Adobo to the Fore!

I’ve traveled a lot in the Philippines. It’s a big country, with many islands, and there are many variations on the recipe of adobo, an often salty (sometimes sweet) way of preparing chicken or pork. It’s usually served warm with white rice. I must admit that I’ve rarely had adobo while in the Philippines, but I’ve had it many times in North America. It’s a dish that will make you love Filipino cuisine if you don’t already. Cook and author Mark Bittman writes that “this Philippine classic has been called the best chicken dish in the world by a number of friends of mine” (How to Cook Everything [1998], p. 377). This week there was a great feature on the dish and its myriad varieties in the New York Times. In “The Adobo Experiment,” Sam Sifton writes:

There is great fun to be had in asking Filipinos how to make adobo, particularly when they are in groups. Filipino cooking is an evolutionary masterpiece, a cuisine that includes Chinese, Spanish, American and indigenous island influences, all rolled into one. But where for one Filipino the most important aspect of the dish is Spanish, for another it is Chinese, or both, or neither. (The journalist and food historian Raymond Sokolov has made the point that the ingredients for adobo were present in the Philippines before Magellan — only the name, which comes from a Spanish word for sauce, came later. “Lexical imperialism,” he called this process.)

There are a number of quotes from New York chefs Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan, authors of Memories of Philippine Kitchens and proprietors of Brooklyn’s Purple Yam Restaurant.

Although I’m not sure of the dish’s history beyond the article, it seems to be a food preparation style that has taken shape to preserve the food as much as cook it. You will notice that the dish will keep a long time in the refrigerator, and you can imagine that historically this was a good way to prepare tasty food that wouldn’t go bad immediately in the tropical climate of the Philippines.

I prefer the soy-sauce-based dish, especially prepared with chicken and lots of garlic. It’s wondrously simple to make. Here’s a basic recipe from my Manila friend Ricky Punzalan (with permission):

Ricky’s Basic Adobo

Ingredients

  • pieces of one chicken (or cubed pork, or a combination)
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce (prefer a Philippine brand according to my Filipino friends)
  • 1/4 cup coconut vinegar
  • 1 head of garlic (cloves separated, crushed, and peeled)
  • 1/2 cup water (or a bit more to cover the meat, but be wary of adding too much since the sauce will take longer to thicken with more liquid)

Preparation. Combine the ingredients in a pot, then boil until the meat is tender and the sauce has thickened (about an hour). Serve the meat over white rice, and spoon the sauce over the meat and rice.

As the NYT article points out, each family or community will have its own recipe. This is just a basic outline for the soy-sauce-based dish. Enjoy!