If I were to ask 10 random people whether or not they’ve ever eaten Filipino food, chances are that over half of them would say no. For those who have, it’s very likely that adobo, pansit, or lumpia would be the dishes they’ve tried. These three dishes do figure prominently in the canon of Philippine cuisine, but they’re far from being an accurate snapshot that represents the whole.
The Philippines as a polyglot nation spans thousands of islands, and its people speak over 150 distinct languages—don’t even get me started on the dialects. Through the country’s broad history of trade and colonialism, flavors and cooking techniques from Spain, China, Malaysia, India, Japan, Mexico, and America have also been incorporated into Filipino culinary tradition.
Filipino food is bold and in your face. It’s big on umami, whether from bagoong (fermented shrimp paste) or patis (fish sauce) or oyster sauce; soy sauce and Maggi seasoning bridge the gap between umami and salty. Sour also figures prominently in Philippine cooking; you’ll definitely find multiple types of vinegar in any Filipino’s cupboard. Sugarcane and coconut vinegar are most common, used as sawsawan (dipping sauce) and in marinades, braises, and glazes. Tamarind, calamansi, and green mango are key ingredients for introducing sourness. Sweet is another important element, and not just in desserts. Filipinos find the combination of sweet and savory irresistible; tocino (sweet cured pork) and Filipino spaghetti with its sweet tomato sauce are two perfect examples. Banana ketchup is a ubiquitous condiment, while palm sugar adds deep, rich sweetness to grilling marinades and braising liquid.
I spoke with three chefs who each view Philippine cuisine through a different lens, asking for Filipino recipes that resonate deeply with them. Bay-area chef-author Yana Gilbuena of Salo Series grew up in Iloilo City of the Visayas region. Chef Alden Ong of Farmer’s Apprentice restaurant in Vancouver is Chinese-Filipino and was born in Quezon City, part of Metro Manila on the northern island of Luzon. And Malaysian-Chinese chef-restaurateur Justin Cheung of Vancouver’s Potluck Hawker Eatery married into wife Rachel Rodriguez’s Filipino family that has roots in Laguna province.
“We are already very different from each other, so you can’t blanket statement that this is how all Filipinos eat and cook,” explains Gilbuena, a well-known and highly respected advocate of Philippine culture and culinary tradition. “There’s a terroir for each cuisine. In the Bicol region, you’re not going to be served pinakbet—instead, you’ll get Bicol express or laing. And in Cagayan de Oro, there’ll probably be humba on the table instead of adobo.” Yet regardless of our disparate backgrounds, we’re linked to one another through the incomparable sense of connection that can only be found around a dining table—it’s at the heart of our DNA as a people.
Give these recipes a try, and come dine with us.
Tortang Talong by Alden Ong of Farmer’s Apprentice
- Prep time: 25 minutes
- Cooking time: 10 minutes
- Serves: 1-2 people
Full disclosure: Tortang Talong was my gateway vegetable dish. I was never a big veggie eater as a kid, but there was something about the smoky flavor of this Filipino roasted eggplant omelette that really won me over. One day while experimenting at Farmer’s Apprentice, I made Tortang Talong for one of my line cooks who had never tried it before and had zero clue what this preparation would look like or taste like. We ate it both on its own and with ketchup—and, unsurprisingly, he loved it.
Filipino cuisine is notoriously meat-heavy, and many of our vegetable dishes incorporate meat or seafood in them. Even Tortang Talong has traditional recipe versions that include ground pork. That’s why I opted to prepare this uniquely Filipino dish as strictly vegetarian—to showcase eggplant as the star instead of having it as a supporting ingredient for meat.
- 1 Japanese eggplant or globe eggplant
- 3 eggs
- Kosher salt
- Freshly-cracked black pepper
- Canola oil for frying
- Maldon salt, to finish
- Fermented smoked cayenne powder, to finish (optional)
Pickling liquid ingredients
- ½ cup (100 grams) white vinegar or coconut vinegar
- ½ cup (100 grams) water
- 2 tablespoons (40 grams) white granulated sugar (or more, to taste)
- 1 red Thai bird’s eye chili
- Kosher salt, to taste
There are multiple ways you can prepare the eggplant for this recipe:
- Grilling method: Fire up your barbecue until it’s blistering hot. Place your eggplant on the grill and turn it at regular intervals to ensure that the skin all around the eggplant is evenly charred. To check for doneness, pierce the skin with a fork; the flesh should be tender and yield easily.
