Mention the word “adobo” to any Filipino, wherever he may find himself in the world, and his mouth will start to salivate for that taste of home. It will titillate his palate like a symphony of subtle sour, salty, garlicky, and peppery linamnam, or yummy flavors like no other. Eaten with hot, steaming rice, sinangag (garlic fried rice), or even pan de sal, nothing will beat this combination any time of the day or night. Just a sniff of this aromatic, comforting dish wafting in the air will bring him back to his childhood back home. It is the link that connects generations through food like an unbroken chain.
Adobo, in the Filipino context, could mean both the cooking method and the cooked dish. And that’s where all the confusion starts.
Any vegetable, plant-based protein, seafood or meat can be cooked the adobo way: simmering it with vinegar with variable seasonings and spices. It can be simply boiled straightaway, or marinated first and then braised (pan-fried till the meat’s oil is rendered), and then simmered with its marinade and water until tender, with the option to fry further to a crisp. The leftover chicken or pork adobo could be shredded (think pulled meat), and then deep-fried into adobo flakes.
Whichever, the Pinoy adobo is perhaps the country’s most popular dish, but at the same time the most controversial. Countless variants are created so it would be inaccurate to call it a singular dish, let alone a national dish. To say there are 7,640 recipes of our adobo is an understatement; there are as many kinds of adobo as there are households.
Chapter 1: Homebase
Starting this week, I’m kicking off a series on the Pinoy adobo here and around the world, past and present. I’m culling from old and contemporary Filipino cookbooks, locally and foreign published. I’ll be also asking professional chefs and home cooks to contribute as well, again, locally and internationally, too.
Hopefully, I will feature around six to 10 adobo stories each week (space permitting), and continue to do so for the next several weeks until the proverbial 80 is reached.
I’d like to invite the reading public to share their family’s adobo: The one you grew up with, its main ingredient, what vinegar is used (if known), how it is done, and what makes it so special to you. We’re interested to hear its narrative, not necessarily the recipe. After all, the only correct and best adobo, really, is your mother’s adobo. Period.
Vinegar is one of the most indispensable ingredients in a Filipino kitchen. It has been used for centuries, not just for seasoning, but as a natural preservative as well. It is also widely used in pickling fruits and vegetables, i.e. atsara and burong mangga, santol, etc. Vinegar is also the much-favored dipping sauce throughout the archipelago. Thus, the late Doreen G. Fernandez, the grande dame of Filipino food writers, wrote in the book Tikim (1994, Anvil Publishing): “The many varieties of paksiw/ adobo/ kinilaw not only confirm the use of vinegar for preservation in pre-refrigeration days, but also attest to the Filipinos predilection for sourness as flavor.”
Vinegars are made from the fermented nectar, sap, or juices of certain plants or fruits and, as such, specific vinegars are favored in particular regions, depending on what it is made from, usually a plant that grows abundantly in the particular area. It is called suká in Ilocano, Tagalog, Cebuano and Bicolano; silám in Ivatan; aslám in Pampango; and langgaw in Ilonggo.
Paksiw na bangus: Food historian Felice Sta. Maria wrote that the earliest mention of and definition for pacsio appeared in the undated, unfinished, and unpublished handwritten manuscript of Vocabulario de la Lengua Tagala compiled by the Dominican friar Francisco Blancas de San Jose around 1609. It was defined as escabeche or “cook something in vinegar to be kept for eating another day.” It is the cooking process using vinegar as its primary liquid source. Even when the term adobo/arobo was adopted into the natives’ cooking vocabulary, it meant to cook in vinegar, and not the Spanish “marinade” as a prelude to cooking with heat.
Vinegar reduction: Basically a paksiw dish cooked in vinegar until almost dry. Pinamalhan nga isda is a hallmark of Iloilo’s simple and uncomplicated cooking. Chef Tibong Jardeleza, an Iloilo heritage-cuisine advocate, waxes nostalgic over pinamalhan: “One Ilonggo dish that stands out is the pinamalhan nga isda sa kamatis kag tuba nga langgaw, or fish cooked in coconut vinegar reduction with tomatoes. I have fond memories of our cooks, cooking every Thursdays the employees’ meal of laswa (boiled vegetable soup) and pairing it with pinamalhan nga isda. It may be salmonete (red mullet), bilong-bilong (moonfish) or any other fish. It is eaten as pinamalhan or fried further to a crisp. It was really just sooo darn good that I would always end up eating with the employees, rather than the main dining table. You can just imagine the smiles on their faces, seeing me with the biggest smile while licking my fingers clean. I always ended up eating more than their share. From then on, laswa and pinamalhan was a Thursday thing at home.” Pinamalhan is exclusively done with fish, while adobado refers to meats sautéed first with garlic in atsuete oil, simmered with vinegar and water, since meats take longer to cook.
