In order to truly understand a culture, you need to taste their food. A country's cuisine has always been an important part of cultural identity, and The Philippines is no exception.
In this installment of our Food in Four Courses series, we'll share with you three of the most beloved Filipino dishes, a starter, main course and dessert. And to keep things interesting, we'll add on a dish that's definitely not for the faint of heart.
FIRST COURSE: Puto at Kutsinta - Filipino Snacks to Start Off With
Okay, so there's actually two, not just one. But since these two famous Pinoy snacks are almost always served together at street stalls, I figured why not feature them that way. They are both pretty straightforward and simple, which is probably what makes them popularly enjoyed for breakfast and also as an afternoon snack.
Puto is what can loosely be referred to as a mini cupcake minus the extra cakey sweetness. It's made mainly out of glutinous rice flour, sugar and evaporated milk. The texture is dense and spongy, perfect for dipping into sweet or savory sauces. They are steamed rather than baked, and topped off with a slice of cheese or salted egg.
Kutsinta or Cuchinta are puto's partner in crime. But rather than the floury, doughy texture of it's counterpart, this little dish is more like a sticky, chewy jello sidekick. Glutinous rice flour, again, is it's featured ingredient, but this time the sugar is brown, and minimal additions such as water and lye water are added to create a more gooey texture. Acuete is also mixed into the batter to give this snack it's reddish-orange color.
Both puto and kutsinta can be rolled in freshly grated coconut that has been tossed with cane sugar to add that extra crunchy texture and tropical flavor.
SECOND COURSE: KareKare - The Most Delectable of All Filipino Dishes
It seems like every Asian country has it's curry. The Indians dish up their spicy vindaloos and masalas, the Chinese and Japanese their sweeter takes on the same dish, 咖哩 gā lǐ and カレー karē respectively. The dishes of rendang in Indonesia, the bowls of gaeng แกง in Thailand and the plates of cà ri in Vietnam are all world renowned contenders. Filipinos are not one to be left out of the banquet, and in their efforts to outdo the rest of their neighbors they proudly tote their national curry dish: kare-kare.
Stripped down, kare kare is simply a peanut stew with string beans, eggplants, pechay or Chinese cabbage, banana hearts, and oxtail or goat meat. Some adventurous cooks will add tripe and offal to give it an earthy kick. Slow cooked and lightly spiced with chili and calamansi, colored with atsuete and thickened, AGAIN with glutinous rice flour, this is Filipino comfort food at it's finest.
Of course, as it is with the majority of Filipino foods, the stew is served with a heaping pile of steamed white rice. And to add that extra zing, it's finished off with a dollop of salty, pungent bagooong alamang, or fermented fish paste.
THIRD COURSE: Bibingka - A Sweet and Sticky Filipino Dessert
What would an authentic, home cooked Filipino meal be without something to deliver that sweet after taste to top it all off? This is where the traditional dessert called bibingka comes in.
Bibingka is a sweet and sticky rice cake made out of...yup, you guessed it, GLUTINOUS RICE FLOUR, as well as coconut milk, eggs, butter, sugar and cow's milk. Traditionally, the golden batter is poured into a specially formed terra cotta pot lined with banana leaves and baked under a heap of glowing coals.
When the coals are removed and the cake pulled out of its clay dish, you are presented with a soft and spongy cake, slightly charred around the edges, with a hint of toasted banana leaves and creamy butter.
Although originally eaten during the holidays, this dessert has become popular year round. Variations of this sweet and sticky dessert can be enjoyed around the world, in places such as Hawai'i and California, wherever any size-able Filipino population can be found.
OPTIONAL: Pinapaitan - A Bitter Filipino Dish Not For the Faint of Heart
Every cuisine has it's dish that is enjoyed by the locals but kept hidden from the outsiders for fear of being ostracized. Filipino cuisine has it's fair share of red headed step children.
You may have already heard about the infamous fermented duck embryo that Filipinos lovingly refer to as balut, or the steaming dish of pork, drenched, marinated and stewed in fresh pig's blood, called dinuguan. For as much as I LOVE Filipino food, I for one just cannot go there with either of these dishes.
But there is one dish that defies all gastronomic logic that not too many people have heard of, and that, my friends, is an authentic and beloved Ilocano dish called pinapaitan, the king of all comfort foods, (at least in the north).
This is a stewed dish of animal offal. Whatever animal it is, cow, pig, goat or ox, doesn't really matter, as long as you rip out the innards, dice them up, and stew them until they're tender. "What?" you might say, "that's it?!" Okay, so maybe you can stomach the thought of eating stewed pancreas, heart, liver, kidney, intestines and tripe, but the ingredients don't end there. After all, the dish isn't called pait, or bitter, for no reason.
Where does that salty, sour, bitter after taste come from? Bile, my friends. Yes, bile. As in the yellow-greenish liquid extracted by the liver, stored in the gall bladder and discreetly excreted into the stomach on occasion to assist in digestion, known (well, maybe known only in the Philippines) for it's salty, bitter after taste. Actually, the rest of us know it as that taste you get in your throat and mouth when you have serious indigestion and you accidentally regurgitate your meal up. Yes, that sour, bitter taste in your mouth is the taste of bile, the main flavoring ingredient in pinapaitan.
So bile's not that bad, eh? You can do bile? We're not done yet. The most hardcore of Ilocanos will go even a step further by squeezing the juices out of the small and large intestines, called pait and pinespes respectively. Talk about milking the guts for every ounce! After all ingredients have been properly extracted, chopped and seasoned, they are combined in a pot and simmered on low heat until ready. If you boast an iron-clad belly, enjoy!
For authentic ideas on traditional recipes, check out these books:
I'm JR. I come from a long line of adventurers, some were nomadic explorers of the sea and others wandering cultivators of the earth. Ultimately, this legacy of drifters has deeply affected my view of travel. Read more...