Filipino cuisine is complex. The 7,600 islands comprising modern-day Philippines are home to numerous different indigenous groups. The archipelago has also served as a crossroads for trade routes and migration for centuries. And so, all who have lived in or passed through the islands have shaped what Filipino food looks like today: a mix of indigenous, Chinese, Malay, Spanish, American, and Arab flavors.
This is what makes it hard to succinctly describe Filipino food; yet there are some tastes that seem to continually surface. Sour, or maasim in Tagalog, is one of the flavors you’ll find in many dishes, from sinigang to adobo. Funk, as some call it, is the combination of umami and pungent ferments (like shrimp paste and fish sauce) that serve as accents to some dishes. And since the Philippines is in the tropics, there is plenty of coconut, yielding dishes cooked in coconut milk and desserts enrobed in grated coconut.
The Fast Five: Filipino Pantry Staples
If you are just starting to build your Filipino pantry, these are the Top 5 must have ingredients:
- Patis (fish sauce) - Looking for an umami salt bomb? This is it! Funky straight out of the bottle but mellows out with cooking.
- Toyo (soy sauce) - A staple condiment, sauce, and ingredient in cooking Filipino and most Asian dishes. Fermented soybeans equal loads of umami.
- Pancit (noodles) - Rice flour, wheat flour or bean thread, noodles are a quintessential part of the Filipino menu signifying long life.
- Calamansi - A citrus fruit resembling a kumquat with a taste of lime and tangerine. A Filipino version of lemon-lime.
- Rice - A key component to any Filipino meal found at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert.
Read on for a list of some of the most commonly used ingredients in Filipino cuisine, and where to find them.
Baking Supplies/Dry Mixes
- Sweet Rice Flour: Glutinous rice flour, sometimes called “mochiko flour” in Japanese markets, is made from finely-ground rice. Slightly sweet and grittier in texture than wheat flour, this is used to make desserts like carioca (a fried rice ball coated in caramelized sugar), sapin-sapin (a layered rice cake), and certain variations of bibingka.
- Grated Cassava: Used extensively across the tropics, cassava (sometimes also known as yuca in Spanish-speaking countries) was brought over from Latin America by Spanish galleons in the 16th century. This hearty tuber is the main ingredient in cassava cake, a variant of bibingka sometimes called bibingkang kamoteng kahoy. You can find grated cassava in the frozen sections of most Latin and Asian grocery stores.
- Mature coconut: Called niyog in the Philippines, this is the mature coconut meat that is shredded, flaked, or grated and dried. Grated coconut is used for topping desserts like steamed rice cakes called kutsinta. Shredded coconut is used as a filling for pan de coco—there are a myriad of uses for it. You can easily find shredded or flaked coconut at any typical grocery store; finely grated coconut will likely be available in the frozen section of an Asian market.
- Achuete: Also known as achiote or anatto, these tiny red seeds add mild flavor and some color to dishes, like pancit. To use these seeds, extract the flavor and color by frying them gently in a generous amount of oil to make “achuete oil,” which can be used as needed.
- Coconut vinegar: A touch sweeter and less acidic than apple cider vinegar. You'll find either cane or coconut vinegar in most homes since sugar cane and coconut are two of the top 5 most produced crops in the Philippines.
- Cane vinegar: Made from sugarcane, this type of vinegar is slightly sweeter than the white vinegar that comes from the west. This is typically available at most Asian supermarkets, but if you can’t find it, you can substitute it with other vinegars that have a touch of sweetness, like apple cider or rice wine vinegar.
Sauces and Condiments
- Bagoong: This is a dark, salty paste made from different kinds of fermented seafood (anchovies, krill, or other small fish). These pastes can vary from region to region. Some are ready to eat out of the jar, and some need to be cooked. It is often served as a side condiment to dishes like kare kare or as a dipping sauce for unripe green mango.
- Fish sauce: Known as patis in the Philippines, this clear brown liquid is a by-product of the bagoong fermentation process and adds a little bit of umami/funk with every drop. It is used as a seasoning for many dishes, or as a dipping sauce. Nowadays, you can typically find fish sauce at most major supermarkets as it is used in many other Asian cuisines, not just Filipino.
- Soy sauce: Called toyo in Tagalog, soy sauce was brought over to the Philippines by Chinese traders. Like many other Asian countries, soy sauce is an often-used ingredient to add salt to a dish. It is one of the main ingredients in adobo, the Philippine national dish. You’ll be able to find this at just about any supermarket, and you can opt for tamari if you need a gluten-free option.
