Filipino food is full of bold flavors: salt, sour, acid, and funk. Acheiving these flavors requires a list of very specific ingredients. Francis Lam received a quick primer -- and shopping list -- compliments of Chad Valencia, the acclaimed Filipino-American chef at LASA in Los Angeles.
Francis Lam: I want to talk to you about the Filipino pantry and the basic seasonings or flavorings that we should have if we’re going to start cooking this food. But before we get there, can you tell me what you think Filipino food tastes like?
Chad Valencia: High acid. Bright. Funk-forward. Meat-heavy. Also, seafood-heavy. Fat, salt, acid, funk; that’s Filipino food.
FL: Let’s go to the grocery store. Fill my cart. Tell me what I need to buy.
CV: I would start with something as simple as ginger. Grab some sugar cane vinegar. Some patis, which is fish sauce. Some bagoong, which is shrimp paste. Calamansi juice; that’s a tiny citrus fruit the size of a kumquat and a key lime mixed. You’re lucky to find it fresh; it does exist here in California. You could definitely find it frozen in Filipino markets, and then also bottled fresh – or pasteurized, I should say. The flavor is so distinct that it’s better finding one of those than try to substitute it with anything else. Also, some coconut milk. And if you’re lucky enough to find it, there’s a condiment called achara, which is a sweet pickle that’s often eaten with grilled meats and fatty things.
FL: Right away, you gravitate towards the vinegar.
CV: Sugar cane vinegar, correct. There are many different vinegars used in Filipino food, but I feel like sugar cane vinegar is a good introductory one. It doesn’t have too much of a bite, it’s balanced, and is great for vinaigrettes. We do something called sukang sili, which is spiced vinegar. We’ll take some garlic, shallot, and Thai chilis. We’ll mince that, throw it in vinegar, and let it marinate. You dip grilled meats or deep-fried snacks in there, maybe even chicharon.
FL: You mentioned fish sauce, which I think a lot of us know about. But tell me about bagoong, the shrimp paste.
CV: There are two different versions of it that are commonly used. One is kind of intimidating; it’s this bright pink color. It’s fermented shrimp paste – heavy on the funk aspect. Then there’s one that’s slightly more tamed, but still funky and umami-forward. It’s a salted and sautéed version of that shrimp paste. They’re both delicious, but if you are a little scared of or intimidated by the pink one, the brown one will do the job.
FL: How do you use them?
CV: Think of what you’d use anchovy in to get a picture of its depth. Maybe in a sauce, to add funk and salt when you want more complexity. It’s awesome in vinaigrettes. We like to incorporate it into some butter and melt it over a steak. I also chose things that will go good together like coconut milk, ginger, and shrimp paste. Cook meat in there, make a sauce, or put it over some fish. Kind of straightforward, but the bold flavors there are very Filipino.
FL: When I go to a Chinese market, the first thing I do is go to the freezer aisle, and I start scoping out all the different brands of frozen dumplings. They’re almost always good. I could close my eyes, grab a bag, go home, boil them up, and they’re delicious. That’s a comfort food for me. Is there an equivalent where if I’m in a Filipino market, there are going to be products that are frozen and packaged that are going to be pretty tasty?
CV: There are some very special Filipino ice creams. Corn and cheese is one; it’s called Quezo Real. It’s a cheddar and corn flavored ice cream. There’s probably actual corn in it.
FL: That sounds like it could be amazing.
CV: It is amazing. And that’s definitely street vendor style; ice cream carts all over the Philippines will have that for sure. In terms of convenience, there happens to be a lot of packet ready-made spice mixes and sauces for your traditional Filipino stews and braises. Adobo comes in a packet, man! Add water, throw some meat in there, and you’re good. Have it over rice. That’s a comfort thing for me too. I think Filipinos have gotten used to the convenience aspect of preparing all these old-school meals. A lot of the traditional ingredients may not be around, so these packets exist. I can’t knock them; we grew up eating them. And they’re delicious.
Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.