“Stefan, get that duck embryo away from my face…!
…Balut…the infamous and in my opinion, quite terrifying culinary surprise of the Philippines! It's a 19-day old fertilised duck embryo, which is a popular street food throughout the country. We've tried some pretty out-there dishes in our travels, but the Philippines definitely takes the biscuit with balut!
Despite the (ahem!) unique and unexpected crunch(!) of the balut, the food of the Philippines is full of so many delicious and diverse flavours to discover. The variety of food speaks volumes about the country's rich history, which has evolved so much over time. What we noticed the most is how unique Filipino food is from all its Asian neighbours. It was like nothing else we'd ever tried from any other country we'd visited in Asia! In particular, the strong influence of the USA and Spain – both former colonizers of the Philippines over the last 500 years.
We've put together some of the best traditional yummy Filipino prizes to enjoy in descending order, from the famous and well-loved adobo, to the notorious balut!
What makes Filipino food so diverse and exciting?
Filipino cuisine is the ultimate fusion food! It is the melting pot of so many different cultures leaving their mark here over the last few thousand years.
The location of the Philippines in the South China Sea has always been strategically important, making it the focal point of trade and migration dating back to Malayo-Polynesians in around 3,000 BC. The Malayo-Polynesians were the first settlers here, also responsible for bringing the #1 staple ingredient to the Philippines: rice.
Subsequent prominent settlers who left their mark in the Philippines included the Chinese, the Spanish and the Americans. The Chinese brought with them soy sauce, bean sprouts, tofu, bamboo shoots, lemongrass, fish sauce and noodles. The Spanish introduced new cooking methods like sautéeing and braising, as well as new ingredients like corn, potatoes, tomatoes, garlic and onions. Finally, the Americans brought with it hot dogs, hamburgers, fried chicken (Jollibee anyone?) and the idea of “cooking with convenience”.
So for example, the national dish, adobo, was heavily influenced by the Spanish adobo but embellished with soya sauce – an ingredient introduced by the Chinese, and using herbs native to the Philippines like bay leaves and peppercorns.
The other thing we noticed about eating in the Philippines is that it is a joyful experience – an occasion rather than just a quick meal. The Filipinos are an incredibly sociable and extrovert bunch. Mealtime is the perfect excuse to meet and socialise.
And the most important thing of all about eating in the Philippines? No meal is complete until the rice has been served!
1. Chicken adobo: the famous Filipino dish
Chicken adobo is the most famous and popular of all Filipino foods, known and loved by everyone. It's also one of the best examples of how the country is such a rich melting pot of different historical influences. At its true essence, adobo is a protein (usually chicken, pork or fish) that is braised in vinegar then mixed with other herbs/spices.
The Spanish were the ones who first “named” this dish – adobo comes from the Spanish verb “adobar” which means “to marinate. Upon arrival, they noticed locals using vinegar and salt to marinate their chicken, pork and fish. They embellished this by adding ingredients they brought with them like garlic and onions. Over time the salt was replaced with an ingredient introduced by the Chinese – soya sauce, and other ingredients common in the Philippines added, like bay leaves and peppercorns.
This was traditionally used as a way of cooking meat because the acid from the vinegar and high salt content of the soya sauce produced an undesirable environment for bacteria. Other ingredients are added depending on whose recipe you follow. All of our Filipino friends had their own unique way of making adobo, such as one friend insisted using brown sugar, carrots and lime juice, another added coconut milk, another turmeric to make it yellow. Each one we tried was divine!
Also bear in mind, an authentic adobo is cooked in a heavy bottomed clay pot. This is the like the heart and soul of any Filipino's momma's kitchen! Although when we tried to make an authentic adobo in our Airbnb in Manila, we used a wok instead. The result was tasty, but our friends swear to us that the best way is to use a clay pot for the most authentic flavour!
Our recipe for chicken adobo has been simplified to enable us to replicate it at home – so minus the clay pot! Other unique varieties include seafood adobos: Squid Adobo and Shrimp Adobo, and pork “yellow adobo” where the soya sauce is removed and turmeric added. If you want to go right back to basics, check out the “White Adobo” from the Visayas region which is made with no soya sauce, just vinegar – just like it was many centuries ago before the Spanish arrived.
The most unique twist of adobo we tried was tea-infused adobo at the excellent gay-owned restaurant: Station 7Tea8S in Quezon City. Oh and also be sure to check out cannabis-infused adobo…
2. Balut: the Filipino Kinder surprise!
Now THIS bad boy always raises eyebrows with tourists in the Philippines…
Balut is a developing duck embryo boiled and eaten as a snack in the shell, often served with a splash of vinegar. This is definitely one of the most famous foods to try in the Philippines and certainly the strangest we've ever tried!
Balut is popular street food, which originated in the Philippines and is also frequently found in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
The ideal age of the duck embryo is 17 days when the chick is not old enough to fully show its beak, feathers, claws and the bones are undeveloped. Sounds disgusting? Well in the Philippines, balut is a popular childhood treat.
