Eating Abroad: How to Navigate the Filipino Menu

If you've ever met a Filipino family, chances are you were immediately asked whether or not you were hungry and despite your polite ‘no’ they still brought out a large selection of edibles. Filipino culture prizes hospitality and community and what better way to bring people together than delicious cuisine? Filipinos even have an extra meal called merienda, which is a mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack, a tradition also practiced in Southern Europe, Latin America, Slovenia and Croatia. Filipinos tastes range from generically delicious sticky rice desserts to the more outlandish delicacies that have been featured on shows like Fear Factor.

 

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Similar to dialects, the recipes vary depending on the area or island, for example the Bicol region is notorious for cooking with spicy chillies and coconut milk. Starting with the more basic dishes and progressing to the more bizarre, use this guide to help you decipher the culinary conundrums that you might encounter if you are travelling abroad to the Philippines. 

 

Tame Tasties

Lumpia

Similar to spring rolls, lumpia consists of a variety of fillings of vegetables and meats, then rolled neatly into a wrapper usually made of rice and either fried or fresh depending on the region the recipe comes from.  There are several different kinds, such as Lumpia Sariwa, which is a fresh roll with coconut heart, crushed peanuts, sweet potatoes, jicama and lettuce or there is Lumpia Shanghai, one of the most popular lumpia recipes, inside the favorite fried morsel, you will find minced onion, ground pork, carrots, and spices. If you are vegan these are not your best bet as the lumpia is usually held together by beaten egg. These delicious rolls are usually served with sweet chilli sauce but depending on the recipe, they can also be served with vinegar. The great thing about lumpia is that you can find them just about anywhere from restaurants to street carts, where the price can be as low as 1 peso per lumpia! That’s good news for your food budget since it is easy to inhale at least ten lumpia without even realizing it.

 

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Adobo

The omnipresent culinary trademark that is adobo is actually originally from Mexico but the Filipino version utilizes key ingredients of vinegar, soy cause, garlic and peppercorns. Typically cooked with pork, chicken or beef, seafood versions are sometimes seen as the word adobo translates to mean ‘meat stew’. Depending on the region where you try this dish, you might encounter tastes such as coconut cream, lemon grass or turmeric added to the recipe although these are not the traditional ingredients. Adobo is considered one of the most popular dishes in the Philippines and while abroad most people will comment that they have sampled Filipino cuisine in the form of adobo!

 

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Longanisa

Throughout the different provinces in the Philippines, each one has their own unique recipe for longanisa, which is a pork sausage that can be spicy, sweet or heavy on the garlic. Longanisa is typically consumed at breakfast with garlic-fried rice and fried egg, along with vinegar for dipping the sausage. When ordering breakfast at a local cantina or restaurant, this combination of longanisa, egg and rice is called longsilog, which is a combination word created from longanisa and itlog, which means egg in tagalog. Another breakfast dish is called tapsilog, which is dried cured beef called tapa with egg and garlic rice.

 

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Pancit

This is a Filipino noodle dish that stems from China, which is why it is sometimes cooked similarly to chow mein in some variations. There are many variations on how to cook this dish, varying ingredients and the type of noodle used. The title of the recipe is usually determined from the type of noodle, but can also refer to the particular sauce in the dish. Pancit can be wok-fried or served in a broth, and the taste can be dominated by soy sauce, or can sometimes be quite fishy from the inclusion of fish sauce in the recipe. In addition to noodles, there are usually some sort of meat, carrots, green beans, cabbage and many other vegetables.  It is considered good luck to eat noodles on one’s birthdays you will see large plates of pancit if you head to any Filipino birthday parties. You can find the different types of pancit in restaurants throughout the Philippines, but if you are looking for pancit on the street, you will usually find pancit bihon, pancit canton or pancit cabagan, all at extremely affordable prices of about 20 peso per large spoonful of noodles!

 

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Bibingka

This delicious treat is traditionally made at Christmas but can be found in local markets and bakeries all over the country. Bibingka is prepared by letting the rice soak overnight and then grinding the rice with a mortar while mixing coconut milk and sugar. The process is rather difficult but once the batter is ready, it is poured into banana leaf lined clay pots that are then placed under and above hot coals. When they are finished cooking, Filipinos tend to top off the dish with quesong puti (carabao’s milk cheese), salted eggs, grated coconut and sometimes butter and sugar as well. You can find these sweet treats at weekend markets, but some of the most reputable Bibingka bakers are Via Mare or Ferino’s Bibingka which have locations throughout Metro Manila.

