My Family’s Filipino Favorites Revolve Around Meat. Then I Started Cooking Vegetarian.
"Though I wouldn’t have thought of the act of changing my diet as particularly significant to anyone but me, cooking vegetables has in fact brought me closer to the people I love.”
I grew up in a Filipino household where meat was always on the table. Some days, we'd have inihaw na liempo, or grilled marinated pork belly; other days, it was corned beef silog—sautéed canned corned beef with garlic fried rice and egg. Every family gathering had barbecue pork and offal in skewers; lumpia, or spring rolls filled with ground pork; pancit, thin rice noodles tossed with pork and mixed vegetables; even the occasional lechon—a whole-roasted pig. Whether it was traditional Filipino food or not, meat was always there.
When I first moved out of my parents' house, I cooked the same type of meals: perfectly fluffy white rice paired with any meat dish, and a simply prepared side of vegetables. I lived in a small studio apartment with one working burner and no oven, which meant I had to rely on my rice cooker and a convection toaster oven. But I didn't mind it at all. I loved cooking alone, and it wasn’t too difficult to put together nourishing, no-need-to-overthink meals that reminded me of home.
A few months after moving, I met my partner, who happened to be a vegetarian. It was the first time I'd been with anyone who ate so differently from me. I’d always felt that cooking the food you grew up eating for a significant other was just as personal as taking them home to meet your parents: It's a level of intimacy people don’t often consider until they’re living it. The more we spent time together, the more I started changing the way I cooked and ate, so my partner and I could share more.
I started buying plant-based “ground meat” to replace ground beef and chicken in my cooking. It was easy enough to find, so I figured I would just cook it the same way I prepared the animal protein. But the more I cooked with the faux-flesh, the more I realized I actually preferred eating the straight-up vegetable components of the dishes.
I also noticed that the flavors I grew up loving—the complex combination of salty, sweet, and sour—were sometimes overpowered by the distinct flavor of fake meat. It was never inedible, but it didn't bring the same comfort and nostalgia I felt whenever I ate my mom's cooking (or my own attempts when I first moved out). Still, I felt committed to a meatless lifestyle.
Even though many Filipino dishes have vegetables in them, they are usually accompanied by meat. In my family, legumes and tofu are used in addition to pork, beef, or chicken—rarely as a replacement. I also noticed it was difficult to find vegan or vegetarian options at Filipino restaurants. Most of the time, the only vegetarian options they'd have were desserts, so I quite literally took things into my own hands.
I began cooking my family's timeless recipes by omitting meat and most fake meat (save for the occasional plant-based sausage) altogether, using vegetables as the main component. I'd fry, sauté, roast, sear, braise, boil, or steam, depending on what I thought was best for each ingredient. Focusing on vegetables helped me think about how I could enhance each component of my meal through different cooking methods, seasonings, and a large variety of produce. If a dish felt too simple, I'd throw in some herbs like dill and chives to make it look and taste more vibrant.
The more I cooked, the more I learned about what I was cooking. I found that the key to crispy mushrooms is waiting to season them toward the end of frying, because salt draws out moisture. I learned that using a cast-iron skillet isn’t just for steaks—it’s the perfect way to sear any vegetable you can imagine; and parboiling potatoes before roasting helps them roast faster and get crispier.
I had a newfound appreciation for vegetables. They were the highlight of every meal, and I was excited to cook with them each day. The kitchen ultimately became my playground. What used to be a boring fridge filled with my usual rotation of potatoes, carrots, and broccoli—vegetables I purchased when I went to the store without a plan—were now accompanied by various produce found in Filipino cuisine, like cabbage, bok choy, mung beans, eggplant, and bean sprouts.
I thought about other dishes my mom used to make and started introducing more vegetables and legumes into my everyday meals. Buying a bounty of seasonal produce actually made me feel closer to my roots. It reminded me of moments I spent in the kitchen helping my mom roll lumpia; accompanying her at the palengke, or market; after attending Sunday mass. Cooking felt like home again.
When I told my mom, she was ecstatic to hear I had started eating more vegetables. (I used to leave them on my plate for my dad to eat.) This has also inspired her to start cooking more vegetable dishes. She even sends me pictures of what she's cooking, or sometimes asks me for recipe advice on how to make certain dishes vegetarian or vegan. Once, she made adobo with tofu instead of pork. She accidentally bought medium-firm tofu instead of extra firm, so she ended up coating the tofu with cornstarch and frying it before adding it to the sauce. A sincere effort on her part, but it still ended up being too soft, so I suggested that next time she try a vegetable like an eggplant—something that could hold its structure a bit better, yet still absorb the seasoning.
Now, my partner and I live together. We have a larger kitchen with a regular oven, four working burners, and a lot more room for storage (the rice cooker is still a part of the family). We look forward to grocery shopping every week, and have become the type of people who just know which vegetables look and feel the best. I no longer eat meat, but I’ll occasionally eat fish when we visit my parents. My mom will cook vegan or vegetarian versions of classic Filipino dishes, and we chat about what she substituted meat with so my partner and I can try them, too.
Though I wouldn’t have thought of the act of changing my diet as particularly significant to anyone but me, cooking vegetables has in fact brought me closer to the people I love.