The distance between Charleston and the capital of the Philippines is just shy of 9,000 miles. The gap between the two cities' traditional cuisines, though, is considerably smaller. Filipino cooking is characterized by fresh seafood, plenty of pork, omnipresent rice, a stubborn adherence to family recipes and spicing habits gleaned from a long history of maritime trade.
Seven Filipino dishes to know
Filipino food is tremendously diverse: There are hundreds of dishes considered standards in different corners of the country, and that's not counting dessert.
But a few dishes are recognized nationwide as having earned iconic status. If you wander into a Filipino restaurant anywhere in the U.S., you're likely to encounter most (if not all) of these seven classics.
Adobo is a cooking method, not a specific recipe: Ribs braised in Heinz apple cider vinegar have as much claim to the adobo title as squid braised in dark cane vinegar. Beyond the essential braise in vinegar with garlic and salt, all bets are off: Cooks are free to season the meat or vegetables with chili peppers, ginger, soy sauce, coconut milk and black peppercorns, among other popular add-ins.
Authors Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan compare pinkabet to ratatouille. It's a simple vegetable stew that hails from the Ilocos region of the northern Philippines. The dish is distinguished by bitter melon: Its strong flavor is tamed by tomatoes.
Pancit means noodles, whether made from rice, egg or wheat. Every city has its own leading pancit preparations, but soy sauce, fish sauce and rice wine are frequently involved.
Although the most accomplished Filipino dishes harmonize sour, salt and sweet, it's the cuisine's prevalent, puckering sourness that stands out to most non-Filipino eaters. Sinigang is located near the sourest end of the spectrum. The clear soup, which can be populated by salmon, short rib or any other imaginable seafood, meat or vegetable, obtains its signature flavor from tamarind, calamansi, guava and starfruit.
Likely a remnant of Spanish rule, caldereta is a simmered beef stew. Its spicy tomato base gains a considerable umami kick from soy sauce and canned pork liver spread.
Sisig is "the ultimate Filipino bar food," according to author Marvin Gapultos. The fried-up, chopped-up pig face, spritzed with calamansi, is spicy and smoky, making it the ideal match for a cold beer.
According to The Philippine Star, when British forces occupied Manila from 1762 to 1764, they relied on 500 Indian soldiers to help them keep order. A few deserters got into the soupy stew business, setting up roadside curry stands along pilgrimage routes. They eventually adjusted their recipes to include achuete seeds introduced from Mexico, long beans introduced from China and oxtail introduced from Spain. The current iteration of kare-kare is thick and peanutty.
Yet the differences between Lowcountry and Filipino food are even more compelling. Traditional dishes from the Philippines, a constellation of 7,107 islands, feature an array of flavors that aren't typically associated with South Carolina. It's hard to make it through a Filipino meal without encountering the feisty sourness of calamansi limes, the unreserved sweetness of banana ketchup and the salty funk of shrimp paste.
Around Charleston, the best Filipino food is probably served in home kitchens and at community festivals, such as this past weekend's party in Moncks Corner to celebrate Filipino Independence Day.
"What we do is different organizations have assignments," explains Lily Cabading, president of the Filipino Community Center, referring to the social clubs representing various regions. "We always have pancit (noodles), and we usually have lechon (spit-roasted suckling pig.) Of course, someone will probably fix pepper meat, and people bring seafood and all the native desserts."
But for eaters who are just starting to acquaint themselves with Filipino cooking, there are three area restaurants and one food truck (see accompanying stories) ready to help make introductions to a cuisine that's perpetually on the cusp of a domestic breakthrough.
"Food-minded people are constantly looking for the next big culinary trend," Marvin Gapultos, a Los Angeles food blogger and successful food trucker, writes in his invaluable "The Adobo Road Cookbook." "The same questions always arise: 'Why isn't Filipino food more popular? Why isn't Filipino food more mainstream?' Whether or not Filipino food goes 'mainstream' isn't really a concern of mine ... with such a diverse culinary heritage and an abundance of nuanced flavors, it's only a matter of time before the rest of the world comes to appreciate and understand Filipino food."
Stew of influences
Filipino food is a jumble of global influences. Over centuries, the native habits of soaking meat and fish in vast amounts of vinegar to ward off rot in a tropical climate, cooking with coconut milk and eating every animal part have been smoothly blended with ideas and ingredients borrowed from Indian, Portuguese, Japanese and Arab trading partners.
