This corner of Southeast Asia is fodder for travel brochures thanks to its sugar-white beaches, palm-fringed shores, and see-through swimming lagoons on the Sulu Sea. People come from miles around to laze and dive, sail and sea kayak. But there’s also a rich food culture in the Philippines that can rival the likes of Thailand and Vietnam.
That’s what this guide will focus on, all by homing in on seven of the most iconic dishes in the national Filipino kitchen. It’s a journey through a cooking style that’s at once exotic and homey, influenced by the flavors and produce of the tropics but also historical connections with European colonial powers like Spain.
You’ll need to get ready to sample salty cured meats for breakfast and zingy noodle dishes tossed in soy and beansprouts. There are oxtail and pork mixes, tempting surf and turf, and some of the freshest seafood produce in all of Asia (there is 22,000 miles of coastline in this nation, after all!). Forks at the ready folks, here’s our guide to food culture in the Philippines…
Table of Contents
Tapsilog is a dish that is often eaten for breakfast in the Philippines. Its key ingredient is the cured meat, known on its own as Tapa. This is often beef but can also be mutton, venison, or even horse (yep – Asian diners aren’t usually as squeamish about eating equine meat as us in the west). The meat is cured using salt and seasoned in a sauce of soy, pepper, sugar, garlic and lime juice. Many in the Philippines will marinade this overnight to allow the flavors to fully sink in.
The meat is cut into thin strips and the texture resembles that of beef jerky. The Tapa is served with garlic fried rice (Sananag), fresh salad like cucumber and tomato, an acidic dipping sauce, and topped with a runny fried egg. What makes this dish so popular in Filipino culture is the combination of complementary flavors like sweet, sour, saltiness and garlic. It’s also a healthy and filling way to start the day with a bout of protein and citrus.
Noodles are a staple dish across many Southeast Asian countries and it’s no different in the Philippines. Pancit refers to traditional Filipino noodles, which can come in many different variations that chop and change depending on the type of meat, noodles, and veg that are used to bulk it out.
There are two main types noodles on offer in the region: Egg and rice. It’s the thin vermicelli iteration of the latter that’s most often put into this dish. Popular proteins include chicken, pork, and shrimp, while tofu is gaining more of a high profile for veggies, though it’s still not as widely used as in other parts of East Asia – Japan, China.
Pancit is often a dish served at Filipino feasts celebrating occasions such as weddings, birthdays, and graduations, but it’s also seen as a regular back in the abode, usually made by mums and dads when kids return home. It tastes fresh, zingy, and crunchy, with sweet soy sauces mingling with lime juices and chili within the flash-fried mass of noodles. It’s also cheap – you can get a plate of the stuff in most markets for under $1!
Adobo is often hailed as the unofficial food of the Philippines and it is for that reason that it sits close to the top of our list of the most popular dishes in the country! Adobo refers more to the method of cooking than to the dish itself. It describes the process of marinating and then cooking meat or fish in a combination of vinegar, soy sauce, and a variety of herbs and spices. This mixture not only gives the dish a delicious, tangy texture, but also acts as a brine-like preservative that dates back early into Filipino history.
There are many different variations in the adobo way of doing things. Though coconut vinegar is the most commonly used in the Philippines, there are other alternatives of which can affect the flavor. The popular choice of chicken can also be swapped out for any other meat or seafood. Plus, the marinated meat can then be paired with all manner of other foodstuffs. Some like it plain with rice. Others prefer to drop it atop stir-fried noodles and veg.
Stewed meat makes a regular appearance throughout Filipino culture, often with some variation or other. Kare-kare is slightly different in that the stew sits in a thick peanut sauce (similar to satay). The meat in a kare-kare is usually oxtail or various cuts of pork. The stew is thickened with brown rice and also includes vegetables such as eggplant and bok choy.
Kare-kare is often served with rice and a helping of shrimp paste known as Bagoong. Kare-kare is often served on special occasions, cooked and served in a large clay pot. The recipe will vary depending on where you are in the Philippines and there are conflicting stories of where the dish originated from, with some claiming it was created by the Kapampangans, and some saying the Tagalog people.
Buko is actually the Filipino word for a young green coconut. As you can imagine in a country with over 7,000 islands spread across the balmy tropics between the Sulu Sea and the Pacific Ocean, there’s certainly no shortage of those available in these parts! So, what to cook with them? It can only be buko pie…
Buko pie is a staple sweet dish in Filipino culture, consisting of young coconut meat cooked in condensed milk and sugar and then encased in flaky pastry. Due to its widespread availability across the whole country, buko pie is often a favored choice as a Pasalubong. This is the Filipino tradition of bringing home something sweet after a trip.
The buko pie is said to have originally been influenced by the American apple pie and its birthplace is said to be the province of Laguna in Luzon. Others have drawn comparisons between this and the famous South African klappertert, which also includes desiccated coconut mixed with condensed milk. Have it with a big, strong coffee in the morning.
Chicken inasal is the staple of the Hiligaynon people of the southeastern isles of the Ilonggo region, which includes a huge portion of the country from the Western Visayas to the isle of Mindanao in the south. The dish is simple but hearty and filling, involving a single leg or breast of chicken meat that’s marinated in a secret local blend of spices and herbs.