Locals swear by it and will tell you what a nourishing and wholesome snack it is. It's just 188 calories for each balut and it contains lots of niacin, riboflavin, thiamine, protein, calcium, iron and phosphorus.
When we got the opportunity to try it from a street seller on Puka Beach in Boracay, a large group of children rushed excitedly over crying: “Balut! Balut! Balut!”. They loved it and each child rushed to open up the egg and, er, crunch away at the contents inside!
Watch me trying the infamous balut at Puka Beach on Boracay island (suffice to say, we think we'll stick to our traditional hard-boiled eggs in future!):
Advice for LGBTQ travellers to the Philippines
The information we present in this guide is from our experience and perspective travelling as a gay couple in the Philippines, a destination we found to be one of the most gay friendly countries in Asia. However, homophobia is still prevalent in more rural and remote areas, so LGBTQ travellers should take care. Also, we advise all travellers to avoid the south, especially Mindanao, the Sulu Archipelago and the Zamboanga Peninsula as violent crime is prevalent there. For more, read out our article about why we think the Philippines is such a gay friendly country.
3. Kare Kare: oxtail stew
Kare kare is a stew with oxtail, ox tripes, lots of vegetables, which is flavoured with ground roasted peanuts (or peanut butter), onions and garlic. It's served with shrimp paste ( called “bagoong”), calamansi juice (Filipino lime) and sometimes spiced with chilli.
Kare Kare is famous throughout the whole country. The alleged origin of its name is from the word “curry” – a nod to the influence of the Philippines' Indian community in the Cainta area of Metro Manila. It is thought to have originated from the Indian soldiers who settled in the Philippines during the British invasion.
We tried it in Manila and found it quite tasty. However, the rich peanut sauce makes it super heavy so that after the 3rd spoonful, you feel full! For most Filipinos, kare kare is seen as comfort food, which they would have eaten for dinner growing up – freshly and lovingly prepared by their inay (the Tagalog word for mummy).
4. Kinilaw: raw fish salad
Kinilaw is similar to the famous Peruvian dish called ceviche. The word “kinilaw” or “kilaw” means ‘eaten fresh’ in Tagalog. It is a raw fish salad served in an acidic juice, usually kalamansi (Filipino lime) and vinegar. In the Philippines, vinegar is nicknamed “liquid fire” because it cooks the food enough to be digested. More interestingly, vinegar in the Philippines is produced by alcoholic fermentation of coconut water, which is what gives it a sour-sweet flavour.
Just like with ceviche, the acid from the lime and the vinegar “cooks” the meat. Other ingredients usually in a kinilaw include garlic, ginger, onion, pepper and chilli.
We tried lots of kinilaw in the Philippines, but one of our favourites was the one at Los Indios Bravos in Boracay.
5. Sinigang: sour meat stew
Sinigang is another popular Filipino stew. It is meat-based and more sour and savoury in flavour than a kare kare – usually using tamarind (sampalok) as the souring agent. Alternative souring agents include guava, tomatoes or kalamansi.
A traditional sinigang is served as a stew or soup, always served with lots of vegetables like okra, water spinach, (kang kong), daikon (labanos), onions and aubergine (eggplants). Pork (sinigang baboy) is the most common meat for sinigang, but chicken (sinigang na manok), beef (sinigang na baka) and fish (sinigang na bangus) can also be used.
We enjoyed this soup so much that our Filipina friend BC Lee was kind enough to give us her recipe for sinigang baboy. You can, of course, buy the tamarind mix in a packet from the supermarket, but it's so much more flavoursome if you make it fresh.
6. Lechon: roasted suckling pig
Lechon is a “suckling pig” in Hispanic traditions. It is literally an entire young pig that has been fed on just its mother's milk (the word for milk in Spanish is leche), which is roasted over charcoal for many hours. Lechon is also considered the national dish of the Philippines. The city of Cebu is considered one of the most famous places in the country for lechon.
Lechon is also very popular across Spain and large parts of Latin America, usually reserved for special occasions. It's one of the many influences in the Philippines from its 333 years as a Spanish colony – from 1565 to 1898.
The leftovers of the lechon are stewed with vinegar and spices and become a delicious dish called paksiw na lechon. Paksiw literally means: to cook and simmer with vinegar.
7. Tapsilog: the King of the Filipino breakfast
Taspsilog is a popular breakfast dish in the Philippines. The name itself refers to the contents comprising the meal: cured beef (“tapa”), fried rice (“sinangag”) and a fried egg (“itlog”).
The beef in a well made traditional Filipino tapsilog is seasoned with a sauce that is a mix of soy sauce, calamansi juice, brown sugar, minced garlic and black pepper. The rice is fried with lots of garlic to give it a strong (and tasty!) aroma. Finally, the egg is usually served sunny side up. To complement a traditional tapsilog, vinegar or pickled papaya (atchara) is sometimes served.
