‘Love, peace and adobo grease’

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Touch the image to identify the essential ingredients for making adobo.

Text and photos by MARITES N. SISON

When I was growing up, I never really gave much thought to the chicken adobo that my mother cooked. A stew or simmer—with garlic, vinegar, soy sauce, freshly crushed peppercorns, coarse salt and bay leaves as base ingredients—adobo, to my young mind, was ordinary fare. I liked eating it, but it was nothing special because you could make it in a pinch. It was a reliable standby for a harried housewife, like my mother—though a great cook, sometimes she didn’t want to fuss over a meal. The ingredients for adobo are pantry basics; apart from the meat (or as I later discovered, vegetables), making adobo is relatively inexpensive.

Most Filipino dishes can be labour-intensive, but adobo—done the traditional way—is simple. You can mix all the ingredients and leave it unattended and covered to cook over a slow fire. Once your chores are done, you’ll have a good meal.

I became fascinated with adobo when I turned 14. My father had died, and during his wake someone other than my mother prepared our meals. We had chicken adobo, but lo and behold, this time it was different, unlike the dark-sauced adobo that my mother usually prepared. This adobo dish had a fascinating amber colour, and the sauce had strips of ginger root.

I was quite a foodie, even at a young age, and so I didn’t hesitate. I dug in…and in, and in. It was delicious! For some unfathomable reason, it gave me a great deal of comfort during that sad and confusing time. Not wanting to appear like a callous daughter, I didn’t ask my mother why that dish was also called adobo. Still, I wondered: why wasn’t it dark? My interest had definitely been piqued.

Later, I found it’s possible to cook adobo without soy sauce (coarse rock salt is supposed to do the trick, and this version is called adobong puti, or white adobo), and that it was yellow ginger that gave the unforgettable adobo that I had tasted its distinctive amber tinge. To this day, I still remember the piquant taste of that adobo. Sadly, I have never been able to duplicate it or known anyone who could.

As I got older and more exposed to other people’s cooking and cuisine, I realized that there are countless ways of cooking adobo and that, in fact, adobo is a dish full of personal, familial and national meaning.

Adobo is often called the national dish of the Philippines, although some food historians have contested this claim; others also insist adobo is not a dish, but a way of cooking—a view that hasn’t really struck a chord with many Filipinos. The late Filipino academic and venerated food historian Doreen Fernandez has argued that sinigang (sour soup with meat or fish and vegetables) should be the Philippine national dish, since it is “the most representative of Filipino taste.” Sinigang is a soup dish that can include either pork, beef, fish, prawns and any local vegetable; it is boiled with tamarind, green mango, guava, tomatoes or kamias (belimbing besu, to Indonesians), resulting in a sour broth. Others add a long green chile to give the dish some spice.

And yet, the idea of adobo as food that is authentically Filipino persists, largely because in recent history, millions of Filipinos in diaspora have embraced it as part of their identity.

Cooking adobo overseas may have initially begun as pure nostalgia—a mere pining for a piece and smell of home. But adobo slowly evolved into a cultural marker, particular in North America, home to the largest concentration of transplanted Filipinos.

Young Filipino-Americans have taken to wearing “Love, peace and adobo grease” and “Got adobo?” T-shirts to show off their Filipino pride. “Peace and adobo grease” has even made its way to a song, Fire for the People, by Blue Scholars, a hip hop duo based in Seattle. Its vocalist, Geologic (born George Quibuyen), is the son of Filipino immigrants.

Writers have been inspired to write poetry about this humble dish with a kick. In her captivatingly delicious poem “The Power of Adobo,” Lenny Mendoza-Strobel, an eminent Filipina-American scholar, writes:

…Keep the lid off and let the flavors
Engulf the house to its rafters
Better yet open the doors
And windows, let your
Nosy neighbors envy you
of the delights
Of adobo

That nurtures your roots
Keeps them moist and
Always on the verge of new
Creations in the land
Where you smuggled
Grandma’s recipe
Like a charm, anting-anting
To ward off the evil motives

Of hungry ghosts who
Would deny you and curse you
Because they don’t have
Grandmothers and mothers
With long memories

Adobo has now gone totally mainstream. Google has 1.28 million entries for Filipino adobo. A number of Filipino bloggers attach adobo to their blog name as a means of signifying their origins. Adobo fans are also on Facebook. On YouTube, there are video clips that offer step-by-step instructions on how to cook “the Filipino adobo,” clearly distinguishing it from other adobos. What is interesting is that some recipes are offered by non-Filipinos. A popular Filipino-American lifestyle magazine show on The Filipino Channel is called Adobo Nation. Even Martha Stewart has joined the bandwagon—her website has a recipe for chicken adobo, courtesy of Romy Dorotan, chef and owner of the now shuttered Cendrillon, a Filipino Pan-Asian restaurant previously located in New York City’s Soho district (he has since opened Purple Yam Restaurant in Brooklyn).

Adobo has also had a renaissance in the Philippines. There is a restaurant chain called Adobo Republic. There is a magazine called Adobo, published in Manila. There are numerous cookbooks solely dedicated to the dish, including The Little Adobo Book by Filipino chef and restaurateur Gene Gonzalez, and The Adobo Book: Traditional and Jazzed-Up Recipes, by Reynaldo Gamboa Alejandro and Nancy Reyes Lumen. Published in 2004, The Adobo Book is a collection of essays on adobo. The authors note, “Outside the home-cooked dish, the essence of adobo has been developed commercially and adapted to other foods. A number of successful local Philippine snack products mark their items “adobo-flavored.” This assortment includes, but is not limited to, nuts, chips, noodle soups and corn crackers.

Never mind that the exact origins of the Filipino adobo remain unclear or, for that matter, whether it is something that Filipinos can truly claim as their own. Conventional wisdom has it that the Filipino adobo was influenced by the tasty Spanish adobado, which uses pork loin cured for several weeks in olive oil, vinegar and spices such as garlic, cumin and oregano, and is simmered for hours.

That Latin American countries also have their adobo—prepared mainly with pork, tomatoes, vinegar and spices such as garlic and red pepper—has served only to bolster this claim.

Still, what to make of the fact that the Filipino adobo has soy sauce (or toyo, as it is called by Filipinos), which was introduced by the Chinese who had traded and interacted with Filipinos many centuries before the arrival of Spaniards?

Filipino historian Ambeth Ocampo insists that the dish is indigenous to the Philippines. The term adobo “was used by the Spaniards to describe the food they encountered on the (Philippine) islands,” he says. What did Filipinos call adobo before the Spaniards arrived in the 1500s? “That is lost to history,” he notes in a column for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Looking Back: ‘Adobo’ in many forms.

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