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Philippine cuisine traits

11 Traits That Make a Dish Truly Filipino

How will you define Philippine cuisine?

When we say cuisine, it is the manner of food preparation, the dishes itself, and the eating customs of the Filipinos.

But what makes it Filipino?

In no particular order, here are eleven characteristics that make a dish truly Filipino:


Due to its geography and its colonizers, Philippine cuisine is a fusion of Polynesian origins mixed with Malaysian, Indonesian, Indian, Chinese, Spanish, American, and Japanese influences. Even the most original Filipino dish that you could think of has that particular foreign inspiration in it.


If you’re going to observe, the Filipino diet is high-fat, high-protein, and high-carbohydrates. Not healthy if you compare it with Asian diets. But we are living in a tropical, agricultural country. Our race works hard under the sun, thus we need all the nutrition and energy we could get. Our dietary motto is “moderation in all things”.


The Filipino taste centers on the mixture of sweet (tamis), sour (asim), salty (alat), and spicy (anghang).

However, different regions have different tastes — take for example in Luzon, the biggest and northern island of the Philippines. The Ilocos and Cordillera regions prefer their food salty; Pampanga in Central Luzon is known for its sweet taste in food; and in the Bicol region in Southern Luzon is known for its fondness of all things spicy.


Filipino foods are simple to prepare. Usual food preparations include boiling (kulo), steaming (sinaing), and roasting (inihaw).

Other methods of preparation like saute (ginisa) came from foreigners due to trade and colonization.


This is the distinctive characteristic that defines Philippine cuisine, the counterpoint. It is the pairing of two tastes resulting to something surprisingly pleasant.

For example, eating something sweet can be paired with a food that is something salty as in champorado (sweet chocolate rice porridge) and tuyo (salted dried fish).

Another pairing is the dinuguan (pork blood stew) and puto (rice flour cupcake).

Some may think this pairing is weird but once you get the taste and hang of it, you’ll get used to it and crave for it.


Being in a tropical archipelago, it is important to prepare simple food like adobo that can be stored without spoiling. Tinapa (smoke-cured fish) and daing (sun-dried fish) are popular, too, because they can last for weeks without spoiling even without refrigeration.

That’s the reason why locally made suka (vinegar) is a common ingredient. This is where the food’s sourness comes from. Although there are other ingredients that provide sourness, it’s the lowly vinegar that takes center stage. Adobo and sinigang are considered the Philippine’s national food and are good examples of how Filipinos love their food sour.


Another distinct characteristic of Filipino cuisine is its being an informal and communal affair, centered around the family, and in the kitchen. If you will notice, most dining tables are in or near the kitchen. Meals are eaten with the whole family and visitors, if there are any.

In fact, one can’t help but invite someone to eat with him/her by asking, “Kumain ka na ba?” (Have you eaten?) or saying, “Kain tayo (Let’s eat.).

Also, the “boodle fight“, a style of dining popularized by the Philippine Army which uses banana leaves spread out on the table as the main serving platter upon which is laid out portions of rice and a variety of Filipino viands, is a good example of brotherly, friendly, filial, and communal feasting.


Filipinos eat three main meals a day: almusal (breakfast), tanghalian (lunch), and hapunan (dinner) plus merienda (snack) in between.


Food is served all at once and not in courses as other foreign cuisines do. The traditional Filipino way of eating is by hand known as kamayan. One has to take a bite of the viand, a bite of rice, then pressed together with fingers.

Food is often eaten using spoon and fork, not knife and fork; and Filipinos don’t usually eat with chopsticks.


Again, if you’ll notice, the Filipino dining table has a small condiment set. It contains a small bottle of each: patis (fish sauce), suka (vinegar), and toyo (soy sauce).  Then you’ll see someone preparing a portion of his own dipping sauce in a small saucer. Filipinos want to prepare their own dipping sauce from different condiment combinations. It’s this idiosyncracy that defines us, too.


Philippine cuisine uses native ingredients like the calamansi (calamondin), sampalok (tamarind), kangkong (water spinach), patis (fish sauce), bagoong (shrimp paste), and other native fish, meat, vegetables, fruits, and root crops.

Some regional dishes use rabong (bamboo shoots), seaweeds, ubod (coconut tree pith), igat (eel), kuhol (snail), kamaro (crickets), palaka (frog) and other rarely seen varieties of animal meat and seafood. You need to travel around the country to experience these exotic, local dishes as they are only available in certain regions.

So there you have it. The eleven characteristics of Filipino cuisine I could think of. And if you think I missed something, let me know.

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4 Items in a Typical Filipino Breakfast

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Not only does it break the fasting during sleep, it also nourishes you in the morning.

I grew up having a mandatory breakfast upon waking up and not to skip it for anything else. In fact, I was surprised when I started living with Voltaire in Caloocan in 2003. They only take a cup of coffee for breakfast. So when I started preparing bread or rice meals with coffee, they soon began taking breakfast with me.