 

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Suman 

Another sticky rice dish, suman is steamed in coconut or banana leaves and are a common roadside treat. There are several ways to eat suman, but it is typically sweet and served with fresh mangoes. This is a great on the go snack and because of the local street vendor prices, extremely affordable. Suman at manga is the sticky rice when served with mango slivers, but sometimes it can just be served with brown sugar and crushed peanuts.

 

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Turon

Continuing their mastery of fried wrapped goods, turon is a banana wrapped in rice paper and then deep fried to golden perfection. Sometimes langka, otherwise known as jack fruit (the flavor behind Juicy Fruit gum) or mango is included inside the wrapper. This is a prime time street food for merienda and only costs about 5 pesos per huge roll! If you order this dish in a restaurant, it will usually come with a perfectly creamy scoop of vanilla or coconut ice cream.

 

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Filipino Spaghetti

You might think that there are only so many ways to cook spaghetti, but have you ever tried sweet spaghetti? Filipinos prepare their spaghetti a little differently than the original Italian tomato based recipe, instead they include sugar, banana ketchup and sometimes even condensed milk! And in addition to the typical ground beef usually included in spaghetti bolognaise, this recipe calls for hot dog slivers. You will find this dish in cantinas, at kids birthday parties and even McDonalds!

 

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Getting Out There Grub

Barbeque

One of the most prominent food stands you will see on the side of the road are the barbeque grillers with a plethora of skewers roasting over the hot coals. The stalls offer skewers of chicken, beef, pork (a popular favourite!) marinated in sweet or savory marinades, but sometimes you will find liver, chicken intestines, squid, hot dogs and whole pig parts such as ears and feet on the grill! Compared to other countries, Filipinos love the texture and taste of fat, so don’t be surprised when you find large succulent chunks of fat on your skewer, they aren’t trying to cheat you, that’s just how they do barbeque. When it comes to food safety, many of these vendors are out on the street and there are usually flies buzzing around the food, the truth is that you can find barbeque in more hygienic restaurant settings, but you’ll pay at least triple the price, which is usually only about 5 pesos per skewer and isn’t it about time you gave your immune system a bit of a workout?

 

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Chicken Inasal

This is not your everyday grilled chicken, because rather than just cooking the traditional meaty portions of the chicken, every part from the wings, breast and drumsticks to the gizzards, heart and liver is marinated and grilled then served over garlic rice. Other flavors that you will taste include lemongrass, calamansi (Filipino lime), garlic, salt and pepper. For the most authentic serving, head to Bacolod City and you’ll find a ton of restaurants in Manukan Country where you can get your chicken fix.

 

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Taho

 

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This dish may lack some aesthetic appeal, but just give this sweet treat a try! Comprised of brown sugar syrup, hot soybean custard and sage pearls is like a hot fudge sundae Filipino style. This is a very traditional street food that is not just found on main streets, but vendors can also be found on foot walking through neighborhoods calling out to home-owners. Servings are usually about a small plastic cup’s worth, which is just enough for a satisfying taste of sweetness and only costs about 5 pesos.

 

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Laing

For the vegetarians out there, Laing is a dish made from taro leaves cooked and simmered in coconut milk, and is best served with a large helping of white rice. The appearance and consistency sometimes causes people to stay away from this delicious veggie, as well as the fact that taro leaves are not a commonly consumed vegetable in other parts of the world. Think of it as the Filipino version of creamed spinach. The Bicol region is responsible for this dish and it would be true Bicolano if it didn’t have a kick from chili peppers. Some variations will include meat such as shrimp, so if you are veggie, make sure to check with the chef! You can purchase laing in restaurants as well as local cantinas for only about 20 pesos for a small bag.

