For decades, Filipino cuisine has been the Rodney Dangerfield of the Asian food world—it don’t get no respect. Mainly because it’s a foreign food that’s actually foreign to most diners.
Everyone has a standing order at a local Chinese restaurant or sushi place, and most diners know their way around a Korean barbecue menu or how to choose some tasty Thai.
But Filipino food? Who can tell kare-kare from halo-halo?
Well now is the time to learn. Filipino restaurants—including Lumpia Shack, Pig & Khao, Maharlika, and Jeepney—have been having an “it food” moment in New York. (For the past few years now, actually.) And thanks to Angela Dimayuga, sinigang and bibingka (classic Filipino favorites), have made it into Mission Chinese Food’s brunch menu. Dale Talde has even put kare-kare and Filipino barbecue in his Jersey City restaurant. Beyond that, there are more even great spots in Queens.
So here’s a Pinoy primer on some of the best dishes.
The “Silog” Meals
In the mood for some breakfast fare? You will often find dishes called tapsilog, longsilog, dasilog, and tosilog in a Filipino restaurant’s menu. The names may seem confounding but they’re all portmanteaus that involve the word “itlog,” which means egg in Tagalog. So the dishes are basically all egg dishes, typically served with sinangag (garlic fried rice), atachara (pickled papaya), and your choice of meat (often longganisa or tocino) or fish (daing, which is milkfish).
The typical Filipino breakfast is not light. Rice—along with fish, meat, and eggs—is the norm. And a “salad” of tomatoes, onions, with a bit of salted eggs is a welcome addition.
Adobo is a style of cooking that braises meats, vegetables, and seafood in vinegar. But the most commonly served variation is the chicken-pork adobo, which is cooked with white vinegar and dark soy sauce (the denser, saltier kind usually found in Asian food markets). This is in the weekly rotation in most Filipino households because it’s easy to make and tastes better after a day or two when the flavors have had a chance to set in. You can’t go wrong with adobo.
There’s no one version of adobo. And while you can use chicken, pork, or both—the best ones are always made in someone’s home kitchen.
Did you know pigs have knuckles? (It’s the joint just below the shank.) And did you know you can fry them? Now you know what crispy pata is. It’s especially delicious with sinangag (garlic fried rice), atchara (pickled papaya), and a sawsawan (dipping sauce) of vinegar mixed with dark soy sauce and finely chopped onions.
If you like pig ears, jowl, and snout—and really, who doesn’t?—then this is the dish for you. And even if you don’t, try it anyway. If it doesn’t come topped with a fried (or raw) egg, ask for one and mix it into the dish. Best served with garlic rice and cold beer.
The Filipino equivalent of lo mein. (The word “pancit” simply means “noodles.”) But the most commonly served pancit dish—especially in New York—is bihon, which consists of stir-fried noodles (about the size of vermicelli), vegetables, and meat. But there’s not one version of it. It’s the kind of dish any Filipino, however unskilled in the kitchen, can put together in 30 minutes with whatever ingredients are on hand. And if you’re willing to make the trip to Krystal’s Café in Woodside, Queens (no passport required), order the pancit palabok.
Pancit is a much-loved Filipino comfort food. This noodle dish basically involves leftover scraps of meat and vegetables—sautéed together with soy sauce and garnished with calamansi. Think of it as a version of lo mein.
Oxtail stewed in peanut sauce with banana blossoms and yard-long beans shouldn’t be overlooked—especially in winter. Eat it with steamed short-grain white rice and bagoong (fermented shrimp paste; pronounced bah-goh-ong) as a condiment.
The Tagalog word “bulalo” means bone marrow, and the dish itself consists of boiled marrow with onions, leeks, and corncobs. Filipinos tend to eat it this year-round but it’s another great winter dish, especially when you go heavy on the marrow. Best served with steamed white rice and ensaladang talong (eggplant salad, preferably pureed).
Pork belly has suddenly become a precious cut of meat in the past several years, but in the Philippines it’s an inexpensive cut that Filipinos have been frying up as a pulutan (snackfood) for forever. Lechon kawali is fried pork belly—plain and simple. Not served on a frisee salad, or topped on a burger, or dished out in miniscule portions with a precious fried quail egg. It’s just fried pork belly and your belly will thank you.
Fried pork belly—or lechon kawali in Filipino-speak—is not considered a precious dish (or cut of meat, for that matter). If anything, it’s great snack food—that pairs nicely with a bottle of San Miguel Pale Pilsen.
Anyone who’s willing to try sisig, may want to step up to dinuguan: pork’s blood stew. There are many variations—some recipes only use pork butt and belly while some call for pig’s snout, ears, cheeks, intestines, and you may not want to know what else. Eat it with puto (steamed rice cake) or steamed white rice. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart—but it’s delicious.
The word “halo” means “mix.” And this dessert is literally a hodgepodge of all things sweet—mainly purple yam jam (also called ube), leche flan, sweetened macapuno, sweetened mung bean paste, jackfruit, evaporated milk, and shaved ice. It’s a sweet end to a savory meal.
Halo-halo is popular all year round in the Philippines, thanks to the country’s tropical climate.