Featured Product: Filipino-style Barbecue
Barbecue is as old as when humans learned to create and use fire about 1.8 million years ago. Spanish explorers adopted the word “barbacoa,” which originally referred to the Caribbean cooking method that Taino Indians devised to cook their meat using a wooden construction. Barbacoa was introduced to the Old World and soon entered the English vocabulary around the 1700s as “barbecue.” Over many centuries, humans learned how to prepare the meat and infuse a medley of flavor notes with various basting techniques. Since then, barbecue has become a national pastime and often marked many family events and cultural occasions around the world.
In the Philippines, lechon or roasted pig is a ubiquitous attraction during fiesta or large gatherings. Besides that, barbecue is not exactly a typical pastime or a dish reserved only for lavish feasts in the Philippines. Instead, it is the mainstay of the local street food scene. However, what goes into the marinade and basting sauce makes for a good guessing game and, after this discovery, an interesting culinary trivia you can dish out.
In other parts of the world, such as Mexico, cuts of meat are wrapped in maguey leaves to infuse tequila flavor and then slow-cooked over a large open fire pit. Meanwhile, South African braais are any meat (e.g., lamb, chicken, steaks) dry-rubbed with herbs and spices (e.g., paprika, garlic powder, coriander, cumin, cayenne pepper, etc.). A “braaier” grilled the meat with specific methods and unique tools. South Korea has high regard for its grilling tradition, as evidenced by the frequent show-stealing appearances of bulgogi in television dramas. Bulgogi, which means “fire meat,” is thin slices of beef marinated in a thick mixture of soy sauce, sesame oil, honey, and onion. You see, it’s the combination of these Asian ingredients in measured quantities that made bulgogi a globe-trotting culinary masterpiece of the Korean culture.
In contrast, Filipinos aren’t the biggest fan of the finest herbs and sophisticated cooking methods that require expensive kitchen appliances or elaborate grilling setups. We don’t even follow exact measurements in cooking recipes. We use our eyes to moderate the quantity and occasionally take a sip to be sure we did it right. What we lack in equipment and knack for using highly prized ingredients, we make up for our culinary ingenuity and resourcefulness. This translates to curious cases of Filipino recipes that are oddly and surprisingly satisfying. Take the Filipino-style barbecue as an example.
Like it or not, Filipinos always find a way to turn any dishes into a sweet confection as if they are bereft of any other taste receptors to appreciate food. Otherwise, there’s no way we could explain our love for banana ketchup. Ah yes, bananas are abundant in the Philippines, even during the war in the Pacific. The yellow fruit was the obvious solution to the lack of tomatoes to make the condiment that Americans introduced to Filipinos. Well, that’s the easiest route to explain how banana sauce—technically not ketchup—came to be. It also happens that banana ketchup is cheaper than the tomato variant. When Americans taught Filipinos how to make spaghetti with Bolognese sauce, Filipinos were quick to rewrite the recipe and substitute the tomato sauce with banana ketchup. Next thing you know, Filipinos discovered that ketchup could be a sweetener for another dish. Yes, banana ketchup is the unlikely condiment added to the marinade that gives Filipino-style barbecue its reddish color and fruity flavor. The marinade is then used as a basting sauce for grilling any meat. Oh, guess what, the dipping sauce typically served is also made with banana ketchup in addition to soy sauce and vinegar.
Do you think it’s just banana ketchup that is the main character here? Wait until you find out that Filipinos have a clever way of tenderizing the meat without using a slow cooker. As an economical way to keep the costs down and add exciting flavor simultaneously, Filipinos add lemon lime-flavored soda to the marinade. Sure, marinating the meat with high-acidity beverages is nothing unusual. But have you heard of a similar recipe for barbecue? Filipinos use Sprite or 7 Up, whichever is available at the nearest sari-sari store (a neighborhood retail store). The 7 Up brand remains a more popular choice for marinade even after the Coca-Cola-owned Sprite brand reformulated the beverage with less sweet and more pronounced lemon flavor. Filipinos prefer 7 Up for this specific purpose because it has more carbonation and stronger fizz to make their barbecue juicy. This less popular brand has a signature lemon-lime flavor that makes it an excellent citric acid substitute to infuse zesty and caramel flavor deep in the fiber.
When you combine these two unlikely yet amazing ingredients, the first time you sink your teeth into a Filipino-style barbecue will be an unforgettable culinary discovery. Filipinos’ grilling tradition is like no other. It invites curious tastebuds to embark on a quest to learn about the colorful history of our cuisine marked by the amalgamation of foreign influences.