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Sour, salty, sweet: getting a taste for Filipino cuisine

From spit-roasted lechon pork to vinegar-soaked adobo stew, the stars of Filipino food are beginning to make their mark on big-city menus the world over. And the best way to get to know this cuisine is by exploring the capital, Manila.

By Nicola Trup
photographs by Thomas De Cian
Published 28 Jan 2020, 06:00 GMT
Staff at Josh Boutwood’s Savage restaurant at The Plaza, Arya Residences.
Staff at Josh Boutwood’s Savage restaurant at The Plaza, Arya Residences.
Photograph by Thomas De Cian

Manila slips slowly past the window as glossy high-rises turn to crumbling art deco buildings. Men push carts piled high with coconuts, oblivious to the traffic around them. 

Jeepneys — chunky old vehicles painted garish hues and refashioned into public minibuses — operate mysterious routes, pulling over seemingly at random to let passengers spill in and out of their open backs. They pass pavements punctuated by carinderias — roadside cafes that are sometimes little more than a stall and a single table, and at other times sprawling, gazebo-covered affairs. Steaming pots of stews and soups sit ready to be dished up for pennies a portion.

“A town is never complete without its carinderias,” says my guide, Patrick Ceniza. “They’re the centre, the nucleus, of our food.”

We trundle along, car windows closed, air conditioning up high in a battle of wills against the 40C heat until we reach the district of La Loma, in northern Manila. 

We’ve come in search of lechon (roasted suckling pig), which Anthony Bourdain described as the ‘best pig ever’ in his series No Reservations. He was, however, eating lechon in the central Philippine city of Cebu rather than in this part of the capital — and there’s a fierce rivalry between the two. 

In Cebu, the suckling pig is stuffed with garlic, onion, lemongrass and star anise before being cooked whole over coconut-husk charcoal. According to Patrick, the flavour is such that it’s “almost a sin to dip your lechon in sauce”. In La Loma, however, the animal is cooked — again, whole — over wood, but otherwise left largely au naturel, save for a little seasoning. Sauce is perfectly acceptable — encouraged even — and is usually made from offal and blood. Nothing goes to waste.

There are upwards of 30 shops selling lechon in La Loma. Some display rows of glossy, cooked, chestnut-coloured pigs, still on their spits; at others, it’s the cleaver-wielding staff who give the game away. Everywhere, though, a smoky, meaty aroma fills the air. 

Lechon is a celebration food, often served at Christmas, New Year and other large family gatherings — although La Loma’s lechon stores sprung up to cater to those celebrating wins at the nearby cockfighting arena. The pastime unfortunately remains legal — and popular — across the Philippines, and here, following a fight, the owners of the victorious bird would buy a whole hog to share with their supporters. The neighbourhood also hosts a lechon festival every year on the third Sunday of May, which sees shop staff parading cooked pigs up and down the streets as people tear off hunks of meat.

It’s early morning, and Mila’s Lechon is already up and running. The huge charcoal pit has space for dozens of pigs, although only a couple are being roasted at the moment; the staff periodically rotate the spits as the meat slowly cooks over the course of a few hours.

The men do the roasting, Patrick tells me, but it’s the women who do the selling. At Mila’s, I speak to a woman who’s been in the lechon business for 50 years. Her secret? Native black pigs. “White pig is delicious and tastes good when it’s hot — but black pig meat still tastes good when it’s cold,” she explains.

We order some lechon, which is hacked up into bite-sized chunks and scooped into a paper bag. “The skin is the best part,” Patrick says, proffering the bag. The crackling is glossy and crisp, shattering like a boiled sweet in my mouth, and the meat underneath is juicy and fatty. It’s the softest, most flavoursome pork I’ve ever tasted — no sauce necessary.

Tuna jaw at Savage restaurant.
Photograph by Thomas De Cian

On the ascent
During my stay in Manila, I meet many people who seem aware of the role Anthony Bourdain played in promoting Filipino cuisine. The late chef and broadcaster was one of the most high-profile outsiders to champion the country’s food internationally, declaring it ‘ascendant’ and describing sisig — a pork and offal street food dish — as ‘perfectly positioned to win the hearts and minds of the world’.

However, Clang Garcia, a Manila-based chef, food writer and tour guide, tells me over dinner that the Filipino diaspora is also responsible for the growing popularity of the country’s cuisine. “The second generation [of Filipino Americans] really changed the game,” she says. “There’s that longing to search for culinary identity, and they do that through flavour.”

