Introducing my GRRRLTRAVELER expert traveler series, this guest post written by Brendan Lee, a solo travel blogger of Bren on the Road, who spent nine months traveling the Philippines. He’ll be your foodie guide to 10 must try classic filipino foods.
The Philippines is known for many good things – friendly people, nice beaches, winning beauty pageants – but delicious food is certainly not one of them. Most people actually leave the country with thoughts of how much they don’t like the food.
But Filipino food, while simple, is actually quite an adventure. A tasty one. While it’s not quite Thailand or Taiwan – where delicious street food is just around every corner – traditional Filipino food offers many intriguing flavours and, if you know what you’re looking for, you might just end up falling in love with the cuisine here.
On top of this, within the big cities – Manila especially – there is a strong foodie culture emerging where many chic and modern eateries are opening up and offering new and interesting takes on 10 must try classic Filipino dishes, with lots of international influence too. It’s an exciting time to eat your way through the Philippines.
10 Must Try Classic Filipino Foods
In this post I’m going to take you through ten classic Filipino foods, which will give you a good introduction to the simple yet satisfying cuisine of this island country. Of course there are many more delights to try here, but these are a great place to start. Enjoy!
Probably one of the most popular Filipino dishes and eaten absolutely everywhere, pork adobo is Filipino comfort food at its finest. In fact, most of my Filipino friends living overseas cook this at least once or twice a week to get a taste of home, and that doesn’t stop them ordering it out at restaurants too!
What makes adobo great is its simplicity – take the meat of your choice (or even seafood or vegetables) and marinade it in soy sauce, vinegar and garlic (you’ll see those three ingredients a lot in this country). Give that a stir-fry whiz in the pan and let it simmer for a while, and there’s your adobo. It’s fast, smells and tastes amazing, and goes perfectly with a plate of rice. YUM.
I remember eating bibingka for the first time at some street cart out in the Philippine provinces. At the time I didn’t really think much of it, but soon found myself always wanting to eat one whenever I saw them around (and you do see them often). Something about them is just so more-ish!
Bibingka is a cake baked with rice flour and coconut milk. It has a spongy texture, and actually feels quite heavy – I couldn’t eat more than a couple at a time. While traditionally it’s made as a full sized-cake, it seems popular nowadays to serve them as little cupcakes, especially in the cities and malls. You’ll be able to notice them easily from the banana leaf wrapped around the base, which is what they’re traditionally baked in. Make sure you eat them hot, and put a good splodge of butter on top before chowing down!
3. Buko pie
You can’t leave the Philippines without trying this one! Think of buko pie like an apple pie or Christmas pie, except it’s made with coconut.
This is super popular as a dessert or even just a snack in the Philippines, and is a common gift to take home to family and friends in the provinces. If you do much bus travel while in the Philippines, you’ll notice the stacks of buko pie boxes at the bus stands, as well as the many hawkers who jump on board to sell them to people heading home for the weekend or holidays.
My favourite thing about buko pie is actually the smell – it smells just like a freshly baked apple pie, but there’s a whiff of coconut in there that just makes you go oooh. What makes the buko pie extra special is it’s not baked with canned or minced coconut flesh, but fresh coconut meat from a young coconut, which is then mixed with condensed milk and thrown in the oven. If you eat it hot with a scoop of vanilla ice cream…phew…it’s special. Just do it.
I’m a sucker for good hearty soups, so I sampled most of the popular Filipino soups during my time in the country. Sinigang is definitely the one that stood out for me.
Sinigang is a tamarind based soup, and it’s often paired with calamansi, so this gives it the trademark sour/tangy flavour that its known for. It reminds me a lot of Thailand’s tom yum soup – if you’re a fan of that, you’re definitely going to want to try this one.
Other than the sour base, what actually goes in the soup tends to vary from place to place. Usually the protein was either pork or prawn, but I saw other meats such as fish and chicken used as well. Then on top of your meat is a bevy of vegetables, most commonly okra, spinach, potatoes, long beans, onions, tomatoes, sometimes even yams or eggplants. You’ll even see it made vegetarian from time to time.
As you can imagine the pot can get quite crowded with all those ingredients, so it’s a good idea to order a large serving and share it with a few people. Pair it with some bowls of rice and you’re in for a treat.
Turon is the Filipino street food version of a banana pancake. And I will warn you here – although it may be oh so yummy, maybe limit yourself to just one as they are mega greasy and certainly not the healthiest thing to be snacking on.
