June 23, 2024

Chef Richie Castillo on the ABCs of Filipino cuisine

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

Filipino cuisine is dominated by the bold balance of three elements of taste: salty, sour and sweet. These flavours stem from a medley of cultural, historical and environmental influences that have shaped Filipino culinary traditions for centuries.

Salt is used both to highlight other flavours, but also as a standalone taste. Filipino soy sauce is extra salty, while snacks like chicharron (fried pork belly) and puffed fish crackers are loaded with it. Bowls of sawsawan (Filipino soy dressing) and dishes of bagoong (a condiment of fermented fish, krill or shrimp paste) are both used as table seasonings. 

Salt’s also an important part of native Filipino heritage. In the Bohol region, they make a salt called asín tibuok, which is sharp, earthy and smoky. 

Meanwhile, jolting acidity isn’t only acceptable in Filipino cooking — it’s key. Vinegars, calamansi (a local citrus fruit) and tamarind are vital, used to enhance flavours, brighten up heavy dishes and tenderise meats. They can also be used in palate cleansers, such as atchara (pickled green papaya). The high acidity also has the purpose of preserving food in the tropical climate, so dishes such as adobo (a vinegary stew) and sinigang (tamarind-spiked soup) can be left out all day without spoiling.

Filipinos also have a very sweet tooth. You’ll find American doughnut shops and fast food chains scattered all over, and there are local cake shops on every corner. Traditional sweets like leche flan (creme caramel), halo-halo (shaved ice), biko (sticky rice cake), banana cue (fried bananas) and bibingka (baked rice cake) are filled with sugar, but it’s also used in savoury dishes like adobo, tocino (cured pork), longanisa (sweet sausage) and even in spaghetti sauce. You’ll be hard pressed to find coffee that isn’t pre-sweetened, while teas and juices are usually filled with syrups and sugar. Sugar is everywhere.

Three must-try Filipino dishes

Sisig
This dish of sizzling pork originated in Pampanga province in the 1970s. Locals would take leftover meat and marinate it in a mix of calamansi, vinegar, soy sauce and chillies. It’s often topped with an egg yolk.

Sinigang 
This soup is made by cooking meat or seafood in tamarind-based broth with vegetables, and can be soured with fruit like calamansi, green mangoes or santol. It varies between regions.

Chicken inasal
A grilled chicken dish from the Western Visayas region. Chicken legs are marinated in vinegar, calamansi, ginger, garlic, lemongrass and annatto oil, then grilled over charcoal. Served with garlic rice and atchara pickle.

One essential ingredient

Calamansi is a native citrus that’s a cross between a kumquat and a mandarin. It has the sourness of a lemon but the appearance of a tiny lime with orange flesh. It’s used in marinades and sauces, and as a table seasoning, too.

This is an edited extract from Masarap, by Richie Castillo and Alex O’Neill (£13, Blasta Books).

Published in the Jan/Feb 2024 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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