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In 1883, José Rizal, the future hero and martyr of the Philippine Revolution, was a homesick medical student abroad in Madrid. His longing for bagoong, a paste of seafood salted and left to ferment until it exudes a fathomless funk, grew so great that his worried family in Manila dispatched a jar. But it broke on the ship, releasing its pungent scent and, reportedly, terrifying the passengers.
Today, bagoong and other Filipino foods are finally entering the American mainstream, more than a century after the United States Navy sailed into Manila Bay, sank the Spanish Armada and took control of the archipelago, a restive colony of around 7,100 islands and 180 languages. Americans of Filipino heritage now make up one in five of all Asian-Americans, second only to Chinese in number, and the largest percentage of immigrants serving in the United States military were born in the Philippines.
Other Asian cuisines have been part of the American landscape for decades. But only in recent years have Filipino dishes started gaining recognition outside immigrant communities, at restaurants like Maharlika in New York; Bad Saint in Washington, D.C.; and Lasa in Los Angeles.
The flavors of Filipino cooking, like Rizal’s broken jar of bagoong, still have the power to startle those unfamiliar with them.
Although Filipino food draws on early encounters with Malay, Chinese and Arab traders as well as centuries of Spanish occupation, its profile is distinct: salty and sour above all, with less of the mitigating sweetness and chile-stoked fire found in the cooking of its Southeast Asian neighbors.
Bagoong — ranging from muddy brown to plumeria pink in color, commonly made of tiny krill, anchovies or bonnetmouths — brings to soups and stews a depth of flavor that evokes cheese interred in caves and aged steak, with an extra dimension of ocean floor.
It also may be eaten straight, daubed on rice or anointing slices of green mango. Along with its byproduct, patis (fish sauce), it’s an essential seasoning that claims a place on the table next to suka (vinegar) and banana ketchup (bananas cooked down in vinegar and tomato paste), as much a condiment as an ingredient.
As such, it’s part of what the Manila-born food historian Doreen Fernandez termed a “galaxy of flavor-adjusters” that define how Filipinos eat: seasonings added to dishes after they’re served, in trickles and pinches, according to each diner’s taste. A chef feeding Filipinos must sublimate ego and accept that no dish emerges from the kitchen fully finished. A meal is a joint effort between cooks and eaters.
IF BAGOONG IS THE SALT, suka is the sour lifeblood of the cuisine. Extracted from sugar cane or the sap from coconut trees or nipa palms, it was originally a necessary preservative in a warm climate.
How to take the bounty of fish from the surrounding seas and make it last? Cure it in suka and it becomes kinilaw, an ancient recipe that may have been one of the earliest forms of ceviche. To this might be added the bite of ginger, the silkiness of coconut milk, or a sunny kiss of calamansi, which has a sharper sting than lime.
For another staple, daing na bangus, milkfish is relieved of its bones, splayed and soaked in vinegar overnight for tenderness, then crisped in a pan. You can eat the flesh with a spoon.
Lumpia, cousins to Chinese spring rolls, are dunked in sawsawan (dipping sauce), which may be as straightforward as vinegar with a stutter of raw garlic. The rolls come fried to a crackle or “fresh,” with uncooked, doughy skins that suggest crepes, and filled with anything from ground meat to hearts of palm to whole green finger chiles, a variation called, rightly, dynamite.
Vinegar is the undertow, too, in adobo, perhaps the best known of Filipino dishes, whose ingredients and method predate its Spanish name. (“It’s really ours,” said Romy Dorotan, the chef of Purple Yam in Brooklyn.) At its base, adobo is a long braise of meat in vinegar and garlic, but other ingredients are up for debate: Some swear by soy sauce while others dismiss it as an import; some stir in achuete oil (made from annatto seeds), coconut milk, sugar or squid ink.
Of all Filipino dishes, adobo “has the most leeway for a cook’s imagination, hubris, art or bigoted sense of one’s own mother’s love-and-greatness,” the novelist Gina Apostol said. There are nearly as many manifestations of adobo as there are Filipinos.
But is adobo the dish that speaks most directly to the Filipino soul? Ms. Fernandez argued otherwise, in favor of sinigang, a soup she described as “the dish most representative of Filipino taste,” in part because it’s adaptable “to all classes and budgets.” Recipes differ, but the goal is the same: a sourness so profound that the first sip should make you shudder.
“Sinigang is what my mother would make for me when I was sick,” said Alexandra Cuerdo, the director of the documentary “Ulam: Main Dish,” about the rise of Filipino food in America, which is set to premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival next month.
The souring agent in sinigang changes by the map: It might be tamarind, guava, alibangbang leaves, kamias (the fruit of the sorrel tree), batuan (kin to mangosteen) or unripe pineapple — whatever is on hand in the region. Place matters to Filipinos, who often have tangled roots as a result of internal migration and speak multiple languages.
