By Jennifer Olvera
The national dish of the Philippines is adobo. Its name comes from the Spanish word “adobar,” meaning “marinade,” “sauce” or “seasoning.” And while some of adobo’s origins are hard to trace, other things are known.
Malay voyagers — those who evolved into the Malay tribes dominating Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines — landed in the Philippines around 3000 B.C. The voyagers used vinegar and salt as preservatives to extend the life of food in the hot, tropical climate.
Filipinos were already preparing their proteins in a marinade of vinegar and salt before Chinese traders arrived during the late Tang Dynasty, around the 9th century A.D., bringing with them a number of foundational ingredients like pancit noodles and soy sauce, which were then adopted by Filipinos. Eventually, soy sauce all but replaced salt in Filipino kitchens, a tradition that holds true to this day.
Later, when the Spanish invaded during the 16th century and settled in the archipelago (a Spanish colony from 1521 to 1898), Spaniards witnessed the way Filipinos used vinegar to marinate their chicken, pork and fish. Recognizing similarities to Spanish adobar, which employs paprika, oregano, salt, garlic and vinegar to preserve and enhance its flavor, Spaniards coined the term “adobo.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Adobo variations abound
To this day, both soy sauce and vinegar are key ingredients in most adobo recipes. Traditionally cooked in clay pots, adobo nowadays is typically prepared in metal pots — even woks. Staple ingredients aside, though, there is much debate about the right way to make adobo. Not surprisingly, regional and homemade variations are endless.
At its most basic, adobo is seasoned only with garlic, bay leaf, whole or crushed black pepper and — region depending — vinegar. However, other common additions include onions, ginger, sugar, hard-boiled egg, morning glory and other vegetables, such as potatoes.
Chef Rommel Mendoza, owner of the Hillsboro, Oregon-based online store Mendoza Food Alliance and author of “Prix Fixe: Made in the USA by a Filipino: Memoirs and Recipes of the Traveling Chef,” weighs in.
“My mom is from the northern region of the Luzon Province, and she taught me to add ginger to adobo,” he says. “It gives it a unique, slightly sweet and spicy flavor.”
By contrast, he notes , southern-style variations differ a lot.
“Coconut milk is a staple in this region,” he says. “So, there’s a milky, sweet taste to the finished dish.”
Adobo dilaw — or yellow adobo— hails from the southern Philippines as well.
“In this case, soy sauce is substituted for turmeric, giving it a nice peppery, earthy flavor,” Mendoza says. “Pork is at times used for this version, too.”
Meanwhile, the Visayan Islands are home to the original adobo. In other words, soy sauce is not used. As such, the dish is typically described as adobong puti, or “using only vinegar.” Among other popular adobo variations from this region are those that incorporate seafood, such as shrimp or squid.
Whatever the style, the popularity of adobo cannot be denied. Chef Mendoza suggests a few reasons why.
“It is quite easy to make and only takes 30 to 40 minutes to cook,” he says. “Plus, vinegar and soy sauce help preserve it. Home cooks make a big enough pot of adobo to enjoy throughout the week, without it spoiling. Then there’s the fact that adobo sauce over rice is so much better than gravy over mashed potatoes!”
Modern versions are welcome, too
There are as many takes on adobo as there are Filipino households. So, naturally, the dish continues to evolve.
Chef Mendoza has substituted the vinegar with pineapple juice, for example. Other times, he swaps white vinegar for rice vinegar or adds both country-style pork ribs and chicken to the same pot. When he worked at a sports-centric gastropub in the past, he’d plate a quarter leg of chicken adobo, serving it with jasmine rice, stir-fry Filipino vegetables and pickled green papaya, the latter reinforcing the punchiness of the vinegar-spiked sauce.
“Along with bay leaf, I’ve also added dried basil — it’s my secret ingredient,” he says, noting it lends a slightly minty flavor and a hint of anise. “I have also peeled russet potatoes, adding them about halfway through the cooking process. The potatoes get stewed in the sauce, making it a great alternative for those who don’t want rice.”
Then there’s his preparation for chicken wings.
“I pull them out and place them on a hot grill to finish,” he reveals.
As the sauce thickens on the stovetop, he weaves in seasonings to spice it up, using half to toss the wings and the remainder for dipping.
At the end of the day, Filipino cuisine remains largely undiscovered by the world at large.
“I’ve made it my mission to help Filipino cuisine get the recognition it deserves,” Chef Mendoza says. “I am inspired to seek insight from people from these different regions, to learn their dishes and their ways of cooking.”
Currently at work on his second book with plans to publish later this year, Chef Mendoza is also about to launch a jeepney truck serving Filipino barbecue. He’ll take his Filipino cuisine education on the road.
This article was originally published in the March/April 2022 issue of National Culinary Review. Click here to download the full issue.