 

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Pinakbet

This is a popular dish that you will hear of often in restaurants and in cantinas. Coming from the cuisine of the North in Ilocos, this is another potential option for vegetarians. Primarily including eggplants, squash, okra, tomatoes, bitter gourd and sometimes bagoong (shrimp/fish paste), this stew is simple and full of nutrients from all the vegetables. What tends to throws people off is the taste of the bitter gourd, which as the name hints, is rather bitter. Since vegetable based dishes are less prominent in the Filipino diet, you can often find this dish included on a Filipino menu.

 

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Sinigang

Another country wide favourite is Sinigang, which is a stew made with an assortment of fish, prawns, pork or beef, meshed with the peculiarly sour taste of tamarind fruit, kamias and tomatoes. Like other Filipino style stews, ingredients vary depending on the region and sometimes this dish will include kangkong, taro or string beans. Filipino taste buds are most inclined towards the tangy and sour tastes, which is different than other countries who cook more bland or salty food. This is one of the tangiest dishes on the Filipino menu!

 

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You Want Me to EAT That??

Halo-halo

The climate of the Philippines is quite hot (to put it lightly) and one of the best ways to cool off is by enjoying a halo-halo! There are several street vendors who prepare halo-halo and it can often be found in almost all restaurants, but the thing to understand is that everyone makes it differently because there are so many types of ingredients that can be added to this delicious dessert. The base of this sundae-like dessert is shaved ice, then comes condensed and evaporated milk, sago and flavoured jellies, corn, sweet beans, purple yam called ube  flavour, bananas, mangos, coconut, kaong, garbanzo beans, ube  flavoured ice cream, leche flan and cheese on top. Not only do the ingredients sound kooky, but the colors of halo-halo are equally off putting with bright green and red, yellow, brown, purple and milky white. In a way, this is an instance of mind over matter, giving halo-halo a chance before judging it based on its looks.

 

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Balut

World renowned for its almost inconceivable consideration as a food, balut is a boiled duckling that is still in its shell. This traditional street food is typically eaten by first slurping the embryotic broth and then peeling the shell to reveal the young chick, which is mostly cartilage, but sometimes has a few feathers already developing. To flavour the chick, Filipinos prefer to add garlic, chilli, or vinegar. These days, balut can be seen on television shows where contestants are challenged to eat disgusting foods, while also appearing on the menu of top rated restaurants who present balut as haute cuisine. Similar to the acquired taste of vegemite, balut is not usually a food that people who are introduced to balut at a later age are not usually fans, but if you grew up eating balut for merienda, then it is revered as a type of comfort food. Many Filipinos will dip the yoke in rock salt and enjoy it with a cold Red horse or San Miguel beer.

 

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Dinuguan at puto

This thick, almost black stew has a base of pig’s blood, chilli and garlic and the meat selection includes an assortment of pig lungs, kidneys, intestines, ears and snouts. This dish may be off putting to some, but it is rather similar to blood sausage that is consumed in Europe or the Polish soup czernina. There are versions of the recipe that use choice cuts of pork or even beef or chicken, but traditionally it is with the formerly mentioned variety of pig parts. Typical Filipino cuisine serves this dish with white puto (a rice cake) or simple steamed white rice. You won’t see this dish as prominently available in restaurants as other more easily digestible choices, but in local cantinas and market places you will be able to sample your own “chocolate meat” as some people jokingly label it.

 

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Crispy pata

The inclusion of the word ‘crispy’ in the name draws people in, but when they find out what they are actually eating, they aren’t usually as interested. This dish is a pork knuckle that has been simmered, drained and then deep-fried until extra crispy on the outside and full of tender meat on the inside. Filipinos love their contrasting mouth-feel delicacies that offer a wealth of textures in one dish! This is usually accompanied with sauces on the side for dipping like vinegar, soy sauce and chili.

 

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Sisig

In a similar way to Dinuguan at puto, not a single part of the animal goes to waste in this dish. Often called sizzling sisig for the trademark presentation on a hot plate, this dish takes pork cheeks, pork and head and liver and transforms it into beer’s best friend. The textures from the different cuts of meat provide a range of chewy and crispy. To top it off, Knorr hot sauce (a favourite Filipino seasoning) or hot sauce are added to seal the deliciousness. The best place in the Philippines to get sisig is where it originated in Pampanga where culinary prowess reigns strong.

 

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