Food

Why Filipino food is finally having a moment in the UK

Posted by
Joanna Fuertes-Knight
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With its nose-to-tail stews, adventurous street food and lavish desserts, Filipino food is at last getting the recognition it deserves in the UK. 

I never thought I’d be the kind of person who queues for an hour for fried chicken. But then I never thought the Filipino fast food chain Jollibee would arrive in the UK.

The London launch, soon to be followed by branches in Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester, lured thousands of homesick Filipinos into waiting in the rain for the addictive fried chicken. It is, however, their sugary spaghetti that the true connoisseurs go for. The late chef Anthony Bourdain, a devoted Pinoy (Filipino) food fan, once called the treat “deranged yet strangely alluring” – a sentiment which can be applied to a lot of dishes from the Philippines.

I grew up on the sweet, salty and sour flavours of Pinoy food thanks to my Filipino mother, and I’m delighted that it’s finally having a moment in the UK after long being the underdog of Asian cooking. There are several new places to eat in London, Birmingham’s Manila Munchies and Manchester’s supper club queen Mama Z. And it’s not just fast food making its mark.

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Indigenous dishes shaped by a fraught history of US, Spanish and Japanese colonisation, as well as South Pacific influences, have made for a unique cuisine that spans variations across more than 7,000 islands. It’s perhaps the misunderstanding that Filipinos have a confused identity that has steered more people towards Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. 

But to overlook the Philippines is to miss out on the most fun and flavourful food in southeast Asia. Here’s what you need to try…

Adobo

The unofficial national dish, everyone’s mum’s adobo is the best and everyone has their own way of doing it – including the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle. On her now-defunct lifestyle website The Tig, she said: “I can whip up a big pot of chicken adobo like it’s nobody’s business.”

Adobo is usually chicken or pork belly braised in soy sauce and vinegar, but Mama Z has taken on the notoriously meat-heavy diet with her mushroom adobo and other vegan remixes. Any adobo served with fluffy rice manages to be simple yet indulgent – like pulling a warm duvet over yourself on a winter evening. 

Kinilaw

Similar to ceviche, tangy kinilaw comprises raw seafood cooked in coconut vinegar, with some versions calling for live shrimp to ensure freshness. It’s lent its name to east London’s Kinilaw & Buko, whose menu features plenty of seafood dishes prepared in line with their vow to help keep the oceans clean. The restaurant even offers recycled polished coconut shells instead of doggy bags. 

Kalamansi

Not so much a dish as a much-loved native ingredient, this dinky, lime-like fruit is just the right side of tart and is used throughout Filipino cooking.

A welcome addition to any aspiring chef’s rotation, much-lauded London supper club Luto has road-tested everything from kalamansi teacake to kalamansi and kaffir cocktails. 

Lechon

Pork rules in Filipino cooking and no part of the pig goes to waste. Whether it’s sisig with chopped cheek or dinuguan blood stew, swine is king. But no fiesta is complete without lechon – a spit-roasted, whole suckling pig.

The aptly named central London restaurant Sarap, which translates as ‘tasty’ in Tagalog, the language of the Philippines, does an insanely good lechon for pork fans to sample. 

Kamayan

Kamayan (meaning ‘to eat by hand’), an array of grilled meats and seafood laid out on a bed of rice and banana leaves, is a traditional dish that began to fall out of favour when the Philippines were under colonial rule. During the US occupation, a kamayan evolved into an eating contest between hungry soldiers, bizarrely nicknamed a ‘boodle fight’.

However, recent renewed interest in indigenous eating has brought kamayan back into the spotlight – minus the fear of someone snatching a prawn from your mouth. Family-run Lutong Pinoy in west London is just one of the restaurants bringing the communal feasting tradition back to life. 

Pinoy breakfast

If you’re the kind of person who can make it through the morning on coffee and adrenaline alone, this isn’t for you. The rest of us will be breakfasting Filipino-style, be it with lightly seasoned bangus (milkfish) or the sweet and spicy longganisa sausage.

Manila Kitchen, at Bang Bang Oriental Foodhall in Colindale, serves these perfectly, as well as other updated classics in hefty portions. 

Balut

This is the Philippines’ most infamous street food thanks to its reputation as the world’s most terrifying delicacy – if you’re squeamish, skip the next sentence. Balut is a developed duck embryo, eaten whole with a pinch of salt.

Yes, I’ve tried it. Yes, I closed my eyes. No, I wouldn’t eat it again.

For more user-friendly street food, like marinated pork liempo, head to Manila Munchies at Digbeth Dining Club in Birmingham. 

Halo halo

Ice cream parlour Mamasons, with branches in London’s Chinatown and Camden, offers flavours that are nothing short of alchemy.

The black buko (young coconut ice cream with activated charcoal) is a favourite, but if you only go to Mamasons for one thing it has to be the halo halo shake. A kind of sundae, it’s jackfruit, red beans, evaporated milk and crushed ice topped with purple ice cream made from ube, a native yam. 

Kare-kare

In keeping with much of Filipino cooking, kare-kare may require a leap of faith for anyone with an unitiated Western palate. The best kare-kare uses everything from oxtail to tripe to offal to pigs’ feet, all stewed in a luxuriously thick peanut sauce with veg like daikon, okra and bok choy.

It is a must-try for more adventurous home cooks – start with the recipe from The New Filipino Kitchen by Jacqueline Chio-Lauri. 

Spam

Hear me out. It wasn’t fermented shrimp paste that horrified my British school friends the most, it was Spam. Thanks to my mother’s ‘eat it or get out’ policy, they had to sample this canned gold regularly.

The luncheon meat is a hangover from US occupation, though I’d argue there’s now nothing more Filipino than Spam, rice and a fried egg eaten with a fork and a spoon. 

The New Filipino Kitchen by Jacqueline Chio-Lauri (£19.99, Agate) is out now

Main image: Jane Liebenstein       

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Joanna Fuertes-Knight

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