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Filipino food is sweet, savory, spicy, and not as well known in the U.S. as it should be.
When trying to think of a traditional Filipino dish that hadn’t been influenced by another culture, chefs Alex Urbano and Robert Menor—two friends who run the kitchen at Papa Urb’s Grill in Stockton—couldn’t think of a single one.
The 7107 islands that make up the Republic of the Philippines have been touched by more than a few countries since the sixteenth century—Spain, China, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, India—and every one of these places is reflected in the food.
It’s strange the Filipino food is such a mystery to so many people in the United States—especially when you consider the fact that Filipinos are the second largest Asian-American group in the United States, right behind the Chinese. While Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and Thai foods can be found in every major and mid-sized city, Filipino restaurants are rare outside of Filipino neighborhoods.
Staples of the food vary between the northern and southern islands. In the northern islands, you’ll find a lot of pork and fish, whereas in the southern—predominately Muslim—islands, you’ll find mostly goat and beef. Throughout the country, you’ll see a lot of stewed meats and vegetables, usually served on a bed of rice, and sometimes topped with a fried egg.
Most dishes tend to be a mixture of sweet and savory, as sugar is used a lot on the islands; the country has been one of the world’s largest exporters of it for centuries, even before the Spanish era. Traditional dishes also tend to be very flavorful— Filipinos aren’t afraid of blending all of the spices that have come to them from all over the world through their historical relationships with other countries—and filling.
If you are looking to tackle Filipino food in your own kitchen, it’s important to remember that the recipes are coming from a region that has struggled with poverty for several generations. According to USAID, about 19% of the country lives in “extreme poverty” (and that number is actually and improvement compared to past decades). For that reason, a lot of Filipino food is made with ingredients that can either be found around the island or bought for a fairly low price—like margarine and lemon-lime soda.
Some of the staples of Filipino cooking are ones that many will recognize and that are found growing in the Philippines: lemongrass, ginger, vinegar, star anise, garlic, and cloves, for example. Other ingredients like salted shrimp paste—often added to stews or served raw with vegetable dishes—will be familiar to anyone who has cooked any Asian cuisine.
Then, there are the less familiar ingredients, like calamansi—a citrus hybrid that resembles a grape-sized sour tangerine and is often used to flavor fish or squeezed to make “Filipino Lemonade.” There’s also banana ketchup, a blend of bananas, sugar, vinegar, and spice; it tastes like a sweeter version of regular ketchup and was born during World War II, when there was a shortage of traditional tomato ketchup but bananas were everywhere. Banana ketchup has remained a Filipino food staple to this day.
You should be able to find most of these ingredients at Asian grocery stores or major retailers with ethnic foods sections.
Alex Urbano and Robert Menor believe that the adaptability that has ensured the survival of the Philippines after a long history of poverty and colonization is also partially responsible for keeping their culture’s food out of public view. They're both second-generation Filipinos living in Stockton, California, which has one of the oldest and largest Filipino communities in the U.S since the 1920s.
In the early twentieth century, many communities had the goal of blending in as seamlessly as possible, which meant that traditional Filipino foods were mostly eaten at home or in restaurants found deep within Filipino neighborhoods in places those outside of the community weren’t likely to find.
Among Alex and Robert's many goals is bringing the foods and making them accessible to the entire community with one more cultural influence: California. The Chicken Inasal recipe they’ve provided below can be served two ways: on a bed of rice with a fried egg (which is a traditional Filipino approach), or in a taco (for a California twist).
For the marinade:
1/2 cup garlic cloves
2 thumb-sized knobs of ginger
1/4 cup calamansi juice (use 1/2 cup lemon juice if no calamansi juice available)
1 cup lemon-lime soda
2 cups soy sauce
2 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs
1 cup brown sugar
2 lemongrass stalks
For the baste:
1 tablespoon margarine (or unsalted butter)
1 packet achuete powder (found in Asian grocery stores or some the Asian food section of major retailers)
Jufran banana ketchup (also found in Asian grocery stores)
2 tablespoons cooking oil
Third photo by James Ransom; all other photos by Sara Washington