- Tamarind: Growing up, I never really saw whole tamarind (called sampalok) as part of my mom’s pantry—like many Fil-Am households, we’d use a powdered seasoning mix. Tamarind is an ingredient that gives a sour component to soups like sinigang. When whole tamarind is ripe, it can be eaten like candy. Find the powder seasoning at any Asian market, and find whole tamarind at Asian, Latin, or Middle Eastern markets.
Dried Grains, Noodles, Wrappers
- Rice: Rice is a major staple in Filipino cuisine—it is served alongside just about every dish, from stews to pan-fried sausages, and as an accompaniment to soup. Jasmine rice is the most popular type of rice served at mealtime. Sweet sticky rice is also a major ingredient, used in desserts like suman and biko. Both types of rice should be easily available at an Asian market or grocery stores with a well-stocked international foods aisle.
- Noodles: Pansit or pancit is the word to describe a variety of noodle dishes made across the country. There are several varieties of noodles used to make this dish, from bihon (rice sticks), sotanghon (mung bean threads), to canton (similar to chow mein). These types of noodles aren’t commonly found outside of Asian markets.
- Lumpia wrappers: Commonly made from wheat flour, water, salt, and oil, lumpia wrappers are similar to egg roll skins, minus the egg. These thin, crepe-like sheets are wrapped around a filling (typically a pork-vegetable mixture or a piece of banana) then deep fried and served as snacks. They can also be used for lumpiang sariwa (aka “fresh lumpia”), where the wrapper is filled but but not fried. You’ll be able to find these at most Asian supermarkets, and sometimes at regular grocery stores in areas with a large Asian community.
- Spam: Introduced to the Philippines by American GIs during WWII, it was a sought after treat that quickly became a pantry staple. Someone in the family always knew a guy that worked on a US military base. Filipinos took Spam and made it a breakfast favorite, Spamsilog, of Spam, garlic fried rice and eggs.
- Coconut milk: Aside from using both young and mature coconut meat, coconut milk (gata in Tagalog) is also an important ingredient for many dishes. Its gentle sweetness and viscous texture add richness and a tropical element to dishes like Bicol Express—a gingery pork dish accented with chilis. Foods cooked in coconut milk have a sauce referred to as ginataan, and they can be savory or sweet. You can easily find coconut milk in the aisles of most major supermarkets, and definitely at your local Asian grocer.
Meat and Seafood
- Dried/Smoked fish: The Philippines is an archipelago so naturally there's seafood everywhere. Fish can be prepared fresh, fermented, salted and cured or smoked. Called tuyo or tinapa.
- Pork: Pork in all forms is a major ingredient in Filipino food, from fatty pork belly to ground pork, and everything in between. Most notably, a whole pig is used when making lechon, a spit-roasted pig seen at many celebrations and gatherings in the Filipino diaspora. You’ll be able to find suitable cuts of pork for general cooking at any major grocery store; whole pigs will typically require a special order through your local butcher.
- Dried shrimp: Tiny dried shrimp are called hibi/hibe in Filipino, and are used mainly as flavoring. They are added to dishes where vegetables are the main components, like monggo (mung bean stew) or ginataang kalabasa (coconut and pumpkin stew). You can find prepackaged dried shrimp at an Asian market or in most Chinatowns where dried shrimp are sold by weight.
- Calamansi: This tiny citrus fruit is green on the outside and yellow-orange on the inside. It is said to be a cross between a kumquat and a mandarin orange, giving it both tartness and sweetness. It is used as an accent to stir-fried pancit noodles, as flavorings in desserts, and to make calamansi juice, similar to lemonade or limeade. Calamansi is difficult to find fresh in a grocery store, but you may be able to find it bottled or frozen at an Asian market.
- Asian Leafy Greens: Taro leaves, bok choy, moringa (malunggay) leaves, and water spinach (kangkong) are types of leafy greens that are found in Asia and used often in Filipino cooking, mostly in soups or stews. You should be able to find them fresh in many Asian markets, though taro leaves will often come dried.
- Bitter melon: Bitter gourd, also known as ampalaya in Tagalog, is a common ingredient in Asian cooking and is used in certain Filipino dishes. Because of its bitter character, it can be off-putting to western palates the first few times you have it. You will typically see bitter melon at Asian markets, and at some well-stocked health food stores.
- Ube: This yam has gotten a lot of attention lately, thanks to its unmistakable bright purple hue—but it is not the same thing as an Okinawan purple sweet potato. It is used primarily in desserts, like ube halaya, a sweet spread made from mashed ube, butter, and condensed milk. You won’t find fresh ube in the U.S., but rather it is available frozen (usually grated or powdered) in Asian supermarkets.