Wurtsmith Logo
The Wagner High Online Alumni (WHOA)
Kylene's Kitchen
Recipes, Food, Links, and Nostalgia from the
Philippines and Around the World
Wagner Logo

A Collection of Philippine and Worldwide Recipes
Compiled, edited, and ocassionally tested by Kylene Nickerson '85
The Clark AB Bicentennial Cook Book - Clark AB Schools, Philippine Cook Book

Dips and Spreads

Philippines, cultural collision for multi-ethnic cuisine


In an age when the world's cuisines seem to be melding into one giant French-Asian-Mediterranean menu, it's ironic that one of the original fusion cuisines remains almost unknown.

For more than a thousand years the Philippine archipelago has been a meeting place for the cultures of four continents, resulting in a delicious blend of the dishes, ingredients and cooking techniques from Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Spain, Mexico, Japan and the U.S.

The Southeast Asian culinary connection is obvious in the consumption of rice at every meal (Filipinos prefer the jasmine-scented Thai variety); the popularity of coconut-based soups and stews (called ginataan), and desserts, such as bibingka, a cake baked in a banana leaf; and the use of patis - a fish sauce that is cousin to Thai nam pla and Vietnamese
nuoc nam - and bagoong, a salted, fermented shrimp paste, both essential flavorings in many entrees.

Southeast Asia and the Philippines have many basic ingredients in common: jackfruit (langka), tamarind, mango, fresh coconut (buko), green bananas, bitter melon (ampalaya), small limes (kalamansi), and myriad tropical fruit and vegetables that have no English names.  Chicken, pork and seafood are the main sources of protein.

Where Filipino cooks part company with their Southeast Asian counterparts is in how they use spices; in a much simpler and more subtle fashion.

"Our main spices are garlic, peppercorns, lemon grass and ginger, and we use them to enhance flavors rather than mask them," says cookbook author Joyce Reyes Lapus.  During a cooking demonstration at the Philippine Food Festival at the Chicago Hilton and Towers in early June, she noted that the Philippines is the only country in Asia that did not embrace
hot chilies.

The second important culinary contribution was made by Chinese traders who arrived in the islands in the 10th Century and intermarried with the local population.  They introduced soy sauce, bean curd, fried rice, won ton soup, egg rolls or lumpia (the fried version is called lumpia Shanghai) and rice noodles (the basis of the famous pancit, a dish of noodle, vegetables,
seafood or meat that is the centerpiece of every Filipino buffet).

"For many Filipinos, Chinese food is comfort food," says Marina Villanueva, midwest regional director of the Philippine Department of Tourism.  "As kids, we all grew up with noodles and dishes like sweet and sour pork."

The third influence is that of Spain.  In 1521, the Portuguese/Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan landed in the Philippines during his circumnavigation of the globe.  From the founding of Manila in 1571 to the war of 1898, the Spaniards ruled the islands from their capital in Mexico.  Their legacies include the country's name (after King Philip II), many Filipino surnames and Catholicism.  In 1898 the country declared its independence, but it was short lived.  With U.S. victory in
the Spanish-American War that same year, the islands passed into U.S. control, which lasted until 1946 (and was broken by the four-year Japanese occupation).

On first encounter, it looks as if the Spanish culinary heritage reigns supreme.  "The Philippines was at the crossroads of a tremendous trade between India and Mexico," said culinary historian Bruce Kraig, who teaches at Roosevelt University.  "As a result, it served as a means of distributing both cooking techniques and ingredients between the New World and the Old."

Foodstuffs brought by the Spaniards from their far-flung empire included peanuts, cashews, papaya, guava, avocado, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, chocolate and pineapples.

Like Spaniards, Filipinos traditionally eat five meals a day: An early heavy breakfast of eggs, meat, rice, bread and hot chocolate; a light lunch; a very late dinner ending with dessert; plus two small meals called meriendas, one in the late morning, the other a kind of high tea taken around 4 p.m..  During these breaks, Filipinos snack on noodles and egg rolls as well as an amazing array of breads, cakes and pastries: leche flan (caramel custard), tocino del cielo (tiny egg custards), pan de sal (a salted bun), pan de coco (a bun filled with coconut), empanada (meat pies), ensaimada (a coiled sweet roll topped with cheese), and brownies and pies (the main culinary legacy of American rule!).

Entrees with Spanish names include paella manilena (rice with vegetables, meat and seafood), tortilla (an omelet, as in Spain), tamales (pork peanuts and glutinous rice wrapped in banana leaves) and longanisa (a pork and garlic sausage).  Even the country's two most famous dishes sound Spanish: Lechon, roast suckling pig with a crispy skin served with a liver sauce, and adobo or adobong, a stew of chicken, pork or seafood marinated and then cooked in garlic, vinegar, black pepper and soy sauce.  Chicken adobo is considered the national dish, especially since it was eaten at the banquet declaring independence in 1898.

Some Filipino food experts question whether such dishes truly owe their genesis to the Spaniards.  Raymond Sokolov, author of "Why We Eat What We Eat," believes that they may have predated the arrival of the conquistadors, who simply gave Spanish names to dishes that looked like things they ate back home.  An indigenous preparation of rice, meat and seafood eaten at village feasts, for example, reminded them of paella; chicken in a vinegar, soy sauce and garlic sauce looked a lot like Spanish adobo, a stew made with olive oil, wine and herbs; while suckling pig, popular throughout the South Seas, resembled the familiar lechon.

Doreen Fernandez, a leading historian of Philippines cuisine, believes that the Filipino national dish should not be the "overworked adobo" but rather sinigang, a delicate, slightly sour broth of pork or seafood, tomatoes, kangkong (a green vegetable), long beans, and other vegetables, because Filipinos "like the lightly boiled, the slightly soured."  The sourness comes from many sources, including vinegar made from palm or cane sugar, green tamarind, green mango, limes and other tropical flowers (including banana blossoms), fruits and leaves.

Even dishes that seem familiar turn out to have a distinctive Philippine twist, like the popular lumpia.  This large pink crepe (the color comes from duck eggs) is filled with carrots, celery, chickpeas, garlic, pork and seafood and served with a sweet peanut sauce.

With its European-style dough, Chinese filling and Indonesian sauce, lumpia is a meal in itself and the very embodiment of the multi-ethnic spirit of Philippine cuisine. Where Filipino cooks part company with Asian counterparts is how they
use spices. 

Chicago Tribune

 Archive Index