comscore Filipino food finds place in America’s mainstream | Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Every act of aloha counts. Click here to DONATE to the MAUI RELIEF Fund.

Filipino food finds place in America’s mainstream

Honolulu Star-Advertiser logo
Unlimited access to premium stories for as low as $12.95 /mo.
Get It Now

    Though other Asian cuisines have been part of the American landscape for decades, Filipino dishes are only now gaining recognition outside immigrant communities; the flavors still have the power to startle.

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.

“Sinigang is what my mother would make for me when I was sick,” said Alexandra Cuerdo, director of the documentary “Ulam: Main Dish,” about the rise of Filipino food in America, which is set to premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival next month.

The souring agent in sinigang changes by the map: It might be tamarind, guava, alibangbang leaves, kamias (the fruit of the sorrel tree), batuan (kin to mangosteen) or unripe pineapple — whatever is on hand in the region. Place matters to Filipinos, who often have tangled roots as a result of internal migration and speak multiple languages.

At Lasa, chef Chad Valencia uses rhubarb for sinigang when it’s in season.

“Our region is Los Angeles,” he said.

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. So, too, is dinuguan, a pork-blood stew that can pose a challenge even for Filipinos.

“When I was growing up, dinuguan was a kind of culinary boogeyman, a dish that adults would tell gory stories about to scare children,” said Genevieve Villamora, an owner of Bad Saint.

The opaque stew, classically loaded with offal, is often passed off by Filipino immigrant parents as “chocolate meat” to their suspicious children. King Phojanakong, the chef of Kuma Inn in New York, remembers wondering, “Why was it so dark?”

But the mineral-rich blood is what gives the stew its ballast and faintly metallic hint of a licked knife. It must be cooked carefully so that the blood doesn’t congeal; done right, it turns to velvet. At Bad Saint, dinuguan has become one of the best-selling dishes, without the veil of euphemism.

If cooking is a vehicle for memory, for many Filipinos the dishes of their heritage are inseparable from days of celebration. “Food marks the occasion,” said Angela Dimayuga, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and was most recently the chef of Mission Chinese Food in New York.

It’s considered particularly lucky to eat pancit (noodles) on birthdays, their uncut strands promising long life. The name of the noodles is derived from a Hokkien phrase for “fast food.” Like their Chinese antecedents, they come in different shapes and textures: miki (made with egg), bihon (rice), sotanghon (mung bean) and canton (wheat). Recipes might include sluices of soy sauce and calamansi and toppings of shrimp heads, quail eggs, shucked oysters or chicharron.

For the highest occasion — like the 99th birthday of Dimayuga’s grandmother last year — there can be only one centerpiece: lechon, whole roasted pig, its shining, lacquer-thin skin primed to shatter.

“It’s trendy here to go head to tail, but there it’s just a way of life,” Phojanakong said. After a party, the lechon is broken down: “You use the head for sisig” — a sizzle of jowl and ears — “trotters for adobo, make dinuguan with blood and innards and turn leftovers into paksiw,” a vinegary stew contoured with a pate-like liver spread.

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.


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.

Comments (0)

By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Terms of Service. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. Report comments if you believe they do not follow our guidelines.

Having trouble with comments? Learn more here.

Click here to view ongoing news coverage of the Maui wildfires. Sign up for our free e-newsletter to get the latest news delivered to your inbox. Download the Honolulu Star-Advertiser mobile app to stay on top of breaking news coverage.

Be the first to know
Get web push notifications from Star-Advertiser when the next breaking story happens — it's FREE! You just need a supported web browser.
Subscribe for this feature

See the newest food hot spots! Sign up for the CRAVE email newsletter.

Scroll Up