb of chicken adobo (probably not using Gwyneth’s recipe), garlic rice, 6 fried eggs and 12 slices of cheese all wrapped in SIX tortillas. Needless to say, he did not defeat this challenge.
AT HOME – Depending on where you live, it’s likely that there’s a Filipino restaurant near you! Give it a Google. When I was in Melbourne last year I visited the Queen Victoria night markets. There was a massive queue for one stall. Upon further inspection I discovered that it was for a Filipino street food stall. Clearly the Australians have caught on to this budding Filipino food craze!
Let’s Wrap it up
WELL, hopefully you’ve learnt a little bit more about Filipino food and I hope that you’ll give it a try in the future. If you’re a foodie I really encourage you to give the Philippines a chance. It may not have as markedly famous a cuisine as some other Asian countries, however, I firmly believe that is going to change in the near future. So get out there and Google your local Filipino restaurant or food truck and test it out with your very own taste buds.
AND in case I haven’t convinced you, make sure you watch my latest video which has a section devoted to Filipino food!! (Don’t watch while hungry).
MORE ARTICLES FROM THE PHILIPPINES
- 25 Reasons to Visit the Philippines
- A Quick Guide to Legazpi, the Philippines
- Snorkelling With Whale Sharks in the Philippines