A Study in Adobo

The origins of traditional Philippine adobo are up in the air, but adobo as it's made today is threaded with bifurcations: cooking method and archetypal recipe; everyday fare and cultural emblem; meanings in the homeland and in the diaspora.

A Study in Adobo

The origins of traditional Philippine adobo are up in the air, but adobo as it's made today is threaded with bifurcations: cooking method and archetypal recipe; everyday fare and cultural emblem; meanings in the homeland and in the diaspora.

by Tracey Paska

Part I
Soling’s Adobo

The roosters have barely stopped crowing the dawn. Still, local kusinera Solidad ‘Soling’ Narsoles is already busy preparing to make a customer’s order for her specialty dish—adobong manok sa gatâ at luyang dilaw. Unlike the globally familiar vinegar- and soy sauce-based classic, this southwestern Tagalog version of chicken adobo cooked in fresh coconut milk and turmeric is bright and saucy instead of richly glazed in a dark caramel-brown reduction, and understatedly flavorsome rather than boldly salty and tangy. It’s a culinary point of pride in Marinduque province, and in the town of Mogpog, no one makes it better than Soling.

She used to cook out of a tidy little bamboo cookhouse on the edge of town, using clay stoves called kalan de uling fueled with coconut shell charcoal and firewood until it was leveled by a typhoon a few months earlier. So, for now, she has improvised a kitchen in the front yard of a rented house. In truth, Soling cooks anywhere she can set a pot or pan over an open fire, following the age-old principles of rural cookery: use what is grown, caught, raised, or made in your environment; keep it fresh and simple; and leave little to waste. To watch her make adobong manok sa gatâ at luyang dilaw is to see these tenets in practice.

The actual cooking of the adobo won’t take long; it’s the preparation that requires an early morning start. Soling first arranges her ingredients on a small table by the front stoop: baggies of rock salt and crushed black peppercorns; a clutch of local red bell peppers, several lobes of fresh turmeric and some garlic bulbs; half a dozen mature coconuts; a small bottle of cane vinegar; and one very sharp knife. Local sticklers might wonder at the lack of green papaya typical of this Marinduque-style adobo, but it adds little flavor to the dish and isn’t missed in her recipe. The absence of soy sauce, on the other hand, may dismay purists well beyond the province who believe that the condiment is non-negotiable in any dish that calls itself adobo.

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