Long called the “melting pot of Asia,” the Philippines reveals through its language, customs, cuisine, and other aspects of culture the influences of many peoples who have touched her shores. Take, for instance, culinary terms. Names of food items, ways of cooking, and references to kitchenware can be traced, directly or indirectly, to words from various foreign languages.
ADOBO is famous the world over for what is now regarded as the national dish of the Philippines. It may consist of chicken, beef, or pork (or any combination of those) marinated in vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, and peppercorns, cooked until the liquid is reduced, and then the meat is fried until crisp on the outside. Some variations call for the addition of coconut milk, or sugar for a salty-sweet flavor on the sauce.
The term adobo came into Philippine cuisine in the 16th century. Spanish and Mexican settlers had a cooking method called adovado, whereby meat and garlic were pan-fried together, with vinegar and broth later added to create a sauce. The main difference is that Philippine adobo uses soy sauce, a sign of Chinese influence on local cuisine.
BIBINGKA, the generic name for a Philippine rice cake that has innumerable variations, is very similar to the Portuguese word bebinca. Popular during the 16th century, bebinca is a coconut-rich holiday cake from Goa, formerly a Portuguese possession and now part of India. Very likely, this food item figured in the exchanges between Spanish and Portuguese traders in Asia.
CEBOLLAS is Spanish for onion, and the Filipino derivation it is sibuyas. Indonesians call onion bawang Bombay, while Malaysians say bawang besar. When they say bawang, Filipinos mean garlic which, to Indonesians and Malays, is termed bawang putih.
DATILES, or ratiles, bears thousands of marble-size fruits which are sweetest when red. My cousins from Nueva Ecija call it saresa, a derivation of cereza, Spanish for cherry. Datiles fruit probably reminded the Spaniards of cherries, which is why they called them by a name which the locals misheard as saresa.
ESCABECHE is a Spanish method of curing fish: sliced pieces are fried and then marinated in garlic and vinegar. Philippine-style eskabetse is not so much a method of curing fish, as a recipe for a dish. Fish is sliced, fried to semi-crispness, and then topped with a thickened vinegar sauce with which garlic, ginger, and bell peppers have been sauteed.
FLAN is yet another Spanish contribution to the Philippine roster of dishes. The recipe and name remain the same, inspite of the fact that the Filipino does not have the letter F in its alphabet. The complete name, leche flan, reflects the use of milk with the usual eggs and sugar. It is usually prepared by steaming the mixture in a mold within a water bath.
GULAI, in Indonesia, is a dish in which the meat, fish, and vegetable ingredients are simmered in plenty of water to which a souring agent, such as tamarind or lime, has been added. Some variations include coconut milk. In the Philippines, however, gulay is a generic word for vegetables.
HEIKO, from the Chinese, is a smooth, thick, mildly flavored shrimp paste. I remember it as a bright pink seasoning called heko; vendors of semi-ripe papaya or green mangoes slather it on sections of fruit.
JICAMA, a native plant of South America, was brought to the Philippines during the Spanish colonization. It came to be called singkamas, and is a popular snack and crunchy ingredient for some dishes.
KWALI sounds like a Philippine word, but it’s actually a Malay term for the wide pan with a curved base, now known worldwide as a wok. We call it kawali, but in some areas of the country the term used is karahay, from the Indian karahi.
LAPU LAPU has always fascinated me; it’s a kind of fish, but also the name of the foremost Filipino nationalist, the leader who defended our people from foreign incursion. The fish lapu lapu is called kerapu bara in Malaysia. Could the name of Mactan’s chieftain have been derived from kerapu? This family of fish includes sea bass and coral cod; the red- and blue-spotted varieties are the most favored and highly prized in the Philippines.
MANGKO is a term I encountered while reading an article about leaves used as food containers and wrappers. Banana leaves are commonly used in many parts of the world, but in Indonesia daun manko is a cup leaf used to hold food during steaming. That, in all probability, lends us the word mangkok: an earthen, glass, or metallic vessel to contain a small quantity of food.
NASI is the best known word borrowed from Indonesia, where nasi goreng is a familiar dish. The Pampanga area uses nasi for rice, otherwise called kanin or bigas in other localities.
PACU is a generic term in Indonesia and Malaysia for the tender ends of edible ferns. To us it’s pako-pako.
RAPHANUS is easy to figure out. The Latin raphanus, meaning radish, turned in Spanish rabanos, which then morphed into labanos.
SANCOCHO first came into my vocabulary while reading about Chilean cooking. I remember from my youth that my mother was very particular about sangkutsa-ing chicken pieces in sauteed garlic and ginger before adding water into tinola. In the Spanish language, sancocho means “to parboil.”
TERUNG in Malaysian, talong in Pilipino, translates into the English eggplant. It is said that the first variety of this plant that was seen by a Westerner was white and egg-shaped, hence the English name.
UBI manis is Indonesia’s sweet potato; we call it kamote, derived from the Carribean camote. Spanish explorers brought it to the Philippines, from where Portuguese traders spread it to many parts of Asia. What we call ube or ubi is the mountain yam, or long potato, which has rougher skin and a gluey texture. It is boiled and finely grated before being prepared into dishes.
YEMA is a famous delicacy from Spain, and is, too, in the Philippines. Winemakers used egg whites to purify their product; the yolks they donated to monasteries, where nuns fashioned them into this mouth-watering confection. The recipe came with the ships that carried Spaniards to the Philippines.