When I was growing up in Northern California — where Filipino migrant farm workers started settling in the 1920s, and which today is home to one of the country’s largest populations of Filipino-Americans — the scent of rice, still steamy and warm in the rice cooker, was the steady backdrop to my days. It was so constant from one house to the next, so dependable, that’s how I knew: Wherever I found myself, I was home.
In a Filipino house, there is always food, more food than you could ever eat, stacked in the refrigerator, edge-to-edge on the counter and simmering on the stove. My brothers and sisters and I came home from school to giant pots of sinigang, a soup that’s sour enough only if you gasp a little at the first spoonful, and arroz caldo, an earthy rice porridge brightened by a squeeze of calamansi — a native citrus that looks like a mini orange but tastes closer to a lime — plucked from the tree in our backyard.
My mom cooked all of this at the start of each week, before she headed off to her day job at IBM. She has roots in Pampanga, which I found out later in life is rightly called the culinary capital of the Philippines; people rave about the vividness of the ingredients there, and the imagination with which they’re deployed. Food is my mom’s birthright, and I’m lucky that she passed that on to me.
But when I moved to New York and started cooking professionally, the dishes I made were far removed from my childhood: Italian Bolognese, French terrines. I deveined countless lobes of foie gras with a jeweler’s tweezer. This was sophisticated food, I was taught; this was cuisine.
I didn’t know then that the food I grew up with was also complex and layered, refined over centuries and demanding meticulous technique. Once I was on my own, I cooked it by feel, reaching for the distinctive notes of sour and salt, remembering how we kids used to help my mom make dinner when she got home from work, while my dad was pulling the night shift as a manager at McDonald’s.
Because there were so many of us — I’m the second youngest of six — when we were home, we rarely sat down at the dining table to eat. Instead, we ate where we talked, gathered around the counter or cross-legged at the coffee table, our plates anointed by the ever-ready bottle of sawsawan, a homemade tincture of spiced vinegar, with whole garlic cloves steeping. (Condiments are practically compulsory in Filipino food. You could even say that the diner plays as big a role as the chef, seasoning each dish to taste.)
Not until five years ago, when I was preparing to open the New York outpost of San Francisco’s Mission Chinese Food, did I finally get an official cooking lesson from my lola, my mom’s mom. And I mean official: She said firmly, “You’re an executive chef now,” meaning I was finally worthy of her secrets.
My lola, a former pharmacist who tended African violets in her retirement, was the one my mom and my aunts deferred to in the kitchen. Before a party, she cooked all week. It was part of her love language. At her funeral last spring — she died at age 100 — every eulogy was an incantation of the bounty she’d fed us all our lives, from bistek, steak exalted by soy sauce and a sunny kiss of calamansi, to Christmas ensaymadas, sweet butter-soaked rolls thatched with queso de bola, a red-skinned Edam cheese.
Her most prized dish was chicken relleno, reserved for the grandest festivities. She had never revealed the recipe to anyone, which strained some friendships.
The day I learned to make chicken relleno, my lola laid out two cutting boards and a set of battered but carefully sharpened knives. Wearing a shower cap over her head, she deboned the chicken with her tiny hands so fast, I had to double-check what parts were left. Her embutido — the pork and sausage stuffing to be sewn up inside the chicken — required the technical precision of a French farce (finely puréed meat). Later, at a culinary conference, I watched a demonstration by the French chef Jacques Pépin and realized that my lola was making galantine.
That was the first time I took a real look at the mechanics behind the food of my childhood. My mom emailed me her recipe archive, a 40-page document that included multiple takes on single dishes, culled from her sisters and my lola. Not all of them were complete or correct as written — certain ingredients and methods simply went unmentioned, taken for granted, part of the heritage of life in the Philippines, where those details would’ve been communal knowledge.
When The Times asked me for 10 recipes that speak to the heart of Filipino cuisine, I went back through my mom’s collection and consulted old cookbooks drawing from other regions of the Philippines. Like generations of Filipino cooks before me, I’ve adapted these recipes to my taste, knowing that not everyone may approve. My lola looked slightly askance at the chicken relleno I made for Mission Chinese Food — but she was tickled that I called it Josefina’s House Special Chicken and sold it for $ 75.