Lagat itú (aka adobong itu, catfish adobo) is a good example of a dish’s original, indigenous name not being lost in history. Lagat means “stew” in Pampango, while itu is catfish. It is basically a stew simmered in vinegar, seasoned with garlic, ginger, turmeric and alagao leaves (Premna odorata).
Kilain is a quirky kind of regional adobo that has kept its original name and form spanning several generations. It is a very popular breakfast dish in Pampanga, and all the Kapampangan speaking people of Tarlac province: Bamban, Concepcion, Capas, Tarlac City, as well as Dinalupihan, Bataan, and Gapan, Nueva Ecija.
It’s so popular, in fact, that it’s sold in wet markets of the places mentioned above as a set. One kilo of raw kilain will get you a combination of specific pork cuts conforming with traditional dictum: kasim (shoulder) and liver are pre-sliced to uniform sizes, and lungs are chopped finely. Once in the kitchen, the meat cuts are soaked in a cup of vinegar, preferably the cloudy white sasá from nipa palm. It is then simmered in a pan till it dries up, with the rendered fat coming to a sizzle. Chopped garlic, onion and bay leaf are added, as well as salt and pepper for seasoning. A cup or two of water is added and simmered further to tenderize the meats. Kilain is always served the following morning after it is cooked, with garlic fried rice, egg and tuyô (dried salted fish) on the side. It keeps well without refrigeration.
Slow food, as slow as it gets: This is classic adobo sa puti, so-called because of the absence of soy sauce. Salt or patis (fish sauce) is used as seasoning. Like most stews cooked with vinegar, allow the acidity to mellow, the flavors to meld, and the meat to absorb all the flavors by serving it the next day. Haven’t you noticed that our adobo tastes better when reheated the following day(s)?
Adobo sa puti is indigenous to our archipelago, dating back to pre-colonial times, as noted by American food historian Raymond Sokolov. It should not be confused with the Spanish and Latin American adobos, which for them is a marinade of vinegar, paprika, garlic and other spices. And after the marination, the meat still has to be cooked by frying or roasting.
How then did the Spanish word adobo come into use in the Philippines? When the Spaniards arrived in the Philippines in the 16th century, they encountered a cooking method commonly used by the natives that involved stewing with vinegar. For lack of a better term, perhaps, they simply referred to it as “adobo” due to its seeming similarity to their adobo. “Parece nuestro adobo” must have been the observation.
Adobo ni Juan Tamad, guilty as charged! Everything is dumped into a pot and boiled straightaway, until the meat is tender. Its dark color is due to the addition of toyo as its seasoning, introduced to us by Chinese traders during the pre-Hispanic era.
This is the pork adobo served in most karinderias or roadside eateries. Being a quick-turnover operation, it has to sell everything cooked for the day, within the same day, hence there’s no time to let the adobo mellow the next day. Besides, this is the kind of adobo that has been giving Pinoy cuisine a bad rap: it’s all brown and oily.
With the fatty meat swimming in its own lard, it actually stretches the ulam, or is actually a major part of it. It satisfies Juan’s habit of flavoring the rice first with copious amounts of that oily sauce. And that’s the way he likes it.
Some cooking trivia: It’s an old-wives’ tale that by placing a spoon or fork into a boiling pot of meat, it will tenderize faster. While metal can be heated to more than 1,000°C, a metal spoon, while submerged in the water, will not heat up beyond the water’s temperature of 100°C. Likewise, one is not supposed to stir the pot once it starts boiling. Beats the hell out of me why not. Tell that to the marines.
Paksiw na pata is a kind of adobo sa puti (without soy sauce) that has persisted in being called otherwise. If one considers paksiw a cooking process with vinegar as its primary source of liquid, then this is definitely one. But, on the other hand, with all its ingredients put together and boiled straightaway, it qualifies to be called an adobo, too. Regardless, what’s not to love about this pig’s trotters stew with dried banana blossoms, with all its glorious melt-in-the-mouth, gelatinous skin and sticky cartilage? Its milky-white thick sauce is just perfect to pour over hot, steaming rice. Give me collagen from its natural source of origin and not a capsule from a pharmaceutical company.