That being said, definitely try it. Like I said – it’s delicious. They take a few sliced up bananas, some brown sugar, maybe a bit of jackfruit and then roll it up in a spring roll wrapper. Dunk it in oil and deep fry it until crispy.
I didn’t see this much in the cities, but being so cheap and quick to make, it’s a popular street food snack out in the provinces. You might also see it on some restaurant menus as a dessert. Have it served with ice cream for a real treat.
A few years ago the Filipinos went crazy after Anthony Bourdain famously declared they cook the “best pig in the world” while filming one of his shows in the country.
The pig he was referring to was the famous lechon, and after trying it for myself I found it hard to disagree. Roasting lechon is like an art form in the Philippines. Usually the whole pig is skewered and then attentively turned over an open flame, by hand, for several hours. When something is made with that much love, you know it’s going to taste good.
While usually eaten at special events, such as weddings and birthdays, it’s now becoming more common to find lechon in regular restaurants and food courts. That’s good news for you – you can find it almost anywhere!
The cool thing about lechon, like many Filipino foods, is its different everywhere around the country. In some places they might stuff the pig with lemongrass and herbs, while other places stuff it with garlic and fresh chili. Cebu is touted as the best lechon in the country, but its an adventure in itself to travel to different provinces and try each version for yourself. Often it’s served with a liver dipping sauce which is pretty magical too.
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7. Ilocos Empanada
What’s interesting about the cuisine in the Philippines is the many influences you can see in the different popular dishes. There’s an obvious Chinese/Asian influence, as well as flavours carried over from when the Spanish and Americans were around.
The empanada is another of those foods that the Filipinos have put their own twist on. I saw these Ilocos empanadas being cooked at almost every market I went to and two things always caught my eye – the bright orange dough they use, and the way they crack a whole egg into each one before cooking.
The other thing you’ll notice about these empanadas are they’re not made with pastry dough and therefore not baked. They have more of a crispy spring-roll type wrapping and are deep fried. Along with the egg, they’re usually filled with sausage meat and young papaya, and splashed with a bit of vinegar before eating. Super yum.
This was one of my favourite breakfasts to eat in the Philippines because it was always different but you always knew what you were getting as well.
“Silog” is a combination of tagalog words which basically translates to “garlic rice and egg”. If you serve something silog it means to serve it with garlic rice and egg on the side. For example†bangsilog†is garlic rice and egg served with bangus, a pan fried milkfish. Other popular examples are spamsilog (spam), longsilog (longanisa – a traditional sausage), and tocilog (tocino – a type of cured pork).
Often for breakfast I would just order any silog on the menu at a local eatery and see what came. It was always meat, I didn’t always know what meat exactly, but it was always delicious! The garlic rice and egg is a good filling way to start the day too. Always love a good Filipino breakfast!
Sisig is a funny one. When you’re eating it, you’re just thinking “Wow this is delicious” and then when someone explains to you what it actually is, you start to question whether your taste buds are playing games with you.
Sisig is a pork dish that is marinaded in sour citrus juices, vinegar and seasoned with salt and pepper, then fried in a boatload of fat. What makes it different is it’s usually leftover parts of the pig that are used – the ears, nose, innards, snout, even the brain. It’s all diced up like minced meat and then usually served alongside rice and an egg.
These days you can sometimes find sisig made with more “normal” cuts of meat but it’s still very much a leftovers dish. Nonetheless Filipinos love their sisig and you’ll often†see people eating it at the bar or after a hard night out. Like I said, if you can get over the fact that you’re eating a pig’s head, it really is quite good.
10. Halo Halo
Maybe you’ve already heard of the famous halo halo. This is a Filipino dessert that I never really came to like or understand, but it’s so common and popular that I had to mention it here.
Now if you’ve spent any time in Asia you’re probably familiar with the shaved ice dessert. It’s usually just a big pile of shaved ice with some food coloring and maybe some light toppings. Filipinos decided to take the regular shaved ice and go totally wild with it. The result is the halo halo.
So, here’s how it works. You take a bit of shaved ice and throw it in the cup. Then you get some evaporated milk or condensed milk and pour that in too. And then – who knows. As far as I can see, you just add a whole bunch of anything. I’ve seen everything from jelly, red beans, coconut, sago, ice cream, fresh fruits, dried fruits, chocolate, candy, cereal, pieces of cake, sweet potato, rice, yams – the list goes on. Every place seems to make it differently, but they all top the cup until it’s overflowing with ingredients that probably won’t make any sense to you. Either way, try it at least once.
As they say, everything is more fun in the Philippines! What classic Filipino foods would you add to this list?
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