Filipino Cuisine is Having Its Moment (We Think It's Here to Stay)


Next month, the documentary Ulam: Main Dish by Filipina-American filmmaker Alexandra Cuerdo is premiering at the San Francisco International Film Festival. From the Purple Yam in Brooklyn to LASA in Los Angeles, Ulam: Main Dish tells the story of the Filipino food movement in America through the eyes of its chefs, each of whom has put their own spin on a cuisine that was influenced by the nations and peoples of three continents [1].


Filipinos are descended from migrants originating from Taiwan, Indonesia, and Malaysia. The Chinese, Arabs, and Indians traded with the Philippines in its early history and many settled on the islands and intermarried. The Spanish Colonial Period began in 1521 and Mexico, also a Spanish colony, was the viceroyalty commissioned with governing the Philippines and did so for over two centuries. An almost five-decade American occupation followed prior to Philippine independence in 1946 [2]. Filipino cuisine has its roots in each of these cultures, formed by centuries of trade, conquest, and occupation, but the gastronomy that ultimately developed from this global melting-pot has flavors uniquely its own.


Fat, Acid, and Funk

Filipino food is rich in dietary fat, from saturated sources that include lard and coconut milk, to the mono- and polyunsaturated sources of olive oil and fish [3]. Fish and other seafood feature prominently in the Filipino diet as the Philippines is an archipelago, a nation comprised of over 7,000 islands [2]. Due to the prevalence of rural pig owners throughout the islands, pork is perhaps the most common exception to seafood. Other protein sources include beef, chicken, water buffalo, nuts, and beans [3].


Rice is a dietary staple and often served with every meal. Other sources of starch include corn, ube (the native purple yam), potatoes (white and sweet), cassava, and pancit (noodles). A variety of cooked vegetables are served with meals, most customary to other Asian cuisines. Fruits are easy to come by and tropical fruits, like mango, papaya, guava, and bitter melon, are commonly eaten, often as dessert. [3]


While spices and seasonings are used generously in Filipino kitchens, and include salt, ginger, sautéed brown sugar, and garlic, spicy foods are uncommon, the preferred flavors being sweet, sour, and salty [4]. The acidic seasonings of Filipino cuisine provide the pucker and punch that some dishes elicit, but also provide balance to the myriad of flavors. Cane vinegar, soy sauce, and the citrus fruit calamansi are examples. The funk from the fermented foods in Filipino cuisine, particularly the bagoong (a fermented fish or shrimp paste) and patis (a fermented fish sauce) are a potential source of beneficial probiotics with a repulsive smell that nevertheless makes your mouth water.



Adobo is probably as close as one will get, consensus-wise, to a national dish in the Philippines. Adobo variations are popular in other parts of the world (Spain, Mexico, and the Caribbean), “but the Filipino’s adobo is the most famous the world over” [5]. Seeking a standard recipe, however, is a fruitless effort. One simply does not exist. Every cookbook recipe will be unique and every Filipino restaurant you visit will prepare it a different way.


Adobo is arguably more a technique than a dish, since the one common trait is marinating meat in vinegar. Indigenous Filipinos cooked their food minimally, and meat was often immersed in salt and vinegar, which was an early preservation technique [4]. When the Spanish arrived, they provided this cooking style with a name, adobo, meaning marinade, and the Chinese influenced the dish with the addition of soy sauce [5].


Today, the marinade may also include olive oil, bay leaves, and peppercorns, and the most common meats are chicken and pork, although recipes featuring fish and beef are not uncommon. The meat is often shredded and fried until crispy and commonly simmered with coconut milk and vegetables. And, of course, it would be the rare exception if adobo were not served with rice. [4]


Other dishes include sinigang (a sour fish soup); pancit Canton (a shrimp, vegetable and noodle dish); escabeche (sweet and sour fish); lechon (a whole pig cooked over a fire on a bamboo stick); barbecued milkfish; acharang gulay (pickled vegetables); sweetened ginger tea; and ube cake [3]. Bibingka, often served on Christmas Day, “is a slightly sweet rice cake made with coconut milk, typically baked on a banana leaf and topped with salted eggs” [4].


Cuerdo recently spoke with Buzzfeed Philippines and said, “In a big way, I think that Filipino food is America. It has been for me. I think it will be for many future generations. If I had an ultimate vision for Filipino food, it's that it would become as woven into the American experience as Filipinos are.” Here’s a helpful guide from Splendid Table to find a Filipino restaurant near you.


Other articles and documentaries about the Filipino food movement:

How Filipino Food Is Becoming the Next Great American Cuisine

Hungry for love: is Los Angeles falling for Filipino food?

Filipino Food Finds a Place in the American Mainstream

Life & Thyme, The Migrant Kitchen, Episode 2: Barkada

Jonathan Gold says the time for Filipino cuisine is now, and the place is Los Angeles


[1] Anderson EN. Everyone Eats: Understanding Food and Culture. New York, NY: New York University Press; 2005.

[2] Background note: Philippines. Department of State, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs Web site. Published January 17, 2012. Accessed September 29, 2012.

[3] Edelstein S. Food, cuisine, and cultural competency: For Culinary, Hospitality and Nutrition Professionals. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett; 2011.

[4] Pruess J. Focus on the Philippines: A tasty marriage of familiar and exotic flavors. Specialty Food. January/February 2012; 42(1): 112-118. Retrieved from

[5] De Castro C, Villaroman R. Adobo: A history of the country’s national dish. The Asian Journal Blog Web site. Published July 14, 2008. Accessed March 24, 2018.