The Filipino adobo: why we can't stop talking about it

Original post date: May 22, 2023

Adobo is the dish most loved by Filipinos. It is the unofficial national dish of the Philippines. Articles abound as to the origins of the name and it has always been described as a cooking method rather than a dish name in itself.

As it is a cooking method, adobo has many faces and variations. I lovingly describe these variations as the number of islands in the Philippines.

What is the first question I am always asked about adobo?

"Is it spicy?"

I realised that people were thinking more about Mexican adobo, which has loads of chillies, chipotles to be exact. In the table below, you will find the differences between Filipino, Mexican and Spanish adobo.

It is said that when the Spanish came to the Philippines and met with the chieftain, they were served a dish with a rich mahogany brown sauce and upon tasting it, called it 'adobo'. The name stuck and that is the birth of Philippine adobo or Filipino adobo.

The variations of Filipino Adobo

From north to south, east to west of the Philippines you will find a dry and wet version. Colours from white to rich mahogany to red to yellow adobo. From salty-sour, sour-salty-sweet, or sweet.

The method of cooking comes in many forms too. The most common is putting all the ingredients in a pot and slowly stewing or braising. Others would marinade overnight, then separate the marinade from the meat, lightly fry the meat and add the marinade to the pot. Another way is to cook it in an oven.

Ingredients can be as basic as salt and cane vinegar. The most common is soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, bay leaf, and peppercorns. Additional ingredients can be paprika, turmeric, star anise, cinnamon, sugar, or coconut milk.

These variations in ingredients or cooking methods are either based on family heritage recipes that have been passed on through the generations or regional practices utilising ingredients abundant in the locality.

The vinegars of the Philippines

Vinegar is the king ingredient of Filipino adobo. The type of vinegar you use changes the taste of the adobo. In the Philippines, the abundant type is cane vinegar made from sugar cane.

In the Ilocos Region, sukang iloko (vinegar from the Ilocos), is made from naturally fermented sugar cane that has a strong acidic scent with a cloudy, darkish brown to light black opaque colour, a distinctive quality compared to other kinds of vinegar.

Throughout Luzon, the most common is palm vinegar made from palm plants (nipa palm) and coconut sap. Coconut vinegar is different from vinegar which is made from sap, as this uses coconut water that is fermented. The common name is called sukang paombong.

There is also sukang Irok, made from the sap of the kaong sugar palm. Kaong is the fruit of the sweet palm that is made into vinegar.

In the Visayas, specifically in Iloilo City, sinamak is the local vinegar. It is made of coconut vinegar, garlic, ginger (or local galangal) and chillies. In Cebu, they usually call it sukang tuba.

While in Iligan City, Northern Mindanao, they have suka pinakurat, another type of spiced vinegar using fermented coconut sap, garlic, ginger and chillies that are blended into a smooth texture and then added into the fermenting liquid.

These are just some of the more commonly known Filipino vinegar. This is not an extensive list but it gives you an idea of the many variations.

Therefore, depending on the vinegar you use to cook your adobo, the taste will differ. Chef Jet Tila who does cooking demonstrations on the Food Network describes Filipino cooks as 'masters in cooking vinegar'.

The endless discussion

Sometime in 2021, the DTI (Department of Trade and Industry), proposed to standardise local cuisines such as adobo. This did not have a positive reaction.

Adobo is one of those dishes, we Filipinos will most likely not agree on having one version. We always say the best adobo is made by your mum.

With the endless variations of ingredients, types of vinegar and cooking methods to make adobo, we must embrace and celebrate each and every variation.

Here's a cheeky adobo recipe a friend of mine from the USA created and he called it NOT YOUR GRANDMA'S ADOBO. Give it a try!

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