Unrecognized culinary gems await cooks with tastes that like to travel Treasures from the Philippines

May 15, 1994|By Tina Danze | Tina Danze,Dallas Morning News Universal Press Syndicate

Americans have long loved Asian food. But while trendy cuisines such as Thai and Vietnamese bask in the limelight, the culinary treasures of the Philippines have remained largely undiscovered until recently.

The Philippines, a group of islands in the southwest Pacific, have been influenced by three cultures: Malay, Chinese and Spanish.

The Malays, the islands' original inhabitants, pioneered the addition of coconut and coconut milk to native dishes. The Chinese, who were ancient trading partners, left a legacy of noodles as well as sweet-and-sour flavoring. The Spanish, who ruled the Philippines for 300 years, introduced garlic and countless recipes and techniques.

The mingling of these influences produced a cuisine as rich as it is varied.

Most ingredients are readily available in this country; a handful may require a trip to an Asian grocery. And many dishes are easy enough for novice cooks.

Classic Philippine specialties include chicken adobo, a richly flavored stew; pancit guisado, a sauteed noodle dish; and bibingka, a sweet baked rice dessert.

Asian and Spanish influences harmonize beautifully in adobo, a simple stew that relies on vinegar, garlic, bay leaf, soy sauce and black peppercorns for its distinctive flavor.

Adobo comes close to being the national dish of the Philippines, according to Reynaldo Alejandro, author of "The Philippine Cookbook" (Putnam, $11.95).

Although adobo is typically made with chicken, pork or fish, it can be adapted to include anything the cook fancies.

"There are as many variations of adobo as there are households," Mr. Alejandro says. "As long as you have the basic [sauce] ingredients, you can come up with 101 ways of cooking adobo." Some of Mr. Alejandro's variations use vegetables, tofu or mushrooms for meatless entrees and appetizers.

You may raise an eyebrow at the amount of garlic in adobo recipes: an entire head. But the garlic loses its bite during cooking, mellowing to a sweetness that complements the soy-vinegar flavors.

Vinegar also figures prominently in other Philippine dishes, serving as a flavoring agent as well as a preservative -- a blessing in rural tropical areas lacking refrigeration.

Adobo's flavor actually improves after a day or two in the refrigerator, making it the perfect do-ahead dish. It is typically served with generous mounds of steaming white rice to soak up the sauce.

Noodles form the basis of a variety of Philippine dishes known as pancit. Tita Cruz, co-owner of a Philippine restaurant, considers pancit bijon guisado, or sauteed rice sticks, the most classic of the Philippine noodle dishes. The rice sticks are vermicelli-like noodles that are softened by soaking in hot water and then quickly sauteed with vegetables and sliced meats.

"Pancit is typically made with carrots, celery and Chinese cabbage, but anything can go in it," Ms. Cruz says.

Philippine cooks often improvise as they prepare pancit, adding Chinese sausage, mushrooms, shrimp, ham, snow peas, green beans or whatever is on hand. Pancit guisado can be assembled in 15 minutes after all the ingredients have been prepared and chopped.

Ms. Cruz strongly recommends adding fish sauce -- a condiment made from fermented fish -- to the dish. It's usually listed as optional.

"It enhances the flavor," she says, noting that Philippine cuisine relies on very few spices. "This [fish sauce] is what makes it different. Fish sauce and soy sauce are trademarks of Asian cooking."

For those who omit the fish sauce, Ms. Cruz suggests substituting salt -- a third again as much salt as called for in the recipe.

Fish sauce and rice sticks are readily available in local Asian grocery stores. Thai fish sauce is cheaper, equal in flavor and more readily available than the Philippine variety known as "patis," Ms. Cruz says.

For dessert, Filipinos often serve bibingka, a sweet baked rice "cake" made with cooked rice, brown sugar and coconut milk.

"It's a very simple recipe," says Nieves Cava, board member of Mabuhay, a U.S.-based Philippine dance company. "It tastes better if prepared one day ahead of time."

The dessert can be made up to two days before serving and then reheated in the microwave. Sometimes Ms. Cava bakes her bibingka in a baking pan lined with banana leaves for extra flavor.

"Everyone likes it -- children and adults," Ms. Cava says.

Chicken adobo

Makes 6 servings

1 cup white vinegar

1 head garlic, cloves peeled and crushed

1/2 teaspoon whole or ground peppercorns

3 bay leaves

1/4 cup soy sauce

6 skinless chicken breast halves with bone (see note)

cooked white rice

In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, combine vinegar, garlic, pepper, bay leaves and soy sauce. Add the chicken; marinate for 20 to 30 minutes. Cover, bring to a boil and simmer for 45 minutes. Remove meat from pan and boil cooking liquid until reduced by half. Serve over rice.

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