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Blog - How an Italian Feels About Filipino Food
Like many Italians, I have an issue with food. It is not just about liking food, but it is part of our culture to choose the best ingredients (like using only natural and fresh choices) and to (sometimes even roughly) discuss for hours about recipes. My relatives would have long food discussions before and after special occasions and gatherings like Sunday lunch or Christmas dinner. Well, food is definitely one of the most distinctive characteristics of Italy. Maybe some of my country-mates tend to be a bit radical with Italian cuisine rules, but I usually see that once they travel to the Philippines and “break the ice” with local food, they really fall in love with it.
This is me, eating pancit during Pahiyas Festival (Lucban).
After almost 2 years of living in the Philippines and of marriage with a Filipina (and highly-skilled home chef!) woman, some of the most recurring questions are “What do you think about Filipino food” or “What is your favorite Filipino recipe?”.
What do I think about Filipino food?
My answer to this question is, of course… I-LOVE-IT! Honestly, I didn’t know much about the cuisine of the Philippines before. I often heard about Chinese, Thai, Japanese or Indian when Asian cuisine is mentioned, but I never really came across Filipino recipes before. I didn’t know what to expect, so it came as a pleasant surprise! The Philippine cuisine has a wide range of flavours, creativity and originality. I like how Asian and European culture is blended in it.
Actually, my life here is a continuous alternation of Italian and Filipino food. Me and my wife like to experiment and compare the two different styles and sometimes we even create some fusion.
Candice in front of a farm in Parma Province (Italy), with a slice of original Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
Plus, with our Travel Agency business, we go travel the country and always try our best to show to our guests all the best options of the local cuisine, so that they will discover and spread its fame around the world.
What is my favorite Filipino food?
Whew! Well, this is a difficult one. I sat down and tried to define a top 10 based on – of course – my personal taste, but also trying to see which ones, in my opinion, are the best in originality and quality.
I have observed that most Filipino recipes are dedicated to meat. Maybe this is also because of the great quality of meat you can find in the country. I like meat but I have to say I try to eat the less I can of it. So, these are not really my everyday dishes but these that I listed are ones that I think should not be missed during a trip to this country. For a more balanced diet, you can surely find a great variety of fresh fish and seafood, for which my favorite is bangus, or some vegetarian dishes, my favorite of which is Ensaladang Talong (a salad made of grilled eggplants). Anyway, it should also be considered that servings for the meat in the Philippines are not that big, since they are very tasty and are usually accompanied with heaps of steamed rice (a staple in every Filipino meal).
The choice of the best ingredients is very important to me.
Since I have space limits, I tried my best to keep it brief and made the descriptions short, mentioning just the main ingredients of each dish. So, here we go…
10.The Classic: Pork Adobo
What is it: this is a real must. I cannot really write about Filipino food without mentioning this classic and typical dish. It is usually made with pork meat, marinated with soy sauce, vinegar,pepper and laurel and then slowly cooked with plenty of garlic. We already detailed the whole recipe of this Filipino comfort food in this old post.
Where/How: this is a food you can taste everywhere, even in street eateries and small canteens. There is a lighter version made with chicken, or even with squid (pusit). I prefer boneless versions! It is usually served with rice but I also like it accompanied by some vegetables like potatoes.
9. The Surprise: Green Mango with Bagoong
What is it: this is not really a recipe since it is quite a simple thing, but it is worth to be mentioned! Get a green mango, peel, slice it and complement its very sour taste by dipping it in bagoong, a salty super-tasty paste made with a lot of tiny shrimps. And then enjoy every bite. I really didn’t expect to like this fuse of strong flavours, but I really do.
Where/How: also in this case, you can easily find it as street food. You can also buy your own ingredients in the market or hand pick it yourself from your own backyard. It sounds very unusual but you will be really surprised of the addicting taste.
8. The Guilty One: Cicharon
What is it: probably the most guilty pleasure of all, these “porky chips” are made with deep fried pork rinds. They can be eaten as they are, but they give their best flavour if quickly dipped in spicy vinegar before munching on it. They are known as probably the most spread finger food of Filipinos, perfect to eat while drinking beer and watching a match of Manny Pacquiao on TV! You will like it. Some versions are dry and puffy, but there are also those meaty ones (my favorite!),crunchy outside then fatty and soft on the inside.
