Exploring Filipino Cuisine: Must-Try Dishes and Ingredients

A variety of Filipino dishes on a colorful woven mat. Includes kutsinta in a bowl, white puto in banana leaves, meaty rendang, golden cookies, and chocolate rice cakes. The warm light highlights the vivid colors and inviting textures.

Many have had at least some experience with Filipino cuisine and experienced its almost Cajun-esque exploration of what could be called the original Asian-Fusion BBQ. Featuring the same exotic flair as many types of Southeast Asian cooking with a vaguely Mexican structure, this Spanish-American Asian cuisine is a living time capsule – or a still frame, depicting the intersecting roots of several cultures that may not have influenced each other if it weren’t for an odd admixture of world events.

Filipino food speaks to an underappreciated cultural thread, nevertheless welcoming you with one of the most magnanimus expressions of life through one’s relationship with food.

Filipino cuisine is marked by its unmistakably unique balance of sour, sweet, and salty flavors, along with consistent umami overtones and punctuated with a suite of aromatics and spices. That’s because Filipino cuisine is an unforgettable synthesis of other culinary lineages from across the globe, all of which are much beloved in their own right:

  • Malay, creating a rich foundation of seafood, seasonal vegetables, and a broad pallet – an incredibly diverse cuisine in its own right that’s unafraid to accommodate street food and luxury tastes alike.
  • Chinese, where Filipino food gets much of its savory umami flavor, with an emphasis on roasted meats and frequent use of soy sauce.
  • Spanish, instilling a generous and healthy love of experimenting with concentrated, aromatic textures.
  • American, in all its satisfying glory.

Some of the most popular Filipino dishes have already left an impression on exotic taste explorers, while others remain more popular among native Filipinos. For most globe-trotting cuisine lovers, though, it means endlessly novel and inspiring new cuisine to try the next time you need something to break up the routine:

Sporting a strong foundation of spices with nearly unlimited variety, adobo is a much-beloved Filipino dish many Americans know, even if they don’t know that where it comes from is the rich culinary heritage of the Philippines. Resembling a stew, and often centered around a type of fish sauce called “patis,” adobo is as bold to the senses as it is mystifyingly simple. By altering the balance of vinegar, soy sauce, and garlic, skilled Philippine chefs can exert broad-ranging effects on the sweet, salty, sour, and spiciness of any adobo dish in their repertoire.

Resembling something akin a Philippine take on phoh, tamarind, pork, and seasonal vegetables give sinigang a filling and comforting sense. The quintessential Filipino comfort food.

Spit roasted for hours on special occasions, guests eagerly receive a whole roasted pig, just at peak caramelization. Lechon is served during some of the most important days in the Philippines’ history, complete with a wildly popular parade in its largest city. Filipino elders insist on roasting lechon manually, to achieve the most even color and roast.

Filipino celebrations also make frequent use of pancit, a satisfyingly colorful stir-fry centered around grilled shrimp and chewy noodles, all flavored with a savory broth. There are actually several types of pancit noodles, ranging from dishes resembling East Coast seafood pasta to nearly transparent angle hair and flat rice noodles normally reserved for Asian cuisine.
Pancit is one of the quickest and simplest entries that you can make yourself in this list. You can try your hand at home-made pancit by gathering fresh shrimp, broth, and any noodles of choice (usually wheat, rice, or corn). Of course, to make it authentic, you’ll have to wait for the next birthday, anniversary, or other celebratory event, and roast the shrimp with painstaking, ceremonious attention.

Of course, no celebration is complete without a delicacy. Introducing the milkshake-turned-snow cone from heaven, complete with leche flan, ice cream, and purple yam jam. When you try halo-halo for the first time, it may be quite the sight. Yet once you try it, you’ll be hooked!

To bring these culinary forays together, you may need to mix and combine seasonings and other ingredients you’ve never used together before, but as with any new culinary exploration, selecting the new ingredients is half the fun:

  • Sauces and Condiments: Stock up on soy sauce, fish sauce, vinegar, and don’t bother getting the “small.” Also gather any specialty ingredients you might need for some of the specialty Filipino recipes (including from the freezer section). Apply any strong flavors judiciously. Philippine cuisine is one culinary art that depends on a sophisticated balance of ingredients that can all be very striking on their own.
  • Spices and Aromatics: Also be sure to use a hearty amount of garlic, onion, and black pepper, which help Filipino dishes stand out with a refreshingly bold punch of spice, but not spiciness that makes it so approachable to a wide audience.
  • Specialty Items: Other interesting mainstays of Philippine cuisine include calamansi, a succulent citrus fruit, and banana ketchup, enjoyed on all manner of street food like fried fish and chips.

Because Filipino cuisine is so broad and varied, so too are many of its ingredients, all of which you’ll find at a well-stocked international grocer. However, you’ll find the majority of Filipino ingredients in the Asian section, along with the freshest shrimp at International Fresh Market’s meat and deli department.

Ice cream and flan are a must, and the spices used in Filipino dishes extend well beyond the bounds of any one aisle. Be sure to use any fish sauce quickly, and use only the freshest seasonal vegetables to make it truly your own.

Filipino cooking techniques primarily involve stewing, grilling, or stir-frying seafood and other meats. Certain dishes requiring rice open up a greater range of options, with specialty options like egg fried rice and garlic adobo fried rice, or plain white jasmine for an almost Pad Thai-like seafood curry.

If grilling or braising meat, take the extra time to ensure a nice, even roast or singing. Also, don’t hesitate to begin marinades early, to contribute to the sense-saturating experience that is Philippine cuisine.

As the greater Naperville area’s premier Asian grocery store, we make finding even the most broad and diverse array of ingredients easy, because we know our customers have equally sophisticated culinary pallets. To get everything you need for an authentic or fully personalized night making mouthwatering and ever-satisfying Filipino cuisine.

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