Variants of tapsilog include “adosilog” (adobo with fried rice and fried egg), “litsilog” (lechon with fried rice and egg) and the most unique of all – “Stefansilog” (a Stefan with fried rice and egg)…ok this is just us being silly…
8. Halo halo: the best Filipino dessert
This is THE ultimate and most famous of all Filipino desserts! Halo Halo means ‘mixed together’ in Tagalog. It is served in a tall glass containing ice shavings, evaporated milk and various small chunks of yummy goodies all mixed in together.
What are the yummy goodies I hear you cry?
Well this includes a mix of boiled kidney beans, chickpeas (“garbanzo”), sugar palm fruit (“kaong”), jackfruit, tapioca, sweet potato, sweet beans, coconut gel, ice cream, guava paste, purple yam and more! There is no one exact formula or recipe, as long as you have a fabulous mix of all of these thrown in with the shaved ice and evaporated milk.
The end result is a tropical, colourful and very tasty mess, perfect for the beach. Every time we went to one of the many beaches in the Philippines, there'd always be a vendor with a huge queue selling halo halos!
9. Buko pie: the divine Filipino coconut pie
I love coconuts a lot – it's my favourite fruit. So a dessert made out of coconuts? My daily staple in the Philippines!
Buko pie is a baked coconut custard pie, the speciality of Los Baños on Luzon island. It has condensed milk added to sweeten it. What I also love is that the coconut meat is also used in the cake. Other variations to the many buko pies I've consumed include the addition of vanilla, pandan and almond.
Buko pie is a recent discovery, entirely by accident by the Pahud sisters from Los Baños, Laguna. One of the sisters returned to her family in the Philippines after working as a maid in the USA where she learned to make apple pies. The sisters tried to recreate the American apple pie, but in the absence of apples in the Philippines, they used another fruit they had in abundance – bukos! The idea took off and became one of the most popular desserts in the Philippines.
Fellow coconut lovers listen up – buko is the word for coconut in Tagalog. Unlike the traditional coconuts which are smaller, slightly hairy and brown in colour, Filipino bukos are much larger, smoother and green. They have a lot more juice inside which makes them so much more satisfying, especially when you want to refresh your body and cool down in the hot, humid Filipino weather. It's also a fantastic source of potassium, sodium, magnesium and iron, which is why the coconut tree is nicknamed the ‘Tree of Life’ in the Phillippines.
For us, no day in the Philippines was complete without a buko or two. First drinking the nourishing juice inside, then hacking it open with a machete to eat the yummy fleshy fruit inside. All lovingly washed down with a few bites of buko pie of course!
The Filipinos make good use of the Tree of Life: other than the many uses of the fruit itself, you can also use it as firewood, the leaves for thatching, the coconut husk to make ropes and more.
Coconuts are so ubiquitous in the Philippines that the country has become the second-largest producer of the world’s coconuts (after Indonesia). It's no wonder that we quickly became Bucoholics during our trip to the Philippines…see what we did there?
10. Arroz Caldo, the Filipino porridge
Arroz caldo is the Filipino porridge equivalent, a popular breakfast dish and comfort food that all our Filipino friends swear by.
It starts out as a sort of chicken soup with rice cooked in water with chicken stock. However, unlike chicken soup, the mixture is cooked for longer until it turns into a thick porridge – this is the arroz caldo! It is then infused with ginger and garnished with toasted garlic, scallions, and black pepper. It is usually served with calamansi or fish sauce as condiments, as well as a hard-boiled egg.
Although arroz caldo means “rice broth” in Spanish, it was in fact based on the congee introduced to the Philippines by Chinese immigrants many centuries ago.
A traditional arroz caldo uses glutinous rice and is slightly yellow in colour. This comes from the addition of kasubha (safflower) or saffron. In the absence of safflower or saffron, turmeric can be used instead.
Other variations of arroz caldo include a French inspired “arroz palaka” where instead of chicken, frogs' legs are used instead (palaka means “frog” in Tagalog)! Another interesting one we discovered was a vegan variant which uses mushrooms or tofu in place of meat.
Check out our Philippines travel video
This is our video of our travels around the Philippines as a gay couple, focusing on the awesome gay scene of Manila, party island Boracay (pre-cleanup!) and the stunning Palawan.
For more inspiration:
- Read about our transformation into mermen on the island of Boracay
- Find out more interesting facts about the Philippines
- Check out the largest pride events around the world
- Then get inspired by these fabulous outfits for gay pride
- And don't forget to pack these must-have accessories for gay pride as well
- These are our favourite scuba diving spots throughout Asia
- Read more about our experiences travelling through Asia as a gay couple
- Heading to Japan? Check out our gay city guide to Tokyo
- As well as our gay Japan itinerary for first-time visitors
- And don't miss out on the experience of becoming a geisha in Tokyo either!
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Happy travels are safe travels
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