Last year, a government agency in Manila provoked what the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper later described as an “adobo war”.
The ruckus started when the Department of Trade and Industry announced that it wants to standardize the recipe for adobo.
Adobo is one of the best loved dishes among Filipinos anywhere in the world.
It’s typically pork or chicken stewed in vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, and peppercorns.
Critics heaped scorn on the standardization plan, and called on the government to leave their adobo alone.
The backlash prompted the agency a couple of days later on July 11, 2021 to say in a statement that it is not looking to impose a mandatory standard, but only for purposes of “promotion abroad”.
That’s “because there are thousands or millions of different ‘lutong adobo’ [adobo dishes]”.
“To many Filipinos,” the agency acknowledged, “the best adobo is the one ‘cooked at home’ or ‘cooked by their parents or lola [grandmother]’.”
Although adobo is often referred to as the unofficial national dish in the Philippines, it is done differently in practically every household.
As well, even people in the same family could have different versions or preferences of how the dish is prepared.
One example is the household of Helen Orimaco-Pumatong, a chef instructor at the Vancouver Community College (VCC).
She related with amusement that she and her husband don’t agree on what is a good adobo.
“Me and my husband don’t have adobo the same way,” Orimaco-Pumatong told the Straight in a phone interview.
Her spouse likes one that’s cooked long until it starts to fry in its own oil.
“I like it in a syrup that’s kind of sweet,” Orimaco-Pumatong said.
She also prefers her adobo with sauted or caramelized red onions.
Husband and wife met in the Philippines when she was already a chef in Canada.
They have two kids, both boys, one 14 years old, and the other is seven.
The VCC instructor was only six years old when her family immigrated to Canada from the Philippines during the 1970s.
Orimaco-Pumatong learned to cook Filipino dishes from her mother, who was a home economics teacher in their native country.
“We would always have people over at our house, like 20, 30, 40 people in a tight house,” she recalled the family’s early days in Canada.
“And we celebrated every birthday, every holiday, and so my mom would always be cooking.”
Orimaco-Pumatong went to Sir Sandford Fleming Elementary School, and David Thompson Secondary School, both in Vancouver.
In high school, she took a lot of food courses.
“It was just something that interested me or maybe it was because I was in it already, cooking for the family,” Orimaco-Pumatong said.
She later started working as a cook and dietician at hotels as well as hospitals and health facilities operated by Providence Health Care.
Meanwhile, Orimaco-Pumatong also entered VCC’s culinary program, eventually earning her credentials, including a Red Seal.
“I do a lot of things all at once,” she related about working and going to school at the same time.
She recalled that she started teaching at VCC in 2001.
Orimaco-Pumatong has been in the kitchen for a long time that she’s comfortable preparing most dishes, no matter which culinary tradition these come from.
“My thing is it’s about cooking techniques,” she said.
Along this line, the Straight asked her about one classic French dish and a near equivalent in Filipino cuisine, which she can whip out anytime.
Orimaco-Pumatong replied by way of noting that she sometimes gets, as part of her private catering business, requests for beef kaldereta.
That’s a Filipino dish of beef stewed with tomato sauce, potatoes, carrots, and bell peppers.
She noted that beef kaldereta follows the same cooking method as beef bourguignon, a French stew that uses red wine for braising.
“It’s the technique of stewing, so it doesn’t matter what culture it is,” Orimaco-Pumatong said.
“It’s actually like a curry too. So it’s the same process.”
Orimaco-Pumatong went on to note that what makes beef kaldereta distinct from beef bourguignon is that Filipinos add liver paste, which is essentially pate in French, giving the dish a “very earthy flavour”.
And then for special occasions, Filipinos put olives, bringing in a “Western style or Western flair to it”.
Now with adobo, Orimaco-Pumatong noted that a lot of non-Filipinos have become familiar with the dish.
“My Chinese friends or colleagues, the first thing they’ll say is adobo, because everybody [Filipinos] cooks it at home,” she said.
Her family hails from Tagbilaran City in Bohol, a province in the central Philippine region known as Visayas.
Among people from the Visayas, their adobo version is called humba, which features the addition of sliced pineapples and dried banana blossoms.
Orimaco-Pumatong believes that although adobo is prepared in different ways, the dish always presents itself as a “balance” of savoury, tartness and sweetness, which makes it appealing.
Orimaco-Pumatong has her own personal recipe for adobo, and this one uses pork belly.
Pork belly adobo
Yield: 5-6 portions
½ kg meat (pork belly), cut into 1 inch cubes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 oz soy sauce
2 oz white vinegar
1 oz water
3 pcs garlic cloves, crushed
1 red onion, thinly sliced
3 bay leaves
1 star anise
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons brown sugar
Heat up medium pot and add olive oil. Slightly heat oil.
In batches, sear the pork belly cubes on all sides. Remove from pot and place on a plate and continue to sear the rest of the pork belly.
Pour out excess oil. Saute the red onions, garlic and bay leaves in the same pot. Cook for about 2 minutes.
Add the seared pork belly and the rest of the ingredients into the pot. Bring to a quick boil (medium high heat) and then lower the temperature to a simmer (low heat).
Continue to cook for about 40-60 minutes until pork belly is tender (test with fork to see if it goes in and comes out easily).
If you like it fried, you can continue to cook until the oils comes out and fry in its own fat.
Serve with rice.