Still, the cuisine has been shaped most dramatically by Chinese, Spanish, Mexican and American kitchen practices, reflecting the Philippines' geography and political history. The Chinese came first, bringing soy sauce, black beans and bean sprouts. Lumpia, the stiff spring rolls crammed with pork and vegetables that most Filipino cooks make in enormous batches, are a direct link to the 10th-century days of porcelain and spice swapping.
Then in 1565, Spain took control of the Philippines. While the colonizers ate more extravagantly than most Filipinos, ornamenting their meals with costly European ingredients such as olive oil and saffron, a few recognizably Spanish techniques made their way into island cooking. Filipinos adopted flans, rellenos, and sofrito, the all-purpose base of tomatoes, onion and garlic. But the exotic preparations never trickled down to the everyday. As Gapultos writes, "Filipino dishes of Spanish origin are usually only served at birthday parties, graduation parties, and the occasional Manny Pacquiao fight party."
Although Spain was in charge of the Philippines, it was governed by bureaucrats stationed in Mexico City, a setup that resulted in galleons making regular trips between Manila and Acapulco. The giant ships arrived in the Philippines laden with potatoes, bell peppers, peanuts, annatto seeds, chiles, chocolate, jicama and avocados, among other New World prizes. Filipino cooks incorporated the ingredients into their dishes, and swiped other dishes wholesale: Filipino cookbooks typically include recipes for menudo and empanadas. (And Mexican cookbooks sometimes call for coconut vinegar, proving the ships returned full.)
Spain's reign ended in 1898, when the Treaty of Paris awarded the colony to the U.S. "When it came to the Philippine diet, the Americans had much goodwill to share," restaurateurs Amy Desa and Romy Dorotan write ruefully in "Memories of Philippine Kitchens: Stories and Recipes From Far and Near." "They sought dietary improvements by introducing Filipinos to dairy products, canned meats, vegetables, and fruits from the U.S."
The legacy of the 45 year-long U.S. colonial period is glazed Spam, spaghetti with sliced hot dogs and fried chicken.
Lowcountry Filipino community
The other significant legacy of U.S. colonization is military service. More than 200,000 Filipinos enlisted in the U.S. military during World War II; half of them died during the war. The U.S. maintained military bases in the country until 1991, when the Philippine Senate voted for eviction.
"Most of us are retired military," Cabading says. "We were all stationed here (in Charleston), so we all retired here."
Cabading estimates there are now 3,000 Americans with Filipino heritage living in and around Charleston. While the Catholic church currently functions as a community hub, Cabading's organization this past weekend broke ground for its own building.
The site off Oakley Road in Moncks Corner is the second try at an expanded Filipino Community Center. Three years ago, local dignitaries turned out to wield ceremonial shovels for the start of construction on Salamander Road in North Charleston. Cabading then called the project "a dream come true."
But she now says she spoke too soon. "Something came up" with financing for the 5,000-square-foot building, forcing the Community Center to rethink its plans.
"This is the real thing," Cabading says of the current project. "We have the property."
With construction just a few days underway, it's impossible to confidently predict an opening date. But it's certain that the Community Center, once completed, will host its share of celebrations featuring towering piles of lumpia, heaps of pancit and platters of crispy-skinned, roasted pork. (Hospitality is a cherished tradition in the Philippines, and guests never leave a party hungry.)
Ticking off the dishes she anticipates making frequent appearances, Cabading pauses to sum up her feelings about Filipino food. "It's good," she says, her tone indicating there's nothing else to be said on the subject. "It's good."
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.
Roger Viduya carves a Lechon, pig stuffed with lemon grass and roasted for a day, during the Filipino Independence Day celebration Saturday, June 7, 2014 at the Filipino Community center in Monck's Corner. Paul Zoeller/Staff×
A long line of people pick their favorite foods from the table during the Filipino Independence Day celebration Saturday, June 7, 2014 at the Filipino Community center in Monck's Corner. Paul Zoeller/Staff×
A roasted Lechon, pig, waits to be carved during the Filipino Independence Day celebration Saturday, June 7, 2014 at the Filipino Community center in Monck's Corner. Paul Zoeller/Staff×