Filipino food is quite an underrated cuisine. Compared to its Southeast Asian neighbors, Filipino food presents a vast array of flavours from its various regions and historical (especially Spanish and Chinese) influences.
Filipino food is usually best home-cooked. This is probably the same reason Filipino food isn’t very popular overseas — foreigners aren’t aware of what it’s like because there are no Filipino restaurants around (at least, not many good ones). However, soon enough this will change. More and more Filipino restaurants are making a name for themselves, especially in the USA.
To Filipinos, Filipino food is a source of pride, a reminder of home and a sense of our identity. Filipino food is a huge part of our heritage and therefore, no visit to the Philippines is complete without immersing yourself in our unique food culture.
Filipinos typically eat three main meals a day and a mid-afternoon snack called merienda. Rice is a staple food and eaten during lunch and dinner, sometimes even breakfast.
In the first of my two-part series about food in the Philippines, I feature local dishes that are known and loved by many Filipinos. I have arranged the different local dishes in order of meal times when they are usually eaten for convenience and better understanding of the Filipino food culture.
The next part of my Filipino Food series will cover must-try drinks and desserts in the Philippines.
Silog (Si-log; Sinangag at Itlog)
Most Filipinos enjoy a heavy breakfast. A cup of garlic fried rice (sinangag) served with fried egg (itlog) and a piece of meat is a popular way to start the day. Here are some popular varieties of the Filipino silog breakfast:
Tapsilog (Tap-si-log) – Tapa (fried cured beef) is the main meat of choice paired with a cup of garlic fried rice and fried egg.
Longsilog (Long-si-log) – Longganisa is a spiced sausage similar to Spanish chorizo. In the Philippines, there are different types of longganisa, including sweet, garlicky and salty. Whichever you prefer, it is best eaten with a cup of garlic fried rice and fried egg.
Tosilog (To-si-log) – Tocino (sweet cured pork belly) is a famous delicacy in Pampanga but found in many parts of the Philippines. Enjoy with a cup of garlic fried rice and fried egg, for a perfect tosilog breakfast.
Bangsilog (Bang-si-log) – Daing na Bangus (marinated milkfish) is fried boneless milkfish (bangus) that was previously marinated overnight in vinegar, garlic and peppercorn. Other varieties of dried fish such as danggit, tuyo and dilis are also usually enjoyed with fried rice during breakfast.
When the rainy season starts, most Filipinos long for a hot bowl of champorado, a rich chocolate rice porridge (made with sticky rice and cocoa) usually enjoyed drizzled with evaporated milk. To get a sweet-salty pairing, some Filipinos enjoy the champorado with dried fish.
Freshly-baked early in the morning, pandesal is a small bun with a slightly crusty outside and soft, slightly chewy inside. Contrary to its Spanish name, pan de sal which translates to “salted bread”, it is usually slightly sweet (like most local bread varieties in the Philippines). Try this breakfast staple with latik (coconut jam) or kesong puti (soft white cheese made from carabao’s milk) if you want to be a little more traditional. Others prefer pandesal with hotdog, Maling (luncheon meat), carne norte (corned beef) or fried eggs.
A favorite among kids and adults, taho is a sweet breakfast treat made of warm soy bean curd stirred with caramelized brown sugar and sago pearls. It’s one of many Filipino delights that are traditionally sold from house to house.
Tanghalian/ Hapunan (Lunch/ Dinner)
No Filipino food list is complete without the famous adobo, one of the Philippines unofficial national dishes. Believe it or not there are may different versions of adobo — adobong baboy (pork), adobong manok (chicken), adobong sitaw (long yard beans), adobo rice, etc. The preparation and cooking apart from the typical soy sauce – vinegar component also vary in every region if not every household. My all time favorite adobo concoction is made with a mix of chicken and pork belly marinated in soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, peppercorns and bay leaf then simmered slowly. Lots of rice, please!
