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Of national dishes and heroes

By CLAUDE TAYAG, The Philippine STAR Published Sep 30, 2021 5:00 am

It seems all quiet on the western Philippine seafront. But, just when the last remaining embers of DTI’s Adobo Standardization wildfire had finally died down, someone unwittingly revived it on the American eastern seaboard.  

Amy Besa, the award-winning book author and co-owner of Purple Yam, a highly rated Filipino restaurant in Brooklyn, New York, posted with excitement and pride (and deservingly so, I must hasten to add) on her Facebook page:  “Nice surprise from The New York Times Cooking section, Sept 17, 2021. “14 Classic Recipes You Should Know by Heart” by Margaux Laskey. And our Chicken Adobo is #4.”

With no small thanks to her and partner chef Romy Dorotan, Filipino cuisine has been in the American mainstream for the past 20 years or so, starting with their first restaurant, Cendrillon, also in New York. This good news is like a pie thrown right smack at the DTI’s face.

The issue here is not so much about the adobo recipe, but calling it ‘the national dish of the Philippines.’ For the record, we have NO national dish.  

Margaux Laskey was all gaga over Purple Yam’s adobo. She wrote: “Adobo is the national dish of the Philippines, in which chicken, pork or fish is braised in a salty, sweet and tangy mix of rice vinegar, bay leaves, garlic, chilies and plenty of black pepper (and sometimes coconut milk, included here). Sam Sifton adapted this version from Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan, who run the Purple Yam restaurant in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. It is outrageously good.”

Innocuous as it may seem, Laskey’s description of adobo pretty much covers DTI’s “baseline” adobo recipe (i.e. vinegar, garlic, spices), with a safety net to include its countless variants by writing in parenthesis “(and sometimes coconut milk, included here).”

So, where’s the beef?

The issue here is not so much about the adobo recipe, but calling it “the national dish of the Philippines.” While another American personality, Odette Keeley, host and executive producer of New America Now, wrote more succinctly in New American Media in February 2012: “Adobo is considered a signature dish in Filipino cooking.” And if I may turn the tables around, is it fair to name the hot dog or hamburger America’s national/signature dish?

For the record, we have NO national dish.  

Granting that our “adobo” could also mean a dish and not just a cooking technique, to make it officially the “national dish” needs proclamation by law.

 Purple Yam’s Chicken Adobo with coconut cream

Food writer Michaela Fenix wrote me her position on the subject: “While the flag, our language, and our Constitution deserve to be national symbols, we have forgotten as well to declare by law a national hero. We would rather delve into the mundane flower, tree, bird, dance, and, for heaven's sake, a dish. Adobo, apparently, is still pending to be enacted into law even if informed people have been stressing that adobo is not a dish but a cooking technique. What a waste of time and effort.”

Speaking of a national hero, historian Ambeth R. Ocampo wrote:

“Most Filipinos generally agree that Jose Rizal is the national hero, but some people insist that it should be Andres Bonifacio… To date, there is no law declaring Rizal our national hero. Rizal has always been regarded as such by acclamation and tradition.”

According to, there are only 12 official national symbols, and believe you me, the mango, carabao, anahaw palm tree, and Jose Rizal all do not belong to this exclusive, inner-circle club.

Regional vs. national

How then, does a dish — or anything, for that matter — become national, officially or not?

A dish starts with one maker or cook, shared and embraced by the immediate family, the clan, the neighborhood, the town, and the whole province. And if it does not go out of its geographical boundaries, it remains just a regional dish, known and relished only by the locals.

 Vigan’s best kept secret: Pipian, a chicken dish cooked with the Mexican leaf epazote and achiote (atsuete) thickened with ground rice

Vigan City’s pipian (chicken stew cooked with Mexican epazote leaves and atsuete); Pampanga’s tidtad baka (a sour soup with pig’s blood and ground beef); Lucban’s hardinera (meatloaf); Marikina’s Everlasting (meatloaf); Cebu’s nilarang (spicy fish stew); Bohol’s hinalang (spicy chicken stew with coconut cream); and Davao’s bulcachong (spicy carabeef stew); are just a few local dishes too comfortable to leave home. 

 Fast-disappearing regional delicacy: Pampanga’s sisig babi, aka kilawin na baboy

On the other hand, there’s the peripatetic and socially mobile sisig. In a Kapampangan-Spanish Dictionary written by Fray Diego Bergaño in 1732, sisig was defined then as a “salad served with a vinaigrette.” Any fruit or vegetable, eaten raw and dipped in seasoned vinegar (think French crudité), as well as boiled pig’s ears, also dipped in vinegar (the Tagalog’s kilawin na baboy) was called sisig.

For over two centuries, it remained largely a Pampango delicacy, enjoyed by the locals and accidental tourists. But, starting in the 1970s, several individuals initiated some makeovers, in preparation and appearance, resulting in today’s internationally famous sizzling pork sisig, in all its permutations.

 From regional, national to international fame: In 2014, The New York Times declared Pampanga’s peripatetic sizzling pork sisig as arguably “the best pork dish on earth.”

The late Anthony Bourdain wrote in his blog after I introduced sisig to him in 2008: “It’s got everything I love about food — sizzling pork bits, with all that good, rubbery, fatty, crispy. And it goes wonderfully well with beer.”

And during my TV interview with him for ABS-CBN during his last visit here in Manila in June 2017, he declared: “Sisig is the breakaway dish that catapulted Filipino cuisine to mainstream America. I want to bring it to the Bourdain Market in New York.”  But alas, that was never to materialize, as he died a year later.

  Bourdain in his element as the master storyteller at the sisig joint.

The eminent food writer Doreen Fernandez wrote: “Traditional ways are wonderful; but new ways, when applied with understanding and sensitivity, can create a dish anew — without betraying the tradition.” New traditions are thus created in every generation.

A cuisine is a living and evolving organism.

Adaptation, innovation, flexibility, and not standardization, are what make Filipino cuisine alive and dynamic. And that includes our world-famous/ infamous sweet spaghetti (wink, wink).