How to Get Acquainted with Filipino Food
Mar. 28, 2014

YOU love sushi, consider yourself a pho aficionado, and can point visitors to the best pad Thai in a 10-mile radius. So why haven't you tried palabok yet?
There are more than 84 million people living in the Philippines, and Filipinos comprise the second-largest Asian population group in the United States, trailing only ethnic Chinese. Yet outside of the Filipino community, most Americans would be lost at sea in a Filipino restaurant.

Food is a defining characteristics of Filipino culture; even their greeting in native Tagalog translates to "Have you eaten?" Filipino food is reminiscent of other Asian cooking, but may most closely resemble Vietnamese fare. This has less to do with actual dishes than it does that both cuisines harbor influences from colonization, Vietnamese from France, Filipino from Spain.

Filipino staples are like those found in other Asian cuisines - noodles (wheat, rice or "glass", made from bean threads) and rice, both steamed and fried. Fish and pork are the most common proteins.
Breakfast starts with tocino (pronounced toh-see-no), bright red and slightly sweet pork loin. Longanisa, a finger-length sausage also popular in Hawaii, is an item commonly available for breakfast. Tocino or longanisa with fried eggs, rice, fruit and hot chocolate constitute a "typical" Filipino breakfast (in the United States). In the tropical climate of their native country, people eat a half-dozen small meals a day, but Filipino-Americans have adjusted to the U.S.'s "fewer-but-larger" tradition.

Other meals contain some familiar items, such as siu mye (siomai) - virtually identical to the Chinese dim sum on which it is based - as well as some familiar-sounding items that surprise, like Filipino spaghetti. The latter is made with finely ground beef and sausage in a sweet tomato sauce - not unfamiliar, but not like any spaghetti from Italy.

"In fact," said Mary-Ann Ortiz-Luis, president of Clarmil Manufacturing, "when considering that Filipinos are almost 90 percent Roman Catholic and have strong orientations toward family and food, we are the Italians of Asia."

Clarmil Manufacturing, a family-owned company, is the manufacturing arm of Goldilocks, which owns and operates 170 bakery/restaurants in the Philippine Islands, and 14 more in the United States, including four in South Bay, two in the San Francisco area and one each in Concord, Vallejo and Sacramento.

In addition to spaghetti, Filipino cuisine does include more "Asian-like" noodle dishes. Palabok is a base medium rice noodles stir fried and topped with fresh shrimp, tofu, pork, hard boiled eggs, green onions, shaved dried cod fish and a complete surprise - chicharones, similar to Mexico's popular fried pork skin, which showcase the Spanish influence. while some describe palabok as an "acquired taste" because of the shaved dried fish, there's usually not a lot of it, and the dish is well balanced and milk in flavor. Sotanghon is another composed noodle dish, similar to palabok but without the dried fish (among other things), so it's a little less adventurous.

Like many Filipino delicacies, lechon kawali loses something in the translation - it's deep-fried pork belly (think slab bacon, but not smoked), but it's actually simmered and dried before being fried, then served with vinegar and atchara ( a cross between piccalilli relish and sauerkraut, with shreds of cabbage, carrots and red bell pepper in sweet vinegar sauce).

Many Anglos are familiar with fried lumpia, know as Lumpia Shanghai because of their resemblance to narrow egg rolls. While lumpia are filled entirely with pork or shrimp meat, "fresh" lumpia is like a plate-sized crepe stuffed with julienned cooked vegetables and napped with a room temperature caramel sauce. (It's one way to get kids to eat their veggies.)

To get closer to the edge, bopis or dinuguan will stimulate the palate. Bopis is "variety (or organ) meats" long-braised in a vinegar-based sauce (somewhat like an adobo), and is meltingly tender and flavorful. Based on a concept popular in German and Irish cooking, dinuguan is slow-cooked stew in a sauce consisting of blood.

"It's very nutritious", said Ortiz-Luis. "Your serum iron (the iron level in your blood) will go way up". The sauce looks almost like chocolate and tastes like rich brown gravy - one would be hard-pressed to guess how healthy it is.

One other unexpected custom of Filipino culture is its treatment of avocados as a dessert component, perhaps best exemplified in avocado shakes. Made with fresh avocado pulp, coconut milk, tiny tapioca and lots of ice, the avocado flavor comes through loud and strong, and is interesting when sweetened.