In 1883, Jose Rizal, the future hero and martyr of the Philippine Revolution, was a homesick medical student abroad in Madrid. His longing for bagoong, a paste of seafood salted and left to ferment until it exudes a fathomless funk, grew so great that his worried family in Manila dispatched a jar. But it broke on the ship, releasing its pungent scent and, reportedly, terrifying the passengers.
Today, bagoong and other Filipino foods are finally entering the American mainstream, more than a century after the U.S. Navy sailed into Manila Bay, sank the Spanish Armada and took control of the archipelago, a restive colony of around 7,100 islands and 180 languages.
Americans of Filipino heritage now make up one in five of all Asian-Americans, second only to Chinese in number, and the largest percentage of immigrants serving in the U.S. military were born in the Philippines.
Other Asian cuisines have been part of the American landscape for decades. But only in recent years have Filipino dishes started gaining recognition outside immigrant communities, at restaurants like Maharlika in New York; Bad Saint in Washington, D.C.; and Lasa in Los Angeles.
The flavors of Filipino cooking, like Rizal’s broken jar of bagoong, still have the power to startle those unfamiliar with them.
Although Filipino food draws on early encounters with Malay, Chinese and Arab traders as well as centuries of Spanish occupation, its profile is distinct: salty and sour above all, with less of the mitigating sweetness and chili-stoked fire found in the cooking of its Southeast Asian neighbors.
Bagoong — ranging from muddy brown to plumeria pink in color, commonly made of tiny krill, anchovies or bonnetmouths — brings to soups and stews a depth of flavor that evokes cheese interred in caves and aged steak, with an extra dimension of ocean floor.
It also may be eaten straight, daubed on rice or anointing slices of green mango. Along with its byproduct, patis (fish sauce), it’s an essential seasoning that claims a place on the table next to suka (vinegar) and banana ketchup (bananas cooked down in vinegar and tomato paste), as much a condiment as an ingredient.
As such, it’s part of what the Manila-born food historian Doreen Fernandez termed a “galaxy of flavor-adjusters” that define how Filipinos eat: seasonings added to dishes after they’re served, in trickles and pinches, according to each diner’s taste.
A chef feeding Filipinos must sublimate ego and accept that no dish emerges from the kitchen fully finished. A meal is a joint effort between cooks and eaters.
If bagoong is the salt, suka is the sour lifeblood of the cuisine. Extracted from sugar cane or the sap from coconut trees or nipa palms, it was originally a necessary preservative in a warm climate.
How to take the bounty of fish from the surrounding seas and make it last? Cure it in suka and it becomes kinilaw, an ancient recipe that may have been one of the earliest forms of ceviche. To this might be added the bite of ginger, the silkiness of coconut milk, or a sunny kiss of calamansi, which has a sharper sting than lime.
For another staple, daing na bangus, milkfish is relieved of its bones, splayed and soaked in vinegar overnight for tenderness, then crisped in a pan. You can eat the flesh with a spoon.
Lumpia, cousins to Chinese spring rolls, are dunked in sawsawan (dipping sauce), which may be as straightforward as vinegar with a stutter of raw garlic. The rolls come fried to a crackle or “fresh,” with uncooked, doughy skins that suggest crepes, and filled with anything from ground meat to hearts of palm to whole green finger chilies, a variation called, rightly, dynamite.
Vinegar is the undertow, too, in adobo, perhaps the best known of Filipino dishes, whose ingredients and method predate its Spanish name. (“It’s really ours,” said Romy Dorotan, the chef of Purple Yam in New York.) At its base, adobo is a long braise of meat in vinegar and garlic, but other ingredients are up for debate: Some swear by soy sauce while others dismiss it as an import; some stir in annatto oil, coconut milk, sugar or squid ink.
Of all Filipino dishes, adobo “has the most leeway for a cook’s imagination, hubris, art or bigoted sense of one’s own mother’s love-and-greatness,” novelist Gina Apostol said. There are nearly as many manifestations of adobo as there are Filipinos.
But is adobo the dish that speaks most directly to the Filipino soul? Fernandez argued otherwise, in favor of sinigang, a soup she described as “the dish most representative of Filipino taste,” in part because it’s adaptable “to all classes and budgets.”