Traditionally served during a fiesta (local festival) or a wedding, lechon refers to a whole spit-roasted suckling pig. Specialty shops that sell lechon can easily be found in Metro Manila, however the most famous lechon hails from the Visayas. If you’re travelling in Cebu, make sure to try the famous lechon Cebu.
Another sinful Filipino delicacy is crispy pata, deep fried pork leg with golden crispy skin and tender meat on the inside. When the lechon is too expensive, the crispy pata is the next best thing.
Lechon Macau / Bagnet
Also known as lechon kawali, lechon macau is deep fried pork belly usually served with a pork liver-based dipping sauce. If you’re travelling in northern Philippines, you have to try a similar dish in Ilocos called bagnet. If you love your Chinese roasted pork rice, this dish will not disappoint.
The dish that is slowly taking foreigners by storm, sisig is usually made with crispy pork (usually from the pig’s head), seasoned with lime, vinegar, chili and minced onions and served on a hot sizzling plate. Filipinos enjoy this dish with rice or on its own. Best served with cold beer.
Inihaw na Baboy
No barbecue party is complete without the Philippines’ famous inihaw na baboy, char-grilled pork belly marinated and basted in soy sauce, calamansi, garlic and pepper. From picnics to island hopping tours, inihaw na baboy is a sure winner.
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From the city of smiles, Bacolod, comes chicken inasal. This char-grilled chicken is characterized by its unique marinade which doesn’t include soy sauce. Instead, the skewered chicken is marinated and basted in a mixture of calamansi, pepper, vinegar and annato.
Before I went to Latin America, I though bistek was a make-up word Filipinos use to refer to beef steak. Bistec, as spelled in Spanish actually means “beef steak” made from thin slices of sirloin beef. Bistek Tagalog is similar to the Spanish dish bistec encebollado but the meat is flavoured with local Filipino ingredients such as calamansi, soy sauce, onions and black pepper.
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Nutty, rich and meaty Kare kare is a type of stew made with beef chunks, ox tail and often tripe cooked in a thick peanut sauce (made from ground toasted rice and peanuts). Vegetables such as eggplants (talong), string beans (baguio beans) and banana blossoms (puso ng saging) are often added to this stew. Kare kare is always served with bagoong (shrimp paste) and best enjoyed with steamed rice.
A fierce competitor for the Filipino national dish title, sinigang is a clear sour soup prepared by boiling meat (pork/beef) or seafood (shrimp/fish) in a tamarind base with onions and tomatoes. Included in this dish are local vegetables such as spinach (kangkong), yard long beans (sitaw), daikon (labanos), taro (gabi), okra and eggplant (talong). Variations include sinigang sa miso (added miso paste to tamarind base) and sinigang sa bayabas (uses guava base instead of tamarind).
Tagaytay is not only famous for its views of Taal volcano. Another reason to visit is to savor a steaming hot bowl of bulalo, a clear beef soup with beef shanks and bone marrow goodness.
Clear chicken soup cooked with pieces of chicken, green papaya (or sayote), ginger and chili leaves.
Traditionally made with chunks of beef with pork fat at the centre, mechado is a thick beef stew cooked with tomato sauce, carrots and potatoes and like most Filipino dishes, seasoned with fish sauce.
Most foreigners think that Filipino food is just either sweet or salty — it’s not. The main ingredient here is chili and lots of it. Bicol express, which originated from the Bicol region, is a spicy coconut stew made with pork, bagoong (shrimp paste) and heaps of chili. If you love the spicy Thai / Indian / Sri Lankan dishes, you should definitely try the Philippines’ Bicol express.
Traditionally prepared with goat meat (although I prefer the beef variety), caldereta is a spicy stew cooked with tomato sauce, coconut cream and ground liver. If you love the Indonesian rendang, the flavor of this dish is quite similar.
Another tomato based stew prepared with either slices of pork or pieces of chicken, afritada is cooked with potatoes, carrots, green peas and bell peppers.
