Many people have yet to try Filipino food. If you know any Filipino, you would know that they are famous all over the world for two things: hospitality and caregiving, which are the primary exports of the country. There is another area though that had been gaining recognition that merges these two: Filipino food culture.
Go to any Filipino household and you would be greeted in English, Filipino, or the local language with a warm and caring “Have you eaten?” as a way of saying “Hello” and “How are you?” Dine with your Filipino friends and be prepared to be treated to a gastronomic journey that combines the best that the West and the Orient has to offer.
With more than 7,000 islands, Filipino food is diverse and creative. It should not come as a surprise then that there are many interesting facts about Filipino food that would surely make you want to experience it.
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Filipino Food 101
1. Filipinos love rice. For them, a meal is not a meal without rice. It is such a staple in Filipino cuisine that you can find it in every household. During the New Year, having a stock of rice would invite good fortune for the coming year. Rice pairs well with any savory dish because of its plain and starchy flavor.
2. Filipinos prepare rice in many ways. There’s the warm, newly cooked rice, the smokey burnt rice found at the bottom of the pot, the room-temperature left-over rice, the flavorful fried rice, the surprisingly strong rice wine, the glutinous rice cake, and kid-friendly pop rice.
3. There are 300 varieties of rice in the Philippines. Not surprisingly, some come in colors aside from white. There’s brown rice, high in fiber and magnesium. There’s the red rice, rich in zinc, fiber, and manganese. And there’s the heirloom rice which comes in black, green, yellow, purple, red, and green. The Philippine Rice Research Institute is developing drought-resistant, pest-resistant, and high-yield varieties.
4. The evidence of the earliest presence of rice in the country dates back 3,500 years. Historians believe that the Malay people introduced rice to the country. Rice though was not immediately the Filipino staple food. In a paper written by Filomeno V. Aguilar Jr. of Ateneo de Manila University, it is revealed that ancient Filipinos preferred “taro, yams, and millet” for their daily sustenance. Rice apparently was produced in limited quantities that only the members of the upper class can afford it. Rice only became more common during the Spanish colonization because rice production was dramatically improved with the introduction of new technology and irrigation system.
History of Filipino Food Origins
5. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that with three hundred years of Spanish rule, Philippine cuisine is strongly influenced by it: In fact, 80% of the dishes are influenced by Spanish cuisine. The Spaniards introduced corn, flour, squash, avocado, sausage, beef, guava, sapodilla (chico fruit), papaya, cabbage, cocoa, potatoes, ham, coffee, beer, bread, pickles, sardines. The Spanish also introduced forks, spoons, plates, and cups to the Philippines. To this day, forks and spoons are used when eating (but not knives). However, some Filipinos still prefer to eat the truly native Filipino way: without utensils.
6. Filipino cuisine is heavily influenced by the country’s former colonizers, Spain, the US, and Japan, and its neighboring Asian countries like China, Japan, India, and, more recently, South Korea. The country’s pancit (noodles) and lumpia (spring rolls) were introduced by the early Chinese settlers in Manila. The popular Filipino dessert called halo-halo was introduced by the Japanese.
Traditional Filipino Food Ingredients
7. Expect different ways of preparing the same type of dish using locally sourced ingredients. Sinigang, a popular sour stew, can be prepared with different types of meat (beef, pork, goat, shrimp, fish, chicken, or dried fish). different kinds of vegetables (river spinach, ladies finger, eggplant, string beans, radish, or taro), and different types of souring agents (tomato, vinegar, tamarind, bilimbi fruit, mango, cotton fruit, Philippine lime, jackfruit, guava, pineapple, watermelon, or strawberry).
8. Filipinos have a recipe for almost every part of an animal. No part goes to waste. A pig’s leg can be submerged in boiling oil to make crispy pata, its face is turned into dinakdakan, a chicken’s intestines can become isaw while its liver and gizzard become adobong atay and balunbalunan. Even a pig’s blood becomes dinuguan.
9. Every table during meals contains a dipping sauce (sawsawan). These dipping sauce add additional layer of flavor to Filipino food. The most common dipping sauces are soy sauce and calamansi (separate or mixed together), chilimansi (chili + calamansi), toyomansi (soy sauce + calamansi), fish sauce (patis), spiced vinegar, and fish paste (bagoong). For certain dishes, the sauce is necessary to complete the dish. For instance, Kare-kare (peanut-based beef stew) is always paired with bagoong (shrimp paste). There are no fast rules for creating dipping sauces and no single way to mix them.
