Cuisine of the Philippines

9780804842570All week we’ve been thinking about friends, family, and colleagues down in Boston during the bombing at the Marathon and now the hunt for the bombers. As they say in Boston, it’s been awful. We hope it’s over soon and the wounded start recovering.

Until events in our backyard overtook us, we were all looking forward to the LA Times Festival of Books this weekend where our friends at Philippine Expressions are helping launch one of our biggest new cookbooks of 2013: Marvin Gapultos’s The Adobo Road Cookbook.

In a Huffington Post book review today, Anna Almendrala writes that “Filipino food has all the trappings of the next big ‘it-cuisine’ in the United States restaurant scene,” and she interviews Marvin, a writer known both for his blog Burnt Lumpia and as the operator of LA’s only gourmet Filipino food-truck, the late, great and much missed Manila Machine.

Like Filipino language and culture, the cuisine of the Philippines has blended local elements with successive waves of external influences. Chinese influenced foods include pancit (pahn-sit), which is a Filipino noodle dish akin to chow mein. Chow mein, 炒面 (Trad. 炒麵) chăomiàn, just means “stir-fried noodles”. The word pancit, however, comes to Tagalog by way of the nearby southern Chinese dialect Hokkien (Fujianese) word “pian i sit”, 便食, (Mandarin biànshí) which means “convenient eating”. And indeed while you can make an haute cuisine pancit, the basic recipe is simple and delicious.

Lumpia are Filipino spring rolls. The term comes from the Hokkien 潤餅 (Mandarian rùnbǐng). The second character 餅, in its basic sense of a “cake” or “biscuit”, was borrowed into Japanese and applied to mochi, sticky rice often eaten as a small cake.

From Spain comes the title dish adobo, from the Spanish verb adobar, which referred to dressing meat in vinegar for cooking. In Filipino cuisine, adobo is a dish of meat braised in vinegar and spices. As is often the case in the language of food, the word can be traced back to France, in this case the Old French adober (adouber, aduber), which meant “to arm a knight”. The word made its way into Anglo-Norman England in the ritualized phrase of naming: “I dub thee…” in ceremonies that conferred knighthood. If the connection between chivalry and cooking seems tenuous, consider the English word “dress”, which we apply to arrangements of both food and clothes.


Free bamboo cooking set.

Also from Iberian cuisine come empanadas. A well-known dish in Latin America, an empanada is a filling “enclosed in bread”, pan. Interestingly pan is not the Tagalog word for bread (tinapay is), but pan was borrowed by both Korean 빵 and Japanese パン. And because Spain’s main link to the Philippines was through colonial Mexico, cooks in the Philippines also incorporated New World foods like chocolate, potatoes, tomatoes, corn, jicama, and chayote into the traditional foods of the archipelago. Alongside SE Asian flavors like peanut sauces and lemongrass, such Asian, Spanish, and New World elements enriched cooking traditions based on foods native to the Philippines like the calamansi, a local citrus fruit.

If you’re in the Los Angeles area this weekend, you can meet Marvin Gapultos at the LA Times Festival of Books. He’ll be there at a booth run by our friends at Philippine Expressions. As a special gift here, in addition to a copy of Marvin’s book, I’ve got a free bamboo cooking set to give away. It includes utensils, steamers, placemats, and a mit. If you’d like to win this book and the bamboo cooking kit, click here to email me and write “Adobo” in the subject line. I’ll announce a winner next week.

Thanks to Patti from Suisun, CA who won last week’s copy of Korean for Beginners!



Rebolusyon sa EDSA ng 1986

Monday, February 25 marks the 27th anniversary of the morning in 1986 when Corazon Aquino took the oath of office as President of the Republic of the Philippines. Called the “People Power Revolution”, in Tagalog, the day is called Rebolusyon sa EDSA ng 1986.

“Rebolusyon” is a good example of how Filipino spellings of Spanish loanwords often reflect the pronunciation better than the Spanish original. Kinse and kabayo, from Spanish quince (15) and caballo (horse), are similar. Sa in Tagalog is a location marker. EDSA is an acronym for the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, the 54-kilometer road blocked by two million Filipinos that became the focus of civil resistance to the Marcos regime. Ng is a possessive or genitive marker; i.e., “of”. The gist of the phrase then is “Revolution on EDSA of 1986”.

Offering the world one of the best examples of non-violent political change in the 20th, or any, century, Filipinos are rightly proud to celebrate on February 25. I wanted to remember the day by giving away a copy of our new, best-selling Elementary Tagalog by Jed Domigpe of the University of Washington, Seattle and Nenita Domingo of UCLA.

Tagalog, also called Filipino and sometimes Pilipino, is an Austronesian language. Spanning 9,000 miles from Madagascar to Rapa Nui (Easter Island), the Austronesian family is the most geographically wide-spread of all language groups. Some of Tagalog’s linguistic cousins are Malay/Indonesian and the languages of the Pacific such as Maori and Hawaiian.


