Why Filipino Food is London’s Latest Love Affair (and Where to Try It) – SUITCASE Magazine

Do you know your calderetas from your kare kare? Pinay Hannah Tan-Gillies gives us the lowdown on London’s flourishing Filipino food scene.
08 July, 2022
Filipino food can only be eaten one way, and that’s family-style. The best of our cuisine is cooked lovingly at home by a lola (grandma) or tita (aunt). Bowls of adobo and sour sinigang soup are savoured by dozens of giddy relatives as they gossip affectionately about their neighbours and church friends. It’s that way for many Pinoys (a colloquial term for Filipinos).
In the Philippines, everyone is either “aunt” or “uncle” – a joyful reflection of a community that tends to treat everyone like family. And our food mirrors this warmth. To us, food is a kind of love language, designed to be shared, even when eating out.
But, with 7,641 islands – and a far-reaching diaspora – the cookbook of the Philippines is hard to sum up. A colony for 300 years, Spanish influences still permeate every aspect of the country’s culture, including in the kitchen, where hints of Chinese and other Southeast Asian flavours mingle with Iberian and indigenous elements. Filipino food is characterised by rich tomato- or soy-based stews, grilled meats and filling broths. It’s sour, salty and spicy. Stews – adobos, menudos, calderatas and even the more adventurous peanut butter-infused kare kare – are packed with flavour and thick with sauce. Lechon, a whole roast pig, is the high point of any fiesta.
Ensaladang talong, left, and a dessert at Sarap, London. | Photo credit: Thomas Alexander
It’s a melting pot of textures, spices, flavours and ingredients, always with a hint of sweetness. If you’ve ever tried Filipino spaghetti, you’ll know what I mean. Meaty, saucy dishes are accompanied by hefty bowls of rice, and by the occasional sautéed vegetable – pinakbet, gising gising or adobong kangkong. Garlic, onions, soy sauce and vinegar make up the foundations of almost every dish, so your nose always tells you when something is cooking in the kitchen. Growing up with Filipino food means I’ve developed a taste for food made with love. While every tito or tita may have his or her own recipe for the classic adobo, they are all united by that same thread: an unstuffy, home-cooked and hearty flavour – and a little bit of love – that sings when you experience it at any good Filipino restaurant.
Until recently, the UK’s relationship to Filipino cuisine had taken a backseat to its enjoyment of the bun houses and ramen joints of Chinese, Japanese and Thai cuisines, but that’s changing. In London’s ever-evolving food scene, Filipino restaurateurs have shifted the focus.
It’s a melting pot of textures, spices, flavours and ingredients, always with a hint of sweetness
Take Romulo Café. An institution in family-style Filipino food, it landed in South Kensington in 2016 as one of London’s first Filipino fine-dining restaurants. The interiors look like they could be a dining room in the Romulo family estate in Manila, and fit perfectly into Kensington’s glitzy restaurant scene – all baroque flourishes and haughty family oil portraits. Here, you’ll dine between the glamorous titas and titos of London (so behave). The menu is rich and diverse, with distinctly Western touches meeting old-school classics: think scottish salmon tamarind sinigang, and a heady truffled pork belly adobo.
Then, there’s the family-owned, UK-based Maginhawa Group, named after a well-known dining destination in Metro Manila; an area that houses some of the most daring and creative independently owned bars and restaurants in the Philippines’ capital. We have Maginhawa to thank for London eateries Bintang, Mamasons, Panadera and, most recently, Ramo Ramen (a playful Japanese-Filipino noodle joint), where traditional cuisine is fused with other culinary styles, with both panache and respect.
Like many other Filipino immigrants, I’ve found these restaurants and their familiar tastes a welcome source of reprieve when missing home, especially during the pandemic. When I sit down with that bowl of sinigang on a rainy day, I’m instantly transported to my family dining room, awash with familiar scents and flavours, and reminded of the people who represent home.
restaurant
This buzzy barbecue joint’s name perfectly reflects its ethos: Kasa means “home”, while Kin means “familial relations” – it’s all about feeling comfortable. Start with the beef bulalo, a traditional beef shank and bone marrow soup brewed for hours. Then, turn your attention to the grill for soft pork belly, also known as liempo, chicken inasal, a grilled chicken delicacy, and the homemade chorizo de Cebu, a sweet-cured pork sausage. There’s also a dedicated in-house panaderio, or Filipino bakery. Stop by to pick up a quintessential pandesal (sweet bread roll).
