Filipino Cooking 101: Key Flavours And Ingredients

Filipino flavours—sweet, salty, sour—come together to create succulent and ridiculously delicious meals based on a few key ingredients.

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Overhead shot of a bowl filled with okra and tomato salad on a green leafy background

Photo, Ashley Capp. Food styling, Ashley Denton. Prop styling, Rayna Marlee Schwartz.

An incredibly rich culinary history runs throughout the 7,600-some islands that make up the Philippine archipelago. Filipino cooking is the original fusion cuisine, with its mix of influences from Chinese, Malay and Spanish cooking. One key trademark is its heady combination of sweet (tamis), sour (asim) and salty (alat).

A kamayan is a communal-style Filipino buffet, featuring seafood, grilled meats, vegetables and garlic rice served on fresh (or frozen and thawed) banana leaves. Traditionally, no plates or utensils are used as part of a kamayan—in Tagalog, the word kamayan means “by hand.” Simply scoop up some rice, press it into your palm, add some meat and veggies, and pop it into your mouth. Get our kamayan menu with full recipes now.

Here, some key ingredients found in Filipino cooking:

Garlic

Filipinos love their garlic. In the 1500s, Spanish colonizers brought over chilies and tomatoes, and the method of sautéeing them with onion and garlic. These days, garlic is a main ingredient in most recipes.

Calamansi

This is a citrus hybrid of the mandarin orange and kumquat. Grown in Southeast Asia (mostly in the Philippines and Malaysia), it’s widely available here as an indoor potted plant. You can substitute its unique taste with lime juice.

Cane vinegar

This ingredient is made from fermented cane juice. (Sugar cane is a major export for the Philippines.) Its light, sweet taste is similar to that of apple-cider vinegar.

Annatto

It is the red seed of the achiote tree, which produces a bright yellow to deep orange dye that figures strongly in Filipino cuisine. Its peppery, earthy flavour is similar to paprika.

Evaporated milk

This canned milk is used in many creamy Filipino desserts. Milk is heated until 60 percent of its water content “evaporates” so it becomes a concentrate that has a longer shelf life. While it is unsweetened, the heating results in a light caramelized flavour and colour.