Filipino food has traditionally received a pretty bad rap on the global culinary scene, but with many trend forecasters predicting Filipino cuisine the one to watch, perceptions are slowly changing.
A fusion of Spanish, Chinese, Malaysian and indigenous cooking styles, the food of this 7000-island archipelago really is like nothing else on earth. Here are 11 classic food-and-drink experiences worth having – at least once.
Whether it’s chicken, beef, pork, seafood or vegetables, if it’s cooked adobo you’d be hard-pressed to find a Filipino that doesn’t love it. Adobo sees meat and vegetables marinated in garlic, vinegar and soy sauce before being cooked in oil and then simmered in the remaining marinade. Served with mountains of white rice, it’s a hallmark Filipino dish. You’ll find it on every local restaurant menu, and in food courts and market stalls throughout the country. Sentro 1771 in Manila offers a flavoursome garlicky beef and pork version.
The Philippines is home to possibly one of the tastiest pig dishes in the world: a whole pig stuffed with herbs and vegetables (each region has its own secret filling), which is hand-turned on a spit over smoking coals until the skin shatters like glass and the meat drips with flavour. A favourite for Filipino celebrations, lechon can be purchased at takeout counters throughout the islands or at local markets (try Manila’s Saturday Salcedo Community Markets). No need to buy the whole pig – you can usually order a few hundred grams. Many Filipinos say the best lechon comes from Cebu, an hour’s flight from Manila. Don’t be surprised to see wrapped pigs being collected at the airport baggage carousels; restaurants fly lechon around the country to ensure customers get to feast on their favourite pork dish.
Possibly the most popular food for Filipinos (after firm favourite white rice; tip: ‘unli rice’ stands for ‘unlimited rice’) is rice noodles! Stir-fried with a mixture of meats and vegetables, and lashings of soy and oyster sauce, this dish is a staple at any Filipino celebration and is eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner. The noodles do come in varying thicknesses but pansit bihon (thin ones) are the best.
Served on a sizzling hot plate, this pork dish is traditionally made by boiling a pig’s head, then grilling or barbecuing it to add a smoky flavour, chopping the meat into tiny pieces, and finally frying with onion, garlic and spices. Sisig was made famous in Pampanga Province by late restaurateur Lucia Cunanan, who has been credited with creating the modern Filipino version. If you’re in the area, stop by restaurant Aling Lucing (facebook.com/lucingcunanan) for a taste of the original. Sisig is available around the country; many restaurants serve variations using chicken, tuna, squid or even tofu instead of pork, or add items such as raw egg or mayonnaise. Whichever way you order it, get ready for a sizzling feast.
Sinigang is a sour-tasting soup made of a tamarind, tomato, garlic and onion broth. Native vegetables including okra, eggplant and green finger chilli are boiled up and meats (usually pork on the bone) are then added. Sinigang is the epitome of Filipino comfort food; most Pinoys can’t get enough of its signature sour taste. The dish is usually served with a side of patis (fish sauce) and chilli, and of course some white rice.
Fresh or fried, this delicious spring roll is the perfect start to any meal, or can be enjoyed as a tasty solo snack. Lumpia is made from minced meat (usually pork), cooked with onions, garlic and finely chopped vegetables, all bundled together in a wafer-thin wrapper. It’s often served with banana ketchup, a sweet-and-sour sauce made from mashed bananas, sugar, vinegar and spices, coloured red to resemble tomato ketchup. It sounds crazy, but it works.
Balut is a much-loved traditional afternoon snack in the Philippines. You’ll see streetside hawkers dish it out to the masses, but curious visitors will require a stomach of steel to join in. Why? Balut might look like a regular boiled egg, but when you crack one open, you’ll find an 18-day-old duck embryo. Yep: a tiny semi-formed duck. Locals eat it by cracking the shell at one end and peeling off the top, drinking the soup and then giving the leftovers a good shake of salt before finishing them off. Fans say it tastes like chicken, but you’ll have to try it yourself to find out.
A heart attack in a bowl, chicharon is deep-fried pork skin, and it is good, oh so good. Chicharon is usually flavoured with salt and garlic, however you can often buy a few varieties, such as chilli, which adds a nice kick to the crunch. It’s the perfect accompaniment to an ice-cold San Miguel; the only downside is having to talk yourself out of overindulging. This tasty snack is easily found at 7-Elevens, market stalls and anywhere beverages are sold throughout the Philippines.
The name of this multicoloured dessert means ‘mixed together’ in Tagalog, and that is exactly what it is: a heap of sweet stuff mixed together to create one of the world’s most surprising taste sensations. Halo-halo consists of a plethora of ingredients – from sago to corn to boiled beans – layered over a base of shaved ice and condensed milk in a tall glass. Topped with purple ube (purple yam) ice cream, leche flan and sprinkles of sugar and fruits, it’s an ‘anything goes’ dessert that will knock your socks off. Milky Way Café (cafe.milkywayrestaurant.com) in Manila has been serving up halo-halo since the 1960s and is still one of the best places to try it.
It’s not actually a type of food, but this Filipino fast-food restaurant is more popular than McDonald’s, so it deserves a mention. Jollibee offers a mash-up of the world’s most popular fast foods in one place – pasta, burgers, fried chicken, pancakes, rice – you name it and they’ve probably got it. Whether the food is good is a matter of taste (the sweet spaghetti will give you a sugar high for days) but it is a Filipino favourite. Just look out for the giant red, crazily smiling bee and you’re in the right place.
The ultimate thirst-quencher, this citrus juice is available in cans, juice boxes and bottles at every corner store in the Philippines. The freshly squeezed kind is the best; extracted from the tiny calamansi fruit (about half the size of a lime), the very tart juice is sweetened with sugar. You’ll often find calamansi fruit accompanying meals; use it as you would a lemon or lime, and squeeze a little on your food for added zest.