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Project: Adobo

By CLAUDE TAYAG, The Philippine STAR Published Oct 07, 2021 5:00 am

I know, I know. So much has been said already about the DTI-BPS’s attempt to standardize our adobo. It’s like having garlicky longganisa for breakfast, and, come dinnertime, one still burps its odious smell so that even a socially distanced person six feet away can smell it, mask or no mask. It hit a raw nerve in every Filipino’s gut. No amount of mouthwash would make it go away.

On the other hand, I actually welcome this fiasco. It has opened an international discussion on how to cook the Filipino adobo properly, if such a thing exists. After all, Filipinos are found in all four corners of the globe. And each one will claim theirs is the best adobo there is.

The consensus was, no matter how one cooks it, it’s all okay. The only correct and best way, really, is the one you grew up with. 

I attended a Zoom webinar sometime last month, entitled “Tiene Un Nombre Español, Pero Tiene Un Sabor Filipino” (“It Has A Spanish Name, But It Has A Filipino Flavor”), billed as conversations on our cooking and culinary history with the Spanish-speaking peoples of the world. 

It was organized by our embassy in Argentina, NCCA and DOT, and facilitated by heritage food advocate Clang Garcia and food historian Felice P. Sta. Maria.

And, across the great Pacific Ocean in Buenos Aires, Argentina, was my honorary kabalen, chef/ restaurateur Christina Sunae, the author of a recently published cookbook, Kusinera Filipina.

It’s probably the first Filipino cookbook written in Spanish, targeting the South American countries with a shared colonial past with us and madre España itself. Inevitably, the conversation led to comparing our adobo to the Latin American adobos, as two adobo recipes are found in chef Christina’s Kusinera book.

During the Q&A portion, someone asked whether to marinate first or boil straight away, while another asked whether to boil first and fry later, or is it vice-versa? The consensus was, no matter how one cooks it, it’s all okay. The only correct and best way, really, is the one you grew up with. 

As an aside, our daing na bangus is technically a Spanish adobo — milkfish marinated in vinegar, garlic, salt and black peppercorn, and then fried to a crisp. It’s the fried pescado adobado in Spain.

The Filipino adobo

First off, let us define what the Filipino adobo is. In the Filipino context, adobo is a cooking technique, braising with vinegar, and not a dish per se. It is quite different in meaning from the Spanish adobo, a marinade with vinegar and spices. It’s the same in Mexico and all the other Latin American countries colonized by Spain; they each have their own blend of adobo marinades.

Most of our dishes are named after the manner in which they are cooked, i.e. adobo (to braise in vinegar), sinigang  (to boil with a sour fruit), inihaw/ inasal  (to grill over charcoal), kinilaw (raw seafood washed with vinegar), lechon  (to roast in an open pit), etc.

In Filipino cooking, a dish conforms with the maker and not with a codified recipe, whether in its preparation or in the ingredients used.

There’s a lot of latitude for interpretation, not to mention the availability of ingredients, personal preference of the maker/ household, religious/ dietary restrictions, and what the purse can afford.

There are as many adobos, sinigang, kinilaw, etc., as there are households. And there’s not one correct or wrong way to do it. Ultimately, the best adobo, sinigang, kinilaw, ad nauseum, is the one your mother made.

But, in all these dishes, there’s a general “baseline” recipe to follow. For adobo, it’s braising with vinegar, period. All the other ingredients and seasonings will depend on the maker.

Never serve the adobo dish the same hour it is cooked. Like most stews cooked with vinegar or tomato sauce, allow the acidity to mellow, the flavors to meld, and the meat to absorb all the flavors.

The Ilocano igado (pork meat, liver, heart and lungs braised in vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, bay leaf); Tagalog paksiw na pata (pig’s trotters braised in vinegar, garlic, bay leaf, black pepper, dried banana blossoms); the Kapampangan kilain/ kilayin (quite similar to igado above but without soy sauce); and the Ilonggo pinamalhan  (fish simmered in vinegar, garlic, turmeric, ginger, other spices until almost dry, from the root word “mala” or “to run dry,” aka reduction) – are all technically different kinds of adobo in the manner they are cooked, albeit retaining their original regional names.

Had the DTI-BPS done its homework, it could have saved itself from this self-inflicted brouhaha.

There are countless cookbooks with our adobo in it, locally and internationally. It is well known around the world and, I tell you, it’s always referred to as the “Filipino Adobo.” There’s very little to zero possibility that it will be mistaken for the Spanish or Mexican adobos, let alone “your adobo won't become  paksiw or humba, or your menudo won't become afritada.” 

 The Adobo Book by Reynaldo G. Alejandro and Nancy Reyes-Lumen, Anvil Publishing, Inc. 2004

These are all hardly known abroad. Besides, isn’t it DOT’s mandate to promote internationally everything Filipino in the first place? Someone is stepping on someone else’s toes.

Of the more than a hundred adobo recipes I’ve come across, aside from the baseline ingredient, vinegar, they all have in common, they were all cooked up close and personally. It’s part of one’s culinary heritage. And nobody can take that away. 

How to cook the ‘second-best’ adobo in the world

I say “second-best” because your adobo recipe is the best, of course.

