Philippine Cuisine

Crossroads of Asia
Lingering Vinegar and Garlic

“There’s a trick if you want to know that it’s a Filipino an apartment belongs to; the garlic and vinegar can linger around a good long while.” — N.V.M. Golnzalez, The Bamboo Dancers [1]

There are more than 7,000 islands in the Philippines. And its people speak some 87 languages.[2, 3]

Lumpia Shanghai
Fusion Food and the Greatest Appetizer

Can there be any common factors in the cuisine of such a far-flung and diverse people? There may be some common elements, but we have to look for them in the past.

The ancestors of today’s Filipinos spoke languages of the Malayo-Polynesian language family.  This far-flung language group stretches from Madagascar in the west to Easter Island in the east, with Hawaii in the middle.

These people were sea-farers, expert seamen and navigators.  Fish were an essential part of their diet, and seafood remains a key element of Philippine cuisine today.

“Dinner was broiled lapu-lapu, the inevitable rice and a large bowl of fruit.” — Ross Thomas, Out on the Rim [4]

Fish, along with coconuts and other local fruits, were main foods of the first Filipinos. Rice came later.  Livestock came later. Fish came first in the food of these people.

The waters around the Philippines are rich in fish and other seafood, one of which played a key role in the development of Filipino cuisine.

That was the sea cucumber or beche de mer, actually a gigantic marine worm, also called trepang. The waters around Luzon were rich in this creature, which is a great Chinese delicacy.  The trepang drew in Chinese people in the 16th century, along with their food. [5]

These early Chinese traders and settlers brought soy sauce and rice, contributing to the mix of Filipino food.

The Chinese also brought their dishes, especially from the Fukien region, often adapting them to accommodate local ingredients and cooking styles.

An example is Lumpia, especially the incomparable Lumpia Shanghai, which melds European influences to the Chinese original. The result is perfect and it is Fusion food at its best.

But before the Chinese, there were more waves of arrivals from other parts of Asia — Arabs, Malays, Indonesians, Indians — some of whom set up sultanates and kingdoms, especially in the South of the country. [6]

Some of their techniques are still important:

Any many of their dishes, of Thai, Malay, or Indian origin, are on the menus still:

In the early days the cooking methods were boiling, steaming and roasting, which remain popular today. Typical foods were meats from water buffalo, cows, pigs and chickens as well as fish and other seafood.

The Spanish came still later.  They brought their own influences, including the method of cooking with garlic and onions. They taught local people to grow corn, tomatoes,chili peppers and potatoes.

The Spanish ran the Philippines not directly from Madrid, but through their Viceroy in Acapulco in Mexico. For over two and a half centuries the Manila galleons sailed between Manila and Mexico. People, goods and ideas moved between East and West along this route.

“The chief American exports to Manila generally consisted of cacao from Guayaquil, some cochineal from Oaxaca in Mexico, oil from Spain, wines and other national goods.” — William Lytle Schurz, The Manila Galleon [7]

A new strand of food, Latin American, was added to the rich brew of Philippine food and drink.

After the Americans gained control of the Philippines in 1899, a new food style followed, along with the teaching of English and home economics in local schools.

Canned Spam


A large number of American foods and dishes took root, including an adaptation of the hot dog, and even Spam, as in the breakfast dish spamsilog.

And turkeys became local.  A restaurant in the old downtown Manila, Tom’s was famous for having turkey on its menu every day of the year.

Finally, Japanese elements were added during the Second World War and in the postwar era through the Japanese commercial presence.

“Filipino cooking, though betraying foreign marks, is still highly characteristic and national.  To the Filipinos, there is no substitute in all the world for it.” — Enriqueta David-Perez [8]

So what is Fililpino about Philippine cuisine?

The casual visitor might get the impression that Philippine food is a simple blend of Spanish and Chinese influences. This may be true in some ways, but is only part of a broader and more complex picture.

Filipino cuisine is characterized by the combination of major flavors — sweet, sour and salty — often in the same dish. Something sweet is often paired with something salty.

Agrodolce Sauce for Lumpia

Agrodolce Sauce for Lumpia –
A Fusion Dish with Tomato

Vinegar is a common ingredient, and chicken and pork adobo, sometimes combined in the same dish, is one of the most popular ways of preparing meat. Vinegar and garlic often team up.  And tomatoes, garlic, and onion are a common trio in many dish The Annatto seed is popular, as in the famous Oxtail Stew Kare-Kare.

Some of the same flavor ingredients occur in Adobo dishes like Adobo wih Chicken Livers.

Curriy elements also appear in seasonings like Curry Paste.

Filipino food is basically a healthy diet, but according to some experts on nutrition, it is higher in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol than other Asian cuisines.

Some of the offending dishes usually appear at fiestas and other special occasions, and the daily intake is still heavy weighted on rice, fish and other seafood and various fruits and vegetables.

So you can enjoy Philippine cuisine without guilt, at least most of the time.  But you might have to be careful with some of the  fiesta and holiday specialties.

