This month of July could have been the first death anniversary of our freedom to express ourselves freely in the kitchen. Seriously. It’s a good thing vigilant Filipino netizens worldwide protested in unison against DTI’s plan to standardize the recipe of our revered adobo.
And their collective voice was heard loud and clear. The project was nipped in the bud, at least for now. And they were to do it with sinigang, lechon and sisig as well. (For heaven’s sake!) Had it pushed through, we would be wallowing in dreary, soulless grub. They could have saved valuable taxpayers’ money by hacking the manual on how to McDonaldize the world.
This month also marks the first anniversary of the birth — or rather, rebirth — of our beloved adobo. Since that odious DTI thing, every Pinoy scampered to their respective kitchens, cooking their mother’s adobo that had always been taken for granted. When they were threatened that it was to be taken away from them, they embraced and bodily protected it as if it was about to be attacked by a vicious dog. Nobody, but nobody, can take this intangible treasure away from us.
Over the course of one year, I’ve come out with 16 adobo articles since the Adobo Riot came out. I’ve met and interviewed close to a hundred Pinoys, face-to-face and virtually, friends and strangers alike, on what adobo means to them.
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Charles Olalia, a longtime US resident working as a chef and restaurateur, whose parents come from Bacolor, Pampanga, wrote succinctly: “How can a dish made with no more than six ingredients be so hard to execute? The aroma is so particular, very pointed, specific. I still haven’t seen anything so simple and creates such emotions. What I realized was, adobo is not a recipe. It’s a feeling. It’s a moment in time.” Try standardizing that, DTI!
The adobo stories from all over the world keep coming in. Here are four surprise contributions, quite unexpected but most welcome nevertheless.
When National Artist for Literature Virgilio Almario (aka Rio Alma) booked lunch at Bale Dutung early this month, he texted me the day before that he’d come bearing a gift for me. He was to celebrate his wife Lyn’s birthday with their brood in tow. He wrote me this four-line poem about adobo. Short as it may be, he so eloquently captured its very essence, expressing our collective love of adobo — because it was cooked with TLC by Inang, Ima, Nanay, Mamá. I am humbled he dedicated the poem to me, and I am accepting this gift on behalf of all Filipinos — past, present and future. You have immortalized our Inang’s adobo. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. If your penname, Rio Alma, is translated into Spanish as River-Soul, your adobo poem creates such a whitewater river surge of soulful emotions. Mabuhay po kayo!
The ’Dobo from N’awlins: Randy Gonzales is an associate professor of English at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, Louisiana. The “Do-bo” poem will be part of Settling St. Malo: Poems from Filipino Louisiana, yet to be published by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press in 2023. Randy is presently working on a Filipino-Louisiana foodways book. He’s been testing these dishes, trying to reconstruct what Filipinos who arrived in Louisiana in the 1800s could have eaten, given the ingredients available to them then. This is different to what Filipinos eat now in Louisiana, he says, having access to the Asian markets and the internet.
He wrote from Lafayette: “My Filipino-American story starts in 1908 when my great-grandfather, Miguel Guillera, joined the US Navy. Miguel was from Jaro, Leyte. He settled in the Philadelphia area, but eventually moved his family to New Orleans. He opened a bar, the Filipino Colony Bar, and was president of the New Orleans chapter of Dimas Alang. One of his daughter’s, my grandmother, Evelyn Guillera, married a Filipino seaman, Enrique Gonzalez. The Gonzalez family was from Roxas City, Capiz, but eventually moved to Quezon City. Enrique and Evelyn had three children, including my father, Ronald Gonzales (not sure why the z became s).”
“My grandmother made the best adobo. My mom, Fay Gonzales, who is part Cajun and Islenos and 100% New Orleanian, learned to cook from my grandmother. Her and my father would both cook adobo. I learned to cook adobo from them. My recipe changed when I met my wife, Arleen Diaz Gonzales, who is a Filipina from Pasig. Her grandparents were originally from Bicol. We call Arleen’s mother Lola, as the grandmother of our children. She taught me to put sugar in the adobo.
“The recipe my mother and father cooked was passed down by word of mouth. Generations of Filipinos in New Orleans have the typical ‘N’awlins’ accent, where words get contracted. At some point adobo became ’dobo.”