My usual breakfast treat is a serving of garlic fried rice with a piece of fried meat or fish plus an egg on the side, either scrambled or the diced salted egg. Plus of course, a hot cup of chocolate or coffee. (When I was pregnant, I stopped taking coffee. Instead, I opted for hot chocolate.)

Breakfast Twice a Day?

When I came to Bangued, Abra for the first time in 1990, I was surprised to see my relatives taking breakfast twice.

We woke up early, a few minutes or hours before sunrise, like 4:30 to 5:30 am. To warm up, we ate small bread rolls we call pan de sal and had a hot cup of coffee.

Around 6:30 to 7:00 am, we gathered again around the table to eat rice. If I remember right, we had a choice between fried rice and steamed rice, two kinds of meat dishes, and fruits in season for dessert.

Pan de Sal

Pan de sal is an Spanish term for bread with salt because these bread rolls are flavored with it. It can be eaten plain especially while it’s warm. Others prefer their pan de sal dipped in hot coffee which has been a running joke for some time. (Filipinos are so clean that they even rinse their bread in coffee before eating!)

But some Filipinos prefer their pan de sal with filling. This could be anything from cheese (kesong puti [feta cheese] or cheddar), spreads (peanut butter, jelly, marmalade, or mayonnaise-based sandwich spreads), egg (usually scrambled), meats (corned beef, luncheon meat, hotdog, etc.) or fish (usually sardines).

Five pieces of plain bread rolls is equal to 1 cup of rice so that’s good enough to start your morning.

Fried Rice Meals

Filipinos don’t like wasting food. That’s why rice from last night’s dinner becomes the next day’s sinangag (fried rice). Sinangag is simple as compared to the Chinese chow fan, or the Java rice preparations.

Just brown minced garlic on hot oil and put some salt and pepper on the rice while frying, that’s it. Usually, I heat the wok first before putting the oil because if the wok and oil are not hot enough, the rice will stick at the bottom.

Filipinos also made portmanteau words to describe certain breakfast meals. I remember it gained popularity during the 80’s.

It all began with the term tapsilog which means tapa (fried marinated beef) with sinangag (fried rice) and itlog (egg). The first term pertains to the main viand, usually meat, and the last two silog remains and pertains to the rice and egg portion of the meal. So aside from tapsilog, we also have longsilog (longanisa, a local version of the sausage), tocilog (tocino, sweet cured meat), etc. In fact, local eateries may serve a wide range of silogs for breakfast and even lunch.

I mentioned in another post about counterpoint, the pairing of two tastes resulting to something surprisingly pleasant. In these fried rice meals, there is another element that provides the counterpoint: the atsara.

Atsara or acharra is a pickled condiment made of shredded green papaya with carrots, red bell peppers, onions, garlic, ginger, and raisins soaked in sweet-sour vinegar blend. The bell pepper is used to tone down the sweetness in the mixture. This goes well with the meat portion of the fried meal.


A cup of coffee goes well with pan de sal. Kapeng Barako is a coffee variety of the Liberica species. It is found in Batangas and Cavite provinces in Southern Luzon and in the mountain provinces in the north like Benguet. It is not a common coffee variety as compared with Arabica, Robusta, or Excelsa. Although it is abundant in the Philippines and in other Southeast Asian countries.

The term “barako” refers to the wild boar who are fond of chewing on the plant’s leaves and berries. It has a strong taste, flavor, and a distinct pungent aroma. Some claim that Barako tastes superior to Robusta. Most Filipino coffee drinkers prefer Barako over Arabica. Today, Barako-Arabica and Barako-Excelsa blends are becoming popular in local coffee shops.

Also recently, the government is revitalizing the coffee industry here in the Philippines.

Hot Chocolate

Our local version of the hot chocolate is what we call tsokolate. This is the Filipino spelling of chocolate, and it is pronounced as spelled since the earlier Filipino alphabet hadn’t adopted yet the ch into the language. It is made from cocoa powder in tablet form called tablea. It is dissolved in boiling water and mixed with milk and sugar until reaching the desired consistency.

In Jose Rizal’s novel Noli Me Tangere, there is a chapter where hot chocolate is being differentiated. For the elite, they were served “tsokolate e” or thick hot chocolate drink. The “e” stands for espeso, a Spanish word for thick. The poor are served “tsokolate a” which means aguada, a Spanish term for watery.

Final Thoughts

Filipino breakfast meals are usually hearty. Nowadays, I don’t see anyone eating breakfast twice. But I won’t be surprised if I see one. Come to think of it, digestion in humans takes 2 hours. So it’s but normal to eat. No wonder, after breakfast Filipinos will crave for a snack at around 9:30 to 10:00 am.

How about you, what’s your usual breakfast treat?