Kain na tayo – ‘let’s eat’. It’s the Filipino invitation to eat, and if you travel in the Philippines you will hear it over and over and over again. The phrase reveals two essential aspects of Filipino people: one, that they are hospitable, and two, that they love to, well, eat. A melange of Asian, Latin, American and indigenous cooking, Filipino culinary traditions – hybridised and evolving – reflect the country's unique colonial history and varied geography.

The Basics

Although Filipinos love to eat out, you rarely need to book ahead outside of the trendiest restaurants in Manila and maybe Cebu.

Turu-Turò The basic Filipino eatery (literally ‘point point’).

Restaurants Manila and bigger cities have scores of international and Filipino restaurants. The best are outside the malls.

Cafes International and Filipino coffee-shop chains are becoming more common, serving coffee and light bites to white-collar Filipinos.

Food parks These are wildly popular in Manila and trending in the provinces.

Markets Abundant. Good for affordable self-catering and sometimes for sampling regional specialities.

Fast Food All too common everywhere.

Influences & Reputation

Filipinos are constantly eating. Three meals a day just isn’t enough, so they’ve added two meryenda. The term literally means ‘snack’, but don’t let that fool you – the afternoon meryenda can include something as filling as bihon (fried rice sticks) or goto (Filipino congee) plus bibingka (fluffy rice cakes topped with cheese).

Filipino food has a somewhat poor reputation in both the West, where Filipino restaurants are rare, and Asia, where the cuisine is considered unimaginative and unrefined. This perplexes Filipinos, who are convinced their home-cooked comfort food is the greatest thing in the world. In truth, indigenous (Pinoy) food is neither as bad as its international reputation, nor as delicious as locals would have you believe. Of course, it all depends on your tastebuds.

The usual complaints about Filipino food are that it’s too heavy, too salty and – especially – too sweet. Sugar is added in abundance to everything, from the hamburgers at Jollibee to locally rendered Thai food. But if you know what to order, or know a good cook, you’ll find delights aplenty to satisfy the most discriminating tastebuds.

Influences on Filipino food include American (burgers, fast food); Chinese (pansit, lumpia, anything soy-based, stir frying); Mexican (tamales); and Spanish (bringhe, a version of paella most closely associated with Pampanga; any dishes sautéd with garlic, tomatoes and onions, flans, sofritos, fiesta foods).

Meanwhile, a new generation of Filipino chefs, restaurateurs and organic farmers are creating their own networks of like-minded foodies.

Staples & Specialities

Much of the Philippines’ poor culinary reputation rests on the back of one food: balút, a boiled duck egg containing a partially developed embryo, sometimes with tiny feathers. Fortunately, most national staples are a lot more palatable than balút.

If there were a national dish, it would undoubtedly be adobo – pork, chicken or just about any meat stewed in vinegar and garlic. It’s delicious done right, but can be awfully salty and greasy if done wrong. Other dishes you’ll find with striking regularity include sinigáng (any meat or seafood boiled in a sour, tamarind-flavoured soup), kare-kare (oxtail and vegetables cooked in peanut sauce), crispy pata (deep-fried pork hock or knuckles) and pansit (stir-fried noodles). Ihaw-ihaw eateries, serving inahaw (grilled meat or fish), are everywhere. Lechón (suckling pig roasted on a spit) is de rigueur at Filipino celebrations. Common appetisers include lumpia (small spring rolls, usually vegetarian) and the truly delicious kinilaw (Filipino-style ceviche).

Then there’s the ubiquitous Filipino breakfast – rice (preferably garlic rice) with a fried egg on top, with tapa (salty beef strips), tocino (honey-cured pork), bangus (milkfish) or longganisa (sausages) on the side. For dessert, try halo-halo, a glass packed with fruit preserves, sweetcorn, young coconut and various tropical delights topped with milky crushed ice, a dollop of crème caramel and a scoop of ice cream.

