Adobo: The History Behind A National Favorite

Symbols play a huge part in Filipino culture. We have the carabao as our national animal, the sampaguita as our national flower, and Sandara Park as our national krung-krung, but our food-loving country has yet to select a national dish. Considering how we have so many different regional delicacies, with each as delectable as all the others, it’d be pretty tough to come to a consensus.

One dish sure comes pretty close though: the classic adobo.

What is adobo, exactly?

Just about every Filipino loves adobo, from the call center agent with his packed Tupperware to the socialite lunching at the latest fusion place in Serendra. There are as many versions of adobo as there are households, but all of them share the same basic components.

In English, adobo means “vinegar-braised.” Evenly-cut chunks of meat are first seared in hot fat or oil until they brown. Braising liquids, such as vinegar and soy sauce, are then added, and the mixture is left to simmer over low heat. The moist heat gently penetrates the meat to break down the collagen and tough fibers, resulting in a fork-tender texture with a thick, flavorful sauce. It’s a cooking method that’s time-consuming but undeniably rewarding.

While the cooking process sounds relatively simple, there are still a few details that can trip up a beginner. Remember that tougher cuts of meat need to simmer for a longer time. Tender meats like poultry or seafood should be braised in less liquid, at a lower temperature, and for a shorter period of time or they’ll disintegrate. Keep the temperature low to prevent the outer layers of the meat from toughening up before the insides are cooked thoroughly. Getting a good, even sear on the meat is also crucial to the adobo’s flavor. Lastly, salt should be added (if at all) only towards the end of the cooking process to prevent the reduced sauce from being too salty.

Filipino or Spanish? Adobo‘s Disputed Origins

The word adobo is derived from the Spanish word adobar, which means “marinade” or “pickling sauce.” The existence of the tangy dish was first recorded in 1613 by the Spaniard Pedro de San Buenaventura.

In the dictionary he was compiling, Buenaventura listed the tart viand as “adobo de los naturales” for its similarity to Spanish and Mexican dishes that went by the same name. But while our favorite ulam’s moniker boasts of a pure Spanish lineage, little else about our adobo can and should be attributed to our Hispanic conquerors. According to the food historian Raymond Sokolov, the ingredients for adobo already existed in the Philippines before Ferdinand Magellan even laid eyes on our shores. Because the dish’s original name was never recorded (and in a case of what Sakolov calls “lexical imperialism”), the Spanish label stuck.

Like many cultures based in warm climates, Filipino natives developed various methods of preserving food. They cooked using moist-heat methods like steaming or boiling. To keep their edibles fresh for a longer period, they used plenty of vinegar and salt since the elevated acidity and high sodium content produced a hazardous environment for spoilage-causing bacteria. The Chinese traders who later visited our islands introduced soy sauce to early Filipinos. It soon found its way into our nameless vinegar-braised dish, eventually displacing salt altogether.

While our adobo shares its name with a couple of Hispanic dishes, there are key differences between the Filipino version and its Spanish and Mexican cousins. The Spanish adobo sauce is distinctly spiced and fiery, with at least three kinds of chili peppers, tomato paste, and cinnamon among its ingredients while the Mexican rendition uses lemon juice, cumin, and Mexican oregano. On the other hand, the Filipino adobo base is comprised almost exclusively of vinegar, which not only flavors but also tenderizes the meat.

The Many Faces of Adobo

For nearly five centuries, Filipinos have been coming up with their own new and unique takes on this classic. Here are a few of the more popular ones:

Chicken-Pork Adobo

This is the “standard” version served in homes and carinderias across the country. Soy sauce gives it a dark color and salty flavor. Traditionally, it’s eaten the day after it’s made, once all the flavors have mixed, reabsorbed, and intensified. Since it involves two kinds of meat, the pieces of chicken are removed from the pot once they’re done, leaving the pork chunks to finish stewing.