Where/How: you can find cicharron everywhere. Just check if the pack is well sealed: once the pack is open they will easily become spongy and almost not edible on the next days.
8. The Party Guy: Lechon Baboy
What is it: it might not sound special if described only as “roasted pork”. In fact, many countries have their own roasted pig specialty. Also in Italy we have our similar porchetta and the Sardinian purcheddu…but, but, Lechon is just great. A lot of its success I think is due to the very high quality of the meat of pigs eating coconut and pineapple (great, right?) plus the mix of aromatic local herbs as marinate. Some even inject coconut milk under the skin to make it more tasty before the very slow cooking process. Popular dips for this party table centerpiece is liver sauce or sugar cane vinegar.
Where/How: you can find different versions of Lechon almost everywhere, but probably the best ones are served during town fiestas and big parties. The province of Cebu is known to have the so-called “Lechon Cebu” as their great specialty. But, anyway, I had the best lechon of my life in Davao del Sur when I was invited by a local family who roasted their own lechon during a celebration. Unforgettable.
6. My Wife’s Best: Beef Caldereta
What is it: similar to the Italian spezzatino, it is a very tasty slowly cooked beef dish. The slower and the longer you cook the meat, the softer and flavourful you will have it. The base of the sauce is tomato and liver, it also has other kind of vegetables added to it. The many aromatic ingredients make it a very good treat and it is very difficult for me not to ask for additional servings of it. It is one of the few Filipino dishes I’d combine with a good red Italian wine (I think also 1 or 2 glasses added in the sauce during the cooking process could give a nice twist).
Where/How: the best caldereta of the Philippines is the one made by my Filipina wife. You can probably find a secondary level one in restaurants. I find this dish less attractive in eateries and as a street food: if you cannot have it home-cooked, then it is best to try it in a good restaurant, since I believe the quality of the ingredients is important for this recipe.
5. The Spicy: Pork Sisig
Me preparing my own sisig
What is it: I tried to cook this by myself (with average results) in Italy, even if the process was not easy and it was hard to find the main ingredients. Many travellers are hesitant to try it since the meat you use is not common for Westerners, but I love it. This interesting dish is made with the chopped meat of the pork face: cheeks, ears, nose. Mixed with spices and hot chilli, topped with fresh egg and served on a hot sizzling plate. Do not forget to squeeze calamansi juice over it for an extra zest.
Where/How: also this is a good street food, but to be honest it is not always served as its best. Choose a place where Sisig is openly the specialty of the place and you will be satisfied! There are also variations like made with chicken, fish or others, but it is better to taste the original! In Puerto Princesa (Palawan), someone offers a quite tasty Crocodile version of it! You need rice with it in order to blend the strong taste. It is moderately spicy so it is also a perfect beer-match!
4.The Mouthwatering: Pancit Palabok
Pancit Palabok (I made it and I was very proud of it!)
What is it: as an Italian, I grew up eating pasta, even if I’m not really a pasta-person, since it is also something very common and normal to me. I was anyway surprised of the taste of these special noodles. The rice noodles (Pancit) have several toppings but the best part of it for sure is the crab fat sauce, taken only from small female crabs. This crab sauce seems to be the most delicious component and is also relatively expensive. It perfectly blends with the taste of dried smoked fish, shrimps and the crushed cicharon on top. I also tried to cook it by myself for my Italian relatives and they all like it. Above there is a picture of my pancit palabok version. Note for Filipinos readers, please don’t mind how I wrongly cut the calamansi! I think this is a dish that can be tasty also in a vegetarian or at least meat-free version.
Where/How: I can say that this is a quite easy dish to cook at home, you can find many recipes on the Internet. If you are not in the Philippines, it might be difficult to find the right ingredients, especially the crab paste. If you are in the Philippines you can find many “Panciteria” that serve good ones.
3. The Hidden Treasure: Dumaguete Express
My wife Candice tasting her Dumaguete Express!
What is it: This is not really very common even in the Philippines, but, as far as now, it is one of the best dishes I have ever tasted in the country. While travelling around Negros Oriental, I had lunch in this restaurant near the port of the capital Dumaguete, where they serve their version of the famous spicy recipe “Bicol Express”.
