The dry adobo

This recipe isn’t about reinventing the wheel – it’s an extra flourish, if you will, a trick to add oomph to your adobo.

Months before “flatten the curve” entered everyone’s lexicon was this worknight when I joined two of my friends for beer after working late. When my order of fried chicken came sans the sides, I unpacked my baon, still piping hot from the office microwave two blocks away, seven floors up. (I had asked the waitress if I could sneak in my baon, as I was – and I half-winced when I confessed this to her – lessening my rice intake. Quite odd to disclose this on a blog that celebrates extra helpings of it…) Talk swerved to food, perhaps insinuated by my baon, chopsuey and, yes, boiled garbanzos. My friends confided a persistent problem most twenty-something city dwellers have: They only have a tiny kitchen with a portable single gas burner and a mini fridge. What can you cook with that space?

With limited arsenal, I immediately thought of one dish: adobo. However, the mere mention of it always merits the follow-up question: “How do you cook your adobo?”

“There are as many adobo recipes as there are Filipino cooks.” Angela Dimayuga

Food historians could only agree on adobo’s definition: it is a protein, usually pork or chicken, that’s simmered or cooked in vinegar, garlic, salt and pepper. A lot of us Filipinos hastily explain to foreigners that adobo is brought about by Spanish colonization, but a lot of studies, notably on Philippine traditional vinegars* point out that these ingredients have been present in the Philippines way before Magellan reached our islands – the journalist and food historian Raymond Solokov called this process “lexical imperialism”. Upon naming the dish that our ancestors have been making for centuries with a Spanish name (which is their word for sauce), the Spaniards ended up rewriting our culinary history. (A great read: There’s nothing Spanish about adobo – should we ditch its Spanish name?)

Another mind-blowing discovery: Soy sauce is a Chinese contribution – so it’s not as essential as the other five ingredients. This fact took years to sink in – I grew up in a household who knows adobo with soy sauce! I recently found a recipe of adobong puti (white adobo) from Marketman, which is close to the way our ancestors used to do it: using our traditional (coconut, nipa, sugar-cane) vinegar as a preservative when refrigeration was nonexistent. It is a revelation: its color (or the lack of it) betrays its complexity. Without the assertive flavor of soy sauce, the saltiness is more nuanced. It’s an exercise on restraint, and I would highly recommend anyone who couldn’t imagine an adobo without soy sauce to cook it and see for yourself.

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Tortang suwake (uni) in Alibijaban

The locals in Alibijaban cook sea urchins (suwake) by pan-frying it with beaten egg, the way most Filipinos would with grilled eggplant for a dish called torta. Photo by Faith Fajardo-Bautista

We skirted along the shores of Alibijaban, a little-known island off the coast of the Bondoc Peninsula in Quezon province, taking smartphone photos of beaches and mangroves that seemed prehistoric. We were walking with a stray beach dog that wasn’t sure whether to lead or follow us. The sun is setting fast. We all thought of heading back to the cheap room we were renting for two nights when we ended up in a far-flung hut towards the edge of the beach. By then it was too late: there was total darkness and it would take us thirty minutes to go back to town. We started walking back through the man-made elevated path that snakes through the beaches and mangroves. There was total darkness. All three of us felt very alone. We could only hear the shuffling of our feet in the sand. A single howl of a dog was enough to make us shudder. To our horror, parts of the path weren’t lit at all: good thing I charged my phone, and the built-in flashlight helped. In my mind’s eye we were in a nightvision footage of a horror film or a bleak reality show, and someone’s out to get us.

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Carcar Special

In Cebu, a habal ride got interesting. In fluent Filipino, the driver talked about his life as a cook for 13 years in Novaliches. What made him leave was the gruelling conditions in the kitchen, particularly frying frozen food in hot oil, which when done on a daily basis could paralyze an arm. His almost got paralyzed – chronic numbness was creeping up his arm – so he swore he’s never going back to Novaliches, nor is he leaving Cebu anytime soon. “This is where my family is.” By January, all habal drivers will get licenses – the scheme is rolled out in Cebu as a pilot – and he’s excited about having a decent uniform.