Beef/Chicken/Pork Adobo

This more decadent spin on the classic stew originated in Batangas, where achuete (annatto) water is sometimes substituted for the soy sauce. This results in a less salty sauce and adds a reddish tinge to the dish. The meat is braised in order of toughness, with the hardier beef pieces hitting the pan first.

Adobo sa Gata

A popular dish in Southern Luzon, this Bicolano take on adobo adds coconut milk to the vinegar braising liquid. Green finger chili peppers, which abound in Bicol, are used instead of black peppercorns.

Adobong Puti (White Adobo)

Although this dish is actually brown (an effect of frying the meat prior to braising), it gets its name from the clear vinegary liquid it’s traditionally made with. This version is preferred by the purists since it eliminates the soy sauce and the laurel leaves from the recipe, giving way to the three basic adobo flavors: vinegar, garlic, and peppercorns.

Adobong Puso ng Saging

This delicacy calls for sliced white banana flowers sautéed in white vinegar, a helping of bagoong (shrimp paste), and a sprinkling of suahe (small shrimps). Hailing from Cavite, this vegetable-based adobo is used as the main souring agent in the province’s version of pancit guisado.

Adobong Malutong (Crispy Adobo)

Proving that Filipinos are highly resourceful when it comes to recycling leftovers, adobong malutong entails shredding the meat from leftover chicken and pork adobo, and frying them in hot oil until they are brown and crisp. Crunchy adobo flakes are known for their long shelf-life (especially when refrigerated in a sealed container) and for their versatility (they are paired with everything from kare-kare to lugaw).

Adobong Pusit (Squid Adobo)

Originating from coastline areas where seafood is plentiful but meat is scarce, this particular adobo’s sauce is blackened further by pouring squid ink into the stew along with vinegar and soy sauce. Green finger chili peppers are sometimes added for an extra kick.

Apan-apan Adobabo

This Ilonggo dish uses kangkong (water spinach) as its main attraction. This version is inherently vegetarian, but is occasionally made decadent with the addition of tulapo (bits of pork fat rendered in oil).

Adobo in the 21st Century

These days, our iconic Filipino dish is just like the half-breed starlets that abound in local showbiz: born of a surprisingly beautiful union between East and West, and thrilling to Filipinos everywhere.

Take the crispy adobo flakes, for example. Instead of simply serving them on top of steaming white rice, you can now enjoy them in sandwiches, salads, and pasta dishes. I even read about a group of young Filipino entrepreneurs who came up with sushi rolls filled with adobo flakes.

Our adobo is even starting to make waves in places as far as the Big Apple. At Romy Dorotan’s Brooklyn restaurant, Purple Yam, the adobo (made with rice vinegar, coconut milk, soy sauce, garlic, and fiery Thai chilies) has been hailed by critics for its alternating notes of fragrant garlic, fiery chili, and sweet-salty nuttiness.

Sheldon Simeon, a Filipino-American chef from Hawaii, made a splash during the 10th season of Top Chef. For the finale, Simeon’s offering included his tasty riff on the much-loved Pinoy classic: tender pork belly with mung bean puree and a pea shoot salad. Judge Tom Colicchio ended up praising it for its harmonious flavors and calling it “a very good, strong dish.”

Apparently, even the leader of the free world is a fan of our savory stew. But I suppose that’s only natural, especially when the executive chef to the Obamas happens to be Cristeta Comerford, the first Filipina (as well as the first Asian-American) to hold the position. Though, with the health-conscious Michelle Obama calling the shots in that kitchen, the members of the First Family probably enjoy their adobo without the chicken skin and with less soy sauce.

They say that Filipino food was prepared by Malay settlers, spiced by the Chinese, stewed by the Spanish, and hamburgerized by the Americans. I guess that just proves that we Filipinos are quite good at adapting to change, and making the most out of our situation in order to come up with something that’s uniquely our own.

This article was originally published in 2013.

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