10. The popular Filipino children’s rhyme, Bahay Kubo, when translated to English contains the following vegetables: jicama (singkamas), eggplant (talong), winged beans or asparagus peas (sigarilyas), peanuts (mani), string beans (sitaw), lablab or hyacinth beans (bataw), lima beans (patani), wintermelon (kundol), sponge gourd (patola), white squash (upo), regular squash (kalabasa), radish (labanos), mustard greens (mustasa), onions (sibuyas), tomato (kamatis), garlic (bawang), ginger (luya), and sesame (linga).
11. The most popular meat in Filipino food culture is pork, with beef and poultry following behind it. In the areas where Islam has a strong following, beef and poultry are consumed instead of pork. As a delicacy, the Tagalogs and the Kapampangans eat frogs.
Customs and Traditions in Filipino Food Culture
12. Meals are a form of social gathering so enjoy a lot of conversations. Filipinos eat with the entire family, sometimes in front of the TV.
13. Guests are expected to eat heartily as it’s a form of compliment. Your hosts will always offer you more food even if you’ve already had your third plate. If you don’t want more food, leave a bit on your plate. You will be asked to take more two or three times in the form of a little ritual. First, you refuse, then the host insists, then you refuse again, then the host insists again, and then and only then will you finally give in and take a little more reluctantly.
14. You may always have additional beverages; drink enough to cause your cup or glass to be less than half full, and it will generally be refilled. Never refill your own glass; refill your neighbor’s glass, and he or she will refill yours. This is true in parties and in drinking sessions.
15. Table knives are not used. Forks and spoons instead are used. To cut meat, a spoon would suffice. Don’t be surprised though if you see someone eating with their hands, even at restaurants. Filipinos say that the food tastes better when eating from the hand.
16.During parties, Filipinos indulge themselves in all the available delicacies in one go. Expect one plate to contain all the available dishes on the table.
People often eat with their hands, even rice and stews. The traditional method of placing food on a banana leaf and eating with one’s hands is also used throughout the country. It is acceptable to eat food with one’s hands at restaurants as well as in the home. As is true in Muslim countries people eat with their right hand. Unlike other Asians, Filipinos eat their food quietly.
17. If the meal is is an open buffet, let the host invite everybody first. Don’t be the first person to take food. At the end of the meal, the host may give you a doggie bag (pabaon) with the leftover food inside. This is a common expression of hospitality. If you can, try to reject it, but ultimately take it.
18. Toothpicks are often readily available and can be used at the end of the meal. The best way to use a toothpick is use one hand, while raising the other hand in front of the mouth to cover the mouth.
19. Do you want to try joining a Boodle Fight? This Filipino tradition originated from the Philippine military. In a military Boodle Fight, a big pile of food is served in the middle of a long table in the mess hall where hungry soldiers eat using their hands to symbolize camaraderie, brotherhood and equality. The “fight” in the name refers to the act of grabbing and eating as much as the soldier can before others grab them or runs out. If you’re slow you will definitely run out of food. No utensils are used when eating so you will have to use your bear hands
Traditional Filipino Dishes
20. Adobo is the Filipino dish that everybody knows. The dish is made by stewing meat – usually chicken, pork, or a combination of both – in soy sauce, vinegar, pepper, and bay leaves . Often thought of as introduced by the Spaniards since the name is Spanish in origin, the adobo had actually been in the Philippines even before the arrival of the colonizers.
21. Filipinos have unusual and surprisingly good food pairings that people who have yet to try it might think it weird.. Chocolate porridge (champorado) is paired with dried fish (tuyo). Pork blood stew (dinuguan) is the dip for rice cake (puto). Green mango is dipped in fermented shrimp paste (bagoong).
22. Different parts of the country have their own fermented food products that utilize local ingredients. There is the fermented fruits and vegetables (burong mustasa, atchara, burong pipino), the cheese (kesong puti), fermented fish (balao-balao, burong isda, tinabal, patis, bagoong, alamang, guinamos, dayok), fermented meat (longanisa, agos-os, burong babi), fermented rice (tapuy, pangasi, puto, bibingka).
23. Others may use it as a challenge for its Yuck! factor but Filipinos love balut. When a duck egg is between two to three weeks old, it is hard-boiled in brine so it can retain some features of its development like the beak, bones, or feathers. It is best served warm so vendors insulate it with a warm rug. Filipino men consider the balut as an aphrodisiac.
