While we can quickly recognize the long-lasting influences of Spanish colonization in Latin American countries, our Filiprimos’ Hispanic roots are oftentimes left out of the conversation. Spain ruled the Philippines – named after Felipe II de España – for more than 300 years, so the islands have just as much Hispanic cultural influences as any other Latin American country (outside of Brazil, that is).
And while there’s a lot of things that unite Latinos and Filipinos – including thinking that 7-year-old Zumba instructor Balang is a gift to the world – one of the best is definitely the food. In 2013, NPR wondered whether a mix of Asian and Latin food made culinary sense. They questioned if the resulting flavors would be “spicy, tasty or confused.” But people in the comment section already knew the answer: Asian + Spanish food could only be delicious, because that’s essentially what Filipino cuisine is. Thirty years ago, the New York Times reported that some experts believe that as much as 80 percent of the country’s food comes from Spanish recipes. But sometimes even Latin America has had a direct impact on Filipinos’ diets.
So because we like to show our Filipino brothers and sisters love every chance we get, here’s a look at the foods that make our two cultures truly blessed:
Lechón, a holiday staple in different Latin American countries, also holds a special place in the hearts of Filipinos. Recently, Anthony Bourdain headed to the Philippines and once again raved about the slow-roasted suckling pig. “…Not to kiss your ass, but it is the finest pig I’ve ever had,” he said, according to Eater.
In the Philippines, lechón is also served at everything from weddings to nochebuenas. According to Cheryl Tiu, the pig is stuffed with things like tamarind, garlic, lemongrass, green onions, chili leaves, and chives. After roasting for hours over a fire of open coals, the pork is succulent, and the skin is crispy. In 2009, Time explained that Filipinos are so crazy about lechón that it’s not rare to have the just-cooked food flown across the country for important moments.
Adobo – the seasoning mix used to flavor many types of meat – varies in different Latin American countries. In Puerto Rico, for example, there is a wet and dry adobo. The wet adobo, according to Chef Daisy Martinez, is what gets used on pernil, pavochon, and roast chicken. The dry adobo is very versatile, and can flavor popcorn, pork chops, and eggs.
In the Philippines, adobo is similarly used in a wide range of ways. Fish, chicken, veggies, or meat are marinated in a sauce made of vinegar, soy sauce, and spices for about five hours. There’s some debate about how adobo came to exist in the Philippines, but the Chinese and Spanish influences are seemingly both present. “Because it was marinated, adobo enabled cooks to prepare and preserve pork or chicken in case of an unexpected visit from a local governor or priest, a mighty feat in the days before cold storage,” the NYT reported. “Some also say that adobo is related, albeit distantly, to adobado, a tasty Spanish concoction that consists of a pork loin cured for weeks in olive oil, vinegar and spices simmered for several hours.”
Whether it goes by torresmo or chicharrón, it’s a delicious piece of fried pork crackling – though it can also be made from chicken, mutton, and beef. While some countries season chicharrones with salt, chili peppers, vinegar, or lime juice, the Philippines uses coconut vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, and liver sauce. Regardless of what it takes to make the fried goodness happen, it is a readily available snack throughout Latin America and the R.P.
Tamales date back to pre-Columbian times and are wrapped in either corn husks or banana leaves. Regional varieties give tamales different personalities across Latin America. For example, in Cuba, the masa and meat are cooked together. In Venezuela, they go by hallacas, and include raisins and olives, the New York Times reports. In Nicaragua, they are super-sized with a rice, veggie, potato, and pork mix. But the ones from the Philippines are modeled after Mexico’s.
As Paul A. Rodell writes in Culture and Customs of the Philippines, “When journeying to their distant Asian outpost, Spaniards traveled by way of Mexico, taking the annual galleon that linked Spain with China. In the process, a number of fruits such as guavas, pineapples, papayas, and avocados, and vegetables, spices, and tubers, including corn, tomatoes, sweet potato (camote), and peanuts, were successfully introduced into the Philippine agriculture culture.” Tamales also made their way to the islands, where they’re more of a snack than a meal. Also, in some parts of the country, tamales have been adapted into desserts. Savory versions include rice, coconut milk, chicken meat, boiled eggs, and sausage.
This sweet custard-filled dessert has a long history – starting with the savory versions the Romans ate. Eventually, flan became sweetened, and the Spanish topped it with caramel, according to Mamiverse. The ñom dessert is now called leche flan in the Philippines, and even incorporated into other desserts. Halo-halo – a treat made up of red beans, coconut gel, flan, candied fruits, and ice cream – now needs to make its way to Latin America.
Though picadillo is eaten all across the Caribbean and the rest of Latin America, Cuba has one of the most popular versions of this ground beef stew. “Everyone who is of Cuban descent has a recipe for it, and each one of those is the most authentic,” Betty Cortina, the Cuban-American editor-in-chief at Indulge told the New York Times. “It’s a comfort food, probably the most consummate example of one in Cuban cuisine.”
Tomatoes or a tomato sauce is important to this dish. In Food of the Philippines, Reynaldo G. Alejandro describes Filipino picadillo as either a soup or stew made with fish sauce, garlic, tomatoes, and potatoes. He added that the dish is “absolutely delicious with rice.” Agreed.
Empanadas come in myriad regional variations – with different doughs, fillings, and cooking methods – at their core they do have a (mostly) common origin story. According to Serious Eats, the empanadas we know today come from Galicia – where the Spanish baked them into a round pie plate or rectangular dish before slicing them up into single servings.
They spread across Latin America, as well as to the R.P., where the beef-filled empanadas are a popular version. Vigan empanadas have an orange hue and come from Vigan, Ilocos. The dough is made from ground rice flour, and the inside is filled with unripe papaya, Vigan sausage, and a raw egg.
Arroz a la Valenciana
Arroz a la Valenciana is like a paella, though not quite. In addition to lots of rice, things like diced carrots, green peas, olives, chopped ham, and sliced sausages are added in. Though, like many other foods, this can fluctuate depending on what country it’s from. In the Philippines, some recipes call for coconut milk or shrimp.