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Jeffrey Hernaez
How to Eat Like a Filipino: Here are must-try foods

Halo-Halo is a favourite refreshment
Halo-Halo is a favourite refreshment | Photo (detail): © Al Chinchuntic

When you come to any home in the Philippines, the first question they will ask you is, “have you eaten?” That is the traditional way for Filipinos to welcome their guests. It is considered bad manners to not offer their guests a beverage and something to eat as soon as they settle down.

By Jeffrey Hernaez

When you come to any home in the Philippines, the first question they will ask you is, “have you eaten?” That is the traditional way for Filipinos to welcome their guests. It is considered bad manners to not offer their guests a beverage and something to eat as soon as they settle down.

Eating in the Philippines is not only seen as a way to nourish the body but also as a communal activity, where families gather at the table to enjoy a meal that consists of meat, fish/seafood, or vegetables that is accompanied by rice. This is the norm even outside of home, as local restaurants serve their dishes family-style, with large servings that are made to be portioned out. More often than not, these dishes are also accompanied by a dipping sauce, with choices of soy sauce, fish sauce or vinegar with chilies and a local lemon called calamansi served on the side.

  • Sinigang Photo (detail): © Karlo Samson
    Sinigang – a savory soup or stew of fish or meat that is flavoured with a souring agent that is usually made from boiled tamarind extract. Other fruits that may also be used to make the broth sour include guava, calamansi, or unripe mangoes. The meat or fish is stewed with vegetables such as okra, string beans, horseradish, eggplant, and water spinach, making it a perfect one-dish meal.
  • Kinilaw Photo (detail): © Ana Puod
    Kinilaw – while Peruvian cuisine has its ceviche, the Philippines has kinilaw. It is often served as an appetizer meant to wake up the tastebuds, with its tartness coming from vinegar. Fish such as anchovies, tuna, or swordfish can be eaten raw as kinilaw but meats are blanched or lightly grilled.
  • Kare-kare Photo (detail): © Raine Musngi
    Kare-kare – the traditional ingredients used in this dish is oxtail and tripe, stewed in a thick peanut sauce and served with shrimp paste on the side. There are now versions that use seafood as its protein. The vegetables that are included in the simple stew are Chinese cabbage, string beans and okra.
  • Lechon Photo (detail): © Sheila Galgana Marcelo
    Lechon – this is a whole pig that is roasted over charcoal, often served at fiestas and other special occasions. Often, the measure of a good lechon is its crackling skin. It can be enjoyed with a thick lechon sauce that is either made from pig liver or in some cases such as in Cebu, from pig’s blood.
  • Bicol express Photo (detail): © Jeffrey Hernaez
    Bicol express – the province of Bicol in Southern Luzon is known for cooking with coconut milk, as coconut trees abound in the area. This hot dish is made with pork sautéed in garlic and onion then stewed in coconut milk that is spiced with chili and made salty with shrimp paste.
  • Sisig Photo (detail): © Jeffrey Hernaez
    Sisig – the dish, which originated from the province of Pampanga is often considered as a pairing for beer. Its recipe calls for pork face (mostly cheeks and ears), and pork liver, seasoned with vinegar and calamansi extract, then sautéed with chili and often served on a sizzling plate. Some sisig dishes are made creamy with the addition of pig’s brains or mayonnaise and topped with an egg.
  • Balut Photo (detail): © Maki Tadeo
    Balut – often considered as a rite of passage for foreigners visiting the Philippines, the balut is a duck embryo that is boiled and eaten from the shell with a pinch of salt or a dash of vinegar. Despite its cringe-worthy appearance to non-locals, it is popular as a street food and as a beer companion. Balut vendors wander the street at night to serve beer drinkers and amorous males as it is believed to have properties that are connected to virility because of its high protein content.
  • Adobo Photo (detail): © Dante Perello
    Adobo – perhaps the most popular Filipino dish, as it has been featured in many food shows and websites, the adobo is actually a cooking process where meat, seafood, or vegetables are marinated in soy sauce, vinegar, peppercorns, bay leaves, and garlic, browned in oil and simmered in the marinade. It is said to have originated from the need to keep food from spoiling, as a way of food preservation before the time of refrigeration. It is said to be the unofficial national dish and that every home has its own version of the adobo so there is no single way to prepare it.
  • Halo-Halo Photo (detail): © Al Chinchuntic
    Halo-halo - with the Philippines being a tropical country, halo-halo is a favourite refreshment especially during the hot summer months, when many roadside stands rise up to sell this cool treat. It is a dessert with several layers of flavors coming from ingredients such as sweetened beans, gelatin cubes, jackfruit, bananas or sweet potatoes that have been boiled in syrup, sago, and coconut strips and the fruit of the sugar palm tree that is also cooked in syrup. These ingredients are topped with shaved ice, drizzled with evaporated milk and a simple syrup, and perhaps a scoop of ube ice cream.
Filipino food is often savory, a balanced mixture of sweet and salty flavors, with some provinces wanting their dishes really spicy. Common ingredients used in Filipino cooking include garlic and onions for sautéing, coconut cream, and shrimp paste or fish sauce for saltiness, and ginger.

While utensils are often used, especially outside of the home, it is still acceptable to use the hands while eating, much like the early Filipinos did. To eat using the hands, there is a special technique, where you mix your viand together with rice into a mound and pop it into your mouth.

Filipinos also like to celebrate any occasion with table overloaded with food. Fiestas are special events that celebrate a town’s patron saint, and in many places even to this day, strangers are welcome to simply drop into a house and they will be encouraged to eat their fill of the special fiesta fare.