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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