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In the past few years, Filipino food has finally begun to get its due in the U.S. If you haven’t tried cooking this flavor-packed Southeast Asian cuisine in your own kitchen yet, here’s what you’ll need to get started (plus what to make with it).
For pointers, we went to top Filipino chefs around the country to learn the essentials of Filipino cooking. From Brian Hardesty of St. Louis’ Guerrilla Street Food and Sheldon Simeon of Tin Roof in Maui, to Dorothy Hernandez of Detroit’s Sarap and Nicole Ponseca of New York’s Jeepney (and, formerly, Maharlika), these chefs are the experts and showed us what you need in your pantry to get started.
Over centuries, the Philippines developed its own unique cuisine, thanks in part to its rich and diverse tropical rainforests, humid weather, and its key location in the South Pacific as a trading route.
For centuries the nation has had a healthy trade with China and other Pacific nations, resulting in the introduction of Asian flavors and ingredients—think soy sauce—in the cuisine early on. After Spanish colonization in the 1500s, traditional European dishes blended with native ingredients to create nationally recognized dishes like adobo and mechado (beef stew). Other global influences include the Middle East, South America, and the U.S. during World War II.
So many global influences have helped craft the lively blend of sweet and sour, salt, and acid that defines Filipino food. The tropical weather influenced flavors as residents turned to salt and vinegar to preserve foods.
Cooking in the Philippines is a family affair, bringing together generations in the kitchen and around the dinner table. Not surprisingly dishes are often ones that can easily be served in a variety of formats, from bowls of stews to platters of lechon, or roasted suckling pig.
While this isn’t an exhaustive list, these are some key ingrdients in Filipino cuisine. Stock your pantry with these staples so you can make delicious Filipino dishes whenever the craving strikes.
Traditionally, many dishes are created with rice and cider vinegars to add the tartness Filipino food is known for, but sugarcane, palm, and coconut vinegars are also used often. The great thing about vinegar is each comes with a unique flavor profile making it a key place in a recipe to add your own spin.
If you’re just starting out and don’t have access to an Asian food store or international section at your grocery, try plain old distilled white vinegar.
2. Soy Sauce
Food needs salt, and soy sauce is one place to get it.
But if you’re looking for something especially traditional, turn to patis.
3. Patis (Filipino Fish Sauce)
Just as not all hot sauces are created equal, not all fish sauces are either. Vietnamese and Thai fish sauce have a different flavor profile and generally are a little more balanced thanks to added sugar. True Filipino patis can be pretty in-your-face when it comes to saltiness.
Made of fermented fish and salt, the flavor it lends isn’t fishy at all. It’s much more along the lines of rich umami. Try using it to marinade meats instead of saltwater brine. Rufina is a classic brand to look for at the grocery, but if you’re really having a hard time finding any fish sauce, anchovy paste can be a substitute, though it just lacks the funk from the fermentation.
4. Bagoong (Fermented Fish Paste)
This fermented fish paste is an essential for the Filipino chef. It can be made with a variety of small fish, though shrimp is common and lends a signature pink hue to the condiment.
Even seasoned chefs have a hard time describing the flavor, but think along the lines of the funk of kimchi and an intense shrimp flavor (both guaranteed to get your nose working). It’s often served with kare kare (peanut stew with braised oxtail) or as a snack with green mango slices.
This Filipino lime is a cross between a kumquat and a Key lime. This small citrusy fruit is very aromatic and adds quite a bit of (surprise!) acidity to any dish. It brightens up everything from drinks to pan fried noodles and fish.
6. Bitter Melon
Also known as bitter gourd and bitter squash, this fruit looks a bit like a lumpy cucumber. Once sliced open and cored (imagine if the inside of a cucumber was a bell pepper—bitter melon has a very similar texture), most often you’ll see it prepared simply with scrambled eggs. A word to the wise: A little bit goes a long way. So unless you’re ready for the bitterness, consider pre-prepping the fruit by letting the slices rest in sugar or salt water and squeezing out the excess juice before cooking.
Garlic is featured prominently in dishes ranging from basic adobo to sisig (sizzling pork) and pancit (fried noodles). Keep a bunch of fresh cloves on hand.
Fresh ginger adds zest and spice to many of the sour dishes of the Philippines. Having a root handy is always important.
9. Squash Tops and Leafy Greens
From stews to soups (especially the sour seafood soup sinigang) to noodles and adobo, dark leafy greens are an important component of many Filipino recipes. Squash tops and leaves might not be the most readily available stateside, but dinosaur kale, collard greens, and spinach are great stand-ins.
10. Rice or Potatoes
With all those acidic and sour sauces, there needs to be a bit of starch to balance the dish. Jasmine rice, simply steamed, is the foundation (or accompanying side) to many important meals, as are simple potatoes.
The striking purple yam that’s made its way into the Trader Joe’s freezer case is a common ingredient in Filipino desserts, frequently cooked into a jam called halaya. See our guide to ube for more about this ingredient (with recipes, of course).
Now that you know what ingredients you’ll need to have on hand, here are some delicious Filipino dishes to make with them.
Think of sisig as a sort of pork stir-fry, using the heart and meat from the pig’s head, with calamansi and chile. It’s a perfect blend of spice, savory and sour. Get our Sisig (Filipino Sizzling Pork) recipe.
Considered the national dish of the Philippines, adobo is a simple mixture of chicken and spices served over rice. It’s an easy recipe to start with and chicken can be swapped for pork, beef, lamb, jackfruit, or mushrooms. Get our Slow Cooker Chicken Adobo recipe.
This easy noodle dish has the sweet and sour and saltiness Filipino food is known for. It is pretty well accepted that any pancit is just a blend of noodles, meat, and vegetables, though pancit bihon calls for thin rice vermicelli whereas thicker flour stick noodles star in pancit canton. Get the Pancit Bihon recipe.
There’s a variation of sweet and sour soups across Asia, and this classic sour seafood soup usually gets some tartness from calamansi or tamarind. This version is a bit of a modern take with salmon and miso. Get our Salmon Miso Sinigang (Filipino Sour Soup) recipe.
Loaded with veggies and fried pork, this stew is a classic comfort food for the Philippines. With the chili for spice and shrimp paste for an added layer of umami richness, this recipe is an easy way to boost your fall soup game. Get the Pinakbet recipe.
These crispy Filipino spring rolls can be filled with all sorts of things, from ground pork and vegetables to sweet bananas. Get the Lumpia recipe.
This comforting dessert is a unique spin on a classic Filipino treat. The small number of ingredients in this rice pudding and beginner level techniques make it an easy pick to impress at the end of a meal. Get our Champorado (Filipino Rice Pudding) recipe.
Perhaps the most iconic (and Instagrammable) Filipino dessert, halo-halo means “mix mix” in Tagalog and is a layered affair of various textures and flavors. Ingredients include shaved ice, fruit, jellies, beans, and condensed milk or ice cream. Get the Halo-Halo recipe.