24. For brave foodies looking for another aphrodisiac, try Soup Number 5. It is made by boiling a bull’s sex organs which are considered as the fifth leg of the animal, hence, the “Number 5” in the name. While there is no study confirming, it is believed that eating it will give the physical and sexual attributes of a bull to anyone willing to take a sip.
25. When food is crawling with maggots, it’s a clear sign not to eat it – unless that food is the salt-cured pork from Sagada called Etag. The salt-cured pork is stored in earthen jars for weeks before hanging it out to dry, at which point it will be crawling with maggots. This makes it Sagada’s official ham. One wonders which brave soul tried to take a bite of the first Etag. It probably started as a dare.
26. Does digging into a bowl of fried insects make your mouth water? Then you’re in for a treat. As a way to reduce the growing population of pesky insects, farmers all over the archipelago are getting even with these pests for a high protein delicacy. From ant eggs, to crickets, and grasshoppers, nothing is off the table.
27. Other pests that can’t escape a boiling pot of oil and the dinner table includes snakes, bats, field mice, frogs, and snails. These are harvested from the fields or caught with traps. They mainly rely on eating from the farmlands so they are seen as pests.
28. Did anyone order a bowl of brains? Channel the zombie apocalypse by digging into Tuslob-buwa. Instead of meat, the main ingredients of this dish are the pig’s brain and liver. Zombies and fans of this bizarre dish agree that you won’t even know what the ingredients are just by looking or tasting. Just make sure you cook it properly.
29. Stewed pig’s blood is another delicious delicacy in the Philippines. Dinuguan is a common Filipino food that includes a few cups of pig’s blood. “Dugo” is a Filipino word for blood. This blood-infused stew is so rich and flavorful that you would forget you’re eating a pig’s offals, ears, intestines, and snout that was simmered in its own blood. This is the Filipino version of the Scottish haggis. While mainly eaten as a main dish, dinuguan can also be eaten as a snack when paired with steamed rice cake.
30. The Bontoc tribe of the Cordillera regions prepares their chicken by first beating it with a stick. They believe that lightly beating the chicken tenderizes the meat and releases the flavor. Once the chicken is ready and chopped up, they will add salt and Etag.
31. Filipinos love their street foods and there’s a few for serious foodies to try. Filipinos have creative names for fried and barbequed street foods served on a stick. Helmet is the name for barbequed chicken heads. Adidas is the name for barbequed chicken feet. Betamax is the name for coagulated chicken blood, The helmet, Adidas, and betamax are dipped in a sauce of salt, sugar, vinegar, chopped onions, and chili.
32. Oysters are famous delicacies that can be eaten raw but there’s a rare delicacy in the popular island of Palawan that tastes just as good when eaten raw. The woodworm, locally called tamilok, is harvested from the bark of mangroves and marinated in vinegar and consumed. The woodworm may look like a worm but it’s actually a molluskThey may seem slimy and cringe-worthy but they go down the throat like snot.
33. Street vendors sell locally made ice cream known as “sorbetes” in metal pushcarts. While most buyers can opt to have their ice cream scooped into wafer cones, they can also have it shoved inside a burger bun. The ice cream carts would usually have two to three flavors which include purple yam (ube), cheese, and avocado.
34. Spanish Filipinologist Wenceslao Retana discovered in the 1920s that the origin of “carinderia”, which is local term for eateries, can be traced to the word kari which means “spice,” or more specifically”curry.” But how did the popular Indian spice enter the country? To answer that, we have to go back to the British invasion of Manila (1762-1764) where hundreds of Indian soldiers were serving under the British command. After the battle, the Indians left the Royal Army and settled in Taytay and Cainta with their Filipina wives. The Indians introduced curry-based dishes which were later sold in food shops near the Pasig River. The people started calling these food shops “carinderia” in the same way they used “pansiteria” to refer to Chinese eateries serving “pansit” or “panaderia” for those that sold pan bread.
35. Chef Rob Pengson of The Goose Station created dishes inspired by the life and writings of Jose Rizal. Each item in the menu, such as kesong puti, foie gras taho, and dinuguan black pudding, is accompanied by a Rizalian quote. Take tres leches, a sponge cake served with sampaguita, coconut, and a burst of red raspberry: it’s the edible interpretation of the line “I die without seeing the dawn brighten over my native land” from Mi Ultimo Adios.
If you love Filipino food as much as we do then check the most popular Filipino foods for the adventurous soul. You’ll find some amazing dishes there along with a few that quite honestly are an “acquired taste”.