By Gian Franco 2021-07-11

The History and Many Faces of Filipino Adobo



When it comes to making Filipino adobo, there seems to be a never-ending debate. The dish is so popular that everyone has their own take on how it's made and who can make a good one. There are some things about cooking this meal that will set people off. They'll argue endlessly over whether you should use chicken or pork to achieve the better adobo, for example, with no side winning out as being definitive proof of anything.



Adobo is a dish that many Filipinos hold dear to their hearts. Not only this, but it also holds an important place in Filipino culture and history as well. Each family has its own version of the recipe with different flavors they love, dictated by each person's taste buds for spice or sourness. However, no matter your personal preference, certain ingredients must remain constant, such as soy sauce and vinegar, among others.


Basics of Filipino Adobo


Adobo is the dish that made Filipinos famous. The word adobo comes from two words: "adobar," which means “to season, marinade, pickle.” Filipino adobo is a dish with many variations, but most recipes include vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, and black pepper.


The meat is marinated in this mixture to reduce the meat's toughness before being stewed. Filipino cooks often add more than those four essential ingredients depending on what they have available in their kitchen. This process will usually take hours of simmering over low heat on a stovetop. The resulting dish yields a flavorful, tangy, tender meat that can be served over rice to soak up the delicious flavor of the sauce.


History of the Filipino ‘National Dish’


The soul of Filipino cuisine had been forming well before Chinese traders settled and Europeans colonized Southeast Asia centuries ago. Early Malay explorers who landed in the Philippines used vinegar as a way of preserving food in hot climates by creating an environment that is hazardous to bacteria that would cause spoilage. Filipino natives have also developed various methods of preserving food, including boiling and steaming.


Those mentioned above along with the introduction of soy sauce by early Chinese traders led them to make a dish with vinegar and braised meat. The acidity of soy sauce and vinegar, when combined with the saltiness from meat fat in adobo recipes, creates a flavor that is wholly unique to this dish. Though originally made by cooking it for hours on low heat using clay pots submerged into an open firepit, today people use metal pots or woks instead.


In the same century that Filipino adobo was unknowingly invented, Ferdinand Magellan had been undertaking an expensive world voyage to discover and collect new spices from the East. Back then, the culinary influence of the European world power was expanding due to the discovery of new flavor profiles from crops and spices in unexplored corners of the world.


Extended voyages meant that the Spaniards needed to preserve their meat because they were sailing for months or years on end. Whereas Filipinos used the cooking technique to preserve their protein, adobo was the only means of survival for the Spaniards.


When Magellan and his crew arrived, Friar de Buenaventura wrote "Vocabulario de la lengua tagala" he saw similarities between Filipino and Spanish ways of preserving meat: they both used vinegar as their main ingredient. This is why De Buenaventura called it “adobo de naturales” or adobo of the natives. The term would endure for lack of original moniker and even after countless modifications of the dish.


Nevertheless, similarities of the Filipino dish to Spanish and Mexican versions in the name do not mean that the cultural symbol of Philippine cuisine was merely inherited. As mentioned earlier, the ingredients existed, and the cooking technique was already practiced before the Spanish discovery of Filipino adobo. Second, the two cultures just so happened to be fixed in extremely humid geographic locations ideal for high concentrations of bacteria that cause food spoilage. If there was any role that the Spanish colonizers did, it was to popularize the Filipino adobo in the country throughout their 300-year rule.



Filipino Context of Adobo Flavor


There’s a strong argument why Filipino adobo should not be mistaken for its Spanish counterpart despite both sharing an identical name. Indeed, these dishes couldn't be further apart when it comes to taste since both use acid as the central ingredient. In short, adobo for both cultures has evolved from a cooking method for survival and preservation to meaning much more about the flavor. For instance, Filipinos favor sweeteners such as brown sugar, which would make sense given their tropical climate.


Still, the Filipino and Spanish contexts of adobo are separated by their content. Whereas the Spanish use different kinds of meat, Filipinos have taken the liberty of rendering their own adobo identity with a vegetarian twist.


Adobo is a dish that varies significantly according to the region in which it's made. For example, where seafood was plentiful, adobong pusit (squid adobo) became popular. In Southern Luzon, vinegar and coconut milk are common ingredients used for cooking dishes such as adobo sa gata topped with shredded green chilies at last minute while still hot. Down to the leftover proteins, Filipinos have come up with adobong malutong (Crispy Adobo) that uses deep fried, crispy chicken or pork shreds to create flakes as a viand or toppings to other dishes.


Meanwhile, non-Filipinos wouldn’t have guessed that white banana flowers can also be used as a vegetarian alternative to make the popular Filipino dish. Adobong puso ng saging, referring to the heart-shaped blossom of banana, is sauteed in white vinegar and made appetizing with shrimp paste and small shrimps. Down the islands in central Philippines, apan-apan adobo uses kangkong (spinach water) with the optional addition of pork fat crisps.

Adobo as Filipino’s Love Letter to the World


Today, the dish that’s meant to give meat a longer shelf-life has stealthily moved to the culinary mainstream of the other side of the world. The East-Meets-West rendition of adobo has delighted gastro adventurers dining at the Filipino restaurant Purple Yam in New York. American media took notice of its sudden popularity and have no doubts making it the automatic stand-in for Filipino cuisine. From print publications to TV shows, everybody is catching up to the sour notes from the vinegar and decadent creamy finish from coconut milk.


Ultimately, adobo is essentially a part of Filipino identity. It’s a cultural symbol rooted in the historical struggles of adapting to harsh conditions and waves of colonialism. It’s the dish that ties individuals of different circumstances through memories. The debate about the superior adobo goes on, but the two sides are united by passion for the same dish nonetheless. From cooking to tasting it, adobo is a beautiful experience. 


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