That culinary identity is an interesting one, given how many foreign powers have occupied and influenced the Philippines throughout history. Three centuries of Spanish rule ended in 1898, when the country was handed over to the US, and the Second World War saw several years of Japanese occupation. Immigration from China has also had an effect on the country’s gastronomy — particularly in Manila’s Chinatown, where you can find a unique combination of food cultures.

“Our key flavours are sour, salty and sweet — and spicy, in some areas,” Clang tells me. She adds that the base of most classic dishes is sautéed garlic, onion and tomato, a tradition inherited from the Spanish. “We’re known as the Latinos of Asia,” she says.

We’re dining at Toyo Eatery, which earlier this year was named one of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants — the only Filipino restaurant on the list. Philippines-born chef-owner Jordy Navarra trained under Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck before working in Hong Kong and eventually returning to Manila, opening Toyo in 2016. 

“It’s cool that we’re on this list with really great restaurants and food towns: Hong Kong, Bangkok, Tokyo, Taipei…” he tells me during a quiet moment in service. “A lot has changed in the past few years. There were lots of restaurants in malls, and big, family-style restaurants — but now it’s not uncommon to see places like ours. We wanted to put Filipino food in a different setting.”

Set within an old photography studio in the central Makati district, Toyo is a chic, minimalist concrete space, decked out with beautifully crafted communal wooden tables. Its open kitchen is crammed with a surprising number of chefs, all wearing T-shirts and aprons. Jordy moves about behind the pass, adding finishing touches and quietly issuing instructions. The dishes he’s created include a play on tinola (usually a chicken and ginger soup, but in this case a savoury ginger flan topped with chicken meatballs, clear broth and moringa oil) and three-cut pork barbecue (a skewer of caramelised shoulder, belly and back leg, first cooked over charcoal and wood, then in a bone broth — taking about 12 hours in total).

Jeepneys driving past Manila’s City Hall.
Photograph by Thomas De Cian

“Filipinos have always had this insecurity about how we introduce people to our food,” says Jordy. “It’s a bit confusing with all the influences.” Yet, he’s managed to celebrate this fusion of cultures, with the chefs at Toyo even making their own banana ketchup. The original tomato condiment was brought over by Americans, but when the fruit was in short supply during the Second World War, bananas were used instead — and this version has since become a staple. Though sweet and sticky, it’s nothing like Heinz.

Jordy tells me grilling is central to Filipino gatherings, and that he feels “a connection to the barbecue”.  And he’s not the only one. Over in the glossy Bonifacio Global City financial district, I meet chef Josh Boutwood at his restaurant, Savage, where everything is cooked on a wood-and-charcoal-heated grill. Half-Filipino and half-British, Josh lived in Europe for years before moving to the island of Boracay — where his father is from — in 2010. A move to Manila followed, and in 2016 he opened his own restaurant, Test Kitchen, followed by two others, Savage and Helm.

“The cultural influences we’ve had here are beyond those anywhere else in the world; we’re such an open country,” Josh tells me. “Anything can be adopted as a Filipino classic.” He gestures towards the spread of dishes on the table. “In 10 years, this could be considered ‘Filipino food’.”

Josh describes the grill-based cooking at Savage as going “back to basics” — but there’s incredible attention to detail. The octopus is lightly poached for exactly 55 minutes before being charred; teetering on the brink of burnt, it’s caramelised and smoky, with soft, yielding flesh. It’s served with calamansi, a ubiquitous local citrus fruit. “You must use that calamansi on the octopus,” Josh urges me. “It won’t be the same without it.” And he’s right — a little hit of acidity makes the seafood sing.

A blackened tuna jaw is grilled on the bone, and I’m shown how to ‘carve’ it by using spoons to lightly scrape the meat, like pulled pork, until it falls away. It’s incredibly intense in flavour, with a deep, smoky meatiness.

Most of the ingredients used at Savage are Filipino, and each plate features little touches — a squeeze of calamansi here, a smattering of flying fish roe there — that root the food firmly in the Philippines, even if the dishes themselves would be unrecognisable to traditionalists. Avoiding the classics was a conscious decision, according to Josh. “I wanted to stay as far away from traditional dishes as possible. There’ll never be an adobo on my menu, never a sinigang,” he says, referring to two old favourites.

Tortang talong with banana ketchup at Toyo Eatery.
Photograph by Thomas De Cian

Filipino flavours
Adobo may not be on the menu at Savage, but this dish of meat (or occasionally seafood or vegetables) marinated in vinegar, soy sauce and a few other flavourings is the de facto national dish of the Philippines. And I’m assured by Boyet Magale, who runs Manila Heritage Tours Santa Ana, that the best versions are to be found in homes, rather than restaurants.

