National Dish: Getting to the bottom of tangy Filipino adobo

Tuloy po kayo. It means “Please come in” in Tagalog, the lingua franca of the Philippine Islands. Hospitality is a hallmark of Filipino culture, and food is an expression of cordiality.

A typical Filipino banquet includes a dizzying array of dishes: pancit guisado (egg noodles sautéed with diced meat and vegetables); lechon (whole roast suckling pig); whole fish – maybe bangus (milkfish), sea bass or grouper; barbecued pork; lumpia (long, thin egg rolls) with dipping sauces; a tropical fruit medley of jackfruit, starfruit, guava and plantain; pickled vegetables; bibinka (a flat coconut cake); and, of course, fluffy white rice, the country’s staple grain. But no festivity is complete without adobo, the national dish of the Philippines.


Adobo, or adobong, is not just a dish, but also a style of slowly simmering meat, poultry, fish or vegetables in a pickling spice mixture of soy sauce, vinegar, bay leaf, garlic and peppercorn. The ingredients for this fragrant, vinegar-laced stewing sauce are certainly familiar to most cooks yet the combination is wholeheartedly Filipino.

The Spanish introduced a range of ingredients to the Philippines during their colonization of the islands from the 1500s until 1898. These new foods and seasonings included those from the Iberian Peninsula as well as the Americas. For Spanish cuisine, adobo relates to a pickling sauce made from olive oil, vinegar, garlic, oregano, paprika, thyme, bay leaf and salt. Filipinos incorporated garlic, bay leaf and vinegar (vinegar became an important food preservation method) and they added soy sauce, which they borrowed from their Chinese trading neighbors.

To try adobo at a restaurant, check out Nipa Hut in Overland, the only Filipino restaurant in the St. Louis area. There you’ll find chicken and pork adobo, among other traditional dishes. To make adobo at home, head to Manila Food Mart, a small grocery store located on the Asian strip on Olive Boulevard in University City. The store, owned by brothers Rex Francke and Samson Gamino, features Filipino staple goods as well as ready-made frozen foods. Plans are in the works to add a deli that will feature Filipino dim sum such as meat-filled steamed buns called siopao, lumpia, Filipino-style empanadas and all-American sandwiches. Gamino, the cook of the family, will be running Manila Food Mart’s deli.


Gamino explained that adobong manok (chicken adobo) is the most typical adobo dish. Chunks of pork are frequently added, however, because Filipinos simply love pork and find ways to put it into everything – siopao and lumpia come to mind. Beef also does well when seared and left to braise in this piquant seasoning sauce. Turkey, duck, goat and lamb, while less common as adobo, are certainly fair game. Sometimes, meat and poultry are left to marinate in the stewing sauce before cooking, which results in a deeper, more savory adobo.

It is less customary to prepare fish and seafood as adobo. “Adobo generally develops in flavor the longer it cooks, which is why seafoods don’t often get adobo treatment since they have short cook times,” said Jennifer Aranas, chef and author of The Filipino-American Kitchen: Traditional Recipes, Contemporary Flavors. That doesn’t mean that sea treasures are out of the question. “I am particularly fond of adobo posit (squid), and because squid (or octopus) responds well to braising, it’s the perfect foil for adobo,” she said. “I also like to do a quick adobo for shrimp, but only with the shell on. The shell adds more flavor and keeps the shrimp moist.” Aranas introduced many customers to Filipino cuisine at her former Chicago restaurant Rambutan, but she now works as a corporate chef and adjunct culinary instructor at Kendall College in the Windy City.

Rarely are vegetables served raw in the Philippines. Rather, they are blanched, steamed, boiled or baked and tossed in vinegar, this souring agent being one that Filipinos expertly employ. Kangkong, water spinach, is a good candidate for adobo. The plant is characterized by its long, pointy leaves and thin, hollow stems. “You really have to cook it because the stems are so hard,” Gamino said. Kangkong can be difficult to find locally; substitute sweeter spinach and Swiss chard, juicy watercress or baby bok choy, or strong, peppery greens like kale, collards and mustard greens. Aranas noted that the latter two are “especially good for braising.”

Yard-long beans known as sitaw and slender Philippine or Chinese eggplants are also well-suited for adobo. Another quintessential vegetable adobo is made from labong (bamboo shoots), which soak up the tangy marinade and lend a wonderful crunch to the dish. “Bamboo adobo tastes so good because of the texture,” Gamino said.

Adobo is subject to countless personal variations. Meat and poultry may be shredded, cubed or whole; finished dishes may be moist or dry. The sauce usually includes masses of garlic, which can be crushed, minced or left whole, depending on the cook’s desire for pungency. Gamino also opts for ground pepper rather than whole peppercorns because a bite into a whole one imparts too strong of a pepper flavor, prompting “some people [to] just set them aside anyway.”

Will any old vinegar do? Francke walked over to a shelf stocked with bottled sauces and condiments, noodles and canned goods. He grabbed a bottle of vinegar that wears a Datu Puti label. “It’s sukang maasim, which means ‘sour vinegar.’ It’s made from cane vinegar and water. It’s the best.” Other chefs like to use white vinegar, apple cider vinegar, sweeter Japanese rice vinegar, even balsamic vinegar. Aranas, on the other hand, uses palm vinegar or coconut vinegar. “Palm vinegar is a traditional vinegar used in the Philippines, as is coconut vinegar. … They are slightly lower in acetic acid than white distilled or cider vinegar and palm/coconut vinegar is versatile with a light, clean taste.”


Considering that Filipinos do not hold to hard and fast adobo rules, what exactly is the flavor they are looking for? My grandmother, Lourdes Figueras, told me it’s called sabat, the “meeting” of acidity and sweetness. She adds a spoonful of brown sugar to her adobong manok and sometimes makes Hawaiian adobo with canned pineapple, including the juice. Oh, and she never measures.

“I always tell people new to adobo that the combination of garlic, soy, bay, peppercorn and vinegar is greater than the individual ingredients would imply,” Aranas said. “If done properly, no one ingredient should be prominent – it shouldn’t be salty or sour, garlicky or peppery, definitely not bay-leafy.  It should just taste like adobo. When adding other components – whether it be ginger (which I always add to my adobo at home), coconut milk, tomato, pineapple, etc. – the same principle applies. Balance comes from not having any one ingredient taking center stage but blending proportionately with the others.” 

As you explore this cooking method, keep in mind that the longer flavors are allowed to permeate the finished dish the more complex and enhanced the flavor. Translation: Leftovers – if there are any – taste fantastic, especially Gamino’s chicken and pork adobo, which he sautés with ginger and lots of garlic. Gamino smiled widely and pumped a fist into the air as he described the resulting flavor: “Boom!”