The ideal liempo or pork belly cut is called lechon kawali in our local supermarkets. Choose the slabs without the ribs if available (bacon cut).

Have the lechon kawali slab cut into two-inch cubes. In photo are two kilos of pork cubes.

Marinate with the adobo mix in a re- sealable plastic bag to be able to turn it over for even marination. Don’t include yet the garlic and bay leaves.

Braising the pork cubes: Heat a thick-bottomed pan, add a tablespoon of cooking oil, and place the cubes one at a time. Do not overcrowd. Do a second batch using the same pan and oil.

Keep frying until brown, then turn each one and brown as well. Set aside.

Secret ingredient: Using the same pan, lay down the pork skin. Note the somewhat burnt particles from the frying are an essential part in creating a flavorful adobo.

Put back all the browned pork cubes into the pan, covering the skin underneath. Pour the remaining marinade, plus a cup or two of water. Now add the minced garlic and bay leaves.

When tender, remove the lid and allow the liquid to evaporate, while still simmering over low heat. Scoop out about half of the sauce and set aside.

Oh, my lard! Rendered fat from the cooked pork adobo. The brown part at the bottom is the sauce.

Fried pork adobo: Use the lard to further fry the cooked adobo meat, in chunks or pulled, for a crisp finish.

The ideal liempo or pork belly cut is called lechon kawali in our local supermarkets. Choose the slabs without the ribs if available (bacon cut).

Have the lechon kawali slab cut into two-inch cubes. In photo are two kilos of pork cubes.

Marinate with the adobo mix in a re- sealable plastic bag to be able to turn it over for even marination. Don’t include yet the garlic and bay leaves.

Braising the pork cubes: Heat a thick-bottomed pan, add a tablespoon of cooking oil, and place the cubes one at a time. Do not overcrowd. Do a second batch using the same pan and oil.

Keep frying until brown, then turn each one and brown as well. Set aside.

Secret ingredient: Using the same pan, lay down the pork skin. Note the somewhat burnt particles from the frying are an essential part in creating a flavorful adobo.

Put back all the browned pork cubes into the pan, covering the skin underneath. Pour the remaining marinade, plus a cup or two of water. Now add the minced garlic and bay leaves.

When tender, remove the lid and allow the liquid to evaporate, while still simmering over low heat. Scoop out about half of the sauce and set aside.

Oh, my lard! Rendered fat from the cooked pork adobo. The brown part at the bottom is the sauce.

Fried pork adobo: Use the lard to further fry the cooked adobo meat, in chunks or pulled, for a crisp finish.

CLOSE

In cooking our adobo, dare I say to follow this as a cardinal rule: Never serve the adobo dish the same hour it is cooked. Like most stews cooked with vinegar or tomato sauce, allow the acidity to mellow, the flavors to meld, and the meat to absorb all the flavors.

Haven’t you noticed that any adobo dish always tastes better when reheated the next day(s)?

With more than 150 recipes in the Adobo Book, co-author Nancy Reyes-Lumen, the self-proclaimed Adobo Queen, listed 14 commandments in cooking adobo. In parenthesis are my notes.

For 1 kilo meat, use:
1/2 cup native vinegar (1/3 for less acidity) ,
2-4 tbsps soy sauce (3 tbsps),
5-10 black peppercorns,
1 laurel leaf (fresh, if available),
a generous amount of garlic, crushed only when about to be used to retain its strong flavor.

While the last, Rule No. 14, shows the flow chart in cooking adobo: “Marinate (preferably overnight), braise, simmer, tenderize, fry, reduce, keep for a day, serve!”

Glenda Rosales-Barretto of Via Mare Restaurant invented adobo flakes in 1975. She thought of frying leftover chicken and pork adobo to please her father, who loved everything fried to a crisp. It’s been on the Filipino’s adobo repertoire ever since.

Adobo, she wrote

On the question of whether to stew the meat first and fry afterward or vice-versa, Nancy swears by her house help’s method: “To produce the stickiest, tastiest, fattest kind of pork adobo, use liempo (Rule No. 1 above). Brown the meat first, then cook with the marinade. When the meat is tender and the oil from the meat is rendered, add some more lard to the dish very slowly as it simmers. This will thicken the sauce, just as it will thicken your waistline. The cooking is over low flame till the very end.”

Nancy recalls with nostalgia her grandmother’s pork adobo: “The secret to my Lola Asiang’s adobo (Aristocrat Restaurant’s founder) is the extra square foot of pork skin at the bottom of the gigantic cauldron, boiling and getting tender, almost melted and turned into gelatin, which thickened the sauce and caused it to be sticky. It kept the pork cuts tender and juicy and deep-down malinamnam (yummy).”

And she waxed poetic: “Nobody was allowed to touch the sticky, dark, soy-sauce based stuff with the note of caramel, the aroma of sweet garlic, and a rounded sourness and saltiness perfectly balanced with the pork cubes till Day 2. We (the grandchildren) craved it. We daydreamed about it! With fond memories, we remember how it tasted! It was certainly the best adobo in history.”

No one can argue with memory, much less standardize a dish’s recipe.

Pardon me while I’m off to the kitchen to do Lola Asiang’s pork adobo recipe, with that extra pork skin to boot (wink, wink).