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A Crash Course on Filipino Food

Learn more about your cultural heritage by getting immersed in the language of food

Updated

By NINA DAZA PUYAT  

As we commemorate Independence Day this June, it might be a good idea to think about how we can celebrate Filipino food in significant ways. Just last April, through Presidential Proclamation 469, the country celebrated the first Filipino Food Month in a series of pocket events throughout Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao, ending in a gala dinner at the historical The Manila Hotel. It was a good start but the fever must not end there.

We Filipinos can be very emotional and have very strong opinions about food—what our national dish should be, what kinds of dishes we should present to the global stage, or even which street food should have been featured on the Netflix show, Street Food. But instead of focusing on what other people should be doing for Philippine cuisine, why don’t we focus on educating ourselves first? Make a concrete effort to really absorb all we can so that we can truly appreciate the uniqueness and diversity of our Filipino culinary culture.

DO MORE RESEARCH

Now is a very good time to be learning about Filipino food. There’s a wealth of information available to us in the form of books—cookbooks, food literature books, regional specialty books, general cookery books for Filipino homes.

There are a number of Filipino books available that focus on a specific regional cuisine, the food customs and traditions in the province, including sustainable practices in food production. Some examples of these treasures: Republic of Taste: The Untold Stories of Cavite Cuisine by Ige Ramos, Naimas! The Food Heritage of Ilocos Sur by DV Savellano and Heny Sison, Hikay-The Culinary Heritage of Cebu by Louella Eslao Alix, Butuanon Cuisine – In Search of Local Identity by Dr. Manolita Rosales Lerida and Apolonia Vanzuela Garay, and Davao Cuisine Recipes of the 10 Tribes of Davao City by Macario D. Tiu. 

One of my favorites, written by culinary historian Felice Sta. Maria, is a children’s book called What Every Kid Should Know About Filipino Food. It’s written and illustrated for children but the book is very rich in information and it would make a wonderful pasalubong to Pinoys abroad.

Of course, there are countless videos and documentaries available online or through streaming that tackle a wide range of topics—from growing your own vegetable to how to make homemade lumpia wrapper.

CHOOSE TO DINE IN FILIPINO RESTAURANTS

Another way to celebrate our culinary roots would be to dine out more in Filipino restaurants—not just when we have to treat a balikbayan relative. Fortunately, there’s a wide range of Filipino restaurants in the metro to choose from that offer traditional dishes, region-specific cuisines, as well as the more modern interpretations of the classics.

Some diners can be purists and prefer to have adobo as adobo, but there are also some who enjoy the brave and bold dishes created by chefs who like to experiment with flavors and more modern techniques. I admit I am from the old-school, but I also like to be surprised when chefs bring fresh, new flavor profiles to the table. Felice Sta. Maria explained that food and cooking are dynamic and therefore constantly changing. People’s efforts to modernize traditional Filipino dishes are really a reflection of the present times and a product of a society that encourages and supports creativity.

BUY MORE LOCALLY PRODUCED GOODS

We live at a time when the food scene in the country is exploding, with everyone wanting to sell specialty products like heirloom rice, coffee beans, native vinegars, organic herbs, as well as homemade goods like cakes, cookies, snacks, longganiza, etc. Let’s keep the economy growing by supporting more food products coming from local farms, cottage industries, and home-based businesses.

COOK MORE FILIPINO DISHES

The best way to get up close and personal with Filipino food would be to simply cook more traditional dishes at home. Start with one or two favorite dishes prepared by the family kusinera or a beloved aunt or lola, and ask them to teach you how it’s cooked. Write the recipes down. If possible, visit the wet market and talk to the vendors. In certain areas like Makati and Quezon City, there are weekend markets where fresh produce is brought in from various places. Find out where the ingredients are grown and how they are typically used in cooking. There’s nothing like being able to use an ingredient—to touch it, smell it, taste it—and putting different random ingredients together to harmonize them into one cohesive dish.

Now there are the usual suspects when it comes to shopping for ingredients. We often buy the same mix of ingredients for sinigang or pinakbet, for example, and so I thought we should ask: What ingredients should we cook more of? Which ingredients are inadvertently being ignored or not being used more often?

I’ve asked some friends in the food industry to answer this question:

What do you think is the most under-utilized or under-appreciated local ingredient that we Pinoys should use more when cooking Filipino food?

Felice Sta. Maria 

Food historian and author (The Governor-General’s Kitchen and What Kids Should Know about Filipino Food)

Pili nut. Pili products have increased their presence but there is still a large potential for their culinary uses. Shoots can be used in salads; fruit pulp can be cooked and seasoned. Nuts are great for anything that usually uses nuts: stuffing for vegetables, meats, poultry, fish; casseroles; baked goods; etc. Turron of very finely ground pili flavored with a hint of dayap is divine. Some added info: I think pili trees are now being cultivated. For the longest time (even in the late 1980s), one gathered pili from forest trees. The nuts link us to our forager ancestors.

HEART STOPPERS Cheese and pili nuts

HEART STOPPERS Cheese and pili nuts

Nancy Reyes 

Food consultant and author (The Adobo Book)

One of these is the fruit of the malunggay or bunga ng malunggay. We home folks tend to ignore the Malunggay tree as it grows and just let it grow tall till we can’t reach the “fruits” any longer. It contains super vitamins and antioxidants just like the malunggay leaves, but even richer. When young and green, it is easy to cook. When dried, use the seeds to plant more trees or gather the seeds in a water pot and use it as water refresher or cleanser.

