Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — When Anthony Bourdain visited the Philippines recently to talk about street food and culinary heritage, he declared sisig as the “gateway dish” to introduce Philippine cuisine to the world. The chewy and crunchy pork dish, he said, was “the most likely to convince people who had no exposure to Filipino food to maybe look further beyond.”
Sisig is just one of the many nominees (so to speak) of a dish that may transcend Philippine borders as the cuisine slowly gets mileage internationally. There’s adobo, of course, a vinegar-based dish that never fails to evoke nostalgia. There’s sinigang, a sour stew filled with the freshest vegetables on season. There’s even pancit, brought here by the Chinese yet adapted to suit Filipino tastes, methods, and traditions.
The quest to refine what we mean when we say Filipino food — and the debate over the “dish” to define it — continues. The National Commission for Culture and the Arts, on May 7, 2016, posted a question on its Facebook page: “Katuwaan lang mga kababayan, kung magkakaroon ng pambansang ulam, ano ang pipiliin mo, adobo o sinigang?” Users were divided: the accompanying Twitter poll yielded 42 percent for #TeamAdobo and 40 percent for #TeamSinigang, with the rest either advocating for both (11 percent) or another dish altogether (7 percent).
This is all in the name of good fun, of course. No official legislation or document assigns a single dish as a “national dish” representing Filipino cuisine; even Manila's top chefs and restaurateurs are wary to assign one. Food writer and restaurateur Amy Besa tells us: “The question of an official national dish might be a sensitive subject for some Filipinos.” Chef Tatung Sarthou says: “I’m not so keen on having a national dish as it somehow draws away attention [from] regional cuisine and makes traveling around the country less interesting.”
Yet we continue to ask — even in the risk of losing friends and family over at the reunion table, as a matter of significant concern — what is our pambansang ulam?
Adobo, kinilaw, sinigang
Food historian and pioneering food writer Doreen Fernandez — considered by many as the quintessential expert on Philippine cuisine — sets the case for sinigang as “most representative of Filipino taste.” In an article titled “Why Sinigang?” first published in 1975, Fernandez, in an article that would dwell not only on sinigang but on how Filipino taste is shaped, explains: “We like the lightly boiled, the slightly soured, the dish that includes fish (or shrimp or meal), vegetables and broth.”
Sinigang, says Fernandez, is highly adaptable, in many senses of the word. “It is adaptable to all tastes (if you don’t like shrimp, then bangus, or pork), to all classes and budgets (even ayungin, in humble little piles, find their way into the pot), to seasons and availability (walang talong, mahal ang gabi? Kangkong na lang!),” she writes.
Besa agrees. “[Sinigang] is more of a representative dish of what is available in our environment,” she says. “Its name is truly Filipino and its roots are most probably derived from the abundant seafood from our oceans and rivers and the sour fruits that grow around us,” she adds, echoing Fernandez’s theory that the pre-Hispanic Filipino probably turned first to the sea, rather than to the forest — thus explaining our preference for fresh fish and seafood.
“But when it comes to accessibility to both Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike,” she says, “it is adobo that rules.”
Adobo, like sinigang, both signifies a cooking method (to marinate, reportedly from the Spanish word “adobar”) and the dish itself. If he had to name a national dish, it would be adobo, says chef Sarthou: “Not as a dish, but a cooking method done across the archipelago using different ingredients to showcase regional biodiversity.”
"When it comes to accessibility to both Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike, it is adobo that rules.”
Based on her experience, Besa says three dishes and cooking methods are cooked and eaten by all major regions and by all classes of society in the Philippines: sinigang, kinilaw, and adobo. “They can be found in the homes of most people and in most restaurants in the country,” she says. “But adobo has easily crossed the cultural boundaries.”
Adobo is indigenous to Filipino cuisine. We are the only ones to cook it by braising a protein or vegetable with garlic, vinegar, and salt, says Besa (citing Ray Sokolov’s “Why We Eat What We Eat”), but the dish finds similarities with the Spanish (where the word refers to a condiment of oil, garlic, and marjoram) and Mexican (where it refers to a marinade of guajillo chiles, garlic, cider vinegar, thyme, bay leaves, avocado leaves, oregano, black peppercorns, and canela) versions, thus accounting for its borrowed name.
Chef JP Anglo, who prepares a liempo and pork adobo for Sarsa’s updated menu, says adobo lends itself to endless variations, as every region prides itself on its version. For example: “If you go to Bicol, they will use gata with their adobo. If you go to Ilocos, they will use their Ilokanong suka to make their adobo sour. If you go to Negros or the Visayas, we use our coconut vinegar,” says Anglo.
Sarsa’s adobo itself — made with braised pork, with soft-boiled and sunny-side-up eggs — is an updated adobo, made with an additional ingredient: San Miguel beer. The additional ingredient adds depth to the dish, and is also testament to the continuing evolution of our native dishes, says Anglo, even as its primary ingredient stays the same.
Owing to a predilection for sour tastes — with sinigang, adobo, sisig (because of kalamansi), inasal (because of coconut vinegar), or kinilaw — any dish that may be considered “national,” arguably, is consistent with this flavor profile. Add to this, says Anglo, a long-running love affair with pork.
Sisig, lechon, pancit
Any discussion about Filipinos’ love for pork, of course, wouldn’t be complete without sisig: a dish testament to “raw ingenuity and sheer thriftiness” of the Filipino, says Abba Napa, restaurateur and founding partner of Manam and the Moment Group. “Sisig has the capacity to speak verses of our nationalistic love,” she says, even as it is “unabashedly simple to a fault.”
"Lechon may have piqued the curiosity of diners interested in Philippine cuisine, but it’s sisig that has kept them around — from the New York Times, down to Tony Bourdain himself."
The dish is made from chopped pieces of pork cheek, flavored with chili and topped with calamansi. Variations include sisig made from chicken or fish, and sometimes even tofu. But essential is the requisite sourness that cuts through the meat: “When the citrus scorches the plate, and the heat of chili rises, the sisig becomes a ravishingly rich mess,” says Napa.
Napa’s Manam serves house crispy sisig, served with garlic rice, which speaks of the dish’s flexibility both as ulam (viand) and of course, pulutan. “Lechon may have piqued the curiosity of diners interested in Philippine cuisine,” says Napa, “but it’s sisig that has kept them around — from the New York Times, down to Tony Bourdain himself.”
Manam also serves pancit buko — a dish that entrepreneur Bea Misa-Crisostomo of Ritual suggests as a potential national dish. “Though it isn’t common, it would be great to popularize — young coconut strips cooked with savory elements,” she says. “It is a good departure from all the bread and rice we eat, and it’s also accessible to everyone from different income segments.”
While the dishes above do not comprise the entirety of potential dishes representative of Philippine cuisine, all share, perhaps, a single characteristic: not only do they reflect our land and geography, but also the lifestyles and traditions of the Filipino people. That, Fernandez writes, is the native cuisine.
The key may not be in finding a single dish that is authentically Filipino, but “in the rewarding and pleasurable voyage towards the definition of identity,” says Fernandez — one that we are still, quite luckily, traveling on.