- Oven method: Preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Coat the eggplant with a bit of canola oil, place it on a cookie sheet, and roast it in the oven until the skin is evenly blistered.
Deep-fryer method: Preheat your deep fryer to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Using a metal cake tester or bamboo skewer, pierce the eggplant skin evenly all over the surface; this allows heat to penetrate the eggplant more quickly, ensuring fast and even cooking. Place the eggplant into your fryer basket and lower it into the hot oil. Deep-fry the eggplant for a few minutes, until it’s soft when pierced with a fork or metal chopstick.
- Once you’ve cooked your eggplant your desired way, place it while hot in a large metal bowl and cover it tightly with plastic wrap, allowing the skin to rehydrate, which makes it easier to remove. Set it aside on the counter to cool down to room temperature.
- While the eggplant is cooling, prepare your pickling liquid. In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, add the vinegar, water, red Thai bird’s eye chilis, salt, and sugar. Stir to combine. Bring the pickling liquid to a boil, then remove it from heat. Taste and adjust for your personal preference by adding more salt or sugar. Transfer it to a medium metal bowl or plastic container and let it cool down to room temperature.
- Once the eggplant is cool to the touch, use a small paring knife to remove the skin—like peeling a banana but with a knife. Take care to leave the eggplant stem attached, as this helps to keep the flesh intact; the flesh will be very soft but it will still hold together.
- Place the eggplant into a shallow dish and pour the pickling liquid over it. Cover with plastic wrap and place the eggplant in the fridge to marinate in the pickling liquid for a minimum of two hours (and up to three days) before you’re ready to cook.
- Crack the eggs into a medium mixing bowl and season with salt and pepper. Beat the eggs with a whisk or hand blender and set aside.
- When you’re ready to cook, use a large spatula to lift your marinated eggplant out of the pickling liquid and let the excess liquid drip off before transferring it to a cookie sheet. Season it with salt and pour the beaten eggs over it. Using a fork, gently mash the eggplant to incorporate the egg mixture into the flesh, ensuring that the eggplant flesh remains intact. The mashed eggplant should be about one-inch thick.
- In a large frying pan over medium heat, pour about three tablespoons of canola oil, or enough to liberally coat the bottom of the pan, and heat the oil until it shimmers. Carefully lay the eggplant flat in the pan—watch out for hot oil splatter. As the eggplant cooks, pour the remaining egg mixture on top of it and allow it to firm up. When the bottom is nice and golden brown, use a spatula to flip the eggplant over and cook the other side. (Alternatively, you can also preheat your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit before frying the eggplant, and then place the whole pan in the oven to finish cooking the second side until the eggs are just set.)
- Transfer the cooked eggplant omelette onto a serving dish and season with freshly-cracked black pepper and a bit of Maldon salt to finish. At the restaurant, we also sprinkle on fermented smoked cayenne powder—if you’re able to track it down, it adds a wonderful depth of flavor.
- Serve with any condiment of your choosing. Banana ketchup is the traditional Filipino accompaniment, whereas I make a spicy tomato sambal to go with it at Farmer’s Apprentice. Steamed rice is a total must; my cheffy plating for our restaurant guests pairs it with puffed rice, cilantro, and pickled chayote.
Lola Purit’s Squash Flan by Yana Gilbuena of Salo Series
- Prep and cooking time: 2 hours
- Serves: 4-6 people
Flan, a culinary remnant of Spanish colonization, prevails as the most ubiquitous dessert to grace our tables. Back before the advent of canning, we Filipinos used carabao milk. After the Spanish-American war, Americans brought over canned milks and other canned goods to their new colony. That was when leche flan became super easy and accessible to make.
This recipe is my Lola’s. When I was a kid, I hated my veggies, but I had a sweet tooth. So my Lola, the cunning woman that she is, found a way to incorporate some veggies into my diet—this was one of them. Back then, she boiled the kalabasa (squash) and mashed it before incorporating it into the flan. I actually preferred flan with the kalabasa in it rather than without.
I made her recipe my own by roasting the flan versus boiling it; I love the extra caramelization and added depth of flavor, especially with the slightly burnt pieces.