His personal story and “Do-bo” poem, which he graciously shared before its publication, are definitely a major contribution to our rich and diverse culinary quilt.
By Randy Gonzales
adobo which we called “do-bo”/was the other Filipino dish/ used to mix up our Sunday routine/ of roast pork or beef with mashed potatoes/usually pork adobo cubed from a tenderloin/perhaps a last-minute decision substitute rice for potatoes/ cook the pork into a vinegary stew/ sometimes mixed with chicken/ but only after you could buy chicken without bones/ most of the ingredients of a standard recipe/vinegar soy sauce garlic bay leaf peppercorns and sometimes ginger/but our adobo had a little Louisiana kick/a bag of crab boil containing coriander and mustard seeds/all spice cayenne and dill released into the pot/the spice berries and seeds sank into the thick black sauce/hidden until you bit into one then an intense flavor to shake the fragile balance of salt and tang/too much for my young palate not sure who determined adobo needed Louisiana spice/an unsustainable local adaption when the young prefer Lola’s recipe/with the sweet addition of a spoon or two of cane sugar/to compensate for the creativity of our cooks/and the variety of our vinegars.
Nothing could compare to the mind-clearing acidity of Philippine vinegar. But with a tasting spoon and a few kitchen tricks — a sprinkle of salt, a sly teaspoon of sugar — my dad controlled for these variables. Each batch of adobo was always as perfect as the last, ever more eternal in my mind.
I burned my adobo because of ‘Peys-book’: Janet Susan R. Nepales is journalist from Hollywood, California. She’s a member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.
She wrote through an email interview: “It was the height of the popularity of Facebook (around 2012) and I was so into it that I forgot that I was cooking adobo! Of course, it burned! And the whole house smelled of burnt adobo. Then, I went back to my Facebook-ing and told my co-Facebook-ers like Bessie Badilla that there should be a timer when doing Facebook because I just burned my adobo! Bessie, another Facebook addict, laughed and thought the story was hilarious.
“The next thing I know, she composed a song about me burning my adobo because of Facebook! She titled it, “Adik sa Fezbuk,” as part of her CD, “Bessie Badilla & Brinoy Music,” with Tagalog lyrics and vocals by Bessie herself. One line went, “Nasunog ang adobong niluluto ko sa kaka-post ng picture mo…” Check out the song on Spotify and YouTube:
Ako’y puyat na naman/Ilang araw na yan/Ako’y nag-aabang kung may nag comment Or friend request man lang./ Hindi ko mapipigil sarili ko/ Wala nang pag-asa/Tambak ang labada/At pamilya ko ay gutom na/Aminin ko/ akoy addict sa Feyzbuk/Puyat gabi-gabi walang tulog/11 Ka-chat kong/ ibang addict tulad kong nagpupuyat/Naghahanap ng kausap/ Pupuyat na naman ilang arw nay an/Tambak ang labada/At pamilya ko ay gutom na/ Ang babaw ng aking kaligayahan/ Minsan pati fan din pinapatulan/Nasunog ang adobong niluluto ko/ Kakapost ng pictures mo.
My Dad’s vinegary adobo: Yasmin Tayag was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. She’s the only child of my first cousin Ramon “Mon” Tayag. Mon and his two siblings grew up in San Juan City, Metro Manila, and were far removed from their father Enrique’s Kapampangan heritage (Enrique was my father’s youngest sibling of nine). Food at the San Juan household, I could only assume, was basically Tagalog, meaning, they like most everything intensely sour, especially when it comes to sinigang, adobo, and dinuguan. This was the palate Mon brought with him when he migrated to Canada. His wife, Flora Corral, also a Filipino from Bicol region, only reinforced that panlasa, with the addition of hot, spicy laing and binagoongan.
Yasmin is an editor and journalist by profession, whose work has been featured in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Vox, Scientific American, and Bon Appétit. She is also a part-time cook and cofounder of Greenhills Diner, a Filipino food pop-up. She lives in New York City with her fiancé, Michael Salgarolo and Buko, her dog. Follow her work at www.yasmintayag.com.
“Growing up in Toronto was pleasantly unexciting. Home was a tiny townhouse with a handsome maple tree in front and a wide, flat field that spread out behind it. In the winters, thick blankets of snow descended on the field, tucking it into a deep, white sleep that lasted nearly half the year. Gazing out the window during these frozen months, my dad’s bright, unabashedly vinegary chicken-pork adobo became more than just dinner.
