For centuries, spices have influenced how the world cooks and enjoys food. And the exchange of spices through different paths of trade, from Arab to European expeditions, is an integral part of the world's culinary history, bridging countries across the seas through vibrant flavors.
Spices hold a world of flavors, from mildly bitter to pepper, while others can be pungent or aromatic. And spices enhance the flavor of other ingredients, used in practically all dishes---from sauces to soups and vegetable to meat dishes. Some spices, like cardamom or turmeric, can also be added to drinks to make them more flavorful. Spices can be both the foundation or base of a recipe, used in marinating or seasoning while cooking or they can also be the finishing, flavorful touch to a dish. And aside from tickling our taste buds, spices contain exceptional minerals, vitamins, phyto-nutrients, and anti-oxidants.
When we think of cuisine that have largely been defined by spices, Indian, Indonesian, or Mexican food are probably the first ones that come to mind. But each cuisine has its own array of spices, which have profoundly influenced each nation's culinary identity. And the Philippines is no exception.
Like its Asian neighbors, the spices in Filipino cuisine make it more exciting; blandness is not an option. Some say Filipino cuisine is too salty, sour, or sometimes excessively sweet, but what's for sure is that no matter the preference of your palate, Filipino cuisine is never boring.
Though seasoning and marinating in soy sauce and vinegar is one of the most common first steps in flavoring Filipino dishes, spices have also played a role in making Filipino cuisine what it is now.
The distinct flavor of Filipino cuisine owes a lot to everyday spices we have come to know and love. They may seem ordinary, but they have made a profound difference in how we cook and enjoy food.
Here are some of the most popular spices that have defined the Filipino palate.
The Most Popular Spices in Filipino Cuisine
Dahon ng Laurel (Bay Laurel Leaf)
Adobo, the Philippines' national dish, is a braised pork or chicken dish made with a marinade of vinegar, soy sauce, pepper corns, and dried bay leaves.
Though dried bay leaves are often associated with adobo, these can also be used in other popular Filipino chicken and beef stews like menudo or mechado. The strong and pungent taste of dried bay leaves gives depth and fragrance to any dish. Though some remove it before serving, there are those who leave it as a sort of garnish on dishes.
Native Philippine garlic often has smaller bulbs, but packs a strong flavor and aroma. The wide use of garlic echoes how the Spanish influenced Filipino cooking methods, particularly sautéing garlic and onions. Garlic is also often stir-fried into day-old rice to make sinangag (garlic fried rice).
Beloved for its flavor and aroma, ginger is often used to flavor Filipino soups and stews like chicken tinola, arroz caldo. Ginger provides a pleasant sharp acidity that balances out the richness of meat dishes. Turmeric, which is also known as luyang dilaw in the Philippines, can also be used.
image: Ernesto Andrade (flickr)
In Filipino cooking, the aroma of pandan is often associated with cooking white rice. Not only does it add a mouthwatering fragrance, pandan boosts the fresh flavor of rice. Because of its pleasing flavor and aroma, this spice is also often used in rice cakes, like steamed puto and glutinous bibingka.
Fragrant and flavorful, lemongrass leaves and stalks are most commonly added to tea and dipping sauces in Asian cuisine.
In Filipino cooking, lemongrass or tanglad is added to boost the flavors of chicken stews like Tinola, along with sayote (chayote), malunggay (moringa leaves), and luya (ginger).
Sampalok or tamarind is a spice with pleasantly contrasting sweet and sour notes. In Filipino cooking, sampalok typically used as a souring agent for the popular meat and vegetable stew, Sinigang, which is often made with chicken, salmon, or pork.
Once ripened, sampalok is also often candied and turned into a popular Filipino snack, that's coated with salt, sugar or even a combination of both.
Sili (Chilli pepper)
The Filipino chilli pepper (siling labuyo) we know and love today first found its way to the Philippines after the Columbian exchange, or Christopher Columbus's 1492 voyage, which precipitated the widespread transfer of crops, livestock, technology, and culture, in general, from Europe to the Americas, Africa, and Asia.
Also known as "wild chilli" or Philippine Bird's Eye Chilli, siling labuyo is often simmered in coconut milk, a trick imparted by the Malaysians, to balance out the spiciness of dishes like Bicol express and Ginataan.
Chilli can also be combined with garlic to create a tasty dipping sauce, with a spicy kick. This echoes the lasting influence of the Chinese on Filipino cuisine.
Gerome Panlilio, one of Germano Chilli Garlic Oil's founders, recounts how when they were just starting out, a large number of Chinese restaurants who served chilli garlic as a condiment inspired him to see the potential of further growing the business.
He admits it wasn't easy, but through the help of government agencies and being hands-on during every step of the process, he was able to grow the business.
"I never thought the product my brother started cooking in our kitchen using our mom's pots and pans would be praised by people halfway around the globe," marvels Gerome. "We are far from being a success, we are still a micro enterprise at its purest form operating in our backyard, but we’ve come along way."
Today, Gerome continues to strive to make their product "a staple in family kitchens and meal tables globally."
And they are well on their way.
Germano's gourmet delicacy makes use of chilli combined with fresh garlics, and spices roasted in olive oil. It can spice up anything, from steaks, dim sum, soup, salad, and bread. It packs a flavorful punch that's bursting with flavor and a pleasantly strong spicy kick.
This product can be used both as a condiment and for cooking. As its founder Gerome describes it, "Germano's Chilli Garlic Sauce is a serious cook’s best kitchen companion and a food lover’s best friend."