(Not Ricky Martin’s former boy band, Menudo) Menudo is a type of pork stew cooked with small cubed pieces of pork, liver, potatoes and carrots. Other menudo varieties include sausages.
Not for the faint-hearted, diniguan which literally translates to “blooded”, is a local dish where pork meat is cooked in pig’s blood, vinegar and spices. It’s an acquired taste but dinuguan is a dish that a lot of Filipinos love. It is also usually paired with puto (steamed rice cake).
Rellenong alimango is one of my all time favorite Filipino dishes. Crab meat sauteed with potatoes, egg, spices is stuffed inside individual crab shells then pan fried to perfection. A similar and easier dish to find is called rellenong bangus (stuffed milkfish).
Kinilaw (or Kilawin)
Kinilaw or kilawin is another “pulutan” or dish usually paired with beer. Similar to the ceviche in Peru, kinilaw is a raw seafood dish prepared by marinading fresh white fish in an acidic marinade. While they use lime for ceviche, in the Philippines, white vinegar is usually the marinade of choice. If you’re travelling to Davao, try their famous kinilaw na tuna.
The famous Filipino fast food chain is famous for its crispy-licious, juicy-licious chickenjoy (fried chicken). The fried chicken at Jollibee reminds Filipinos of their childhood and when overseas, it reminds them of home. It is considered the best fried chicken in the Philippines, you be the judge.
Another spicy coconut-based dish which originated from Bicol, laing is made with dried taro leaves, bagoong (shrimp paste), coconut cream, chilies, pork and shrimps. It took me 29 years to try my first laing as I wasn’t a huge fan of how it looked but it’s good (the consistency is almost similar to palak or spinach dishes in India).
Pinakbet is sautéed mixed vegetables (usually includes eggplant, squash, okra and bittergourd) with pieces of pork belly, shrimp and bagoong (shrimp paste). My personal preference is ginataang pinakbet, a variation of the usual pinakbet cooked with additionl coconut milk (gata).
The Filipino version of spring rolls, lumpia comes either fresh or fried. The most popular fresh lumpia is called lumpiang sariwa (also called lumpiang ubod), which is made from strips of palm heart and vegetables sauteed in shrimp and pork then rolled in a crepe-like wrapper made with cornstarch and eggs. Lumpiang ubod is always served with a sweet sauce infused with peanuts.
There are two popular deep fried varieties of lumpia: pritong lumpia (also known as sumpia) and lumpiang shanghai. Pritong lumpia, usually enjoyed with lugaw (congee), is made with sauteed bean sprouts, tofu, ground meat and shrimps wrapped in springroll wrapper then deep fried. Lumpiang Shanghai on the other hand is the typical Chinese fried spring roll made with minced meat.
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From steamed white rice to a delicious array of fried rice varieties, no Filipino meal is complete without it. As a general rule, soup dishes (like sinigang, bulalo and kare kare) go well with steamed white rice. For everything else, steamed rice or fried rice, it’s all a matter of preference. Apart from the sinangag (garlic fried rice) introduced earlier, other fried rice varieties include bagoong rice (seasoned with bagoong – shrimp paste), tinapa rice (seasoned with tinapa – flaked smoked fish), java rice (cooked with turmeric and annatoo powder) and yang chow fried rice (same as typical chinese fried rice). For special occasions, Filipinos sometimes cook paella (same as spanish paella but pronounced pa-el-ya).
The Filipino pad thai/ hokkien mee/ mee goreng, pancit refers to noodles which come in different varieties usually named after the type of noodles they are made with. Here are some famous varieties:
Pancit Canton is the Filipino version of the Chinese chow mien — stir fried yellow egg noodles with meat, vegetables and sometimes shrimp.
Pancit Bihon is a stir-fried noodle dish made made with rice vermicelli noodles, sliced meat, chopped vegetables, soy sauce and calamansi.