“I loved Canada and its overwhelming sense of peace, but I often craved excitement. The tartness of that adobo was a flash of neon in the featureless dark of those winter nights, reminding us of who we were despite our monochrome surroundings: proud immigrants from a vibrant motherland bursting with flamboyant smells and flavors.
“My dad found a way to evoke the Philippines with the most generic of ingredients from Canadian supermarkets: garlic by the fistful, crackling dried bay leaves, whole black peppercorns, basic soy sauce, and plain white vinegar. Sometimes, he would get lucky in the Filipino aisle at the local Asian store and find the good stuff: Datu Puti’s sukang maasim and dark soy sauce, which was less salty and imparted an incomparably rich caramel hue. When he did, he could transform our chilly kitchen into a fiesta for our town — population: 3.
“Ladled over steaming white rice and served with thick wedges of tomato and my mom’s delicately sweet-sour cucumber salad, that adobo warmed our winters more than our struggling furnace ever could. Better yet were the chilly mornings when it would reappear — shredded, crispy, and adorned with an egg – in adobo fried rice.
“My dad’s adobo was passed down through his mother, my Lola Baby, who was originally from Tuguegarao. He never measured anything, and I doubt she did either. It was less a recipe than an archetype; a standard of flavor that, through repetition, she knew and he knew and now, I know. This became important when my dad left the Philippines. In our adopted homeland, consistent access to the same, high-quality ingredients was never guaranteed. Sometimes the chicken released too much water, or the soy sauce was too salty. Garlic abroad lacks the biting pungency of the little bulbs (native garlic from Ilocos) sold in Manila wet markets. And of course, nothing could compare to the mind-clearing acidity of Philippine vinegar. But with a tasting spoon and a few kitchen tricks — a sprinkle of salt, a sly teaspoon of sugar — my dad controlled for these variables. Each batch of adobo was always as perfect as the last, ever more eternal in my mind.
“It would have tickled my Lola to see where it had traveled over the years: to northern Ontario on camping expeditions with families who packed rice cookers with their tents; to Toronto’s many parks during its brief, glorious summers; to Buffalo hotel rooms during spring break, when the thought of eating bland American food for an entire week was unimaginable; and to New York City, where it accompanied me to my first East Village apartment when I left Toronto for graduate school 13 years ago. Its vinegary backbone made it a staple for long trips away from home.
“Over the years, I have come to see my family adobo as a portal to a world that I had visited only a few times — once a year when we had the money — a world in which my concepts of heritage, family, and place emerged and took shape. Its sourness was the key. The shock of vinegar called to mind the mouth-puckering kamias I plucked and ate from the tree of the Manila home where my dad grew up; the soft morsels of santol that my Lola studded with rock salt and fed me with her fingers, and our shared taste for pickles and olives and other tart things; exotic sinigangs spiked with guava and dayap; the toyomansi accompanying grilled liempo for my titos (uncles) that I sipped straight from the bowl, while they drank from sweating bottles of San Miguel at dusk.
“When I left home, my worried parents called every night to ask what, and how, I was eating. My dad, despite being a terrific cook and voracious eater, never walked me through the steps of his dishes because he was so intent on getting dinner on the table, so he assumed I didn’t know how to feed myself. Good thing I had a knack for observation. One night, when they asked what I had for dinner, I told them I had made chicken-pork adobo. “‘You know how to make adobo?’ they asked. “‘How could I not?’ I replied.
“Over the years I’ve picked up some culinary techniques from chefs and relatives with more time and patience for kitchen finessing than my dad, whose prime directive was to cook well and quickly, so that the people he loved could eat right away. In my early 20s, my uncle Toti Manasan, a marvelously refined cook, taught me to crisp the meat and reduce the adobo sauce until it resembled a luxurious demi-glace, which I now do when serving a dinner party.
In 2019, the Filipinx chef Angela Dimayuga published a coconut milk adobo recipe in The New York Times that I occasionally take inspiration from when I’m feeling opulent. But, despite the sporadic variation or flourish, my dad’s vinegary adobo has become the standard in the home I now share with my Filipino fiancé in the Lower East Side, every meal a through line to generations past and those to come.”