What is Filipino Food?
It’s difficult to think of Filipino food without associating it with a feast: a big table, overflowing with large serving bowls filled with soups and stews, large trays stocked with grilled meat, and huge bilaos or bamboo trays piled with pancit (stir-fried noodles) and kakanin (rice cakes). Filipino cuisine reflects the Filipinos’ love of fiestas, which are celebrations held by whole communities; there is singing, dancing, pomp, and of course: eating.
Filipino food includes a wide variety of dishes that feature pork, beef, chicken, and seafood. While there are many dishes that feature and include vegetables, there is a large majority of meat-based dishes in Filipino cuisine. The use of salty or acidic flavoring agents like soy sauce and vinegar help in preserving Filipino dishes in the tropical Philippine climate, which is why a majority of Filipino food boasts strong, robust flavors.
Rice is the main staple of Filipino food. Filipino meals are usually composed of rice and ulam or viands. Unlike Western cultures where rice is treated like a side dish, in Filipino cuisine, most soups, stews, and dishes are cooked and flavored with the intention of serving it with rice. Not only that, rice is so integral to Filipino cuisine that there is a whole category of Filipino snacks called kakanin, which are rice-based delicacies.
One of the most distinct characteristics of Filipino cuisine is how most of the dishes are meant for sharing. In Filipino culture, food is an essential part of social gatherings, and offering food is a way of showing respect and hospitality. In fact, it’s an Asian thing.
The offer of food to guests is a love language we share with our fellow Filipinos; one of the first questions Filipinos might ask their visitors is, “Kumain ka na ba?” (“Have you eaten yet?”). Most traditional Filipino dishes, like adobo, sinigang, and kare-kare, also bear the influence of the Philippines’ long history: Filipino food is a mishmash of Spanish, Chinese, Malay, and American influences.
Common Filipino Food Terms
Here are some Filipino words you might encounter in a karinderia (roadside food stalls or restaurants in the Philippines), or on a Filipino cuisine menu:
“Adobo” is any dish marinated or cooked in vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, and peppercorns. On a menu, it usually indicates what kind of meat was used, for example: adobong manok (chicken adobo), adobong baboy (pork adobo), or adobong pusit (squid adobo).
Almusal and Silog
“Almusal” means “breakfast”. A popular type of Filipino breakfast meal are “Silog” meals, which are portmanteaus of what the meals are composed of: the first syllable usually pertains to the meat, while “si” is short for sinangag, which is garlic fried rice, and “log” for itlog, which translates to “egg”, which is usually cooked sunny-side up.
For example, tapsilog is composed of tapa (beef cured in soy sauce, vinegar, and garlic), sinangag, and itlog; tocilog features tocino (sweetened cured pork); longsilog is made with longganisa (Filipino sausage).
“Ginataan” is a dish that is cooked in gata (coconut milk) or kakang gata (coconut cream). The dish can be savory or sweet. Some examples include ginataang gulay (vegetables stewed in coconut milk) and ginataang bilo-bilo (glutinous rice balls cooked in coconut milk and cream).
“Halabos” means to “scald in salt water” and is a method of cooking seafood. It is most commonly used to cook shrimp. On a menu, you’ll find shrimps cooked in this way labeled as “halabos na hipon”.
“Ihaw” means “to grill”. Filipino food features a lot of grilled food, and on a menu, items that begin with “inihaw na-” is usually follows by the type of food that was grilled. Examples include inihaw na liempo (grilled pork belly) or inihaw na bangus (grilled milkfish).
“Kakanin” are Filipino delicacies that are usually made with glutinous rice flour or rice flour, while other varieties are cassava based. Some examples are suman (sticky rice cakes), puto (steamed rice cakes), and pichi-pichi (steamed cassava balls).
“Kilaw” is a means of preparing raw seafood, usually fish, by mixing it with vinegar. It is similar to ceviche. If encountered on a menu, items that begin with “kinilaw na” or “kilawing” is usually prepared in this manner. For example, kinilaw na tuna is tuna ceviche while kilawing tanigue is features tanigue.
Lechon or Litson
“Lechon” or “litson” can refer to a roasted whole pig or the method of roasting meat on a spit. Lechon usually refers to lechong baboy or Filipino roast pig, but other meats may be used as well. On a menu, items beginning with “lechong” or “litsong” is usually followed by the type of meat used. Examples: lechong baka (beef lechon) and lechong manok (chicken lechon).
“Lumpia” refers to a wide variety of meat or vegetables wrapped using paper-like rounds called lumpia wrappers and can either be served as is or fried. These are similar to Chinese spring rolls. Lumpiang sariwa (fresh lumpia) uses a thin, egg-based wrapper that is cooked much like crepes, while fried lumpia use flour-based wrappers that are usually bought in supermarkets. Examples of fried lumpia include lumpiang Shanghai which is a pork and vegetable fried lumpia and lumpiang togue, which is filled with sauteed beansprouts.
“Nilaga” means “to boil or stew”. By itself, nilaga may also simply refer to nilagang baka, the classic Filipino soup made with stewed beef cubes. If encountered on a menu, items that begin with “nilagang” are usually soups made by boiling a featured meat or vegetable. Examples include nilagang baboy (boiled pork soup) or nilagang manok (boiled chicken soup).
“Paksiw” means “to cook in vinegar”. If encountered on a menu, items that begin with “paksiw na” are usually tangy stews or soups; for example, lechon paksiw is lechon stewed in liver sauce and vinegar while paksiw na isda is a sour fish soup cooked with vinegar.
