Should adobo really be our national dish? Last year, a bill proposed by Congressman Rene Relampagos attempted to give light to that question. Titled as the “Philippine National Symbols Act of 2014,” it aims to legitimize the objects and symbols that identify us as Filipinos. The National Food, as stated by the bill, is adobo. What image came to mind? Was it pork and chicken cooked in soy sauce and vinegar, surrounded by peppercorns and garlic chips, with that solitary bay leaf sitting on top of the meat? Because that’s what came to my mind—that and a bit of disappointment. Speaking truthfully, I was rooting for sinigang.
Before being declared persona non-grata in every household in Manila, let me state my case. Sinigang is versatile, to the say the least, with its wide range of ingredients that can be thrown into the pot. The sharp zing that travels through your lips and erupts in your mouth between bites owes itself to souring agents that include tamarind, guava, tomato, kamias, batwan, balimbing, or calamansi—even unripe mango. Its main meaty component touches all bases, from the pork, fish, and shellfish, and beef. Vegetables run a long list with okra, taro, daikon, sitaw, kangkong, eggplant, and the quintessential long green chili finger which is mashed into a little pool of patis.
With soup, meat, and veggies, it’s pretty much a complete meal sans the rice. It’s something indigenous to Asia, with Malay and Thai influences. But, more importantly, it fits the Filipino flavor profile, which actually actually leans to sour. I know what you might be thinking, here’s another reason to persecute the man; with that innate nationalistic love for all things sugary (i.e. Pinoy spaghetti), wouldn’t the collective flavor profile of the country be more sweet than sour? Hear me out: with practically every version in the country having its own vinegar variant, whether for cooking or preserving food, the meals consumed on a regular basis have a sour factor to it. And adobo, despite its use of vinegar, doesn’t fall in that category. No one really goes, “I want something sour for dinner, let’s go eat adobo!” So, how exactly did adobo come to wave the banner high as the dish that embodies the country’s flavors?
The bill will tell you that, “Although it has a name taken from the Spanish, the cooking method is indigenous to the Philippines. When the Spanish colonized the Philippines in the late 16th century and early 17the century, they encountered an indigenous cooking process which involved stewing with vinegar, which they then referred to as adobo.”
Adobo‘s roots are hard to pin down. Some say it came from Spain or Mexico, while others point to the French, citing the Provençal daube. Nevertheless, the cooking method is entirely Filipino, which is stewing with the use of vinegar. The bill continues with, “The most common table fare among Filipino families, nothing beats adobo for its versatility and variety. Whether using chicken, pork, fish, squid, kangkong, sitaw, puso ng saging, and others as the main ingredient, there are many ways to cook adobo—adobo sa gata, adobong matamis, adobong tuyo, adobong masabay, adobong sulipan, adobo sa pinya, and adobo sa kalamansi, adobong malutong, adobong puti, adobo flakes, spicy adobo, just to name a few. Adobo can also fill the pandesal, siopao, and puto, can be a pizza topping and pasta sauce, among others.” That was a mouthful. It does, however, prove a point that, for how far you can fling it, adobo triumphs over sinigang hands down, be it through the amount of ingredients used or variety. But that’s what also what makes it confusing. What makes adobo what it is?
The definition of a burger is basically a meat patty stuck in a burger bun. Regardless of what you do with it—wrap it up in bacon, bury a piece of foie gras in it, submerge it in cheese, you name it—it will still be a burger. And whether you change the meat to beef, to pork, to chicken, and even tofu, it’s still a burger as long as you form the meat into a patty and stick it in between a round bun. That is its defining characteristic. That is its identity.
If you applied that same logic to adobo, then it’s anything that is stewed or marinated in acid with a salt component. In spite of its countless versions, the classic adobo must have pork and chicken. No buts. I guess adobo has been around for so long and has been cooked so many times that different iterations are bound to pop up—change vinegar to calamansi, salt to fish sauce, use squid ink along with the squid, add coconut cream, cook it dry. And maybe that’s an unspoken requirement for a national dish: normalcy to the point that it forces creativity out of people.
It’s so common and so familiar that each family has its own recipe and definition for a classic; someone’s adobo is always going to better than someone else’s. It’s a food identity born from the actions of everyone, from kitchens big and small, from distinguished chefs to home cooks. Eating is a big part of identity. If you look closely, it’s an act tied closely to humans more than any other creature on the planet. It is both a personal act and, more importantly, a social one. From cavemen huddled around the fire, sharing the day’s freshly killed animal, to modern day Sunday dinners with the family, what we eat not only dictates what nourishes us, but also tells us who we are. So, maybe adobo truly does deserve to be this country’s National Dish.
But—for the record—I’m still rooting for sinigang.