At Lasa, the chef Chad Valencia uses rhubarb for sinigang when it’s in season. “Our region is Los Angeles,” he said.
STILL, NO ONE DISH can sum up the Filipino palate. “A feast of different flavors is optimal,” said Nicole Ponseca, who runs Maharlika and Jeepney in New York. “Sauces meld, complement, make whole.”
To balance the sourness of adobo and sinigang, she suggests kare-kare, a nutty-sweet stew of oxtail, bok choy, string beans and eggplant, traditionally simmered with ground peanuts and achuete oil; peanut butter, a modern substitute, lends voluptuousness.
The history of kare-kare is often traced to a 20-month interregnum in the 18th century when the British wrested Manila from the Spanish. Indian cooks attending the Royal Navy brought the name and notion of curry to the islands, and had to make do with local spices.
Kare-kare, sinigang and adobo are likely to appear on most Filipino menus in the United States, from turo-turo (point-point) steam-table joints to sophisticated restaurants. So, too, is dinuguan, a pork-blood stew that can pose a challenge even for Filipinos.
“When I was growing up, dinuguan was a kind of culinary boogeyman, a dish that adults would tell gory stories about to scare children,” said Genevieve Villamora, one of the owners of Bad Saint.
The opaque stew, classically loaded with offal, is often passed off by Filipino immigrant parents as “chocolate meat” to their suspicious children. King Phojanakong, the chef of Kuma Inn in New York, remembers wondering, “Why was it so dark?”
But the mineral-rich blood is what gives the stew its ballast and faintly metallic hint of a licked knife. It must be cooked carefully so that the blood doesn’t congeal; done right, it turns to velvet. At Bad Saint, dinuguan has become one of the best-selling dishes, without the veil of euphemism.
IF COOKING IS A VEHICLE for memory, for many Filipinos the dishes of their heritage are inseparable from days of celebration. “Food marks the occasion,” said Angela Dimayuga, who grew up in the Bay Area and was most recently the chef of Mission Chinese Food in New York.
It’s considered particularly lucky to eat pancit (noodles) on birthdays, their uncut strands promising long life. The name of the noodles is derived from a Hokkien phrase for “fast food.” Like their Chinese antecedents, they come in different shapes and textures: miki (made with egg), bihon (rice), sotanghon (mung bean) and canton (wheat). Recipes might include sluices of soy sauce and calamansi and toppings of shrimp heads, quail eggs, shucked oysters or chicharron.
For the highest occasion — like Ms. Dimayuga’s grandmother’s 99th birthday last year — there can be only one centerpiece: lechon, whole roasted pig, its shining, lacquer-thin skin primed to shatter.
“It’s trendy here to go head to tail, but there it’s just a way of life,” Mr. Phojanakong said. After a party, the lechon is broken down: “You use the head for sisig” — a sizzle of jowl and ears — “trotters for adobo, make dinuguan with blood and innards and turn leftovers into paksiw,” a vinegary stew contoured with a pâté-like liver spread.
The backdrop to these dishes is always rice. Its earthy scent is the constant when you walk into a Filipino home, almost a ripening in the air. To Ms. Fernandez, rice was “the shaper of other foods,” its soothing blandness allowing other dishes to be stronger in contrast.
Glutinous rice is used, too, for kakanin, a genre of snacks that includes puto, little steamed cakes of ground rice and coconut milk, often accompanying dinuguan; suman, logs of sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves; and thick, gilded rounds of bibingka, perfumed with coconut and somehow fluffy and chewy at once.
Wheat, which came to the Philippines with the Spanish, also has its place in daily life. At any time of day, pan de sal, a simple bread roll, is nourishment. Isa Fabro, a pastry chef in Los Angeles, slakes hers in butter suffused with ube halaya (a jam of purple yam) and latik, a coconut-milk concentrate close in spirit to dulce de leche.
Some popular desserts that have European origins are now thought of as wholly Filipino: wobbly leche flan, custard under a gooey drape of caramel; Sans Rival, a dacquoise-like palimpsest of cashews, meringue and buttercream, which the chef Nora Daza served in the 1970s at her Paris restaurant Aux Iles Philippines to the likes of Brigitte Bardot and Simone de Beauvoir; and mango royale, a crema de fruta turned icebox cake, with layers of cream and mangos teetering on overripe.
Beyond these greatest hits are regional specialties, which Mr. Dorotan, a native of Bicol in southeastern Luzon, wishes would get more attention. At Purple Yam, he makes laing, taro leaves simmered in coconut milk (the trademark of Bicolano cooking) until lush.
But which regional specialties does he want to see more of? He laughed. There are so many islands.
“Even I do not know,” he said.
Recipes: Mango Royale | Oxtail Stew in Peanut Sauce (Kare-Kare) | Pork Sinigang
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