The Philippines' beaches and mountains have long outcompeted the local food for the favors of tourists, but that's no reason to pooh-pooh Filipino cuisine outright.
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 and chow from Malaysia, but it's worth trying in any case.
To sample any of these amazing Filipino dishes, venture into any bar or kitchen to get started.
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 family has its own way of cooking the stuff.
The regular availability of fresh fish is one of the best things about visiting one of the Philippines' seaside cities and towns. Many of them 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.
Eating duck embryo - balut - has become a rite of passage for backpackers traveling to the Philippines. Backpacker outfits like MNL Boutique Hostel in Manila make balut-eating part of its introduction of 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 eleven days before cooking. For more on the whys and wherefores of this super-exotic taste experience, read our primer on How to Eat Balut in the Philippines.
Residents of the Visayas islands (the central archipelago of the Philippines) have arguably perfected roast 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.
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.
This dish comes to the Philippines by way of Andalucia, Spain - the conquistadores passed on their love of deep-fried pork crackling to their colonies. Chicharon (one R, as opposed to the Spanish chicharron) is quite identical to Mexican chicharron, crunchy rectangles of deep fried pork rinds. Unlike its Mexican equivalent, Filipino chicharon is dipped in coconut vinegar instead of salsa.
Filipinos prefer to eat chicharon as a snack, or as bar chow while they're drinking with friends. Experimenting with traditional chicharon cooking methods, the locals have come up with other deep-fried delights that also bear the name, like chicharon bulaklak, a type of chewy-crunchy chicharon made from pig omentum, or a type of abdominal tissue.
The Filipino love affair with beer might be waning - more drinkers are switching to hard drinks like gin and whiskey for a quicker, cheaper kick - but there's nothing like the first love. San Miguel Beer was first brewed in the Philippines in 1890, and has become nothing short of a national icon since. While "SMB" has made inroads into Hong Kong and Indonesia, the Philippine heartlands remain its biggest market, even in the face of Filipinos' increasing appetite for the harder stuff.
"SMB" can be found in any corner store, convenience store, restaurant or bar, along with its variants - "San Mig Lite" and "Super Dry". To get the original, amber-bottled San Miguel Beer, ask for "Pale" (short for "Pale Pilsen"). For other brews in the region, read up on the Best Beers In Southeast Asia.
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. Read about fiestas in the Philippines; for another place that does roast suckling pig about as well, read about Warung Ibu Oka in Bali.
Filipino street snacks
The Philippines' streets are filled with hawkers selling all assortments of roasted and fried snacks, and if you're staying at a hostel somewhere, you shouldn't leave town without at least trying what's on offer. It's nothing complicated - just good ol' hearty fried stuff.
Favorite street foods include fish ball (just a ball of fish meal, deep fried and stuck onto skewers); squid ball (same, but with squid meal); kentekoy (quail egg coated in orange batter and deep fried); and banana-cue (plantains coated with sugar then deep-fried - the sugar caramelizes on the banana, forming a chewy outer layer).
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!