“Pancit” are Filipino noodle dishes. If encountered on a menu, items that include pancit are noodle-based, usually stir-fried noodles. For example, there is the pancit canton (Chinese-Filipino stir-fried noodles) and pancit palabok (rice noodles topped with a savory yellow-orange sauce).
“Pulutan” are snacks or dishes that are usually served with alcoholic beverages or bar chow. Pulutan dishes are usually fried fatty, salty, and savory. Examples include chicharong bulaklak (deep-fried pork intestines), sisig (chopped pork face, usually served on a sizzling plate), and deep-fried chicken skin.
“Sinigang” are stews or soups that are usually flavored with souring agents like sampalok (tamarind), kamias (bilimbi) or bayabas (guava). They can feature meat, seafood, or vegetables. Some examples are sinigang na baboy (pork sinigang), sinigang na salmon (salmon sinigang) and sinigang na gulay (vegetable sinigang).
“Ulam” means “viand”. In Filipino culture, meals usually feature kanin (cooked rice) and ulam, which can be any kind of food that ideally pairs well with rice.
Essential Filipino Cooking Ingredients
Atsuete or annatto seeds are used to add a reddish-orange color to dishes like kare-kare and palabok. The tint may be extracted by frying the seeds in oil, soaking them in water, or simply adding powdered atsuete or annatto into the sauce.
Bagoong (Fermented Fish or Shrimp Paste)
Bagoong is a condiment made with fermented fish or krill, which is then sauteed with garlic, salt, and optionally, chili. It can be used as a condiment (as in served on the side with kare-kare), a flavoring agent (as in pork binagoongan, a pork dish cooked in bagoong) or as a dip (usually for sliced green mangoes).
Dahon ng Laurel (Bay Leaves)
Yummy Editor Tip: Did you know that dahon ng laurel or bay leaves are also great at repelling the tiny bugs you might find in bigas (uncooked rice) or flour? These pesky bugs are called weevils, and you can repel them by adding dried bay leaves in your rice or flour container.
Gata (Coconut Milk) and Kakang Gata (Coconut cream)
Gata and kakang gata are made by pouring hot water over shaved coconut meat and squeezing it out. Kakang gata is thicker and is the product of the first round of squeezing; gata is thinner and is the product of subsequent rounds of squeezing the shaved coconut meat.
Patis (Fish Sauce)
Siling Haba/ Siling Pangsigang (Green chili or Finger chili)
Siling haba or siling pangsigang are green chilis and are usually used to add a mildly spicy flavor to dishes like sinigang and sisig.
Siling Labuyo (Bird’s eye chili)
Siling labuyo or bird’s eye chili pepper is a small, red chili that is endemic to the Philippines. It is one of the spiciest chilis in the world and is used to spice up dishes like Bicol express (spicy pork stewed in coconut milk) or is simply added to sawsawan or dips.
While most Filipino recipes use white coconut vinegar, there are many different kinds of vinegar that is produced all over the Philippines. Usually they are used as sawsawan or dips, but they can also be used in recipes.
Toyo (Soy Sauce)
Soy sauce is an easy way to not only add saltiness to a dish, but also a deep, umami flavor. It is used in a lot of Filipino dishes, like adobo and many Filipino marinades; it is also used as an ingredient in sawsawan or dips.
Filipino Kitchen Essentials
Most Filipino recipes can be made using basic kitchen tools and equipment, but here are some tools that are staples in well-stocked Filipino kitchens.
Ihawan (Charcoal Grill)
There are a lot of charcoal-grilled Filipino food, so a charcoal grill not only comes in handy but it also gives your barbeques or inihaw dishes that irresistible charred flavor.
Kawali (Stainless aluminum pan)
Most Filipino dishes can be cooked with modern, nonstick pots and pans, but Filipino ulam dishes were traditionally cooked in kawali.
It’s entirely possible to do without one, but if you’re a fan of Filipino soups and stews (which usually feature meats that need to be cooked for a long time to tenderize), having a pressure cooker can cut down on your cooking time.
For Filipinos, rice is life. Rice can be cooked in a regular pot, but if you’re serving rice every day for almost all meals, having a sturdy rice cooker just makes sense!
A lot of kakanin and some Filipino dishes are steamed, so having an electric steamer, or a stainless or bamboo stovetop steamer, is also convenient.
Our Most Popular Filipino Recipes
There’s nothing quite like eating your favorite Filipino comfort food. Whether you prefer stews with a lot of sarsa (sauce), hearty soups, or sweet merienda to munch on, we’ve got a recipe for you!
Filipino Ulam Recipes
A typical Filipino meal will have kanin (cooked rice) and ulam (viand), and here’s the best part: you don’t only have to choose one! It’s common to have several, and you can mix and match ulam any way you want. A good rule of thumb: pair up a fried ulam dish with something that has sabaw (soup) or sarsa (sauce, usually referring to the sauce or gravy in stew dishes).
Filipino Merienda Recipes
Filipinos have four meals a day, if you count merienda! Filipino snacks or merienda are usually light, but they pack so much flavor that it’s hard not to fill up on these sweet and savory treats.
Filipino Kakanin Recipes
Kakanin comes from the Filipino words kain, meaning “to eat,” and kanin, meaning “rice”. Most of these Filipino delicacies are made with glutinous rice and coconut, but other kakanin can also be made with root crops like cassava.