Adobo: The Filipino staple that’s never quite the same

If there's something that pretty much binds all Filipinos, I'd like to believe that it's always been, and continues to be, food. 

Filipinos may agree to disagree on the specifics, but I think a safe answer would be adobo – after all, it is our unofficial national dish.  A Filipino household staple and a favorite of international visitors, adobo transcends Philippine islands and regions, unifying communities but also setting itself apart depending on who's preparing it, and how.

But adobo isn't a dish, per se; it's actually a "way of cooking," according to resident "Adobo Queen" Nancy Reyes-Lumen, home cook, author, restaurateur, and Filipino food advocate.

Your adobo, your rules

It's a well-loved dish we all grew up with, sure, but it's hardly ever done the same. I remember loving my mom's brown, saucy, sour chicken adobo as a kid, but I recently fell for my tita's extra-sour take, and being amazed at it's "whiteness" – all it apparently needed was garlic and vinegar to taste great! 

"'Adobo' is a process of cooking. The dish depends on the kinds of sour agents you find in your area," Nancy told Rappler.

"The traditional way would use native vinegar, which is usually cloudy white," Nancy said. 

But that's why adobo is different, almost everywhere you go – there is no one kind of vinegar used by all Philippine provinces. Areas have their own native vinegar, which, according to Nancy, can completely change the endgame of the salty-sour dish.

Yet, adobo remains "national," partly because its main elements are simple and accessible across regions – vinegar, meat, soy sauce, garlic, and peppercorns – but also versatile enough to be tweaked according to your liking.

Because with adobo, every little element is important – how sour or mild the vinegar is, how the meats were marinated, how they were cooked, how quick, what meats were used, among other factors.

“With this, we can say that adobo as a dish of a certain region or place cannot be categorized by place, but rather by families," Nancy said. 

The Luzon way

Within Luzon, communities prepare their adobo very differently. In Bulacan alone, they use a variety of vinegars, like the Paombong Vinegar, which is named after a town and is made from nipa palm. The Sukang Iloko, made from sugarcane, is also widely used, as well as coconut vinegar, which is also a staple in Southern Tagalog regions.

"Their adobo is as sour as the native vinegars. And usually, it would be white, without toyo," Nancy said.

In Batangas, however, their adobo is sometimes yellow, due to "achuete," a red-orange, mildly sweet powder made from annatto seeds. 

In Pampanga, the "dry" adobong puti is common – this happens when the marinade is reduced in the pan, until the oils of the meat are extracted.

"The sourness comes from the meats and the oils rendered," Nancy explained.

Nancy said that adobo isn't a dish that requires immediate refrigeration – the salt and vinegar help keep it fresher longer, it's own preservation method.

It's no wonder, then, that adobo tastes better days after it's cooked! Think a midnight bowl of adobo over hot rice – the flavors are extra pronounced, and the juices were still, well, juicy. According to Nancy, this is what happens when you let adobo soak longer in vinegar – the dish's umami flavor is cured in a day or two. 

United Colors of Adobo 

Nancy listed down the general "Benetton Colors of Adobo" as a quick guide, which she indicated in her book, The Adobo Book. 

"There's yellow adobo, which is made with turmeric and achuete, and the red-orange adobo, made with achuete," she said.

Brown adobo is what Nancy would call the "city adobo," which is commonly made with soy sauce. The adobong puti is made with salt and vinegar, the black adobo with squid, the creamy white adobo with coconut milk (gata), and the clear adobo, which consists of just vinegar and spices. 

Visayas' finest

“The taste profiles are milder in the Visayas, because they're closer to the sea. The simpler the cooking, the finer the taste," Nancy said. 

In the Visayas, adobo is sometimes done with calamansi and vinegar, or just calamansi, said Nancy, made only from simple spices: garlic, peppercorn, laurel, and rock salt. 

"There are different vinegars used, like coconut, pineapple and sugar cane," she added.

They also like their adobo with a little bit of "heat," Nancy said, which explains some homes' use of red chilies and ginger in their adobo.

According to her, many Visayan adobos are adobong puti, using only vinegars. Popular adobo dishes in the region include adobong seafood, chicken and pork. 

The Mindanao way

“In the South, their kind of adobo banks on the creamy kind, from their coconut milk (gata),” Nancy said. Instead of pork, Mindanao adobo makes use of chicken, fried fish, or beef, similar to the saucy Balbacua beef stew. 

Quoting from Edgie Polistic's Philippine Food: Cooking and Dining Dictionary, their adobo is sometimes cooked "dry" using palapa, a sweet-spicy condiment made from garlic leaves, chilies, ginger, and toasted ground coconut. – Rappler.com

Steph Arnaldo

If she’s not writing about food, she’s probably thinking about it. From advertising copywriter to freelance feature writer, Steph Arnaldo finally turned her part-time passion into a full-time career. She’s written about food, lifestyle, and wellness for Rappler since 2018.

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