Address
52-53 Poland St, W1F 7NQ
restaurant
Before there was Kasa and Kin, there was Romulo Café, also owned by Rowena Romulo, a trailblazer in bringing Filipino cuisine to London’s fine-dining scene. The elegant, monochrome dining room with pistachio-green accents is the place to try the likes of sizzling chicken inasal sisig (sisig is finely chopped sizzling meat), ensaladang talong (aubergine salad) and Dingley Dell crispy pata, a deep-fried pork hock served with mung beans and moringa. Be sure to sample Tito Greg’s beef and oxtail kare kare, too, another family recipe – stewed beef brisket and oxtail in peanut sauce and shrimp paste.
Address
343 Kensington High St, W8 6NW
restaurant
A Camden institution for 35 years, Bintang is one of the oldest Filipino restaurants in London. What originally started as a hole-in-the-wall Malaysian noodle shop has slowly morphed into an intimate pan-Asian neighbourhood restaurant. Try the spicy carabao chicken wings or adobo fried wings to start, or, if you’re here for brunch, one of the silogs. A standard Filipino breakfast, the dish consists of meat, egg, rice and a bit of pickled papaya. Our favourite is either the tapsilog (with sirloin beef steak) or the bangsilog (with marinated fried milkfish).
Address
93 Kentish Town Rd, NW1 8NY
restaurant
“Dirty ice cream”, a uniquely Filipino concept, is sold by street vendors to help people contend with the Philippines’ humid heat. Mamasons, another Maginhawa Group operation, serves up delicious scoops in flavours including ube, queso, Milo and calamansi. Ube is a purple yam used in many Pinoy treats; queso is cheese; Milo is a chocolate malt drink; and calamansi, a special Filipino lime. Also try the quintessential Filipino dessert of halo halo. The name means “mix mix”, and refers to the combination of a whole bunch of Filipino dessert favourites in one dish. Expect coconut strings, flan, shaved ice, nata de coco and evaporated milk, all layered up into a trifle-like extravagance.
Address
32 Newport Ct, WC2H 7PQ
restaurant
A Filipino ramen house? Sign us up. Ramo Ramen combines the staple soups and broths of the Philippines with classic Japanese ramen plating. Tempt your taste buds with the octopus kinilaw, a Filipino version of ceviche, then turn your attention to the bowls. Lobster and crab ginataan is the star of the show, an all-round crowd-pleaser that pairs a coconut-milk broth with grilled lobster and lemon butter. It’s a revelation. Other highlights include the oxtail kare kare and the classic sinigang – a sour, tamarind-based consommé.
Address
157 Kentish Town Rd, NW1 8PD
restaurant
Combining a Filipino soul with a London heart, Sarap (“Delicious”) celebrates the well-balanced sour, salty and sweet flavours synonymous with the Philippines. Swerving traditional dishes, the menu offers contemporary takes on the classics. We like the ginataang kalabasa, pumpkin and butternut squash cooked in coconut milk, and rellenong crispy pata, a fried pork trotter served with moreish adobo rice. For dessert, don’t miss the suman – sweet sticky rice cake rolled in a pandan leaf – served with a devilish, Don Papa rum-sloshed coconut ice cream.
Address
10 Heddon St, W1B 4BX
restaurant
Yes, we know it’s a chain, but no Pinoy would miss Jollibee off a list of their favourite London restaurants. Coined the “Filipino KFC”, this beloved fast-food chicken joint arrived in the UK with a reputation. The Philippines is the only country in the world where, despite having a presence, McDonald’s isn’t the top fast-food chain. By the looks of the snaking lines outside Jollibee’s Earl’s Court and Leicester Square locations, the golden arches might be getting worried in old Blighty, too. Top orders include the chicken joy with rice (no chips in sight), burger steak and pancit malabon, a moreish concoction of rice noodles cooked in salty shrimp paste.
Address
22 Leicester Square, WC2H 7LE
restaurant
Run by brothers Mark and Mike Corbyn, in south-east London, The Adobros is all about offering hungry diners traditional Filipino recipes, crafted with love. Launched in 2013, it has quickly become the foremost Filipino supper club in town. Inspired by the Corbyns’ love for the Filipino meals their mum cooked when they were growing up, the duo started it after realising there wasn’t much decent Filipino food around in London. The dining experience is all about capturing the warmth, buzz and festivity of this unique food culture and adding a contemporary twist. Book in for a taste of their famous adobo, kare kare, and lechon porchetta.
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