I only had three hours to roam around, and there are no trains in the city. Grab’s “surges” are also insufferable in Cebu during rush hour. The bus routes proved too complicated to be explained by a local bystander I asked: in perfect English, she advised me to take a cab instead. Filipino isn’t spoken in Cebu, and at one point I felt that anxiety of being lost in a foreign place, as if I were in Bangkok or Hanoi, where I had nervously checked Google Maps every five minutes for my coordinates.

House of Lechon’s signature lechon. Their smallest serving is 1/4 kilo.

After a quick stop at Good Cup Coffee (where they roast their coffee beans in-house) as recommended by a Cebuana friend, I hailed a cab to House of Lechon, this time suggested by a Cebu-based acquaintance from work.

The Good Cup Coffee knows their beans and does their craft well. Although their desserts looked tempting, I had the foresight to make room for lechon.

I asked the waitress at House of Lechon, who greeted me with the customary “How many seats, sir?” if they sell lechon that’s packaged for flights. They don’t. The three- to four-hour shelf life meant the lechon would rot on my lap during my bus ride home. I initially planned to bring home lechon for my son, who’s very passionate about it, from brands that aren’t in Manila, chiefly as a testament that I did visit Cebu, and also because Zubuchon and Rico’s, two famed lechon restaurants from Cebu, are a stone’s throw from where I currently work in Taguig.

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Nomjit Grilled Chicken

Wherever you are in Bangkok, find the nearest BTS train station and get a ticket to Ekkamai (N7). A twenty-minute walk from the station will take you to a joint not different from the ones you can find in storied restaurants in Binondo: rickety chairs and tables, plastic plates, floor-to-wall tiles, dusty portraits of founders and illustrious patrons in sepia or old rose, framed newspaper clippings, and a local clientele. Only when you see the framed photo of their illustrious King Bhumibol Adulyadej behind the cashier will you know you’re in Sukumvhit – at Nomjit Grilled Chicken. The store’s sign won’t say this – nor would Google Translate, nor would their menu, nor would the delivery boy hauling off absurd amounts of takeaway food at the back of his motorcycle when we bumped into the restaurant – so a little faith in Google Maps goes a long way. Or: beam the Thai name (Nomjit Kaiyang: น้อมจิตต์ไก่ย่าง) on your smartphone to trusty 7-Eleven cashiers whenever you’re lost.

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The Porkchop Pilgrimage

Porkchop, fried rice, and egg at Atoy’s Porkchop, San Pedro, Laguna

There’s always that point in one’s life when, over empty plates, leftovers and crumpled table napkins, a group of friends would broach the question: What would you have for your last meal on earth?

Some of my friends already had things in mind (truffle pasta, bacon…) while others, like me, were scrunching up our faces. Up to this day I couldn’t decide what I would like to have in that fateful day, but you know what? Maybe I’d go for a Pinoy-style porkchop.

I wax poetic at my workplace – or anywhere! – when talk swerves to food (us Filipinos can’t help but talk about food while eating, no?) and as most of the talk about food lead to comfort food, I’d always say porkchop in a heartbeat, vividly recalling each slab I wolfed down as a kid. Curiously, no fastfood chain offers one, so I settle for fried chicken.

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The woman in a dress apron

photos by A Dela Rosa

An old woman grunted that she could barely manage to stand up: she said the ginataang tilapia, whole tilapia draped in mustard leaves and simmered in coconut milk, was just too good (and too much?) for her. It’s a compliment she wanted the clientele – an interesting mix of students, bank tellers, construction workers, traffic enforcers, grocery baggers from the nearby mall, the occasional bus inspector – to hear. She gave another unsolicited remark aimed – it turned out – at me: “You know… I’ve been telling her to get a loan from a bank so she can start her own food business.” Her skill in cooking, the old woman said in Filipino, is put to waste!

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