Our quest for authentic food currently has us in Southeast Asia. Most of the month of October was spent in the Philippines attending TBEX Asia 2016 a travel blogger conference. Additionally, we also spent our time exploring the food in the Philippines and the authentic and heritage dishes.
We traveled around the country and visited Cebu City, world-famous for “lechon” (whole-roasted suckling pig). We took a gastronomic heritage tour to the culinary capital of Pampanga, located in the central Luzon region.
Our travels also took us to the provinces of Illocos Norte and Illocos Sur in the very north of the country to explore the unique Ilocos food. And finally, we explored the culinary and gastronomy scene in Manila, the capital.
After traveling throughout the country and indulging in the local cuisine, here are 10 interesting facts you need to know about the food in the Philippines.
1 – Sweet and Sour Flavor Profile in Filipino Cuisine
The two distinct taste profiles that we immediately noticed in the food in the Philippines, are sugary sweet and vinegary sour.
One of the popular Filipino dishes we tried was a soup called “Sinigang”. We tried various versions (chicken, pork, seafood) and in different regions of the country. The most distinctive characteristic of this soup is its sour taste.
A second surprise came when eating chicken and crab cooked in the traditional Filipino style. Both were shockingly sweet and the crab came with a heavy sweet red sauce.
Don’t expect the use of pepper and a variety of spices in traditional Filipino food. Instead, use the bottles of vinegar, soy sauce, sweet chili sauce, and calamansi (also spelled Kalamansi), a citrus fruit found at each table to make your own spicy sauce.
2 – Pork Dominates The Philippines Cuisine
The Philippines is a meat loving country and pork seems to dominate. At any party, event or fiesta, “lechon” will be the star.
Beyond the whole-roasted suckling pig, you will find pork in many of the local and everyday dishes. From fried pork (chicharones), pork stew, pork blood stew (dinuguan), to pork pieces on a stick, you will find all variations of pork.
If you are a pork lover, you will love the food in the Philippines.
3 – No Knives, Just a Spoon and Fork to Enjoy Food in The Philippines
When it is time to eat, you will find just a spoon and fork next to your plate. Filipino’s don’t use knives to eat. Instead, they push the food using the fork onto the spoon and “shovel” it into their mouths.
Most of the dishes don’t require the use of a knife and the meat is often chopped up. You rarely find beef on the menu, and when you do it is sliced up.
Nonetheless, sometimes you will want to use a knife with your dish. It might be to eat a whole fish or cut up large pieces of pork. That’s when the fork comes handy and it also functions as a knife. These may not be the typical tools you are used to, but they work!
In the Philippines, you realize quickly that a knife is not always necessary.
4 – Everything At Once, No Course Menus
Be it at a restaurant or a local eatery, dishes are presented a la carte or in pots in front of you to choose from. Rarely will you see the food separated by appetizers or starters and main meals.
On our quest, we noticed Filipinos tend to eat their food in one course. When you order, your dishes are brought out at the same time or as soon as they are ready. The soups come at the same time as the main dishes and everything is laid out on the table.
Don’t expect to take your time eating in between courses. Everything is brought out at once and you had better eat fast while everything is still hot.
One great thing about this approach, is that everybody shares together.
5 – Dinning Takes Place In The Malls
Malls in the Philippines do not only provide retail therapy, they are also centers for socializing, entertainment and dining.
When we first arrived in the Philippines and wanted to try local Filipino food, everybody kept sending us to the malls. Not used to going to the malls to try local and authentic foods, we were very perplexed.
Only after talking to locals and observing the local culture, did we realize that malls provide safe, air conditioned environments. Imagine our surprise when we saw a Catholic Mass taking place at the high-end Greenbelt Mall in Manila.
Not surprisingly food courts and restaurants at malls, are foodie destination havens. You will find a range of restaurant options. From casual restaurants all the way to high-end restaurants, the mall can be your destination for food in the Philippines.
6 – Filipino Cuisine Would Not Be Complete Without Merienda
Filipinos love Merienda or “snacks in between meals”. The perfect excuse to eat several times during the day. In the Philippines, there are typically two meriendas. One in the late morning, and the other one in the afternoon.
