In this chapter, we continue our search for the holy grail of Filipino adobos, with more contributions from Filipino chefs and friends. Though they may be separated by great distances, with their respective adobo dishes so disparate in ingredients, preparation and appearance, one would realize how early memories of food as a child is carried on into adulthood. It’s the feel-good memory of home, no matter where their paths may have taken them.
The combination of the thick adobo sauce, chicken, pork (liempo or belly cut), chicken liver, tomatoes with patis, and sinangag, or garlic fried rice, is just heavenly.
And another thing they have in common: the adobo/rice somehow would taste best if using one’s hands (kamayan), with one foot lifted up onto your seat. How can one compete with memory? The best adobo, really, is where they left their heart.
1. Chef Jessie Sincioco waxes nostalgic about her childhood in Angat, Bulacan: “When we were growing up, we always looked forward to Saturday because it was “ADOBO DAY!” Our mother, Carmen Cruz Sincioco, would serve us different versions of adobo. It could be just chicken, pork, beef or fish, or any vegetable like eggplants, string beans, kangkong, sigarillas/wing beans, etc. But the one we all liked best was the combination of chicken, pork with whole chicken livers!”
“The chicken livers have to be grilled over charcoal, so they’ll cook through properly. The ones that are perfectly grilled intact are mixed with the adobo meat, while the rest, she mashes and mixes with the sauce right before serving, resulting in a thicker-than-normal, runny sauce. I love eating this with a sawsawan (dipping sauce) of ripe tomatoes and patis (fish sauce)! Ahh… I can almost taste it!
“The combination of the thick adobo sauce, chicken, pork (liempo or belly cut), chicken liver, tomatoes with patis, and sinangag, or garlic fried rice, is just heavenly.
“Oh, before I forget, the ripe tomatoes have to be mashed by hand (pinisak), not sliced with a knife. The extracted tomato juices will mix well with the patis. Speaking of which, the patis has to be the unang tulo, or first press (highest grade) from Malabon. And the only vinegar we use is the sukang sasá (nipa palm vinegar) from Paombong.”
Spoken like a true Bulakeña.
2. Pastry chef Rhea Sycip runs the successful Flower Pot Manila, as well as Fatted Calf Farmhouse Kitchen, together with hubby, chef Jayjay Sycip in Silang, Cavite. She shared her adobo story: “I grew up in Palawan. It is a melting pot of cultures. Cuyunon's dialect is considered as a regional Visayan language in the island, but with the rapidly increasing migration, Tagalog is predominantly spoken by locals, together with Palawanon and Ilonggo. My mother hails from San Vicente, Palawan, and is a living example of such colorful cultures. Her mother is a mestiza from Zamboanga while her father is a migrant with roots from Cebu and Iloilo, whose entire clan occupied different towns in Palawan.
“Our mom, Nanay, makes her adobo by first marinating the pork belly in fresh crushed garlic, and leaves it for an hour or two. White peppercorn, a little of brown sugar, laurel, two parts soy sauce is massaged into the meat afterwards. One part vinegar, preferably tuba from our coconut trees. She then pours enough water to cover the meat. She leaves it for another hour before slow cooking it until the fat renders and all of the liquid is gone. The end result is a glistening stew with melt-in-the-mouth fat that crushes beautifully over piping-hot rice. My sister and I used to fight over what was left of the sauce, tilting the palayok (clay pot) to get the oil.
“Our adobo is never chilled. Instead, Nanay wraps the palayok with ‘good morning’ towels and lets it sit on the breakfast counter for weeks. It lasts that long because it gets better through time, so we don't eat everything in one sitting. So nice to make kwento and reminisce about my Nanay's cooking.”
3. Dennis Lim is the eponymous chef/owner of DenLim’s Kitchen in the city of San Fernando, Pampanga. He wrote through email: “I grew up in an environment where everyone in the family, myself included, was busy running and managing our bakeshop at the time. Due to our busy schedule, my family’s go-to dish is adobong manok. It’s really easy to make, yet it offers great satisfaction to those who eat the comfort food of many Filipinos.
“We’d go to the market to buy raw chicken, then we would prepare the chicken to be marinated in good-quality vinegar, soy sauce, fish sauce, garlic, and black pepper — the typical ingredients you’d use in making adobo.
“Originally, after the chicken marinates, we’d place it inside the pugon (wood-fired oven) to be half-cooked. And then it would be fried on a pan, adding soy sauce and vinegar for its sarsa. And that’s it, simple as that! The wood-fired oven baking offers this smoky flavor from the burning wood, and it speeds up the process of cooking — perfect for our busy home.