Tuttle’s Elementary Tagalog by Jed Domigpe and Nenita Domingo

Tagalog is the first language of about a quarter of the population of the Philippines. Of the many languages of the Philippines, Tagalog, by dint of being the language of the capital area, made the largest contribution to the language known as Filipino, which is spoken by the great majority of people in the archipelago. Some use “Tagalog” and “Filipino” interchangeably, but the two languages are not identical. Some speakers of the Philippines’ other languages, however, passionately oppose anointing any one language as “the language of the Philippines”.

For English-speakers learning an Asian language, three things ease the way into Tagalog. First, it’s written in very familiar, very consistent Roman script. The only thing that surprised me was the use of ts for Spanish and English ch: Sp. coche > Tg. kotse.  En. teacher > Tg. titser. Second, unlike many continental Asian languages, Tagalog is not tonal. Pronunciation is quite simple. Third, its many loanwords from Spanish create an additional bridge into Tagalog from a language most of us have at least some familiarity with.

For the real language fan though, those of us who actually steer clear of any language product that promises to be “quick and easy”, Tagalog has a lot to offer. Tagalog verbs have conjugations, but unlike Indo-European languages as well as Japanese and Korean ones, these “conjugations” are not limited to suffixes. Tagalog verbs can be modified by prefixes, suffixes, or infixes that drop right into the middle of the word. As a Japanese speaker, I don’t feel that learning Japanese, however different it may be from English, stretched me to re-evaluate the framework within which I understand language as much as Tagalog has.

The last reason you might learn Tagalog is that there are nearly 4,000,000 Filipino-Americans in North America who, in my experience, are extremely encouraging of newcomers. If you’d like to win this “state of the art” hardback edition that comes with a free audio CD, click here to email me just put Tagalog in the subject line.

Free Book Friday: A Filipino Christmas

Christmas offers many examples of the mixture of cultural influences that make the Philippines rich and unique. Being a language blog, let’s start with the word for Christmas: Pasko. Sharp-eyed readers will notice that Pasko is a cognate of Spanish “Pascuas”, which refers not to Christmas, but Easter. How did that happen?

“Pascua” comes from Latin “pascha”, which came, by way of Greek, from Hebrew “pesach” (Passover). During the centuries when the Philippines were exposed to colonial Spanish culture, the Spanish used the term “pascua” not just for Easter. It was applied in the broad sense of “observation” or “festival” to four Christian celebrations: Christmas, Epiphany, Pentecost, and Easter. Christmas was “la Pascua de Navidad”, and in the shortening that happens in all languages and places over time, the Spanish opted for “Navidad” while Filipinos went with “Pascua”, which required only a tweak to become Paskua in Ilocano and which became Pasko in Tagalog and Cebuano. So the word “Pasko” can be something of a faux ami; sort of looks like Easter but means Christmas.


Everything you need to know about making a classic Noche Buena meal.

Lest we think this idiosyncratic, remember first that in Europe and the Americas, while most languages (even Finnish and Basque!) have adopted some local form of “pascha” for “Easter”, speakers of English and German still call this solemn Christian observance (Gr. Ostern) by the name of a pre-Christian pagan goddess, Ostara. That’s idiosyncratic.

Pasko in the Philippines traditionally begins on December 16 with a series of nine masses called Simbang Gabi, which, if you attend all nine with a special prayer, your wish is granted. Snag: the masses start at 4 a.m., and you can’t miss one. You didn’t think getting your wish would be that easy, did you? Good news is that breakfast comes after the masses (in other months, it’s the masses who go after breakfast), and that’s my segue to our first book give-away.

In Miki Garcia’s The Filipino Cookbook, you’ll learn how to put together traditional Pasko morning refreshments such as Bibingka (coconut sponge cake), Chicken Tamales, Filipino Hot Chocolate, and Salabat (Ginger Tea). For the Christmas meal itself, families gather for a Noche Buena menu that may include Hamon (glazed ham), cheese, litson (Sp. lechon) pork, lumpiang spring rolls, pancit guisado (fried rice noodles), and other Filipino treats.


Author Dr. Joi Barrios

Whether you speak a bit of Tagalog or are new to the language, you may want a little practice before mingling with your Filipino-speaking family or friends. Look no further than the second free book in our give-away this week: Tagalog for Beginners. By UC Berkeley’s Joi Barrios, a multi-talented writer and educator affiliated not just with Berkeley, but who also served as Associate Professor and Associate Dean of the University of the Philippines College of Arts and Letters, Tagalog for Beginners is the #1 selling introduction to Tagalog today. The author/editor of more than a dozen books, Barrios received in 2004 the TOWNS (Ten Outstanding Women in the Nation’s Service) Award in the Philippines. In Tagalog for Beginners, Barrios has combined her expert knowledge of contemporary Filipino language with her years teaching the language in the US.


The best-selling new introduction to Filipino.

The book is available online and also from specialty independent bookshops such as Arkipelago Books in San Francisco and Philippine Expressions in Palos Verdes, CA. Tagalog for Beginners includes 32 practical lessons in contemporary spoken Filipino for both the newcomer and heritage learners with some prior experience speaking Filipino. The book includes a free audio that will help perfect your pronunciation and listening comprehension. To win this set of both The Filipino Cookbook and click Tagalog for Beginners, click here to email me and put “Pasko” in the subject line.

Visit every Friday for a chance to win. Maligayang Pasko!