The black ‘umami’ secret of squid adobo

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GETSY TIGLAO

GETSY TIGLAO

Famed food writer Ruth Reichl’s 1,008-page tome Gourmet Today features several recipes from China, Vietnam and Thailand, but only one from the Philippines. You’ll be surprised by what Reichl chose: squid adobo.

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“Filipino cuisine is an amalgam of many different influences. Adobo—meat or fish cooked with lots of garlic, soy sauce, and vinegar—is one of the country’s few truly native dishes,” Reichl said in her introduction of the dish “Squid in Vinegar Sauce.”

Squid adobo, she pointed out, adds tomatoes and onions to the mix. “Authentic Filipino adobo calls for coconut, palm, or sugarcane vinegar, but we use cider vinegar to good effect.”

Two things struck me on reading her entry on squid adobo. First is that the Philippines still has a long way to go in boosting international awareness and appreciation of Filipino dishes.

A good initial step, which I’m hoping to help build through my columns, is to create a standard for traditional Filipino dishes. Filipinos love creating their own versions of our various dishes, adding a twist of an ingredient here and there, anything to top the previous one they’ve heard. Points for creativity, yes, but I feel this penchant to be “different” erodes the authenticity of a traditional dish.

adobo

For instance, I’ve known of people who proudly proclaim that their sinigang is the best because they use a different ingredient for flavoring (parsley, anyone?). Another que horror moment is when somebody told me they put tomatoes in their chicken tinola to add sweetness.

If we want Filipino food to be recognized in the international arena we must first learn to respect the way it is cooked in the proper traditional manner. Then we have to do excellent versions of these traditional ones (not fast-food versions) before even attempting variants, some of which don’t even make sense.

Second thing I noticed with the Gourmet Today recipe on squid adobo is that it called for cleaned medium squid, but made no mention of ink sacs. This is obviously an American interpretation of a Filipino dish, cleaned up for audiences that would most likely recoil in disgust at the idea of handling squid innards. But I give Reichl credit at least for advising the reader to leave the tentacles whole.

 

Indeed, getting the ink sacs is a laborious and messy process. You cannot be squeamish and you must have patience. The reward is getting the raw material—the squid ink that will give a distinctive savory taste to your dish. This is what enables the creation of a velvety black sauce for your adobong pusit, or for a paella or pasta negra.

First thing you need are fresh squid—I usually buy those with a purple-tinged mantle, the one the vendors call pusit bisaya. Clean them well and start by pulling the heads and tentacles off the body. Attached here are the guts and other internal parts, the egg sac, and the most-prized of all, the ink sac. Look for a thin silvery wisp of sac. Remove this gently from the rest using either a sharp knife or your fingers. There are also small deposits of ink behind the squid eyes. You can also take this out by flattening the head with a spoon to let out the ink.

Clean again the squid bodies under running water, and as you do, remove what is popularly known as the “spine” although squids, a cephalopod, don’t have spines. That transparent internal structure in the squid’s body is known as an internal gladius or a pen, a probable remnant of the squid’s ancestral shell.

When you have removed the spines you can now slice the squid body into rings. To cook the squid, use the standard gisa (sauté) with the big three Filipino aromatics of onion, garlic, and tomatoes. If you are cooking with the ink sacs, you must sauté these first before adding the squid rings to help deepen the umami taste.

Squid release ink when threatened: it’s a defensive weapon to cloak its flight from enemies in the sea. Wanting to know more about the ink’s chemical composition and its unique flavor, Charles Kelsey of Gourmet magazine did research and found that the ink has high concentrations of glutamic acid. This is an amino acid that gives out an umami taste, and that like fish sauce (also filled with glutamates), adds a savory element and helps round out the flavors in any dish.

The best way, I think, to deal with this messy ink business is use instead baby squids. The ink on its own will spill out while cooking, no need to forage for sacs. It won’t be as dark compared to a dish using harvested ink sacs, but it will be just as delicious.

Ingredients:
1 kilo baby squids
1/2 cup yellow onions, chopped
1 teaspoon garlic, minced
1/2 cup ripe tomatoes, chopped
1/2 cup cane vinegar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon white sugar
1 teaspoon whole black pepper
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
(optional: 1-2 pieces of bay leaf)

Method:
1. Clean the baby squids under running water. Place in colander and let drain. Remove the “spine” from the squid. Since these are baby squids, there’s no need to pull out the heads.
2. Heat the olive oil in a deep, non-metallic saucepan. Add the onions, sauté for a few minutes and then add the garlic and tomatoes. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes.

3. Place all of the baby squids into this aromatic mixture, blend well, and add the vinegar, soy sauce, all the spices and seasoning. Cook for 5 minutes, or up to 10 minutes more if you want less of the vinegary flavor. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve with hot steamed rice.

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5 Comments

  1. I think there are no standard preparations because the Philippines comprises over 7000 islands (and how many tribes and dialects?) Even in other countries there are regional variations and region-specific dishes. What many consider the quintessential Spanish paella (the Valenciana version) is definitely not how most Spaniards would prepare their paella.

    My family’s standard adobo recipe is simple: soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, cracked pepper, salt, and the meat, maybe a bay leaf but definitely no other ingredients. Medium sized pusit is used whole and the pen slips out pretty easily once it’s cooked. The vinegar softens it up a lot so its more like a piece of cellophane. Cutting it up makes it look nicer and easier to eat because of the size, but then the tasty innards get lost in the sauce.

    As for me, I love how different people/families prepare their food. If it’s good its good and if not then it will sit there uneaten, haha. I think it’s more about technique and the major ingredients/flavors than one standard recipe. It’s all good as long as it’s not like how some restaurants/caterers cut costs i.e. kare kare with pata cut crosswise to resemble oxtail, other chunks of beef, and cabbage; or dinuguan with huge chunks of fat instead of meat or other good parts.

  2. Hello, Andoy! Thank you for your comments, and I agree that Philippine cuisine is such a contentious topic. It is one subject matter wherein the typically shy Pinoy would not hesitate to give his or her own opinion. Discussion is always good however, and it’s the only way for a consensus to be reached. I’ll keep your input in mind, although I’m not keen on keeping the spine intact in my squid, for fear of piercing my palate.

  3. Andoy Castellano on

    Filipino cuisine is a debatable topic. I would like to point out that as a standard dish, the prep in the article is a modern take. I grew up in a family which serves adobong pusit with whole squids, ink sac, spine and all, and tomatoes optional. Come to think of it my earliest recollection of adobong pusit did not have any tomatoes, was dark and had the optional kinchay.
    I confess, this is the first time I’ve read any of your articles. Now, I’m sorry that I didn’t.