A Brief History of the Tapsilog and Its Many VariationsJanuary 13, 2014
“Sex tayo? (Want to have sex?)” was (and probably still is) a popular come-on back when I was in college. Sex was (and probably still is) something special that could be enjoyed any time of day, and it was (and probably still is) always better if you bring a group of friends to share it with you. But before you accuse our generation of shameless, unabashed lust, in most cases (as far as I know anyway), we were talking about hitting Sinangag Express, a 24-hour eatery beloved for its cheap food, more specifically for a plate of what is arguably our nation’s favorite breakfast, lunch, and dinner : the tapsilog.
What Exactly is Tapsilog?
The word tapsilog describes the dish’s three main components: tapa (beef slices), sinangag (fried garlic rice), and itlog (fried egg). The tapa is usually made by marinating the beef in a special sauce or mixture and then drying it out in the sun. This process gives it that sweet, savory flavor and slightly chewy texture. Most groceries and restaurants source their tapa from Pampanga, a province renowned for its thriving meat industry and its residents’ cooking prowess.
Sinangag is a testament to our Filipino ingenuity when it comes to reducing waste and maximizing utility. It’s leftover rice that’s kneaded by hand to break apart any clumps prior to being fried in a wok with a bit of oil, rock salt, and a lot of garlic. Cold, day-old rice is preferred to anything freshly cooked since the former has a drier, somewhat hardier texture that stands up to the high cooking temperature better. The itlog portion is as simple as it gets: a farm-fresh chicken egg fried to the desired degree of doneness, sunny side-up style.
A plate of tapsilog is a delightful study in taste and texture. You get the rich, buttery silkiness of the egg, the herbed, aromatic grains of the fried rice, and the savory, lip-smacking meatiness of the tapa in one delicious dish.
Origins and Variations
Exactly who came up with the first plate of tapsilog (and when this happened) remains a mystery, but it’s clear that it must have been invented out of necessity. The dish is a marvelous example of fuss-free cooking and resourceful efficiency, given that the ingredients were all readily available, even in the days before industrialized farming and refrigeration.
Contrary to popular belief, the Tagalog word “tapa” has no relation to the trendy Spanish “tapas,” which means “lid” (an allusion to its beginnings as snack plates used to cover pitchers of sangria). Rather, tapa as we know it is rooted in the Sanskrit word tapas, which means “heat,” a nod to the ancient, pre-Hispanic practice of drying boar or deer meat under the hot Philippine sun to preserve them.
When the Chinese traders arrived and introduced condiments like soy sauce to the natives, they soon learned to marinate the meat prior to the drying to give it a deeper flavor. It was also most probably around this time that early Filipinos were introduced to the Chinese wok and, as a result, the economic wonder that is fried rice. But while the Chinese made fried rice to stretch the number of mouths that an expensive slab of meat can feed, Filipino natives cooked sinangag so that cold, leftover rice wouldn’t go to waste, with strong garlic added to mask any stale flavors from the rice.
As to why tapsilog features sunny-side up eggs by default (despite the myriad ways of cooking them there are out there), it’s most likely because it’s the fastest and most straightforward cooking method. Eggs Benedict is all well and good, but it’s hardly appropriate for hungry laborers in need of a quick, hearty breakfast before a long day’s work.
Given how long the tapsilog has been around as well as the sheer variety of regional delicacies in the Philippine archipelago, variations on the well-loved classic were inevitable. The garlic rice and the fried egg are usually retained since they are standard breakfast staples, but cooks and diners alike often swap the accompanying main protein around. From the more common longsilog and tocilog (garlic rice and egg with longganisa and tocino, respectively) to the exotic dangsilog (danggit being dried rabbitfish) and the indulgent litsilog (lechon), the possibilities are as wide and varied as the regions that gave rise to them.
Tapsilog through the Years
Though the Philippines was eventually liberated from foreign invaders sometime in 1946, US armed forces continued to visit their former training camps and military bases. Eventually, canned goods such as corned beef and SPAM made their way into the Filipino diet and even became breakfast staples, alongside other Americanized edibles such as hotdogs and bacon. It didn’t take long before these too found a place beside our beloved silog, giving rise to quirky monikers like cornsilog, bacsilog, and even SPAM-silog.
By the late 1980’s, shortly after Martial Law was abolished and the nightly curfew was lifted, Manila’s urbanization and the influx of people from all over the country led to the popularization of late-night eateries like food carts, carinderias, and the tapsihan. These catered to the needs of the hungry drunks prowling the streets after they’d closed down the bar (as well as the common worker tired after a long day of struggling to make ends meet).
The humble tapsilog didn’t really break into the fast food industry until eateries like Tapa King were established as an alternative to the fast food chains serving burgers and pizza. Filipino customers who were looking for a quick rice meal responded with enthusiasm and soon enough, other restaurant chains were put up as a response to the demand. Tapsilog eventually became a popular meal choice at any time of day, and was no longer thought of as mere breakfast food. The modern-day tapsihan offers 24-hour delivery services, with industry stalwarts like Rufo’s and Sinangag Express employing the burgeoning call center industry (among other things) to keep up with their round-the-clock work schedule.
Nowadays, tapsilog can be had pretty much everywhere and at every price range. You can take your pick from the student-friendly “bente-silog” (which can be had for Php20 a pop) to the upscale tapsilog made with yakiniku-cut US rib cap beef at the swanky Mr. Jones in Greenbelt 5. Furthermore, world-famous stylist Aiala Hernando’s delicately beautiful and Pinterest-worthy Basque-si-log elevates the rustic breakfast dish to breathtaking new levels, potentially putting our homegrown delicacy on the map. And who knows? Perhaps someday, the tapsilog just might take its rightful place on the international stage, not just as a representative of Filipino cuisine, but also as a formidable and hearty breakfast food beloved the world over.