The gentle carabao, similar to the water buffalo, is the farmer’s workhorse and also provides milk from which a delicate white cheese is made. This cheese is widely used, especially at the end of meals. Fresh dairy products are increasingly available, using cow’s milk, as well as canned evaporated milk and condensed milk.
FRUITS AND VEGETABLES
Fruits are abundant. Coconut is used in many ways: coconut oil, shredded fresh and dried coconut (copra) – even the gelatinous pulp of green coconuts called buko all find a place in the cuisine. Bananas too are used in many ways: wrapped in bacon, broiled, fried in slices, and even hawked by vendors as skewered barbecued treats. Calamansi and mangoes are also widely used.
Generally fruits find their way into a variety of dishes whether or not they are ripe. With their penchant for cool sour flavors, Filipinos make use of many green or unripe fruits, while overripe fruits are happily mashed together to make ice cream or cool fruit mixtures for refreshing desserts.
In fact, fruits are so widely used it is difficult to say which is most important: mango, banana, or coconut. Other native fruits include breadfruit, dayap, atis, anonas, jackfruit, guava, star apples, many varieties of bananas, and tamarind. Also to be added to the long list of popular fruits are: chicos (similar to dates), Mindanao grapefruits, pomelo, avocado pears, magosteens, and pineapples. These latter are believed to have been introduced by the Spanish and are mostly grown for export.
Most of the vegetables used today, such as leafy greens and some root vegetables, were introduced by the Chinese from the Asian mainland, brought by the Spanish either from Mexico or the Mediterranean, or grown for American tastes. Eggplant, taro root, ampalaya, and patola are examples of vegetables probably indigenous to the islands. Tomatoes and squash and some varieties of beans were almost certainly introduced by the Spanish, while mung beans (and sprouts) are of Chinese origin together with some types of cucumbers and melons, and perhaps some varieties of edible bamboo and bulbs. Like the fruits, many vegetables are used when still green, some when just sprouting, others when ripe. Fruits and vegetables are often used interchangeably It is typical to find both fruits and vegetables combined in meat or fish dishes.
MEATS AND ALTERNATES
Pork is the most widely used meat: most farms have pigs, a few chickens, and several cows. It was the Spanish who added beef to the Philippines’ traditional cuisine of rice-fish-pork-chicken, and the later influence of the Americans accentuated the taste for beef, as well as dairy products. Very insignificant amounts of duck, goose, pheasant, pigeon, and turkey are part of the Filipino diet.
Fish consumption usually exceeds available local supplies and a substantial amount of fish is imported to meet the demand. One of the favored special dishes is inehow: a whole baked fish (bangus) stuffed with patis and tomato-flavored rice and onion and garlic sautéed in oil. The whole stuffed fish is then wrapped in banana leaves and oven or pit baked.
Lumbag nuts, pill nuts, and betel nuts, as well as the more familiar cashew nuts, form very small crops on the islands and are not a large part of the cuisine. Also of minor importance to the cuisine are the bean crops: soybean, mung beans, garbanzos, and other varieties used mainly in some mixed dishes such as soups and stews, sometimes mashed with fruits as in halo-halo. This is a popular dessert of alternate layers of mashed fruit pulp (sometimes with mashed beans) and shaved ice, topped with cream.
BREADS AND GRAINS
Without rice, it is not a meal. So say the Filipinos. But rice is more than a mound of perfectly cooked fluffy granules. Rice may be found in fillings and stuffing, in soups and stews. Glutinous rice will often be the base of many confections and sweet desserts such as suman, a sweetened glutinous rice steamed in rolls or squares of banana leaves and eaten anytime as snack or dessert, or malagkit, a sweet pudding made with glutinous rice and coconut milk. Rice flour is used to make cakes, puddings, and delicious noodles. The delicate thin lumpia skins are made from a mixture of rice flour and water then filled and fried to golden crispness.
Rice is the chief food crop followed closely by corn and sweet potatoes. But while corn and sweet potatoes are found in many of the combination dishes that the Filipinos are noted for, there is no question that rice is the prime staple food.
Coconut oil and oil made from many local seed crops are widely used in cookery. Use of lard and olive oil became more prevalent under the Spaniards, while the use of butter together with other dairy products increased under American influence.
Filipino techniques for frying foods are artfully distinctive. Aside from the usual frying of stuffed foods, some preparations are coated with a meringue-like topping that forms a puffy brown crust (rellenong alimango). The delicious ukoy is a fritter carefully composed of a large shrimp and bean sprouts held in a light batter and deep-fried. Sometimes foods are quickly fried in slender strips (fish, meat, or vegetables) to create crispy garnishes.
SWEETS AND SNACKS
The Filipinos’ eclectic mix of foods and cookery techniques also creates unusual combinations in the taste for sweets.
The late afternoon break called the merienda follows a Spanish tradition of consuming sweets in the form of a small afternoon meal. This was practical when the other Spanish tradition of a very late evening supper was also popular. Many Filipinos now follow American patterns of working hours and three meals a day. Yet for many others, the merienda is a custom too pleasant to break. Sweet cakes, tarts, and fritters are part of this tradition, but Filipinos also add small savory foods like ukoy.
Many sweet treats are made from a base of glutinous rice, richly sugared and often flavored with coconut. Ice creams and fruit mixtures also form snacks or desserts. Confections include those made of rice bases with added nuts and fruits and sometimes chocolate. The very sweet Spanish flan (baked custard) is almost a daily dessert, often with the tang of fresh limes or the sweetness of coconut.
Despite the triple influence of China, Spain, and the United States, Filipinos have developed a distinctive cuisine redolent of the tastes they enjoy. Salty, cool, and sour tastes, tropical fruits and vegetables, served with their many fried dishes, accompanied by rice and the surprise of very sweet snacks and dessert characterize Filipino cuisine.
Salty flavors are enhanced by using bagoong (salty fermented shrimp paste) and patis and toyo (salty light versions of soy sauce), and hipon (a salty sauce prepared from shrimp or anchovy). These may be used in food preparation as well as for dipping sauces. Other varieties of dipping sauces include vinegar, minced garlic, and seasoned salt with or without chilies.
Cool flavors are achieved using tart or unripe fruits, vinegar, or the juice of tangy citrus fruits such as limes or calamansi. The ultimate perfection of sour flavors is sinigang, a sour soup made with a meat broth and combined green tart fruits such as tamarind, guavas, green mangoes, calamansi or kamias (a sour fruit resembling a cucumber). Recipes for sinigang are family treasures.
Coconut milk, lime juice, ginger, turmeric, garlic, and brown sugar must also be included in the seasonings that distinguish Filipino food. For example, very sweet dipping sauce for lumpia (crispy appetizer rolls) is simply made from brown sugar and water gently thickened with cornstarch.
The most traditional beverages of the Philippines are those from the indigenous coconut tree. Both the milk from green to ripe coconuts and the sap that comes from the cut growing-tip of the tree can be consumed as sweet fresh drinks or fermented into an alcoholic drink called tuba. Tuba can also be made from the sap of the bun or nipa palm trees and likely is one of the oldest national drinks.
Cacao and coffee plants were introduced by the Spanish and have continued to be cultivated as the popularity of coffee as a beverage and the use of chocolate both as a drink and as a flavoring increase.
A great variety of cool fresh fruit drinks are popular any time of the day. Milk is increasingly used by children. Adults enjoy fruit drinks and also coffee with meals or as a refreshment break, while hot chocolate is often taken as a breakfast beverage. Tea or coffee may accompany the afternoon merienda.