‘Adobo’: The Philippines’s national dish

LIKE its neighboring Asian countries, the Philippines is a region of mouthwatering delights.  Consider the following: lechon (roasted whole pig or chicken); sinigang (chicken, pork or beef soup usually prepared with tamarind and other ingredients); dinuguan (pork blood stew); and adobo.  Among these delectable meals, adobo best fits the title “The National Dish,” along with mango, milkfish (bangus) and carabao as other iconic symbols of the country.

One Filipino food writer wrote: “Aside from the fact that adobo is well-loved by Filipinos, the dish also makes use of many of our local ingredients, giving adobo the distinct Filipino flavor. We can give credit to the pure cane vinegar for the adobo’s rich sour taste and to the locally produced soy sauce for its savory and salty feel. Sitaw or kangkong can also be added for healthier alternative. For spicier versions of adobo, adding siling labuyo and recado enhances the overall zest of the meal.”

Indeed, there’s no other Filipino dish that can compete with adobo in terms of versatility and variety. Mixing vinegar, soy sauce and spices with either chicken, pork, fish, kangkong, or sitaw would yield to different varieties of the famous Filipino dish.

There are many ways to cook adobo.  To name a few: adobo sa gata, adobong matamis, adobong tuyo, adobong masabaw, adobo sulipan, adobo sa pinya, and adobo sa calamansi.  Adobo can also fill the pan de sal, siopao and puto; be made into adobo flakes; be poured evenly into pizzas; and be mixed with spaghetti. And if those are not enough, local food companies have recently come up with adobo sauce and adobo spread.

“There are as many recipes for adobo as there are Philippine islands,” noted New York Times food columnist Sam Sifton.  “If you could devote your life to traveling through (the more than 7,000 islands) asking questions about food, you would discover a different recipe for adobo on each one.”

In his column, Sifton wrote: “There is great fun to be had in asking Filipinos how to make adobo, particularly when they are in groups. Filipino cooking is an evolutionary masterpiece, a cuisine that includes Chinese, Spanish, American and indigenous island influences, all rolled into one. But where for one Filipino the most important aspect of the dish is Spanish, for another it is Chinese, or both, or neither.”

Adobo is the result of the eclectic influences, both regional and historical, that come together in many Filipino dishes.  “Philippine cooking probably reflects history more than a national cuisine,” says Cecilia Florencio, a nutrition professor at the University of the Philippines.   

Or to quote one local saying: Philippine food was prepared by Malay settlers, spiced by the Chinese, stewed by the Spanish and hamburgerized by the Americans. Adobo is all but the last.

From the northernmost stretch of islands of Batanes to the vinta-dependent islets of Tawi-Tawi, adobo is a staple cuisine along with other regional favorites, like the papaitan for the Ilocanos, pinikpikan for the Ifugaos, the Bicol Express for the Bicolanos and the kinilaw for the Visayans.   No wonder, the first thing most Filipinos who have been abroad request when they come home is adobo.

Adobo is prepared in regions of Latin America and Spain, but the cooking process is indigenous to the Philippines.  According to historical records, when the Spanish invaded the Philippines in the late 16th century through Mexico City, they found an indigenous cooking process that involved stewing with vinegar. They referred to this method as adobo.  Over time, dishes prepared in this manner came to be known by this name, as well.

Sifton even mention the history in his column.  He pointed out: “The journalist and food historian Raymond Sokolov has made the point that the ingredients for adobo were present in the Philippines before [Ferdinand] Magellan—only the name, which comes from a Spanish word for sauce—came later. ‘Lexical imperialism,’ he called this process.”

But the main thing about adobo is that it is cook differently.  Sifton wrote: “Husbands argue with wives about adobo. Friends shoot each other dirty looks about the necessity of including coconut milk or soy sauce in the recipe. There are disputations over the kind of vinegar to use, over the use of sugar, over the inclusion of garlic and how much of it. Some use chicken exclusively in the dish, others pork, some a combination of the two.”

For those who have not tried adobo yet, the words of Yan Susanto, an occasional online writer, is an eye-opener: “The flavor of this exquisite cuisine will certainly be liked by anyone who has tasted it the first time; they will even be asking for more after the first bite. The spicy flavor of the tenderized chicken and/or pork is so irresistible and the aroma will soothe your sense of smell and tease your taste buds.”

Now are you ready to cook your own adobo?  Here’s one classic recipe whose estimated cooking time is about 50 minutes. 

What you need are the following: 1/2 kilo of pork cut in cubes and 1/2 kilo of chicken and cut into pieces, 1 head minced garlic, 1/2 diced yellow onion, 1/2 cup soy sauce, 1 cup vinegar, 2 cups of water, 1 teaspoon paprika, 5 bay leaves, 4 tablespoons of cooking oil or olive oil, 2 tbsp cornstarch, and salt and pepper to taste.

To cook adobo, follow these instructions: In a big sauce pan or wok, heat 2 tbsp of oil, then sauté the minced garlic and onions.  Add the pork and chicken to the pan.  Add two cups of water, 1/4 cup of soy sauce, vinegar, paprika and the bay leaves. Bring to a boil.  Cover and simmer for 30 minutes or when meat is tender. 

Remove the pork and chicken from the sauce pan and on another pan, heat cooking oil and brown the pork and chicken for a few minutes.   Mix the browned pork and chicken back to the sauce and add cornstarch dissolved in water to thicken.  Add salt and/or pepper.  Bring to a boil, then simmer for an additional five minutes.  Serve hot with the adobo gravy.

Adobo is usually served with rice, the staple food of the Filipinos,” wrote Susanto.  “But most of the foreigners who visit the Philippines prefer to eat it just as it is because of its taste. In fact, most of the visitors in the country look for such a great cuisine while enjoying their Philippine vacation. The good thing is, hotels in the Philippines often serve adobo during breakfast as an appetizer.”

Adobo, anyone

Image credits: photos by Henrylito D. Tacio


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