By Gian Franco 2021-03-20

FEATURED PRODUCT: My Tindahan’s Guide to Filipino Vinegars (Suka)

A certain Filipino pantry staple deserves more attention. The world-famous Filipino-style adobo would be nothing without this do-it-all condiment. The soy sauce in the adobo sauce may have been the main character, but the Filipino vinegar does the heavy lifting. It is the secret ingredient behind adobo’s staying power and the reason why many tart dishes taste unbelievably better even when heated a hundred times over. Whether as an ingredient or sawsawan (dipping sauce), the Filipino condiment rounds out the flavors of Filipino dishes. Fried fish tastes dry and bland without it. Pork and chicken feel rubbery and unpalatable when not marinated in it. Nobody in their right mind enjoys the infamous balut (duck embryo) without a swig of spiced vinegar. The experience of Filipino food feels less genuine and less exciting without the vinegar that jolts our sense and makes us pucker up. Filipino’s cultural taste is sour-forward. We are talking about tinging almost every dish with different degrees of sourness no matter how counter intuitive that may seem.


Suka is the generic term for all regional variants of vinegar around the country. The term comes from the Sanskrit word “Cukra” meaning vinegar made by acetous fermentation when the alcohol is converted into an acetic acid. The use of vinegar was an accessible and effective ancient food preservation method since the Philippine islands abound with sugarcane and coconut trees—not to mention that bacteria thrive in the humid tropics. Back in the day, Filipinos store saccharine juices in secured earthen jars and let microorganism naturally grow and takeover to digest the concentrated sugars. The second step involves leaving the sugar-turned-alcoholic beverage in an aerobic environment to invite the acetic acid bacteria to begin the process of acetification that sours the liquid. During wartime, the Filipino vinegar has been used to preserve food supply and as a cure-all antiseptic to treat fever and even reduce blood pressure.


Depending on the source of harvested juice and acetification method, vinegar may come out in different degrees of darkness that suggests varying concentration of sour and acrid smell. For starter, dark vinegars are traditionally made from molasses; they tend to taste tart like the apple cider vinegar and bold like the sherry vinegar. On the other hand, lighter hued vinegars are the most commonly available and used condiments in the Filipino kitchen. The white cane vinegar has brighter and cleaner acidity that makes it versatile for pickling, braising, marinating, seasoning, and as dipping sauce. If you’re looking for any of these vinegars, Datu Puti is the most popular Filipino brand that you’ll most likely find in a Filipino grocery in the US. The homegrown brand also owns other brands of condiments that have become a mainstay in the Filipino cookbook. There are other brands that you may to try to. This article would take you to a trip around the Philippines with the offerings of Filipino vinegars found from the north to the south of the archipelago, from its darker to brighter tinge, made of juices ranging from sugarcane to coconut and nipa palm. 



First in the list is the white cane vinegar or sukang maasim, the unheralded star of Filipino adobo. It is made from fermented sugar cane sap and the most mass produced version among the bunch because of its versatility—even as antiseptic or household cleaner.




Now we are moving to the darker territory, starting with sukang sinamak made from sukang maasim as the base. It is the Ilonggo version of vinegar, most distinguished by the sharp, spicy cacophony of green and red chilies, Thai ginger/blue ginger, and crushed garlic. It is most enjoyable when used as ingredient or dipping sauce for a seafood feast in Iloilo. If you’re into a mouth-burning adventure, try the Visayas’ best.




Mindanao has also its own version of the spiced vinegar, made from sukang tuba as the base then mixed with concoction of chilies, ginger, and garlic. The term “pinakurat” itself means “surprise”—and who wouldn’t be? This one is most preferred as dipping sauce for fried and greasy feast.




The darkest and richest of them all, Sukang Iloko is derived from Ilocano wine called basi. It has the stimulating aroma of the syrupy molasses from sugarcane and the bold, boozy appeal that separates it from the other versions mentioned here. Sukang Iloko is a traditional condiment and dipping sauce for Ilokano delights like the Vigan longganisa (sausage) and empanada





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