- 2 cups white granulated sugar
- 1 small acorn squash or butternut squash or kabocha squash (or a little bit of all three) roasted, cooled, and deseeded
- 2 cans condensed milk (14 ounces each)
- 1 can evaporated milk (12 ounces)
- 12 egg yolks (save the leftover egg whites and make meringues if you’re so inclined!)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- Edible flowers, to garnish (optional)
- In a medium pot over medium heat, melt the sugar until it becomes brown and runny—this is your caramel. Pour the caramel into a 10-inch-by-15-inch baking dish or pan and evenly coat the bottom of the dish. Set aside on the counter and let it cool to room temperature.
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
- In a medium mixing bowl, place the roasted squash, condensed milk, and evaporated milk. Using a hand mixer at medium-low speed and a silicone spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl, mix until well combined.
- Gradually pour the egg yolks into the bowl, continuing to mix until they’re fully incorporated. Pour in the vanilla and mix well.
- Gently pour the milk-and-egg mixture into your caramel-lined baking dish and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour. To test for doneness, remove the dish from the oven and insert a toothpick into the center—if the toothpick comes out clean, the flan is ready.
- Let the flan cool to room temperature. Run a knife around the edges of the dish to loosen the sides. Cover the baking dish with a large serving platter or cutting board, hold tightly on top and bottom at both ends, and flip the whole thing over. Lift off the baking dish; fingers crossed that your flan is intact!
- Cut into squares and garnish with edible flowers before serving.
Tip: You can also omit the squash and make traditional leche flan. Alternatively, you can substitute squash for any hearty seasonal ingredient like pumpkin or peaches—even bananas. Experiment with the flavor profile by adding spices like star anise or five-spice powder.
Irma’s Pork Humba (AKA Tinoyoan, or Hong, cooked in soy sauce) by Justin Cheung of Potluck Hawker Eatery
- Prep time: 15 minutes
- Cooking time: 2.5 hours
- Serves: Up to 4 people in a family-style meal with other dishes
My wife Rachel’s mom is from Laguna province on the northern Tagalog island of Luzon, and this is one of the first dishes she cooked for me. We connected instantly; being Chinese-Canadian, I’ve adored the texture of gelatinous, sticky-coated dishes for as long as I can remember. Humba celebrates both Chinese and Filipino cultures, and the flavor influences of each cuisine are very evident in the spices my mother-in-law uses, including both star anise and clove. Rich and unctuous, it’s a must-have with a mountain of steamed jasmine rice.
- 1 pound pork hock, preferably from the front foot
- ¼ cup kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 2 tablespoons Filipino soy sauce, or 1 tablespoon dark soy and 1 tablespoon light soy
- ½ cup Filipino light cane vinegar, or light coconut vinegar or white vinegar
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- Kosher salt, to taste
- 3 bay leaves
- 3 star anise pods
- 5 cloves
- 1 package (300 grams) fried tofu, cut into 2-inch cubes
- 100 grams dried lily flower, soaked in tepid water for 10-15 minutes and rinsed twice to remove any dirt
- In a medium pot, place the pork hock and add enough cold water to cover. Sprinkle in the kosher salt, adjust the heat to medium, and bring to a simmer. Adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and use a ladle to skim off any impurities from the surface. Simmer the pork hock in the salted water for 30 minutes.
- Remove the pork hock from the salted water and transfer to a metal bowl or baking sheet. Set aside on the counter and let it cool to the touch.
- Once the pork hock has cooled, use your hands to pull off all the muscle meat from the bone. Using a chef’s knife, remove any remaining meat from the bone and cut the pork into 2-inch chunks.
- In a heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, heat the oil. Sweat the garlic for 2 minutes until slightly brown. Add the chicken stock, soy sauce, vinegar, and brown sugar to the pot. Stir and bring to a simmer.
- Add the pork bone, diced pork, bay leaves, star anise, and cloves to the pot. Return to a simmer and continue simmering for an additional 60 minutes or until the meat is fork tender. Ensure that there is always enough liquid in the pot to cover the pork hock and top up with water if needed.
- Add the rehydrated lily flowers and fried tofu to the pot and continue to cook at a simmer until the sauce is reduced to your desired consistency.
- Transfer to a large bowl and serve with steamed jasmine rice.
- Relish in the flavors of the Philippines.