Pancit Malabon (similarly, Pancit Luglog) is my favorite noodle dish, which originated from Malabon, a city close to where I’m from. Pancit Malabon is made with thick rice noodles smothered with shrimp and garlic oil and topped with meat, boiled egg, pork crackling (chicharon) and a variety of seafood — shrimp, squid and dried fish (tinapa). Another dish similar to this is Pancit Palabok, which uses rice vermicelli noodles and less toppings (without squid and dried fish).
The Filipino version of the Chinese noodle soup is a preferred afternoon snack among many. Varieties include either beef (beef mami) or chicken (chicken mami) and usually served with boiled egg and vegetable. La Paz Batchoy is one of the best known regional varieties.
Lomi, another Filipino noodle dish, is characterized by its thick starchy gravy. It is made with yellow egg noodles and includes meat, eggs, vegetables and prawns. It is quite similar to the dish “lor mee” in Singapore but the gravy in lomi has a lighter color (less soy sauce, more eggs).
Similar to the Chinese congee, lugaw is a local dish made from rice and broth. There are two popular varieties of lugaw in the Philippines:
Arroz Caldo is Filipino congee made with chicken stock and strips of chicken, sometimes served with hard boiled egg.
Goto is Filipino congee usually made with beef stock and includes strips tripe and beef.
No potato chips for us. In the Philippines, most people snack on chicharon — a finger food made from deep fried pork rind or pork belly. While is easy to find chicharon in the Philippines, Cebu (Visayas) and Bulacan (Luzon) are known to have really good ones.
The best street food in my opinion, the Pinoy Barbecue is made from skewered pork meat marinated in a sweet and savoury sauce then charcoal grilled to perfection. It is usually served with a spicy vinegar dipping sauce.
Isaw is another street food on a stick. Prepared similarly to the Pinoy barbecue but made with pig or chicken intestines instead. I am not a big fan of isaw (especially the chicken variety) but a lot of Filipinos love this stuff.
Kwek kwek is a street food made with boiled quail eggs coated in a thick batter and deep-fried till crispy. It is usually served with a sweet and spicy vinegar-based sauce.
An exotic street food, balut is a hard boiled fertilized duck egg. It is usually sold at night by street vendors who carry the balut in a small basket. If you’re not ready for a balut, these vendors also sell Penoy, a less exotic, unfertilized version (no embryo!).
A snack of Spanish origin, the empanada is a kind of stuffed pastry usually eaten as a mid-afternoon snack. In the Philippines, the local empanada is usually fried (not baked), characterized by a slightly sweet crust and savory meat filling. If you’re travelling in Ilocos Norte, make sure to try the empanadas in Vigan.
Filipino street food usually eaten as an afternoon snack, okoy is deep-fried shrimp fritters shaped like a pancake.
Note that sweet snacks which are also enjoyed as desserts are included in the second part of my Filipino food series. Make sure to check out my next post about must-try Filipino desserts and drinks!
Where Should You Try Filipino Food?
Filipino food is best tried at home or at a social gathering (weddings, fiestas or Christmas). Home-cooked Filipino food (or lutong-bahay) is known to be the best. If you don’t get an invite from a Filipino friend, there are many Filipino restaurants in the Philippines where you can try these local delicacies. Well-known Filipino food chains which can be found easily in shopping malls in Metro Manila include The Aristocrat, Gerry’s Grill, Max’s Restaurant Goldilocks and Barrio Fiesta. The Mercato Centrale’s weekend night market in Fort Bonifacio Global City is apparently a great hangout to sample Filipino food. A few hours from Metro Manila and close to the stunning Taal Volcano, various restaurants in Tagaytay like Leslie’s, Antonio’s Garden, Josephine’s and Balinsasayaw offer a wide array of delicious Filipino food. For other parts of the Philippines, it is better to ask for a recommended local restaurant from your hotel.
Next time you’re in the Philippines, I hope you try some of these Filipino dishes.
Have you tried Filipino food? Do you have anything to add to our list of must-try Filipino delicacies? Let us know.
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