Filipino Food 101: An Entry-Level Guide to Filipino Cuisine

by Samantha Suarez | photography by David Specht

If I asked a random group of people to name their favorite dishes from Japanese, Thai, or Chinese cuisine, I’d probably be met with a flood of diverse responses: ramen, sushi, pad thai, tom kha, dumplings or Peking duck, to name a few. But if I asked those same people to name some Filipino dishes, I’d likely hear nothing
but crickets.

Filipino food is largely misunderstood by the rest of the world. Some people assume because we’re located in Asia that we use chopsticks (we don’t) and that our food is probably the crappier version of more popular Asian cuisines. Others have only heard of our balut (duck embryo) from Fear Factor and immediately dismiss the rest of what our cuisine has to offer. But did you know that the late Anthony Bourdain visited the Philippines multiple times and called our lechon (slow-roasted suckling pig) “the best pig ever?” 

For the record, I personally enjoy balut every now and then. It tastes better than it looks.

The Original Fusion Food 

With 7,641 islands in our country, the Philippines is home to a vast number of cultures.

“Our cuisine is founded by our Malay roots with a sprinkling of Pacific Islander flavors and Chinese culinary influences,” said local food critic and Vice President of AHC+ Hospitality George Aquino. “Add 333 years of Spanish colonization, 47 years of American rule, and 3 years of Japanese occupation, and you have Filipino cuisine.”

Generally speaking, our cuisine is pork-heavy. Because we are surrounded by water, however, we also have an abundance of seafood and tropical fruit. Like other Southeast Asian cuisines, we are known for our street food and have a fondness for coconuts, shrimp paste, lemongrass, and patis (fish sauce). Most meals are accompanied by rice. Aquino further explained, “Soy sauce, garlic and vinegar are like our ranch dressing. Patis is our version of umami. Just add pork, fish or chicken, and you’re good to go.” 

Some of our best-known dishes include pancit (noodles) and lumpia (egg rolls), which were influenced by early Chinese settlers. The Filipino-favorite shaved ice dessert halo-halo is a dish with Japanese’ origins. The Spanish gave us a taste for food drenched in rich sauces like adobo and menudo.

Of course, we put our own unique twist on each of these dishes. Unlike the Latin version of adobo, for example, ours has soy sauce, black peppercorns, and bay leaves — ingredients that are native to Southeast Asia.

In short, Filipino cuisine was fusion food before it was cool, and no single dish can serve as a stand-in for all the flavors we have to offer. But where do you start if you’ve never tried it before? I wouldn’t recommend diving in with the “extreme” dishes like balut or dinuguan (blood stew), that’s for sure. To help you enter into this new world of delicacies, I’ve assembled a short list of entry-level Filipino foods that I’m confident will leave you intrigued. 

Sinigang

photo by David Specht

Sinigang is the perfect comfort dish. It’s a sour and savory stew made of tamarind, garlic, fish sauce, a variety of vegetables like radish and bok choy and a meat of choice, most commonly baboy (pork), hipon (shrimp), or bangus (milkfish). My family and I usually like to have it as soon as we get home from a long vacation after missing Filipino food. 

Adobo

photo by David Specht

The unofficial national dish of the Philippines, adobo is usually the first dish I introduce to foreigners. It starts with a protein (usually chicken and/or pork, sometimes squid), which is placed in a pot filled with soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, onions, bay leaves, black peppercorns, and other vegetables. It is then simmered until tender and served over rice. 

Like most Filipino dishes, it isn’t exactly Instagrammable by Western standards unless you put a lot of effort into plating it, but all palates can appreciate its salty and tangy flavor. Everyone I’ve introduced it to so far has come back for seconds.

Lumpia

Lumpia is essentially a deep-fried spring roll stuffed with a mixture of minced meat and/or chopped vegetables. Served with a sweet and sour dipping sauce, lumpia is a classic appetizer and often makes appearances at Filipino gatherings and parties.

Sisig

photo by David Specht

You’ll know someone has ordered sisig at a Filipino bar when you hear the sizzling of the hot stone plate. Sisig is a classic pulutan (beer chow) in Philippine culture. Its main ingredient is chopped up pieces of spicy, fatty meat (most commonly pig face) marinated in vinegar, soy sauce, calamansi (Philippine citrus fruit) juice, and chili peppers. Because the Philippines is a developing nation, no cut of the animal goes to waste. Other versions of sisig include oyster, tuna, chicken or pork belly instead of pig face. Some recipes incorporate mayonnaise or raw eggs to be mixed in while it’s hot, giving it a creamier texture.

In his 2017 visit to Manila, the capital of the Philippines, Bourdain cited sisig as one of his favorite Filipino dishes. “It’s simple, flavorful, delicious, and goes perfectly with beer. All you can ask for.”

Filipino Breakfast (‘silog’)

To serve something “silog” means to pair a protein with garlic fried rice and an egg. Longsilog, for example, is longganisa (sweet sausage) with rice and a fried egg. Tocilog is tocino (sweet cured pork) with rice and a fried egg. Tapsilog is tapa (marinated beef) with
 rice and a fried egg. You get the picture.
You can “silog” almost anything. The options are limitless, and it’s a great way to kick start your day!

Leche Flan

Ready for dessert? Leche flan is a custard dessert made with egg yolks, evaporated milk and condensed milk, with a layer of syrupy caramel on top. The texture is smooth and creamy and the flavor rich and sweet. It is one of the most popular desserts served at parties, fiestas, and other special occasions. This steamed sweet dish is also popular in Latin American and Caribbean cultures.

Sharing is Caring 

To quote Anthony Bourdain a third time, because it wasn’t obvious enough that I’m a fan, “Filipinos are, for reasons I have yet to figure out, probably the most giving of all people on the planet.” In my humble opinion, I would say we are more about sharing than giving, and that is best demonstrated in our communal way of eating. Sharing food is a vital part of the Philippine dining experience. So if there’s one thing you take away from this article, it’s that most Filipinos are excited to share our food and culture with you. We like it even more if you enjoy it, of course. Kain na!
(Let’s eat!)

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