“But since we don’t have the pugon anymore, we changed our original method of cooking adobo. We grill the chicken instead. The grilling over charcoal infuses the smoky aroma and flavor into the chicken. After which, it is simmered with the adobo marinade and a little water until it is fully cooked. With your first bite of the adobo, you’ll instantly be greeted by bursting peppery, savory and umami flavors. It will leave you speechless.
“Whether eaten before or in between working at the bakeshop to fuel us up, it will keep us going through the day. Or even after a long day of running the bakeshop, a scrumptious, aromatic, and comforting inihaw na adobo eaten with rice is just what we need to fill up our tummies with delight, as a reward to ourselves for getting the job done at the bakery.
4. Chef Jordy Navarra of Toyo Eatery has been known for his very inventive interpretations of Filipino cuisine. But when it comes to cooking adobo, he goes back to down-home basics in its preparation. He wrote: “Growing up, our house didn’t really cook adobo that much. Personally, I prefer the adobo that’s dry and crispy. Recently though, I’ve grown fond of the adobo that one of the chefs makes for our staff meal. It’s a traditional take on adobo, which uses pork belly, but with the addition of potatoes. The starch from the potatoes adds silkiness to the adobo’s sauce, because of which we end up cooking more rice.
“This is the basic recipe: 1 kg pork belly, 100 gm soy sauce, 100 gm vinegar, 20 gm sugar, 2 whole garlic bulbs, 2 pcs chili, 2 large potatoes, and 3-4 bay leaves. Slice the pork belly and the potatoes into bite-sized chunks. Sear the pork and make sure to brown each side, and then set aside. In the same pan, caramelize the garlic. In a bowl, mix the soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, and chili. Return the pork to the pan and add the liquid mixture, followed by the bay leaves and the potatoes. Set your burner on high until it boils and then lower to medium-low. Reduce the liquid until thick. And then you’re done!”
5. My bossing, Mary Ann (I luv you, Darl, wink, wink) grew up with her grandma, Apung Pepang de la Cruz, in Mabalacat City, Pampanga. Though Apung Pepang couldn’t cook, she was known to be fastidious when it came to the affairs of the kitchen. Being a sugar planter, she had the means and knowhow how to make at home aslam atbu (cane vinegar), burung asan (fermented rice with fish), burung talangka, heko (shrimp paste residue, aka purple Chinese bagoong), nata de coco, kalame nasi (rice cake), jaleyang ube (ube jam), jaleyang gatas damulag (carabao’s milk), etc.
Periodically, she would send her driver to Bulacan to buy bihon (rice noodles), sotanghon (vermicelli), and to Malabon for the unang-tulo patis (premium, first-pressed fish sauce), and even up north to Calasiao, Pangasinan, for its famous puto.
She had trained her cook of more than 50 years, Mang Saning (“Mama” to Mary Ann and her siblings) to do most everything from scratch.
Mary Ann recalls with longing Apung Saning’s chicken/pork adobo sa puti (without soy sauce): “Chicken and fatty pork cubes are boiled with aslam atbu (cane vinegar), black peppercorns, bay leaves, salt and some water in a palayok (black clay pot.) In a separate pan, crushed garlic is sautéed, and then the cooked chicken and pork pieces are fried until brown. The remaining liquid from the adobo pot is poured into the frying pan and simmered for a few minutes. This adobo will only be served the following day. If eaten for breakfast or dinner (never for lunch; don’t ask me why), the adobo meats will be fried dry, to be served with sinangag of Milagrosa rice, and flavored with patis, not the usual salt. Mind you, the sinangag has to be loose rice grains pan-fried until almost toasted. And there’s a sawsawan of hand-crushed, very ripe tomatoes and heko.
An alternate way of having the adobo for breakfast is with pandesal. The old-style, crusty pandesal is sliced open like an open clam, with its soft center removed. The adobo meat is deboned and pulled into strips. This is used as filling. Coarse sea salt is sprinkled over it. Every time I have this, it’s like I’m eating with my Apu and Ma.” (Photo of pulled-pork adobo pandesal by Claude Tayag)
6. “Ganito tayo noon, ganito pa rin ngayon,” an 1867 watercolor depiction of Filipinos eating in a roadside karinderia by José Honorato Lozano: Note the man in the foreground is eating with his hand, and one foot resting on the bench. Bakit lalo sumasarap ang pagkain natin ’pag kinakamay?