The matter of adobo is almost political. Many Filipinos have their own version or interpretation of the adobo, which they will always assert is the best one of all.
Most of the time, it’s just a tweak on the acid of choice, for adobo has a spare list of ingredients—vinegar, garlic, salt, and black pepper. Soy sauce is even optional for the adobo purists.
Each one of us, of course, has a mythical adobo, the one cooked by our mothers (or fathers) when we were young and which we can never ever hope to replicate. For food tastes so much better the longer it stays as a memory; a stew is most delicious in childhood memories.
The history of adobo is another hot-button subject. Is it a truly an indigenous food, or did we copy it from the Spaniards? (The word adobo, after all, came from the Spanish word adobar meaning to marinate or to pickle.)
But the Spanish requires ingredients very different from ours. They pickle their meat in New World spices like cumin, paprika, cinnamon, oregano, coriander, and saturate it with wine, vinegar, or tomato juice.
Philippine adobo was created in the age before refrigeration technology, because of a need to extend the shelf life of meat.
A domestic animal that was butchered before that device was invented (or made affordable) meant a continuous string of cooking different parts for different dishes. Usually, this was an integrated activity done during a special occasion when everyone in the barrio would help out in the meat preparation, the cooking, and the eating.
A pig, for instance, that was butchered meant there was more than enough meat and other parts for fiesta favorites such as dinuguan (pork blood stew); menudo (diced pork and liver); lechon kawali (pan-fried pork belly); sisig (minced pork cheeks, ears, and other nice bits); and bopis (sautéed pork lungs and heart). There were plenty more meat to make the longganisa sausage, the Filipino bacon tocino, and of course to cook everyday dishes like puchero, sinigang, and adobo.
Adobo also has a role as the food provision of choice for people travelling, or just leaving home for the day with a need for a quick luncheon meal. Think of farmers, fishermen, laborers, and later on, office workers, students, hikers, and beachgoers. A perfect no-fuss meal means rice and adobo, preferably one that’s dryish that poses no danger of either spillage or spoilage.
Apart from pork, modern Filipinos now use other kinds of protein (and combinations thereof) to cook adobo, including chicken, beef, lamb, squid, tulya (small clams), talaba (oysters), fish (bangus, kanduli), and small shrimps. Vegetables, too, can be cooked adobo-style with the most popular being kangkong (water spinach), labong (bamboo shoots), and sitaw (string beans).
In the provincial areas where every part of a domestic animal, whenever edible, is cooked and consumed with gusto (we always say don’t throw it, “sayang,” a broad expression of regret), the chicken adobo version is liberally strewn with giblets including heart, gizzard, liver, and traditionally, the small eggs found inside the chicken.
It was said that the older the chicken was, the better tasting the adobo for the simple reason that one took longer in cooking a tougher, more mature fowl.
The addition of soy sauce is seen as a modern innovation to add color and flavor to the dish. Previously, the old folks used achuete or annatto seeds, which were soaked in water to derive a red coloring liquid. But even achuete is deemed too much by the purists, who subscribe to the “adobong matanda” or “adobong puti,” that is no other ingredient should be used for adobo except for the four basics earlier mentioned.
Adobo sa gata is considered a variation, but widely accepted as a traditional one, because of its use of our endemic coconut milk. Most Filipino households used to have their own coconut grater, a squat wooden seat onto which projected a rounded, serrated blade, that was perfect for grating halves of hard coconut (niyog) into fine shreds. With the addition of water, a rich and creamy milk can be expressed from these white morsels.
Add the coconut milk to the adobong gata only when the meat is tender, plus a bit of turmeric (luyang dilaw) for color and spice. The dish is done when the milk gurgles into an oily form.
Chicken and pork adobo is the popular tandem in city restaurants. For this pairing, the chicken will cook first so take it out when done and return it only when the pork is fork-friendly as well. Some establishments, in a bid to extend the dish, add potato quarters, boiled eggs, or tofu squares.
Many years back, I taught a group of foreign ladies in Athens how to cook adobo. On hearing the instruction to fry the adobo after stewing in liquid, one of the Americans remarked, “Oh, it’s a reverse braise.”
Indeed, the spluttering oil that comes with frying adobo is one of its challenges. To avoid this, you can opt to do a regular braise: brown the meat pieces in a pan with some oil, and then cook further in a separate pot with the vinegar base.
What kind of acetic base to choose is one of most contentious points in a discussion of cooking adobo.
Many swear by using red or white wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, distilled vinegar, pineapple or other fruit juice, or any of the various regional vinegars made from sugar cane, coconut, or nipa.
The fact that we’re using imported acid bases to cook adobo either shows that the dish is evolving to suit modern tastes, or the local vinegar available commercially have not raised their quality standards to acceptable levels that we are forced to look for substitutes.
That adobo has started to become recognized globally can be attributed to the home cooking by the millions of overseas Filipino workers, for there are few Philippine restaurants located abroad. Our much-admired hospitality, opening up our homes to foreign friends, has inadvertently gained our cuisine an international audience.
Adobo and its workings may be a contentious point among food enthusiasts, as our politics always are, but it can also be a great unifier, a potential keystone for our fragile culture.
½ kilo pork
½ kilo chicken
one-third cup vinegar
one-third cup water
5 cloves of garlic, smashed
3 tablespoons soy sauce
salt, pepper, sugar to taste
1 laurel leaf
1. Cut the pork and chicken into similar size for even cooking. Place all the meat into a pot together with the vinegar, soy sauce, water, garlic, salt, pepper, sugar, and laurel. At this point do not stir. Bring to a boil, cover and lower heat to a simmer.
2. The chicken will be cooked after about 20 minutes, take it out if the pork is still not tender. Drain the cooked meats and prepare a pan for frying. Brown them just enough to give color and to keep the meat from falling apart.
3. Return meat to the pot with the simmering liquid. Adjust seasoning. Serve with steamed rice or bread.