When Marvin Gapultos had a craving for adobo but didn’t know how to make it, he decided to learn his family’s recipes. Since then, he has shared the flavors of Filipino food through his Los Angeles-based food truck The Manila Machine, on his blog Burnt Lumpia, and in The Adobo Road Cookbook.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: The Philippines is comprised of 7,000 islands and you've got a lot of different foreign influences. So is there a typical Philippine taste or is it just incredibly diverse?
Marvin Gapultos: Filipino cuisine is incredibly diverse; that's one of the great things about it. It has lots of influences from different places like China, Spain, Mexico and even the U.S. There are a lot of nuances that really make Filipino food so interesting and delicious. But maybe the most pervasive flavor of Filipino food would be sourness, just because we like to cook with vinegar and with different citrus juices.
LRK: One of the national dishes, or maybe the national dish, is adobo. And adobo is anything cooked in soy sauce and vinegar?
MG: Right. Adobo is a cooking method more than it is a dish. That particular method involves the cooking of any meat, seafood, fruit, or vegetable in a mixture of vinegar, bay leaves, black pepper, garlic, and salt or soy sauce, depending on which you like. Soy sauce was introduced by the Chinese long after we were making adobo. The earliest adobos were made with sea salt.
LRK: You use really interesting vinegars.
MG: Yes. The Philippines has so many great artisanal vinegars. Some are made from coconut; some are made from palm sap and sugar cane. Generally speaking, each vinegar could be used in place of the other, but they do each have their little, different, nuanced tastes and flavors.
LRK: How did you learn to cook?
MG: Honestly, I didn't learn to cook until much later in life. I was around Filipino food all the time, but I never really took an interest in cooking it until after I moved away from home, after college and after I got married. My wife isn't Filipino -- one day I just had a craving for adobo and I didn't know how to make it and my wife obviously didn't know how to make it. That was a turning point for me. I decided I needed to learn, at the very least, my family's recipes. I just started asking my mom lots of questions and my grandmother and my grandmother's sisters. I just kind of went from there.
LRK: Then you eventually ended up with the first food truck in Los Angeles that was doing Filipino food. How did that come about?
MG: It was actually a very terrifying leap. I had no previous restaurant experience, and I had no previous professional cooking experience. I just had the recipes on my blog. I knew I wanted to share Filipino food and I knew I had to do something beyond my blog to do that. At the time food trucks were the big thing, and it just got into my body that I had to open a food truck and cook Filipino food. It was terrifying because I had no idea what I was doing. It ended up being pretty good.
LRK: What foods were you doing?
MG: I served a pork belly and pineapple adobo. We also served some Filipino sliders, which had different Filipino meats stuffed into these little Filipino sweet rolls called pan de sal. I also served a sisig, which is a bar snack in the Philippines that consists of pork jowls, ears and nose. That was actually a really popular dish, which was kind of surprising; it was really great just to see how open people were.
LRK: Are there dishes that are considered the apple pie of the Philippines, the calling cards to the world?
MG: Definitely -- adobo would be one of them. It's so pervasive and so loved in the Philippines. Every household has a different version of adobo, so that's why it's such a comfort food for many Filipinos.
Sinigang is another dish, which is a Filipino sour soup. You can put anything in a sinigang -- fish, beef or chicken. Depending on the region, it’s soured with either citrus juice or green tamarind, or even sometimes guava or sour pineapple.
A particular dish I like -- and I always have it when I go back home to my mom's house or to my grandmother's -- is pinakbet, which is a Filipino vegetable stew that some people say is similar to a ratatouille in that it has tomatoes, eggplant and different squashes. It also has bitter melon in it. Bitter melon is an acquired taste, but it's one of the great things about that dish because it has every flavor of the palate. You have the bitterness from the bitter melon, sweetness and tang from tomatoes, and then you have saltiness and umami from the fish sauce.