Homecooking

Ordinary home cooking is a different affair from restaurant food. Veggies are more prevalent and families might serve chicken once a week. Grilling or frying fish like galunggong (mackerel-like fish) or farmed bangus in vinegar and garlic is much more common. Panga, the jaw of a tuna, sort of the dark meat equivalent, is fairly meaty and popular. No meal is complete without rice of course, but pansit is also usually served.

Regional Specialties

In a country of such cultural, ethnographic and geographic diversity, it's no surprise that there's an equally diverse array of regional specialties. And staples such as longganisa, lechón and even balút are rendered in different ways. Of the regional cuisines, the spicy food of Bicol is probably most amenable to Western palates, while Filipinos consider Pampanga province in central Luzon the country’s food capital.

Bicol

Bicolano cooking involves many varieties of sili (hot chilli pepper) and gata (coconut milk); anything cooked in gata is known as ginataán. Perhaps most well known is Bicol exprés, a spicy mishmash of ground pork, sili, baby shrimps, onion, garlic and other spices cooked in coconut milk. Look for vendors sellling pinangat: green gabi (taro) leaves wrapped around pieces of fish, shrimp and/or pork. Another Bicol favourite is candingga, diced pork liver and carrots sweetened and cooked in vinegar. With all of these dishes and other main courses, you can expect to find natong or laing, a chopped, leafy green vegetable commonly served on its own as a side dish. And finally in the dessert department, pili nut, an alleged aphrodisiac, is popping up in cookies, pastries, marzipan, pies and ice cream.

Ilocos

To some, Ilocano cooking is a vegetarian's paradise. Its version of pinakbét with eggplant, tomatoes, okra and ampalaya (bitter melon) – cooked in layers in a pot like a vegetable lasagne or terrine – is possibly the best-known in the country. Its specific version of fish paste is called bagoong and goat or pig bile is sometimes used to flavour dishes.

Batanes

If you make it to these islands in the far north, be sure to try the following: uved balls, a surprisingly tasty dish (given the ingredients) made with bananas, mixed with minced pork and pig's blood; and vunes, which looks like a brown mess, but is actually chopped-up taro stalks cooked with garlic.

Cordillera

A warning, rather than encouragement: they eat pretty much everything in the Cordillera. Unless of course you get excited at the idea of eating python, a bundle of frogs and dog meat.

Mindanao

Northern Mindanao, around Cagayan de Oro, is known for its kinilaw, which is spiced with tabon tabon, a fruit native to northern Mindanao. Local foodies claim their city’s lechón baboy (roasted pig), stuffed with lemongrass and other herbs and spices, is the tastiest. Adobo in Zamboanga is made with cream coconut; and bulad (dried fish), while popular everywhere in the country, comes in an especially large amount of varieties in southern Mindanao.

Negros

Inasal (also the name of a fast-food chain) – basically grilled or roasted chicken marinated in lemongrass, anchiote (a peppery spice), calamansi (a citrus fruit) and garlic – has become something of a national dish and is most associated with Bacolod.

Pampanga

Dishes are often sweet and cooked with fermented sugar, while shellfish is frequently fermented in rice sauce. Pinaupong manok, steamed chicken stuffed with vegetables, is a Pampanga specialty beloved throughout the country.

Fruits & Vegetables

If you find you aren’t getting enough fruits and greens in the Philippines (and many do), buy them at outdoor fruit stands, street markets or, in bigger cities, supermarkets. Fruits and vegetables come in an astonishing variety, and anything grown domestically is dirt cheap. The only common vegetarian dish is pinakbét: a tasty melange of pumpkin, string beans, eggplant, okra and other veggies, seasoned with garlic, onions, ginger, tomatoes, shrimp paste and, sometimes, coconut milk. If you don’t eat shrimp paste, ask for it not to be used.

Exotic tropical fruits such as durian, mangosteens, rambutans, jackfruit and longans, which will be familiar to those who have travelled elsewhere in Southeast Asia, are grown seasonally here. Walnut-sized lanzones, similar to longans but more sour, are a local speciality. Santol look like oranges, but have white pulp with the texture of wet fur. The Davao area is known for growing the country’s best tropical fruit, including delicious mangosteens, stinky durian and succulent pomelos.