There are many regional and local specialties. Major schools of cooking include —

  • the Northern area, especially the Ilocano people’s food;
  • the Central Philippines, with Bicol, Iloilo and Cebu as major centers;
  • in the South, Mindanao, Palawan and the Sulu area, which retain strong influences from Mainland Southeast Asia

Favorite Dishes: Besides the adobo dishes (chicken or pork braised in garlic, vinegar and soy sauce), there are so many:

  • lechon or whole roast pig
  • kaldereta, a meat dish cooked in tomato sauce
  • afritada, a preparation of chicken or pork in tomato sauce with vegetables
  • kare-kare, an oxtail and vegetable stew cooked in peanut sauce
  • sinigang, a way of preparing meat or seafood in a sour stock.
  • bitter melon salad,, combining Eggplant with Bitter Melon (Ampalaya), a favorite vegetable.
  • chicken adobo
  • arroz a la filipinia – a rich rice dish enjoyed at fiesta
  • beef tapa, the Philippine version of steak
  • beef tapa might typically be served with Garlic Rice or Arroz a la Filipina
  • curry dishes, like Eggplant Curry.
Instant Pancit Canton Philippine noodle dish

Instant Pancit Canton

Among desserts, halo halo, a sweet made with shaved ice and a variety  of tropical fruit, stands out. In addition there are a whole range of Filipino desserts, sweets and pastries, many using glutinous rice and coconuts in various forms.

Another interesting dessert concept, with a Fusion touch, is Banana Chocolate Spring Rolls.

And there are the various forms of noodles or pancit, especially Pancit Canton, of which there are hundreds of variations and lumpia, fresh or fried spring rolls, of which Lumpia Shanghai may be the best party food ever and anywhere, are also popular specialties.

Filipino coconut pudding Maja Blanca

Coconut Pudding Maja Blanca

Special Things: Filipino cuisine is noted for including a number of items which are considered exotic in most other parts of the world — ants in the Visayas, also pig’s blod  gravy or dinuguan.

Other Exotics: And there is the balut, or fertilized duck egg, especially popular with the Tagalog people in Luzon.

“He’s an Igorot — what did I expect? He eats dogmeat.” — Jessica Hagedorn [9]

Philippine novelist Jessica Hagedorn called her people the “dog eaters,” and it is true that dog does get eaten, for example, by the Igorot people.  Actually, the Igorots are more likely to  eat water buffalo or venison.

Dog may not be on the menu, but whole roast pig appears regularly in outdoor barbecues, usually served with a liver sauce which acts as a foil for the richness of the pork.

Turo-Turo, the Philippine Cafeteria: An unusual development is the growth of the turo-turo style of restaurant, a kind of buffet or cafeteria where he guests can simply point at the dish that looks good or interesting and have it served up on their tray.  So if you don’t like sauces made with blood or other exotics, thee is always something that will delight.

A Cuisine of Contrasts and Integration: The cuisine of this cosmopolitan and fascinating country continues to evolve.  In the modern Philippines we have a cuisine that incorporates some of the foods and preparation styles of the early Malayan seafaring people with its heavy reliance on fish, local fruits and other plants. [10]

Then there are Chinese influences like rice and Chinese inspired dishes. But Filipino cooking is truly a Fusion cuisine, integrating elements from the original Malayo-Polynesian ancestors, with additions from the Middle East, mainland Southeast Asia, China, Spain, Latin America, Japan and the United States.

“Food is the center of our ritual celebrations, our baptisms, weddings, funerals. You can’t describe a real Pinoy without listing what’ s most important to him food, music, dancing and love — most probably in that order.” — Jessica Hagedorn

For Further Information:

[1] N.V.M. Gonzalez, The Bamboo Dancers (Manila: Benipayo Press, 1960) —
[2] L. Dudley Stamp, Asia, A Regional and Economic Geography (New York: Dutton, 1944, 2008) —
[3] Gladys Zabilka, Customs and Culture of the Philippines (Manila: Bookmark, 1966) —
[4] Ross Thomas, Out on the Rim (New York: Mysterious Press, 1987) —
[5] “Philippine Cuisine,” article, Wikipedia — — for very comprehensive discussion of local specialties, historical and cultural context and terminology.
[6] On the early waves of migration — Eufronio M. Alip, Philippine History, Political, Social, Economic (Manila: Alip & Sons, 1958) —
Also Conrado M. Benitez, History of the Philippines (Manila: Ginnand Company, 1958) —
[7] William Lytle Schurz, The Manila Galleon (New York: Dutton, 1939, 1958) —
[8] Enriqueta David-Perez, Recipes of the Philippines  (Manila: Capital Publishing Co., 1965)  —–
[9] Jessica Hagedorn, Dogeasters (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1991) —
[10] Nora V. Daza, Galing-Galing, Food as Prepared in Philippine Homes (Manila: Carnation Philippines, Inc., 1975) —

Philippine hero M. H. del PilarManila jeepneyPhilippine hero Emilio Jacinto







10 thoughts on “Philippine Cuisine

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