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Spices in Filipino Cuisine
It’s no secret that Filipino cuisine is one of the best in the world, but like any good food, it has to have its secrets. Few people have really mastered authentic Filipino food—not the washed-down fare you get in fast foods and diners, but real, home-made native dishes. Although most of us can whip up something when we need to, it can be hard to capture that distinct Filipino taste.
So what really goes into our food? How do you make your food taste truly Filipino? There’s really no single answer, because no one can define our food—we come from a hodgepodge of cultures, after all. But one thing that sets us apart from our Asian neighbors is our heavy use of spices. Whereas other cuisines prefer subtle hints of flavor, we like a big burst of it with every bite.
So that’s the first rule: be generous with the spice. If you want your dish to fit in with other Filipino recipes, get to know the spices that go into them. Here are some of the most common.
Ginger is used in most of Asian cuisine, and Filipino food recipes. In the Philippines, it is most commonly used in soups and stews; dishes such as arroz caldo (rice porridge), and tinola (chicken stew) use garlic as their main spice. It goes particularly well with chicken and fish dishes, where it provides a nice contrast to the strong meat flavors. Ginger is used both for flavor and aroma, although the flesh of the root is not always eaten. Most people just crush the root and drop it into the dish, then take it out just before serving.
We’re not as wild about spicy food as the Thais, but we do like a bit of bite in our food. Virtually every Filipino dish can be spiced up with chili peppers, from rich meat viands to everyday soups and noodles. Sauces like patis (fish sauce) and soy sauce are often mixed with crushed chili and used as dips or marinades. Bicol, a region in southeastern Luzon, is known for using chili peppers in most of its dishes. Perhaps the most popular is Bicol express, made with meat, bagoong (sautéed shrimp paste), coconut milk, and chopped green chilies.
Garlic and onions
These two almost always go together, especially in meat and vegetable dishes. You may be more familiar with Taiwanese and Australian garlic, which have larger cloves and are easier to work with. But if you want a stronger, spicier flavor, go for native garlic. Philippine garlic comes in smaller bulbs, with cloves less than half the size of other types. This makes them hard to handle, but it’s well worth the trouble.
Philippine onions are strong and pungent, making them a great source of flavor. Use native red onions for sautéing and pickling, but use the white ones for salads and sandwiches. If you’re making rice porridge, top it with chopped green onions for extra spice.
Lemongrass has strong-smelling leaves and stalks commonly used in soups, teas and sauces. The leaf is slightly sweet with a hint of citrus, a perfect complement to gravy and other meat sauces. There are several ways to use lemongrass, but the most common method is cooking the fresh leaves (sometimes the entire stalk or bulb) with the food to release the flavor. If you’re using the stalk, take only the soft inner part and chop it up before dropping it in. You can also use dried and powdered lemongrass, especially if you’re in the city and fresh leaves are hard to find.
Pandan is mostly an aromatic ingredient, most commonly used with plain white rice. Just add a couple of leaves to your rice as it boils, and it comes out with a strong, inviting aroma. Some regions even weave it onto rice pots for an even stronger scent. You can do the same with rice cakes, puddings, and other Filipino desserts recipes.
The strong, pungent taste of bay leaves makes them a perfect fit for Filipino cooking recipes. The leaf has a wide range of uses, from meat sauces and dips to main dishes like adobo, menudo and mechado. Dried bay leaves are traditionally used; fresh bay is seldom available in local markets. The leaf itself is not usually eaten; like ginger, you can take out the leaves once you’re ready to serve. However, most people just leave them in and set them aside when eating.
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