Friday, May 13, 2011

Filipino Adobo

Adobo is considered by many unofficially as the Philippines' national dish.  Versions of chicken and pork adobo are the most common. They have chicken and/or pork braised in vinegar, black pepper, garlic and bay leaf and then cooked in oil.  Soy sauce is often used as an ingredient as well but its addition to the basic adobo recipe is a relatively recent development.

While chicken and pork adobo recipes are the most frequently encountered, the use of other main ingredients argues for adobo to be more accurately described as a method of cooking than a dish per se.  This is clearly illustrated by referring to the common seafood preparation adobong pusit using squid and the vegetarian adobong kangkong using water spinach.  Both come across very differently from the pork and poultry recipes.  On the other hand, beef is usually not used, but—with products like so-called adobo-flavored nuts on the market making a definition of an adobo taste more elusive and harder to pin down—that's not a rule. Indeed the people in the province of Batangas in particular are known for having beef in their adobo.  

Name and Origin

The dish and its method of preparation are believed to be indigenous to the Philippines but the term adobo is of Spanish origin, a legacy from the time the islands were ruled by Spain. In Spanish cuisine the term adobo refers to a pickling sauce consisting of olive oil, wine vinegar and spices; in Mexican cuisine it describes a paste of chilies, spices, herbs and vinegar. Spanish and Mexican dishes using these seasonings are described as adobado or adobada. While bearing some similarities, the Filipino dish is distinct.


There are a multitude of variations of the recipe in Filipino cooking with different regions of the country and even households having unique versions.  There are quick and easy adobo recipes and ones that are more elaborate.  In some coconut milk is used.  In others chilies are added or maybe liver.  Some are braised to be moist and have a lot of sauce while others are reduced to be dry and crispy.  Some use black peppercorns and toasted garlic to give brief bursts of spiciness with some bites while others eschew the peppercorns and stick to ground pepper to let the sauce speak for itself.  Adobo sauce is full of flavor and is sometimes mixed with rice to make Filipino adobo fried rice.  Large pieces of meat are usually used but a dish of adobo flakes is a recent popular variant. 

Essential: Vinegar

Still there are a few essentials in an adobo marinade at least for the meat and poultry versions: vinegar, garlic, pepper, laurel leaves, and cooking oil.  Vinegar is a frequent ingredient in Filipino food.  Adobo, like paksiw and kinilaw, uses it as a central component.  If the dish doesn't use vinegar it isn't adobo.

Proportion matters as well.  Too much sauce, and an insignificant bay leaf and pepper presence, and the dish tends to resemble a pata tim, humba, or paksiw na baboy especially if sweetened with sugar.   A mixture with liver that is reduced too much and with a strong vinegar and garlic component may come off a little bit like a lechon paksiw.  Add vegetables and it starts looking like a stir-fry.  In short for an authentic Filipino recipe adobo is probably best kept simple. 

Because of the vinegar content, adobo tends to keep well.  Indeed there are people who believe the dish tastes better with age since adobo leftovers tends to taste better than when newly cooked.  Nevertheless without research on how long it can safely keep it is advised to deal with leftovers quickly and prudently.


An observation for those wishing to experiment:  while establishing the best proportion of soy to vinegar is something obvious to look at, paying attention to the amount of oil or fat may also be worthwhile.  Some of the best tasting adobo have a fair amount of rendered fat in the sauce of the finished dish.

Basic Filipino Adobo Recipe using Chicken and Pork

1.25 kg chicken, cut up
500 g pork loin or leg chops, sliced into 1-inch cubes
1 cup vinegar
1 cup water
1/4 cup soy sauce (optional, original recipe has none)
1 1/2 tsp salt  (unnecessary if using soy sauce)
8–10 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 bay leaves
2 tsp whole black peppercorns
oil for frying

Combine ingredients except oil in deep saucepan, pot, or dutch oven and marinate for an hour.  Afterward on a stove, heat the ingredients and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and let simmer for 30–40 minutes or until meat is tender.  Remove meat from the pot.  Boil the sauce until reduced and thickened, then strain into a small bowl.  In a frying pan add cooking oil (until about 1/4 inch deep).  Fry the meat in the frying pan until evenly brown and crisp.  Transfer the fried meat to a serving plate and pour the adobo sauce over.  Best served with steamed white rice.

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