It is made with squid rings, fish, shrimps, clams and shreds of coconut meat cooked in coconut milk and chili peppers, topped with deep fried pork slices and malunggay leaves (a local herb with a soft flavor). It was exceptionally good. I craved so much for it and after one year I went back to the same place and ordered a big dish of it. All for myself. The best fan of it was probably my mother: she was travelling with us and really loved it.
Where/How: as far as now, I just ate it in Dumaguete and never found it anywhere else in the Philippines. That is how special that dish is.
2.The Flower: Ginataang Puso Ng Saging
This is how a banana blossom looks like (in the supermarket)
What is it: This is another tropical surprise for my mouth: it means Banana Heart with Coconut Milk. The heart is actually the blossom of the Banana tree. It has a taste I cannot describe, since I had no idea that Bananas even had a heart (well, a blossom) before living here. I can just say it is good, fresh, it tastes healthy and it has also a very special texture. Cooking it in coconut milk just adds a special tropical flavor. You can just come to the Philippines and eat it then you will to understand.
Where/How: it is a quite common dish and generally a simple one, but it needs care while choosing the ingredients and during the process of cleaning the blossom and the coconut milk should be freshly squeezed. It is probably best to have it home-cooked or at least in a good restaurant.
1.The Special: Kare Kare
(update July 13,2014) A picture of a very good kare kare we had today!
What is it: It was very hard to come up with a number one and I finally decided for this dish that, in fairness, I don’t get to eat too often. There is a long list of ingredients and they vary depending on the recipes or versions. It is a stew of oxtail, beef meat or other kind of meats. It also contains several vegetables like eggplants, local long-stemmed cabbage and stingbeans (there are also some good vegetarian versions of this dish). The most special twist is the sumptuous peanut sauce where all the ingredients are cooked in, which has a tasty base of roasted peanuts that create a unique flavor. It is served accompanied by the already mentioned bagoong. It is a kaleidoscope of tastes that perfectly blend together: it is really how Philippines taste like!
Where/How: honestly, the best I ever tasted is once again made by my wife. I don’t often ask for it because it makes her busy for the whole morning (hmm… maybe it is time to ask again). I also have tasted some not so-good ones in some small restaurants, so I don’t suggest it as a street food. The choice of ingredients, the freshness of the cooking and the care of the preparation make it, in my opinion, a high standard dish, to taste in the best restaurants or, if you can, cooked by my wife.
After all this food, it is time to burn some calories, right? (Banaue Rice Terraces)
Well, that was a long journey to meet the number 1, right?
Oh, being an Italian coming from a country famous for its premium wines, I’m also often asked about which wine is best to combined with certain Filipino dishes. This happens whenever we have get-togethers celebrating with Filipino food. I find it a kind of a weird question. As you noticed, I chose very Filipino dishes using very local ingredients. There are also other recipes that involve westernized food, sometimes they are good, but I believe in choosing components from the local environment.
Best place for wine? Italy.
So, I don’t see wine as a good combination, since grapes are not local Filipino products. Also, remember that the weather is very hot and wine will make your body feel warm and more thirsty. Anyway, since there are several recipes of Spanish influence, probably those are the ones that would match with wine. I think a good red wine from the North of Italy will be good with Caldereta, as already mentioned at point 6 (just to give a name, Barbera is a good match for me). Probably, if you order local fresh grilled fish and seafood, you can use a cold glass of light white wine from the South of Italy.
For sure cicharron (or sisig) is best enjoyed with a bottle of cold beer which the locals are accustomed to and they are highly recommending this match.
Aside from plain water, the right choice of drink in the Philippines is fresh tropical fruit juice. My favorite during meals is a cold fresh calamansi juice (local lemon/lime) with no sugar, but there are also very good alternatives like pineapple juice and of course mango juice or shake. After a light meal, you can also get yourself a good and nutritious coconut juice to drink directly from the shell!
What about a good fresh mango juice?
To cap off a good meal, you need a good dessert. On top of my mind right now is Sansrival which is also Dumaguete’s delicacy. And Mango Float. Desserts are worth another post entry!!!
(written on July 2014)