The concoction includes big dollops of chopping garlic and ginger, a taste-bud-tingling amount of chili powder, loads of lemongrass and zingy calamansi juice, along with the press of limes and lemons. That’s all doused over the protein, which is left to stew before cooking, usually in the fridge.
It all comes together when the chicken legs are grilled over a sizzling BBQ. You’ll need to cook the meat all the way through before laying it on a bed of white rice on an open banana leaf to be served – who needs plates, eh?
Kinilaw is essentially the Filipino version of ceviche, a popular South American dish. The word Kinilaw translates into English as “eaten raw,” which helps to describe what is ultimately pieces of raw fish, marinated with vinegar, herbs and spices. Though it may seem odd to eat raw fish, this method makes it safe in that the acid from the vinegar breaks down the protein in the fish, cooking it a process known as maceration.
In the Philippines, this vinegar often comes from fermented coconut juice and is called tuba. That lends a tropical flavor to the whole thing, with a hint of beach coconut there alongside the seafood. With all sorts of fresh fish readily available all over the Philippines, this dish can be adapted to include your favorites and should always be made just before eating.
Archaeological evidence found in the form of fish bones and cut veg pieces near to Butuan city in Mindanao has given evidence that Kinilaw was being prepped and cooked in the Philippines as far back as the 10th century. Today, it’s mainly served in coastal towns and is usually seen as a light appetizer before a more hearty, pulse-heavy meal.
Halo Halo (or Haluhalo)
When it comes to desserts, there isn’t anything quite like a halo halo, often written haluhalo. Similar to an ice cream sundae, halo halos are a rainbow of colors with multiple layers of various ingredients. The name translates to “mix-mix,” an apt moniker for describing all the weird and wonderful things that go into this concoction.
Usually, the halo halo will include ingredients such as condensed milk, crushed ice, fruit, gelatin in some form, and hundreds and thousands. It comes topped with things like sweet beans, coconut strips, and just about anything you fancy really. The halo halo is often deemed the unofficial dessert of the Philippines and has been previously described as a cross between ice cream, milkshake, fruit parfait, and a boba tea.
It’s on the menu in most traditional Philippine restaurants, but also served by strollers along the boardwalks and promenades of popular beach resorts to boot – just look for the person with the bright umbrella, who are often a purveyor of halo halo.
Lechón is the Philippine iteration of a dish that’s popular right across Southeast Asia, East Asia, and on the Iberian end of Europe alike. It’s also known as suckling pig and refers to a pig slaughtered within two to six weeks of birth in order to preserve the juicy, gelatinous nature of its meat. The whole thing is then roasted slowly over open coals after being stuffed with a mix of flavor-giving herbs and spices, from lemongrass and ginger to chili and chives.
Because it’s such a big culinary undertaking to source and cook a complete pig, the lechon is widely seen as a foodstuff for special occasions. It’s often cooked and prepared by multiple chefs and takes nearly five hours to finish sizzling on the spit.
Food historians think that lechon cooking originated in the Philippines when the Spanish came. Before that, the locals of these islands followed the Chinese tradition of chopping up their pigs before cooking. Indeed, there’s actually a Spanish and Portuguese version of this dish that’s cooked in Europe during major holidays like Easter and Christmas.
Philppine food culture – our conclusion
Philippine food culture draws on the influences of both east and west. There are dishes here that hearken back to the coming and going of European powers, like suckling pig and the sweet coconut pies. However, there are others that relate more to Asian cooking traditions, like the soy-topped stir-fried noodles and the kare kare meats marinated in ginger and chili. Okay, so Philippine foods might not be the best on the health front, but they are packed with strong flavors and tend to be very filling. They’re also a great window onto the local culture, since foods are often shared with friends and families during big events and holidays.
What is the most popular food in the Philippines?
If there is one food ingredient that could be deemed the most popular in the Philippines it is undoubtedly white rice. There is actually a belief across Filipino culture that no meal is complete without it. It is commonplace that rice will take up half of the plate when serving a meal. This is often due to the fact that many Filipino dishes are stew based and go really well with something drier on the side.
How does Filipino food reflect culture?
Food plays a huge role in Filipino culture. It is not only about the food itself but also the memories that come with a meal, and the time spent with friends and family while eating. Food is not about eating on the go or having a quick snack, but more about taking the time to sit and enjoy something to eat with company.
Is Filipino food healthy?
There is no denying that the Filipino food culture is full of a huge range of delicious and interesting dishes. Unfortunately, it is not always deemed the healthiest of cuisines, with many Filipinos suffering from chronic diseases related to diet. This is due to a number of elements present in Filipino food, including – but not limited to – the amount of sugar and salt, the use of pork and fatty meat, as well as animal organs, not to mention the presence of white rice in pretty much every dish. That said, the tropical fruits you can find in the Philippines tend to be very rich in vitamins.
What is a typical breakfast in the Philippines?
A typical breakfast in the Philippines is less a specific dish, and more about the combination of ingredients. This will include fried rice, eggs, and a salt-cured meat like beef pork or even fish. There are many variations of this, including the type of rice which could be cooked in garlic or even more egg. This dish is believed to have the balance of all the nutrients needed for long-lasting energy to take on the day ahead. It is often served with bread and a black coffee.