Temperate vegetables such as lettuce, carrots and broccoli are grown at high altitudes and sold in markets nationwide. Somewhat exotic vegetables grown locally include kamote (sweet potatoes), ube (purple yam), ampalaya (a bitter gourd) and sayote (chayote).

Lastly, the Philippines really, truly does have the best mangoes in the world. Period.

Vegetarians & Vegans

If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you’ll have a hard time eating out in the meat-mad Philippines. It’s hard to find soy-based products outside of big cities, where Chinese merchants and restaurants sell tofu, soy milk etc. Beans in general don’t figure prominently on the menu in the Philippines, thus, getting adequate protein can be tricky. If you feel this is going to be a problem, then it’s wise to stock up on these products before leaving Manila or Cebu.

Most places, even turu-turò (basic eateries), offer some version of stir-fried vegetables, but many vegetables are cooked with (or simply include) bits of meat. Meat stock is commonly used in kitchens, and it’s nigh impossible to get chefs to change their cooking methods, especially in villages. In larger towns you’ll find small shops that sell bread, cereals and milk, and in bigger cities such as Manila, Cebu or Davao you’ll find well-stocked supermarkets. All that said, if you eat fish and eggs, you’ll have no problem in the Philippines, and steamed rice is always an option!

Fiesta Food

Each village, town and city in the Philippines has its own fiesta, usually celebrated on the feast day of its patron saint, as determined by the Catholic calendar. Historically every household was expected to prepare food and serve it to anybody who appeared at the door. Nowadays, food is still prepared but on a greatly diminished scale, and only people who have been invited show up at the buffet table. The fare on such occasions varies regionally, but generally consists of pork, beef and chicken dishes, sometimes with some fish and seafood thrown in.

Kaldereta (beef or sometimes goat-meat stew), igado (stir-fried pork liver), fried chicken and, of course, lechón are some of the dishes you can expect to find at a fiesta. Sweet rice cakes, usually local delicacies, are served as dessert. Birthdays and other private parties are usually celebrated with a big plate of pansit.

Eat Your Words

Names of dishes often describe the way they are cooked, so it’s worth remembering that adobo is stewed in vinegar and garlic, sinigáng is sour soup, ginataán means cooked in coconut milk, kilawin or kinilaw is raw or vinegared seafood, pangat includes tomatoes in a light broth, and inahaw is grilled meat or fish (ihaw-ihaw denotes eateries that specialise in grilled food). The word for ‘spicy’ is maangháng.

Glossary

adobooften called the national dish; chicken, pork or a mixture of both, marinated in vinegar and garlic and stewed until tender
adobong pusítsquid or cuttlefish cooked adobo-style
arróz caldoSpanish-style thick rice soup with chicken, garlic, ginger and onions
asodog; eaten with relish (or just plain) by North Luzon’s hill tribes
balútboiled duck egg containing a partially formed embryo
boodle fighta military-style smorgasbord, eaten with your hands
calamarescrispy fried squid
crispy patadeep-fried pork hock or knuckles
gotorice porridge made with pork or beef innards
halo-halovarious fruit preserves served in shaved ice and milk
lechónspit-roast whole pig served with liver sauce
lechón kawalicrispy fried pork
lomitype of noodle dish
lumpiaspring rolls filled with meat and/or vegetables
maminoodle soup; similar to mee in Malaysia or Indonesia
menudopork bits sautéd with garlic and onion and usually garnished with sliced hot dog
pansit bihonthick- or thin-noodle soup
pinakbétmixed vegetable stew
pocherohotpot of beef, chicken, pork, Spanish sausage and vegetables, principally cabbage
rellenong bangusfried stuffed milkfish
tapsiloga modern compound combining three words: tapa (dried beef), sinangag (garlic fried rice) and itlog (fried egg); usually eaten for breakfast
tocinocured pork made with saltpetre