A product of centuries of trade and colonization, Filipino food combines influences from Spain, China, India and the Malay kingdoms to create something entirely unique. Sure, it may not have the diversity or complexity of food from Singapore or chow from Thailand, but it's remains a compelling look into the local culture – and thus worth trying.
You don’t have to go on an all-out food safari to try these dishes – just go into any bar or kitchen to get started.
Adobo: Deliciously Indigenous
To eat like a Filipino, all you need is rice and a bowl of adobo. Take chicken or pork, simmer in vinegar and soy sauce, and you get adobo - one of the few dishes in the Philippines that must have originated locally, without any foreign influence (the Spanish name is a later addition).
Adobo is as Filipino as you can get; it goes with rice and no other, and every province has its own way of cooking the stuff.
The Bicolanos of southern Luzon prefer adobo sa gata - adding coconut milk to the vinegar, and substituting green chili for peppercorns. In the Visayas islands, they add annatto oil to the braising liquid, to enrich the color and flavor of the sauce.
Pancit: Noodles of the Islands
Chinese traders were already doing business in the Philippines long before the Spanish came over the horizon. Their influence on Filipino food spread far and wide, most notably in the noodle dish category known as pancit (derived from the Hokkien for “something conveniently cooked”).
Pancit has become the catch-all term for a noodle dish, its name belying the bewildering variations of pancit from place to place.
Cagayan province loves their pancit batil patong, made from sauteed noodles, water buffalo meat, and topped with an egg. The Manila seaside city of Malabon invented pancit Malabon, or noodles garnished with shrimp, squid and oysters. And in Iloilo, you’ll dig into a soupy pancit called batchoy, enhanced with pork innards, egg and fish paste – earning a reputation as the Philippines’ answer to ramen.
Kinilaw: Raw Fish Magic
The regular availability of fresh fish is one of the best things about visiting the Philippines' beaches and adjoining cities. Their locals have raised cooking fish into an art form, and one might argue that nothing comes close to the vinegar-cooked ceviche known locally as kinilaw.
Kinilaw can be as simple as a vinegar dressing over raw fish, nothing more, but it lends itself to experiment and extravagance: you can find restaurants serving kinilaw with soy sauce, calamansi juice, bits of pork belly, onions, shrimp and salted egg, among others.
Kinilaw is not cooked over a fire – instead, the vinegar denatures the fish meat, doing the "cooking" as well as any open flame.
Balut: Duck Egg Challenge
Eating duck embryo - balut - has become a rite of passage for backpackers traveling to the Philippines. Many backpacker joints in Manila make balut-eating part of its introduction to Filipino drinking culture.
But what is balut, exactly? It's nothing simpler than a fertilized duck egg; the embryo has been permitted to develop in the shell for at least 16 days before cooking. Ask the balut seller for balut no older than 18 days for tastiest results.
“The embryo is so soft and fluffy at 18 days, and when you suck it, it's gone in a second!” Manila cultural expert Ivan Man Dy tells us. “And it doesn't come to us with eyes!”
For more on the whys and wherefores of this super-exotic taste experience, read our primer on How to Eat Balut in the Philippines.
Inasal: Rich Roast Chicken
Roast chicken (lechon manok in the local lingo) can be found on every corner of every city in the Philippines – but only the locals of the Visayas islands (the central archipelago of the Philippines) have raised the craft of roasting chicken into an art form.
Chicken inasal is a staple in the city of Bacolod: chicken marinated in calamansi juice, lemongrass and ginger, basted with annatto oil as it roasts over a fire, then served with rice along with a dip of soy sauce and (sometimes) liquid chicken fat.
It's not complicated, but the goodness of inasal comes from its freshness and its heft when consumed with rice.
Sisig: Economy Parts Transformed
Through long practice, Filipinos have become geniuses at making the most of "economy parts", or less-than-premium cuts of livestock. Nowhere is this more obvious than with sisig, a hash of pork cheek, pork face, and other parts that have been chopped up, mixed with onion and fried; served on a hot plate, sisig is the bar chow sine qua non in most fashionable drinking spots.
Sisig originated in the Philippines' Pampanga province, where an enterprising local took all the rejected pork parts from a U.S. army commissary nearby, then experimented until she hit on the formula for sisig that made her rich for the rest of her days.
Read our food tour of Pampanga province to discover what other culinary secrets they hide up there.
Kare-Kare: Hearty Peanut Stew
Put beef tripe and oxtail into a peanut stew, garnish with vegetables, and pair with rice: you get the Filipino home-cooking favorite known as kare-kare. Name aside, the dish has less to do with curry and more to do with satay: a duet of meat and peanut combined that is much, much better than just the sum of its parts.
The addition of eggplant, daikon, okra, banana flower bud and green beans makes kare-kare a glorious all-around dish (in fact, you can find vegetarian or vegan versions that leave out the meat altogether).
The flavor can be quite bland until you add shrimp paste (bagoong) – put a dab of shrimp paste on every bite of kare-kare to enjoy this dish the way it’s meant to be.
Lechon: Going Whole Hog
Another gift from the Spanish: roast suckling pig is as big in the Philippines as it is in Puerto Rico. Filipinos consider no fiesta complete unless there's more than enough lechon to go around. Fiestagoers eat the whole thing, but most of them try to get as much of the crunchy, tasty skin as they can.
Lechon varies from place to place. In Manila, lechon tends to be minimally prepared before cooking, while the lechon further south incorporates stuffing like bay leaves, garlic, and lemongrass to improve the flavor. As a result, Manila lechon needs a liver-based lechon sauce to dip in, while lechon from the Visayas and Mindanao islands (south of the capital) is best enjoyed without any sauce at all.
Halo-Halo: Ice, Ice Baby
Ice is a relatively recent addition to the Filipino culinary scene, having arrived only with the advent of refrigeration in the early 1900s.
Still, Filipinos have gone to town with desserts made out of the stuff, particularly through shaved-ice refreshments like mais con hielo (corn, milk and shaved ice) and the ever-popular halo-halo.
"Halo-halo" is Filipino for "mix-mix", and it mixes up several sweet treats along with the shaved ice - bananas in syrup, chewy sweet palm, jackfruit, mung beans, purple yam, among others, and sometimes (but not always) topped with a scoop of ice cream. You'll be thankful for a nearby halo-halo store when summer rolls around!
Kakanin: Sweetness and Sticky Rice
Filipinos indulge their sweet tooth on the regular, with sweetened rice-based desserts known by the umbrella term kakanin. Despite their variegated forms, all kakanin boils down to either a rice or rice-flour base.
You’ll find kakanin in its different forms in morning markets all over the Philippines. There’s suman, or whole glutinous rice cooked in coconut milk, wrapped in palm leaves, and steamed to doneness; puto, a steamed rice-flour cake that can be paired with savory foods like batchoy and the pigs’ blood stew dinuguan; and kutsinta, a rice cake treated with lye to create a bouncy pudding with a brown-yellow color.
Some types of kakanin are made for the Christmas season – like puto bumbong, a purplish rice cake sold outside Filipino churches during the Advent early morning mass known as misa de gallo.