Filipino spices have influenced how every Filipino cooks and enjoys food for centuries. And the exchange of spices via various trade routes, from Arab to European expeditions, is an integral part of the world’s culinary history including the Philippines, uniting countries through vibrant flavors.
Spices come in a variety of flavors, ranging from mild to peppery, while others are pungent or aromatic. Additionally, spices enhance the flavor of other ingredients and are used in virtually every dish—-from sauces to soups, vegetable to meat dishes. Certain spices, such as cardamom or turmeric, can also be added to beverages to enhance their flavor. Spices can serve as the foundation or base of a recipe, used in marinating or seasoning while cooking, or they can serve as the dish’s finishing, flavorful touch. Additionally to tantalizing our taste buds, spices are loaded with minerals, vitamins, phytonutrients, and anti-oxidants.
When we consider cuisines that have been largely defined by spices, Indian, Indonesian, or Mexican food are likely to come to mind first. However, each cuisine has its own set of spices that have had a significant impact on each nation’s culinary identity. Furthermore, the Philippines is not an exception.
As with its Asian neighbors, Filipino cuisine benefits from spices; blandness is not an option. While some argue that Filipino cuisine is too salty, sour, or occasionally excessively sweet, one thing is certain: regardless of your palate’s preferences, Filipino cuisine is never boring.
While seasoning and marinating in soy sauce and vinegar is a common first step in flavoring Filipino dishes, spices have also contributed to the development of Filipino cuisine.
The distinct flavor of Filipino cuisine owes a great deal to the familiar and beloved spices. They may appear unassuming, but they have had a profound impact on the way we cook and enjoy food.
The following list includes some of the most popular spices that have helped define the Filipino palate.
The Filipino Cuisine’s Most Popular Spices
Adobo, the national dish of the Philippines, is a braised pork or chicken dish made with a vinegar, soy sauce, pepper corns, and dried bay leaves marinade.
While dried bay leaves are frequently associated with adobo, they can also be used to flavor other popular Filipino chicken and beef stews, such as menudo or mechado. Dried bay leaves add depth and fragrance to any dish with their strong and pungent flavor. Though some remove it prior to serving, others leave it on dishes as a sort of garnish.
Native Philippine garlic is frequently smaller in size but packs a punch in terms of flavor and aroma. The extensive use of garlic reflects the Spanish influence on Filipino cooking methods, most notably sautéing garlic and onions. Additionally, garlic is frequently stir-fried into day-old rice to create sinangag (garlic fried rice).
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Ginger is frequently used to flavor Filipino soups and stews such as chicken tinola and arroz caldo. It adds a pleasant sharp acidity to meat dishes, which helps to balance out their richness. Turmeric, which is referred to in the Philippines as luyang dilaw, may also be used.
Pandan The aroma of pandan is frequently associated with cooking white rice in Filipino cuisine. Not only does pandan impart a delectable fragrance, it also enhances the fresh flavor of rice. Due to the spice’s pleasant flavor and aroma, it is frequently used in rice cakes such as steamed puto and glutinous bibingka.
Lemongrass leaves and stalks are fragrant and flavorful and are frequently used in Asian cuisine for tea and dipping sauces. It is used in Filipino cooking to enhance the flavors of chicken stews such as Tinola, along with sayote (chayote), malunggay (moringa leaves), and luya (ginger).
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Sampalok, or tamarind, is a spice with a pleasant balance of sweet and sour flavors. Sampalok is typically used in Filipino cooking as a souring agent for the popular meat and vegetable stew Sinigang, which is frequently made with chicken, salmon, or pork.
When ripe, sampalok is frequently candied and transformed into a popular Filipino snack coated in salt, sugar, or a combination of the two.
The modern Filipino chili pepper (siling labuyo) arrived in the Philippines following the Columbian exchange, or Christopher Columbus’ 1492 voyage, which precipitated the widespread transfer of crops, livestock, technology, and culture from Europe to the Americas, Africa, and Asia.
Also known as “wild chili” or Philippine Bird’s Eye Chili, siling labuyo is frequently simmered in coconut milk, a technique passed down by Malaysians, to temper the spiciness of dishes such as Bicol express and Ginataan.
Chili and garlic can also be combined to create a spicy dipping sauce. This reflects the Chinese’s enduring influence on Filipino cuisine.
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Annatto seed is a Mexican spice that imparts a vibrant reddish-orange hue to a variety of Filipino dishes without adding much flavor. Spanish paprika frequently fills a similar role, but with a smoky flavor. Many dishes benefit from the addition of spicy chilies, particularly Thai bird’s eye chilies.
Black pepper, the yin to salt’s yang, is the second most critical seasoning to keep on hand at all times. While pre-ground pepper may save you some time and effort, nothing beats the robust flavor of whole black peppercorns ground in a pepper mill.
This flavorful spice blend made with dried and finely ground sweet and chili peppers is ideal for adding a variety of spice levels to savory dishes. There are numerous varieties of paprika, ranging from sweet to hot, so be sure to select a blend that matches your preferred level of heat.
Complete your Filipino Spice Rack
Every Filipino spice rack should be containing this essential definition of Filipino flavors. Get your kitchen inventory ready and check if you have all the following Filipino spices stored in your kitchens as holidays comes closer and your family will be expecting good Filipino spiced dishes.
Don’t forget to store your ground and whole spice properly inside a good storage or container! You will not want them to go to waste if you probably won’t use it immediately.
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