The Evolution of Adobo, According To This Food Scientist

From the first ever adobo, to the adobo you know today.

IMAGE Patrick Martires

Adobo holds a special place in the Filipino's heart, whether or not you agree that it should be our national dish. Every household has their own version, using flavors they love, toggled to the taste of each family member.

Some folks though would often argue that Adobo is not entirely Filipino and therefore does not deserve the "national dish" title. Then again, you would be pleased to find out though, that according to the documents chef and food scientist Borja Sanchez found, adobo existed in the Philippines before the Spanish even came. The adobo he's referring to may not be what you expect as the ones commonly now found in our homes have come a long way since.

Adobo for survival.

Do you still remember that History class during elementary or high school about Ferdinand Magellan coming to the Philippines? His voyage began spurred by Spain's need for spices. During the 16th century, Spanish gastronomy was in the process of globalization, amalgamating ingredients newly found from South America such as yams, potatoes, and peppers. Because of that food trend in history, Magellan arrived on our shores in 1521. He and his crew had survived thanks to carrying adobo in their ships. Adobo back then wasn't just a delicious dish, but it was a means to survival.

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In essence, adobo as a cooking method, for both the Spanish and Filipino, is a means to preserve protein. For the Spanish conquistadors, their only means of survival on a ship that would sail for months or years on end was to bring preserved meat.

How does adobo preserve meat? The vital ingredient in adobo: vinegar. Through braising meat in an acidic solution with a spice mixture, the meat is preserved all the while developing its distinct flavor. This allowed for Magellan's crew to stock up on food that would carry them to our shores, marinating their meats in wine vinegar.

Here is the alleged predecessor of adobo, kinilaw.
Photo by David Hanson
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In that same century of his arrival, a Franciscan Friar by the name of Pedro de Buenaventura, who wrote the first Tagalog dictionary called "Vocabulario de la lengua tagala" found adobo on our shores. He called it "adobo de naturales" or the adobo of the natives. Just like the Spanish, the Filipinos, too, had developed their own meat-preservation technique. The Philippine adobo he found used meat, fish, or the gut of deer submerged in a mixture of their own local vinegar, salt, and chilies. It was set out until the meat was tenderized and it had become, "malinamnam." You too know of this delicious, pre-colonial dish: it was called "kilaw."

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Sanchez argues though, that Buenaventura had made a mistake. Kinilaw was not actually adobo. Adobo, from the old Franco language, actually comes from the word "adobar" which means "charge," refering to when the Hispanic knights charged their weapons for war. Etymologically speaking, because Adobo comes from a Spanish word, this means that Adobo could not have come from the Chinese as well.

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Still, it must be noted how, in spite of being worlds away from each other, somehow, these two cultures had developed similar recipes. How did this happen? For both cultures, meat preservation was extremely vital. In Spain, (as found in Ruperto De Nola's Libro de Cocina, 1529 and Diego Granda's El Arte Dela Cocina, 1599) from the time that adobo first popped up in Spain before Christ, continued to evolve from being just a cold sauce. It became a flavor, then finally a dish on its own. Sanchez himself holds and uses his own Andalucian family's contemporary adobo dish.

Adobo had flourished in Spain specifically in regions around the Iberian coast-places that were highly humid, where bacteria was stronger than usual, and therefore caused spoilage at a faster rate. In the same way, the Philippines, an archipelago-a country made entirely of islands, beaches, and therefore just as extremely humid-also greatly benefited from having their own adobo recipe. Adobo even to this day, is a staple beach food because of the same properties it's always had: it's ability to keep well.

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When Spain stepped in, the Filipino adobo as we know it today, was born. Not only that, but through colonization, Spain acted as a vector, spreading the adobo recipe to different parts of the Philippines.

Adobo means flavor.

"For our both countries, adobo is much more than a way to do the product. Adobo means flavor," Sanchez said.

As the Spanish and Filipino cultures continued to interact, their adobos then evolved together, becoming more than just a cooking method, or a way to preserve meat, but a specific flavor. 

Adobo sa dilaw gets its bright yellow hue and distinct flavor from turmeric, commonly found at the recipe's place of origin, Batangas.
Photo by Bianca Laxamana
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Now, you might argue that Spanish adobo and Filipino adobo taste different from each other so it can't really be bound by the context of "flavor." You must remember, however, that in our own country, adobo isn't homogenous flavor or color-wise. Apart from the popular, dark-colored, Chinese-influenced, adobo with soy sauce, we also have adobong dilaw, adobong pula, adobong puti, and adobo sa gata. In essence though, just like Spanish adobo and Philippine adobo, they both center on using vinegar to bring out the flavor.

"Different kinds of adobo depend on the geographic region," Sanchez said. In that way, Spanish adobo is made using their local vinegar: sherry, wine vinegar, or apple cider and their own spice mixture of Spanish paprika, oregano-or depending on what's available. If in some adobo recipes we use calamansi, some Spanish recipes, they use yellow lemons.

Photo by Bianca Laxamana

The evolutionary divergence.

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The evolutionary path of adobo for Spain and Philippines diverge on this one part. As Spanish cuisine exclusively makes adobo only with protein, deer, beef, fish, chicken, pork, etc. Filipinos also make adobo using vegetables as this is often available all year-long to Filipinos.

Today, the identity of adobo is the same it has always been, different from family to family but still, cut from the same cloth. It's a product of geography-the goods that are easy to source per region, foreign influences-the cooking technique of the Spanish and the Chinese addition of soy sauce, but most importantly, it's a product of memories with our own families.

The late Anthony Bourdain concurred that the right answer to the question "Who makes the best adobo?" would always be: "Mom makes the best adobo." In the same way, Sanchez states, indicating that the same applies in their culture, "adobo usually means good moments, [doesn't] it?"

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There's a reason why Sanchez chose to write a lengthy research paper about adobo, scouring through mideval Spanish texts: adobo has a special place in his heart. When he thinks of adobo, he thinks of his mother, who, every winter, would make several kilograms of deer adobo. This would let the whole family enjoy, every night, delicious tapas for dinner.

Adobo is a memory; an experience.

Adobo is more than a dish, adobo is the collection of memories each one of us has tied to it. Adobo is more than a cooking method, a flavor, or a recipe, but rather, it is a constant but evolving experience.

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