There sadly isn’t room here to include some of my favorite comfort foods, like monggo, a mung-bean stew lush with melted pork fat, or the deep-fried meatballs called bola-bola that I used to make for my roommates when I was nostalgic for home. Truly, this list is just a beginning, for me as much as for you: The Philippines is an archipelago of more than 7,600 islands, and each region has a claim to culinary glory.
It might surprise you how familiar some of the ingredients are. Filipino food is a centuries-long tangle of Eastern and Western traditions, from early exchanges with Chinese traders to the reign of the Spanish conquistadors. Given our colonial past, we share as much culinary kinship with Latin America as with our Southeast Asian neighbors. Butter and cheese are happily and amply applied. So is ketchup, although we add our own twist: bananas. (It’s magic.)
My parents’ story, like that of many Filipino immigrants, also unites East and West. My dad is from Batangas, but my mom met him halfway across the world, in the Netherlands, where she was on tour with the Filipino national folk dance troupe. He’d hitchhiked across Europe and ended up a pageboy at the Philippine Embassy at The Hague.
They made a life together in California, where I was born, and where I would grow up eating lumpia alongside peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, crunchy hard-shell tacos and instant ramen. And always, at every meal, rice — lots of it, and warm.
The 10 Essential Recipes
1. Coconut Milk Chicken Adobo
When I left home, adobo was a dish I could cook off the top of my head. The name was bestowed by Spanish colonizers, referring to the use of vinegar and seasonings to preserve meat, but the stew existed long before their arrival. It is always made with vinegar, and often soy sauce, but there are as many adobo recipes as there are Filipino cooks. In this version, coconut — present in three forms: milk, oil and vinegar — brings silkiness and a hint of elegance. Every ingredient announces itself; none are shy. The braised whole peppercorns pop in your mouth. (View this adobo recipe in NYT Cooking.)
2. Lumpia Shanghai
Lumpia are cousins to spring rolls, a tradition that most likely goes back to the Chinese traders who first visited the Philippines in the ninth century. As kids, we’d crowd around the kitchen counter to make them, spooning out the filling and rolling up the skins before sliding them into hot oil. They come in different incarnations and may be served unfried and even unwrapped, but the classic is lumpia Shanghai, skinny cigarillos with supercrunchy skins, packed with meat, juices seething. I like dipping them in banana ketchup, which you can buy or improvise by cooking overripe bananas and tomato paste into a sweet-and-sour jam. (View this lumpia recipe in NYT Cooking.)
3. Arroz Caldo With Collards and Soy-Cured Egg Yolks
The Filipino rice porridge called lugaw started out as a simple equation of rice, water and salt, until the conquistadors arrived in the 16th century and demanded more sumptuous dishes. Add tripe and innards to lugaw, and it becomes goto; with chicken and saffron, it is arroz caldo. It’s looser and soupier than Chinese congee, cooked until you can’t see individual grains. I put in collard greens to make it a balanced meal and use wings because of the high bone-to-meat ratio and the jiggly skin. (Keeping the bones in will give the broth more flavor.) The soy sauce-cured yolks are probably best at the two-hour mark — they get firmer and saltier the longer they cure, so follow your taste. (View this arroz caldo recipe in NYT Cooking.)
Bistek is steak, but transformed by its encounter with soy sauce and citrus. My addition is browned butter, an ingredient not so common in Southeast Asian cooking. This was one of my lola’s signature dishes: She’d cut the onions half-an-inch thick, sear them briefly, then add a little water to make the pan flare up, so they’d get extra crisp. She would always plate it in a casserole dish, with enough pan sauce to sop up with rice. The beef fat should coat your lips, and then the citrus cuts through it. It’s worth investing in good olive oil; every ingredient matters, because there are so few, and you can taste them all. (View this bistek recipe in NYT Cooking.)