He shows me around the Santa Ana district which, with its huge church, busy food market and quiet rows of ‘American-style’ colonial houses, is a world away from Bonifacio Global City. At night, Boyet tells me, people bring tables, chairs and their meals out onto the street. What’s more, he’s been encouraging his neighbours to adapt their homes to create more of an incentive for tourists to visit; in response, one of them has turned their ground floor into a small restaurant.

On the enclosed patio outside Boyet’s house, his wife Alona is about to prepare a chicken adobo for lunch. There’s a two-ring portable gas stove, and the ingredients are all laid out, including chopped garlic, onion, peppercorns, sugar, soy sauce, cane vinegar, oyster sauce and bay leaves. First, the garlic is fried in oil — it’s browned just shy of being burnt, to intensify the flavour — and then the rest of the ingredients are added one by one. Alona often uses pork, but today she’s cooking chicken thighs, along with a handful of boiled quail eggs.

“Sometimes I put ginger in,” she says — a northern practice, apparently. That’s the beauty of adobo: the basic flavours (sour and salty, says Alona) are the same, but everyone does it a little differently.  The dish can be dry (common in the south of the country) or saucy (more popular in the north). “Saucy is better because we combine it with plain rice,” Alona tells me.

While the meat cooks, we sit in the yard and tuck into a few dishes Alona has already prepared. One of them is bang silog, an egg-and-rice dish served with bangus (milkfish). It’s a favourite among the couple’s five children, who fight over the fish’s flavoursome stomach. “When Alona and I get to the table late, the stomach is already gone,” Boyet says.

As for my first taste of adobo — it’s sharp with vinegar, and salty, as promised. But the real surprise is the bay; generally used sparingly in European cooking, here it dominates this dish, adding an unusual, fragrant woodiness.

Dishes such as adobo are ideal for sharing, and Boyet tells me that in some smaller Filipino towns, there are festivals during which everyone opens up their homes as visitors hop from house to house, sampling communal dishes. “Even if we don’t have a penny, we’ll borrow from the neighbours to make sure we have something to offer guests,” he says.

Earlier on in my trip, Patrick told me that, for a long time, food in the Philippines was primarily about sustenance: function over flavour. These days it’s about so much more than that. Flavour has been brought to the fore, and is helping to propel the cuisine into cities all over the world. But if we’re to truly embrace these dishes, it’s worth remembering how Filipinos consume them. The ritual of sharing a meal — whether it’s a celebratory lechon or a plate of milkfish — is as important as the food itself.

Toyo Eatery, which earlier this year was named one of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants — the only Filipino restaurant on the list.
Photograph by Thomas De Cian

Filipino light bites

These sweet, rice flour-based snacks are ubiquitous in Filipino markets. Varieties include pichipichi (a cassava and coconut ball) and biko (a glutinous coconut and brown sugar slab, topped with fried coconut milk).

Although its name translates as ‘bread of salt’, pandesal is surprisingly unsalty. These soft, fluffy buns are eaten as a ‘pre-breakfast’ with super-sweetened coffee, according to guide Patrick Ceniza.

One to seek out in Manila’s Chinatown, kikiam was brought over by Chinese immigrants. Meat or seafood is flavoured with five spice powder before being wrapped in tofu skin and deep-fried.

Ice cream — known locally as sorbetes — is hugely popular in the Philippines, and you’ll find an array of flavours of the cold stuff on offer. Look for lavender-hued ube (purple yam), avocado and even cheese.

Also known as kilawin, this dish is the Filipino version of ceviche. Citrus or vinegar are used to ‘cook’ diced fish, which is then combined with onion, chilli and garlic; ginger or coconut cream are often added as well.

Learn how to make Alona Magale's chicken adobo here


Getting there 
Philippine Airlines offers the only non-stop flights from the UK, between Heathrow and Manila. One-stop services are available from airlines including Qatar Airways, Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines

How to do it
Audley Travel can tailor a 16-night trip from £3,125 per person, including time in Manila, Dumaguete, Siquijor, Bohol and Panglao Island. Includes B&B accommodation, international flights with Qatar Airways, domestic flights, transfers and some excursions. 

Qatar Airways flies to Manila from Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff and Edinburgh via Doha, from £578 return, while The Peninsula Manila has doubles from 7,942 Philippine pesos (£124), room only. 

More info

Published in Issue 6 of National Geographic Traveller Food

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