Another would be the rinds of the kalabasa, watermelon, pomelo or any citrus fruits like orange peels, lemon peels, calamansi peels. They have so many uses as aromatics or they can be dried then chopped up as ingredients for fruitcakes or cookies.

We could also utilize used coffee grounds as deodorant or air freshener when serving malansa foods. At Landers in Otis, they put coffee grounds around the fish section—it works!

LOCALLY GROWN Malunggay bunga

LOCALLY GROWN Malunggay bunga

Claude Tayag

Food writer, artist, TV host, and author (Linamnam, Food Tour: A Culinary Journal)

I love mushrooms. They have that subtle earthy flavor and aroma, so similar to the pricey truffles, and yet so readily available and affordable. Locally, they are seasonally gathered in the wild or forest during the rainy season, or sustain ably produced in mushroom farms. Some regional varieties include the Tagalog kabuté, Ilokano uong, Pampango payung-payungan (umbrella-like), and Bicolano karukding.

They can be cooked into a dish by itself or added into pizzas, pastas, burgers, chopsuey, soups, and stews. Mushrooms are a low-calorie food and a good source of vitamins B1, B2, and B3, as well as the minerals potassium, copper, and selenium (antioxidant).

Jam Melchor

president, Philippine Culinary Heritage Movement, Chef-owner, YesPlate

Kamias. It is commonly eaten raw or dipped in rock salt, or sometimes dried and used as a souring ingredient in cooking traditional Filipino dishes like paksiw or sinigang. They are also processed into pickles, dried candies, and juice. It’s easy to grow kamias trees in one’s backyard and they bear fruit in great quantity when in season. Kamias fruits are also believed to possess medicinal properties. They are used as treatment for skin itches or eruptions, rheumatism, swelling, or mumps. Beyond food, let’s not forget the common use of kamias in rural areas. It’s used in whitening fingernails, bleaching, or removing stains in clothes or rust in brass objects.

Kamias

Kamias

Waya Wijangco Arao 

Chef-owner, Gourmet Gypsy 

I think we under utilize and under appreciate bamboo shoots or labong. Bamboo shoots are versatile, cheap, nutritious, and very easy to grow and propagate. Growing bamboo is sustainable and great for the environment as it does not need fertilizer and pesticides. Bamboo is now being considered a nutraceutical—having medicinal properties that combat high cholesterol and even cancer. As a chef, I find bamboo shoots to be a very versatile ingredient that lends itself to various cooking methods. Its crisp texture and naturally sweet taste add an interesting counterpoint to food.

Labong

Labong

Ige Ramos 

Book designer, food writer, and author (Republic of Taste)

For me the most underutilized and underappreciated local ingredient is turmeric or luyang dilaw. We should use this more often in our cooking because it is widely available and affordable. Aside from having healing powers and curative effects because of its antioxidant properties, turmeric can be also used in traditional cooking like adobo (adobo sa dilaw) and richer karekare, in rice dishes (Java rice, fried rice, bringhe, paella), in hearty soups (turmeric and calabaza soup, Arroz Caldo, yellow monggo soup), and desserts (golden biko with luya and luyang dilaw, puto with anise and turmeric). The possibilities are endless.

BACKYARD TREASURES Luyang dilaw

BACKYARD TREASURES Luyang dilaw

 

Myrna Segismundo

Chef and author (Philippine Cuisine)

I would say kamias for its versatile use in making great fish paksiw (fresh or sun-dried), kinilaw, pickles, juice, and desserts. I’ve had dried kamias in chocolate-covered candy form. It will probably have even more cooking applications if we placed more focus on it. This gives me an idea to use it as a main ingredient for the upcoming National Food Showdown.

 Kalel Chan 

Corporate Chef, Raintree Group

I recently had a trip in Baler where my friend introduced me to their souring agent called “aduas.” We had a picnic near the falls cooking sinigang using the aduas leaf. It has a unique citrusy flavor profile, different from sampaloc, that we can use more in our local dishes. I have yet to discover the usage of this leaf to make a salad or some simple sautéed vegetables.

Sandy Daza

Food columnist and TV host

Taba ng Talangka. It’s such a rich and flavorful paste made from the pure roe of tiny talang—it’s a wonder why we Pinoys don’t use it often enough. I would put it in pasta or pancit, fried rice,or even as a decadent  dippings auce for fried fish or steamed vegetables.

taba ng talangka over steamed white rice

taba ng talangka over steamed white rice

Micky Fenix

Food columnist and author (Country Cooking)

It depends on where you are because our food is regional. If I say vegetables, that won’t be true for Ilocos. Coconut is not used in the Cordilleras because there are no coconut trees. Batangas has kibal but it isn’t found anywhere else. Takway, the roots of a yam, is probably found outside Panay but since it is unknown elsewhere, no one uses them.

We have so many ingredients, some just used locally so I can’t say that we are under utilizing some of them. It’s better to introduce ingredients from other sources, show how they are used, describe what they taste like.

Dedetdela Fuente Santos 

Lechon Diva” of Pepita’s Lechon

Alagaw leaves. I remember having alagaw stuffed inside the kitang belly together with tomatoes and onions. It gave a different taste to the Pinaputok na Kitang, and became more special dish because of the alagaw leaves. Without alagaw, it would have been an ordinary pinaputok (wrapped in banana leaves and steamed). It’s not a very common leaf used for cooking, but it helps remove the fishy taste (lansa) in seafood. I also just found out that alagaw has medicinal properties and many health benefits, too.

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