What You Didn’t Know About Our Beloved Kare-KareNovember 6, 2014
Despite oversized burgers, steaming bowls of ramen, and/or salted caramel-flavored cronuts/cheesecakes/ice cream (or pretty much anything, really) flooding everyone’s Instagram feeds, the classic kare-kare still reigns supreme as the epitome of Filipino comfort food. With its creamy, mustard-colored sauce luxuriously coating generous chunks of oxtail meat, eggplant, and bokchoy, it’s a deliciously savory and nutty way to demolish mountains of freshly-steamed white rice (perhaps while nursing a broken heart or after coming off a long work shift at that).
Still, as with most of the country’s most beloved dishes, the kare-kare might be distinctly Filipino, but the foreign influences that shaped our nation also had a lot do with its origins.
Where Exactly did Kare-Kare Come From?
Since the Kapampangans are known for cooking the best version of kare-kare (among other dishes), they are usually credited with the dish’s invention.
However, records from the pre-colonial era also claim that the elite classes of the Moro or Bangsamoro people who came to settle here actually brought the nutty dish with them. Given that kare-kare is also a traditional dish in Sulu and Tawi-Tawi (which are the parts of the country where the early Moro settlers first landed), there could very well be some truth to this theory.
The most popular theory about the orange-hued stew’s origins, on the other hand, credits the 17th century British colonizers (or rather, the Indian cooks they brought with them) for bringing the dish to our shores. Then as now, curries were much beloved by the Brits, who enjoyed the complex layers of flavor from the cinnamon, turmeric, nutmeg, chilies, and cloves mixture that typified that classic curry. Unfortunately, not all the essential curry ingredients were indigenous to our lands, so their Indian cooks scrambled to find suitable alternatives at the local markets.
Eventually, they settled on using ingredients like crushed peanuts and annatto seeds (atsuete) to flavor and color their savory stews. The result was dubbed by its Indian creators as “kari-kaari” after the iconic dish it was originally meant to replicate. Over the years, the initial name then evolved into the more popular “kare-kare.”
Kare-Kare Over The Years
Traditionally, the kare-kare is a dish that was designed to go from the stove to the table. The older versions usually feature lean beef, oxtail or tripe (referred to in the vernacular as twalya, or towel, for its fibrous texture), eggplant slices, bok choy leaves and stalks, banana heart slices, string beans. The mixture is then stewed in a clay pot with a sauce made out of ground peanuts, annatto seed oil, and ground toasted rice. The finished product is ideally served in the same clay pot it was cooked in (usually with a small dish of fermented shrimp paste or bagoong on the side), and a lot of purists and non-purists alike concur that it tastes best this way.
The advent of modern conveniences and fusion cuisine also led to the rise of different versions of the beloved peanut and oxtail stew. Some cooks have taken to substituting copious amounts of creamy peanut butter for the ground peanuts, and some add chilies or pickled green papaya (atchara) for that extra spicy or tangy kick. The more health-conscious among us have also come up with vegetarian versions of kare-kare that include generous chunks of tofu as a meat substitute, while advocates of regional cooking sometimes add in different kinds of meat (e.g., goat or chicken) along with vegetables that are indigenous to their region.
Some of the country’s leading food brands have also come up with their own pre-packaged kare-kare flavorings for those who don’t have time to carry out the traditional stewing process (or for those who need quite a bit more help in the kitchen). They aren’t quite as good as the real thing (things that come in envelopes hardly ever are), but they are a godsend for those who need a quick, peanut-y curry fix.
As far as I can remember, a piping hot dish of kare-kare has always been a staple at parties and celebrations all over the country. Nowadays, just about every household, carinderia, or cafeteria has their own version of the decadent, comforting dish, with each one continuing the three hundred year-old legacy of an innovative cook’s efforts to soothe a homesick craving for the flavors of one’s homeland.