Recipes differ, but the goal is the same: a sourness so profound that the first sip should make you shudder.
Still, no one dish can sum up the Filipino palate.
“A feast of different flavors is optimal,” said Nicole Ponseca, who runs Maharlika and Jeepney in New York. “Sauces meld, complement, make whole.”
To balance the sourness of adobo and sinigang, she suggests kare-kare, a nutty- sweet stew of oxtail, bok choy, string beans and eggplant, traditionally simmered with ground peanuts and achuete oil; peanut butter, a modern substitute, lends voluptuousness.
Kare-kare, sinigang and adobo are likely to appear on most Filipino menus in the United States, from turo-turo (point-point) steam-table joints to sophisticated restaurants.
Beyond these greatest hits are regional specialties, which Dorotan, a native of Bicol in southeastern Luzon, wishes would get more attention. At Purple Yam, he makes laing, taro leaves simmered in coconut milk (the trademark of Bicolano cooking) until lush.
But which regional specialties does he want to see more of? He laughed. There are so many islands.
“Even I do not know,” he said.
THE HISTORY of kare-kare is often traced to a 20-month interregnum in the 18th century when the British wrested Manila from the Spanish. Indian cooks attending the Royal Navy brought the name and notion of curry to the islands, and had to make do with local spices.
KARE-KARE (OXTAIL STEW IN PEANUT SAUCE)
By Ligaya Mishan
- 5 pounds oxtails, cut into 2-inch pieces
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 7 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
- 2 red onions, cut into large dice
- 2 celery stalks, cut into large dice
- 1 carrot, cut into large dice
- 1/2 bunch fresh thyme sprigs
- 4 cups red wine, such as a cabernet sauvignon (about 1-1/4 bottles)
- 1 cup Shaoxing wine (Chinese rice wine) or sherry
- 4 to 6 cups stock, plus more as necessary, preferably beef
- 2 Japanese eggplants (about 1/2 pound), sliced 3/4-inch thick
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 6 ounces long beans or green beans, stems removed and cut into 2-inch lengths
- 2 to 3 pieces baby bok choy, quartered lengthwise
- 1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
- 2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
- Sugar, to taste
- 3 tablespoons annatto oil (see note)
- >> For serving:
- Bagoong (optional)
- 4 to 6 cups cooked white rice
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Season oxtails well with salt and pepper.
Heat 3 tablespoons vegetable oil over medium-high in a large Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed, ovenproof pot with a lid. Brown oxtails on all sides, then remove to a plate. (Work in batches, so as not to crowd the pan.)
Remove all but a tablespoon of the fat from pot and reduce heat to medium. Add onions, celery and carrot; cook until they are soft and aromatic, 3 to 6 minutes.
Stir in thyme sprigs. When just softened add red wine and stir, scraping up any browned bits on bottom.
Add oxtails, Shaoxing wine and enough stock to fully cover meat. Cover and place in oven 2-1/2 to 3 hours, until meat is fork tender but not falling off the bone.
About 15 minutes before oxtails are done, prepare vegetables: Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a medium nonstick skillet over medium. Add eggplant, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook another 5 minutes until eggplant is softened; remove and set aside.
Wipe the skillet clean, increase the heat to medium-high and add 1 tablespoon oil. Add beans, season with salt and pepper; quickly stir-fry 3 to 4 minutes, remove and set aside.
Add remaining tablespoon oil to pan, cook bok choy with pinch of salt until bright green and tender, about 2 minutes; remove from heat.
When oxtails are tender, remove meat and set aside on a plate. Strain braising liquid in pot and skim fat. You should have 5 cups of liquid; add additional stock if necessary. Simmer over medium-high heat until reduced by half.
Turn heat to low. Use a hand blender to mix in peanut butter, soy sauce and sugar. Add annatto oil, blend again and let simmer 2 minutes to thicken slightly.
Return meat to pot and let cook until heated through. Serve hot with the room temperature vegetables on top, rice and bagoong on the side. Serves 4 to 6.
>> Note: Annatto seeds (aka achiote or achuete) may be purchased in 1.76-ounce bags in Filipino markets or the Asian section of some supermarkets. Simmer in 2 cups vegetable oil until oil turns red. Let sit 5 minutes, then strain and discard seeds.
Nutritional information unavailable.