A large variety of sweet or savory dishes can be eaten at Merienda. Sweet delicacies might be pastries, mango pies, sticky rice, rice cake and more. And for the savory options you might have empanaditas (small savory pastries), noodles, fish balls, and the famous local delicacy balut (developing duck embryo).
With so many opportunities to eat, you will not go hungry in the Philippines!
7- No Culture Of Lingering Over Meals
So far, as we have observed, Filipinos don’t have a culture of sitting and lingering over meals for a long time. This is very different from what we observed on our quest in Argentina, where long lunches or dinners were a favorite, especially on the weekends.
As we mentioned previously, Filipinos eat all their dishes at the same time. With no set courses, it feels like people are racing through their meals. Very often, we found ourselves eating slower than most of the people at the table. In addition, lunch or dinner rarely lasted more than one hour.
When in the Philippines, be prepared to pick up the pace at mealtimes.
8 – Food In The Philippines Is Not Very Vegetarian Friendly
One of my favorite experiences was sitting at a restaurant and ordering a side of vegetables. After eating a lot of pork and very little vegetables, we were excited to try a local vegetable specialty called “pinakbet.”
When the dish arrived, the waiter announced “here is your vegetable dish.” We were so surprised to see pork and shrimp sitting on top of a bed of vegetables. We ate pinakbet several times in different regions, and each time this tasty vegetable dish was accompanied with pork and shrimp.
Purely vegetable dishes are hard to come by in the Philippines. While eating food in the Philippines, look carefully at the ingredients in the “vegetables” section of any menu.
9 – Food in the Philippines Influenced By Multiple Cultures
As we made our way through the country discovering the food in the Philippines, one thing that struck us was the complexity of the Filipino cuisine. The food has been shaped by Chinese, Malaysian, Spanish, Indian and Western influences. In addition, each region and island has adopted their own unique cooking style.
Popular dishes like pancit (noodles) and lumpia (spring rolls) have Chinese heritage. The presence of the Spaniards brought with them lechon and flan dessert. And Indian soldiers who settled in the Philippines during the British invasion, are said to have introduced kare-kare (traditional oxtail stew).
These cultural influences and the diverse cooking preparation methods from the 7,000+ islands makes the food from the Philippines surprising and complex.
10 – Jollibee The Fast Food Chain You Cannot Miss
You can’t help but notice the jovial Jollibee mascot at literally every corner of the streets. This fast food chain originally from the Philippines is predominant and loved by Filipinos.
With over 900 stores in the Philippines, Jollibee dominates the local fast food market. To the point that the giant McDonald’s cannot compete in the Filipino market.
The popular staples from Jollibee are Chicken Joy (fried chicken) and a sweet-style Jollibee spaghetti. And for dessert, you can’t miss the peach mango pie.
On your travels to the Philippines, get a feel for the sweet and salty taste at Jollibee!
This is our first time to the Philippines and we didn’t have much expectations about Filipino cuisine prior to the trip. We have found the food from the Philippines to be full of contrasts.
We have enjoyed some delicious dishes and at other times, the sweet taste especially in savory dishes has turned us off. Lacking in consistency, we found the quality of the food to be very dependent on the cook or chef.
Our biggest surprise has been in discovering the different cultures and their influences in the food from the Philippines. These influences are historically based on the trade routes and colonial masters.
Today, we find Filipino cuisine continuing to evolve based on Western and American influences. Stay tuned for more articles about the traditional and heritage dishes we discovered.
Have you had food in the Philippines before? In the comments below, share with us what has surprised you the most about Filipino cuisine!
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Rosemary is a writer and culinary explorer. Together with her partner, Claire, they created Authentic Food Quest to inspire people to travel deeper through authentic food. Through food, they believe, people can have more meaningful connections on their travels. Prior to creating Authentic Food Quest, Rosemary worked as a director of strategy in advertising for over 15 years. Take the quiz and find out your Food Traveler Profile.