5. Sinigang (Tamarind Broth With Pork and Vegetables)
This is the soup that made me like vegetables when I was growing up. You always measure sinigang by sourness, which is so much a part of our cuisine — layers of acid coming from vinegar, fresh citrus, tamarind and unripe fruits. Here, sour is a power move, hitting you all the way at the back of your tongue. Whole serrano chiles bring a low-frequency spicy hum, adding not so much heat as depth. The daikon should be left in big, juicy chunks, so when you bite into them, you get an unexpected touch of coolness in the hot broth. (View this sinigang recipe in NYT Cooking.)
6. Pinakbet (Vegetables Stewed in Fermented Shrimp Paste)
Filipino cooking embraces salt — perhaps the legacy of life in a tropical climate, where, before refrigeration, food had to be preserved. The primary salt in pinkabet, a vegetable stew, is bagoong, a satisfyingly funky paste of fermented shrimp or fish. As with miso, there are many types of bagoong: dry or oily, toasted or raw, bright pink and briny or dark brown and faintly sweet. I like to use the pink variety because of the large formations of salt crystals. Paired with the toasted and caramelized tomato paste, the bagoong achieves a deep, concentrated umami flavor, enough to season all the vegetables. (View this pinakbet recipe in NYT Cooking.)
There’s a perception that Filipino food is rustic and uncomplicated, but when my lola taught me to make chicken relleno — chicken stuffed with embutido, a kind of meatloaf — I realized that she was using the same techniques I’d learned in professional kitchens cooking French food. She was very particular about ingredients. Even when her memory started fading, her first question when she saw me was always “Are you using chorizo de Bilbao?” (Yes, Lola.) Here embutido is a centerpiece dish in its own right. I tried chopping the meat for texture, but whipping the ingredients in a food processor, the way my lola did it, integrates everything better. (View this embutido recipe in NYT Cooking.)
8. Pancit Palabok (Rice Noodles With Chicken Ragout and Shrimp)
We eat pancit, or noodles, always — but especially at birthday celebrations, where the length of the noodles is seen as a promise for an equally long life. Among our many pancit dishes, palabok is the richest. The sauce almost takes on the texture of an Italian ragù, with the meat slowly disintegrating into a thick gravy that’s stained reddish-gold by achuete (annatto). The toppings aren’t decorative, but a crucial part of the dish: a whole regiment of hard-boiled eggs and poached shrimp, plus a tumble of fried garlic and crumbled chicharron (puffed-up crispy pork skins). (View this pancit recipe in NYT Cooking.)
9. Beef Empanadas
Filipinos take snacking seriously, so much so that we devote an entire meal to it: merienda, which may take place midmorning or midafternoon, if not both. Empanadas are a great treat for this in-between time, but also keep well at room temperature — the grace of food built for a warm climate — so you can graze all day. (My family used to buy these by the tray for parties, but it’s nice to make your own and store them in the freezer for later.) In these, a ground-beef filling is tucked inside sturdy but flaky dough, with raisins added early in the cooking to plump with the beef juices. There are variations on empanadas all over Latin America; ours rely on the potency of onion and garlic, and exploit it to the hilt. (View this empanada recipe in NYT Cooking.)
10. Bibingka (Coconut Rice Cakes With Banana Leaves)
Bibingka is a cake made of rice flour, so it’s naturally gluten-free, chewy but tender throughout, with a soufflé-like fluffiness. It’s traditionally cooked in a clay pot over and under hot coals, a difficult setup to replicate; instead, I pour the batter into a cast-iron pan lined with banana leaves, which char as the cake bakes, infusing it with their scent. (You can cut the ribs off the leaves to make them more malleable.) Nearly halfway through baking, the cake is topped with salted duck egg, an ingredient available at Asian specialty groceries. If you can’t find it, the cake will be more forthrightly sweet, lacking that sly note of brine. As a final touch, if you have a kitchen torch available, char the edges of the banana leaves, so a little smokiness suffuses the delicate cake. (View this bibingka recipe in NYT Cooking.)
10 Essential Recipes is an occasional feature that explores different cuisines.
Follow NYT Food on Twitter and NYT Cooking on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest. Get regular updates from NYT Cooking, with recipe suggestions, cooking tips and shopping advice.