Essential Filipino dishes to try

Photo: Three-cut pork barbecue at Toyo Eatery, Manila

Ahead of appearances at Melbourne Food & Wine Festival this weekend, Jordy Navarra and Nicole Ponseca, two Filipino chefs putting the food of their homeland on the map and in the mouths of diners around the world, give us their list of defining Filipino dishes.

For a country that’s relatively well-versed in bun cha, boat noodles and other South East Asian cuisines, Australia is still somewhat in the dark when it comes to Filipino food, despite a community of close to 250,000 people. We can’t answer the why question but, through our access to some of the world’s up-and-coming Filipino chefs, we can give you a primer in the dishes of The Philippines to seek out if you want a taste of this complex cuisine.

We asked Jordy Navarro, of Toyo Eatery in Manila, and Nicole Ponseca, the restaurateur behind New York’s Jeepney and Maharlika, to talk us through some of the essential flavours of Filipino cuisine ahead of their appearances during Melbourne Food & Wine Festival.

Together the pair will take the stage for a Masterclass demonstration at The House of Food and Wine on Sunday 10 March (tickets are still available here), while the following week they’ll partner with two other Filipinos (chef Ross Magnaye of Rice Paper Sister and cookbook author Yasmin Newman-Martin) to cook a feast showcasing their country’s diverse cuisine at a sell-out event at Rice Paper Sister.

Here are their picks.

Essential Filipino dishes

1. Pork barbecue
A popular street-food, this skewered snack involves pork belly or shoulder brushed with a glaze of soy, calamansi and banana ketchup and grilled over charcoal. “This particular dish is served at every family gathering,” Navarra says. “Basically, if it was a special family gathering, we would get to eat it. I have fond memories associated with this dish. My grandmother made the best pork barbecue.”

2. Pinakbet
“[If you] head to my mom’s hometown of La Union in the northern region of the Philippines and ask what’s your favorite dish, with money on the table the odds are that they will respond pinakbet,” says Nicole Ponseca.
The word pinakbet translates to shrivelled and refers to the appearance of vegetables that have been cooked for at least 10 to 15 minutes, traditionally in a claypot over open flame. Long beans, pumpkin, okra, eggplant and bitter melon are all fair game. “I love the long beans that hold their sturdy crunch despite long cooking times,” Ponseca says.

Fermented seafood paste, such as bagoong, adds welcome funk. Some people also add pork belly to their pinakbet for an extra savoury hit.

One of her favourite versions of the dish is found at chef Cocoy Ventura’s home, otherwise she heads to the towns of La Union or Isabela in the north of The Philippines.


Nicole Ponseca

3. Adobo
The Philippines national dish was nominated by Ponseca, who describes herself as “a person who prides themselves on discovering the new. Alas, I cannot escape the banality of highlighting adobo in the discussion of Filipino food.”
Adobo involves simmering meat (usually chicken, but there’s plenty of variation throughout The Philippines) in a heady sauce of vinegar, garlic and soy sauce. Aromatics like bay leaves and black pepper are also fundamental. Adobo is so critical to Filipino cuisine, according to Ponseca, because it contains the three elements of funk, sour and bitterness that she says are the cornerstones of all the country’s dishes.

In Ponseca’s family, the adobo is served as you would serve a dry curry, with much of the liquid reduced and the meat tender but slightly crisp.

“Adobo is as Filipino as apple pie is American or Vegemite is Australian.”

4. Silog
One of Navarra’s other favourites is silog, part of a whole group of Filipino dishes consisting of rice and eggs topped with some type of protein, such as dried cured beef or longannisa, a pork sausage found widely in The Philippines.

“Silogs are always my go-to dish when I want grab something quick to eat,” Navarra says. “Whether it’s a meal after going out with friends or an afternoon snack, silogs are always an easy dish to find and are very affordable.”
He seeks out one of the many branches of Tapa King when he needs a fix.

At his restaurant, Toyo, silog features on the menu but rather than scrambling the eggs, the kitchen keeps it raw and runny. The possibilities for interpretation are endless, according to the chef.


Jordy Navarra

5. Sinangag

The garlic rice that forms the basis of Navarra’s beloved silog is one of Ponseca’s all-time favourites – and she reckons she has the secret to making the dish really sing.

“Sinangag: so easy to make and so easy to fuck up. The unenlightened cook simply toasts a bit of garlic in oil and breaks up (preferably) day old rice in a simple stir fry. The learned cook knows that the secret is infusing oil with garlic — the flavor of bitter garlic permeates throughout the rice in unison. I find this more pleasant that biting into the occasional bit of bitter garlic. I want the whispers of bitterness to kill me softly.”

6. Siningang na hipon
This sour soup made with shrimp and local vegetables holds fond memories for Navarra.

“My mother does not cook much but this is one of the few dishes she cooks for me,” he says.

His favorite version gets its pucker from tamarind, but there are many different ways to achieve the trademark sour flavour, depending on the type of protein being used. Both pork and fish are common.

“We don’t make a version of sinigang at Toyo Eatery simply because it’s a dish that difficult for us to recreate – to capture those feelings of home, comfort and fun.”