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9 Filipino Dishes You Need To Know

By Carey Jones
January 10, 2014

At the center of intercontinental trade routes for millennia, the island nation of the Philippines has been a melting pot for much of its history, and nowhere is that more evident than in its cuisine. With Chinese, Malay, Spanish, and even Mexican influences, Filipino fare is wholly distinct from its Southeast Asian neighbors - generally not as spicy, with plenty of pork (more than half of all meat produced in the Philippines is pork), and strong acidic flavors including vinegar and calamansi lime. In recent years, Filipino fare has become increasingly celebrated around the United States. Here are nine Filipino dishes to know - and where to try them.

  • Lechón

    Celebrations in this pork-loving country call for lechón - suckling pig slowly roasted over charcoal on a spit. Though the dish has a Spanish  name, Filipino lechón is distinctly Southeast Asian in flavor, with aromatics including lemongrass and scallions. Once the skin has crisped and the meat all but fallen off the bone, it's served with a liver-laced, vinegar-heavy dipping sauce. The full pork feast is primarily for special occasions, while at restaurants in the US, you're more likely to find dishes such as lechón kawali - the deep-fried pork belly pictured here.

    Where to try: Get the whole pig at Legal Beans, Jersey City, or lechon kawali at Ihawan in Queens

  • Adobo

    While considered the national dish of the Philippines, adobo is more of a cooking style - stewing ingredients with vinegar, soy sauce and aromatics. The vinegar aids in preservation, as it does in many of the cuisine's dishes. "In the Philippines, it's 98°F out even when it's pouring rain," says Filipino-American chef Dale Talde. "Acid helps preserve everything - sourness is really the defining flavor in Filipino food." Variations abound: You'll see pork, chicken or beef adobo most often, though seafood and vegetables can be adobo-ed as well; some versions are made with coconut milk, some with hot chilies and some with liver.

    Where to try: Adobo Shack at Brooklyn's Smorgasburg or Kainbigan in Oakland

  • Photo by: Lumpia Shack - Smorgasburg

    Lumpia

    The Filipino version of spring rolls, lumpia are often deep-fried and come in a number of guises: Lumpiang Shanghai, heavy on the ground pork and served with a sweet-and-sour dipping sauce; Lumpiang Prito, filled with several vegetables and a smaller amount of meat; Lumpiang Sariwa, filled with sautéed meats and vegetables and wrapped in an egg crepe, rather than rolled in rice paper and fried. A number of modern Filipino restaurants in the United States take liberties with the form; Lumpia Shack invokes other popular dishes in their creations, such as kare kare or sisig lumpia. (What are those? Read on.)

    Where to try: Lumpia Shack at Brooklyn's Smorgasburg or Milkfish in New Orleans

  • Photo by: Carey Jones

    Kare Kare

    A rib-sticking stew of slowly braised oxtail, with toasted rice flour to thicken the broth, vegetables such as eggplant and long bean and a healthy dose of peanut butter. More modern versions, such as Dale Talde's pictured above, might include other meats, like short rib. "All the flavor comes at the end," says Talde - when onion, vinegar and tomatoes are added, with shrimp paste, chilies and calamansi as garnishes.

    Where to try: Talde in Brooklyn or Isla Pilipina in Chicago

  • Sisig

    Also called "Sizzling Sisig," as it's served screaming hot from a cast-iron skillet or platter. A jumble of pig parts - generally ears, snout, and cheek - are boiled, then chopped and braised and finally fried with onions and a host of other ingredients. You'll often see liver, sometimes pork belly or other cuts, all seasoned with chili and calamansi lime for a dish that's smoky and sour, a little sweet and a little spicy. While pork is traditional, modern chefs have made use of seafood, chicken, and vegetables in the dish as well.

    Where to try: Tita's Kitcheonette in National City, CA, or Hapa SF in San Francisco

  • Tocino

    Noticed a penchant for pork yet? Tocino is a cured pork that's generally sliced up and grilled, made with a sweet marinade that includes anatto seeds, garlic and a sweetener - sometimes 7-Up. You'll find it served on its own, or as part of a silog, a combination breakfast that includes garlic fried rice, eggs and some sort of meat. Other silogs might come with longanisa (similar to the Spanish sausage, but sweeter), tapa (dried cured beef), adobo or even Spam. (Mass-market products from the States have their place in Filipino fare, due to American sovereignty over the islands and an extended political and military presence in the early 20th century.)

    Where to try: Isla Pilipina in Chicago, or in a silog at Maharlika in NYC

  • Sinigang

    While the sour elements in Filipino cuisine often come from vinegar or calamansi limes, tamarind can be deployed for the same purpose. It stars in sinigang, a thin soup with a tamarind broth, some sort of meat and vegetables including tomatoes and onions - another reminder of Spanish and New World influences. Variations include Sinigang na Isda (with fish), Sinigang na Baboy (pork) and Sinigang sa Bayabas (with guava rather than tamarind).

    Where to try: Patio Filipino in San Bruno, CA, or Tita's Kitcheonette in National City, CA

  • Photo by: Isla Filipina

    Pancit

    The word "pancit" translates to "noodles," and Filipino cuisine has more versions than you can count; popular renditions include Pancit Bihon (rice noodles fried up with soy sauce, vegetables, and meats including sweet Chinese sausage) and Pancit Palabok (topped with shrimp and pork). You'll find a modern version in Jeepney's "Pancit Malabok" - a fusion of Pancit Palabok and Pancit Malabon (the latter traditionally made with fish sauce, crab fat, and an abundance of seafood).

    Where to try: The Jeepney Truck in Houston or Jeepney in NYC

  • Balut

    Not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach, balut is a boiled fertilized duck egg: crack it open and you'll find a duck embryo - tiny wings, beak, and all -with a layer of yolk still in there. Sprinkle on some salt, and spoon it out and the proto-duck has a particularly rich, ducky flavor, while the yolk is almost custardlike. Get a primer on how to eat this bizarre bite in this Zagat video

    Where to try: Maharlika in NYC or Balut Pateros in Westminster, CA

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Places Mentioned

Jeepney

Filipino • East Village

Food23 Decor14 Service19 Cost$35
 
 
 
Maharlika

Filipino • East Village

Food25 Decor20 Service22 Cost$36
 
 
 
TALDE

Asian • Park Slope

Food25 Decor20 Service23 Cost$47
 
 
 
 
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