Fact A: My parents moved to Sharjah in the mid 70’s, so pretty much all my soggy diaper years, and the subsequent nerdy high school years after, were spent in this country.
Fact B: According to the 2009 Report on Economic & Social Dimensions in the UAE, there are over half a million Filipinos* working in the UAE
(*the recession may have lowered that figure a tad bit.)
Appalling Fact C: I had never…I repeat, N-E-V-E-R, tried Filipino food until…this past Sunday.
It’s shameful. It’s damning. It’s so horrific that I deserve to be stripped off of my food blogger badge and flung to the dogs (little hoity-toity poodles…because who wants to hang out with them anyway.)
But I’m not alone in this disgraceful state. I’m surrounded by friends and family who’ve actually never tried Filipino food, despite the city being flooded with potential places to try it at. In fact, let’s face it, you too (all my non-Filipino readers) may be one of Them.
The realization hit a couple of decades too late. But it hit nevertheless, and I got super lucky that fellow Filipina blogger, Didi, came to my rescue and offered to teach me a thing or two about Filipino food over lunch at Kabalen in Karama. That said, I think it’s going to take me WAY more than one lunch and a hasty google session later to really get to the puso of Filipino food.
The lunch was eye-opening. It totally annihilated certain preconceptions I had, or revealed traits of Filipino fare that I’d never have guessed. For instance…
Filipino food can be way more wholesome than I’d thought. Put differently, it goes beyond the fried chicken that we see our Filipino fellow-residents indulge in with gusto all across the city.
Now Didi did confirm that Filipinos love their fried chicken. In fact, Korean fried chicken is trending back in the Philippines even now as we speak. BUT, there’s a lot more to Filipino cuisine than hens thrown in a deep fryer. In fact, I don't even think fried chicken would be looked up to as traditional food by the old-school Filipina chef. I bet it was one of those edible aberrations introduced to the local fare by the Americans in their quest to KFCize the world. When in doubt, blame it on the Americans.
The complimentary bowl of clear egg drop soup that we started our meal out with was full of clear hearty broth (most likely chicken), egg, scallions, a storm of fresh pepper and a pungent mound of ginger up top. This was soup at its most heart-warming, soul-healing best, and exactly the kind of detox you’d need after a weeklong binge on…fried chicken.
~ Egg Drop Soup ~
None of the dishes that made it to our table during lunch were deep-fried. They weren't solely focused on big chunks of meat or pork, which is what I'd been expecting. There were a ton of hearty vegetables in the food, from leafy shoots of kankong that I’ll describe a little later to Chinese-influenced lumpia parcels sauced with a terribly addictive, sweetish peanutty gravy. While the translucent peanut gravy was probably not what the doctor ordered, the innards of the lumpia seemed healthier: minced meat, a giant leaf of iceberg lettuce, and a slew of julienned carrots and some puzzling cream-colored vegetable that our server labeled as sweet potato, but that Didi and I are suspecting could have been ubod, or heart of palm.
~ Lumpia Sariwa ~
Even dessert had its own surprising mix of healthful ingredients. Boiled kidney beans and chickpeas had planted themselves at the base of our bowl of halo halo, alongside sweetened nata de coco (colorful jelly-like cubes of fermented coconut water) and green Gulaman chunks of agar-agar jelly. While Kabalen’s version was quite basic, it’s not uncommon for jackfruit, ube (purple yam), sweet potato, bananas and even tapioca to be tossed in, making halo halo one of those sneaky ways of loading unsuspecting kiddies with their fruits and veggies disguised as dessert.
~ Halo Halo...or 'Mix Mix' ~
The high sugar content of the sweetened milk, shaved ice, and vanilla ice cream that topped this dessert – aptly named mix-mix in Tagalog because you’re meant to mix up the layers before you dip in – probably wouldn’t win halo halo a mention in a diabetic’s diet plan. But it is dessert after all, and on the brighter side, protein-rich beans in my dessert makes it a far wiser option than the buttercream cupcakes or stacks of macaroons that have colonized Dubai.
Not all Filipino food is smelly. Nope, I’m not going to mince my words. I know a bunch of us thought this too. Some of us because we’ve caught a whiff of tuyo (preserved fermented fish) that Filipinos adore with rice, some because we’ve heard about it being smelly from others who’ve caught that whiff, and some because we’ve read it in the recent press. For every plate of odorous tuyo or other exotic fermented Filipino specialty that sneaks its way into Dubai, I can assure you that there’s a not-smelly, and even pleasant-smelling plate of Filipino food that can make it to the table. Nothing at lunch left me smelling of sulphur – not the mild slivers of coconut-infused Beef Bicol Express nor even the more complex, fish-based saucey Pansit (noodles). Almost every culture has some form of nasty smelling food, including us Indians with our potent onion-based curries and even the delicate French with their stinky cheeses. At the end of the day, it boils down to a question of what you choose to order off of the menu.
Filipino food has prominent Spanish flavours. Pretty obvious if you look back to over 300 years of Spanish imperialism, but just something I never actively considered from a culinary standpoint. Words like adobo or empanadas or flan (though flan dates back to ancient Rome, even before it wobbled its way into Spain) were scattered across the menu, and made it to our table in two dishes:
Adobong Kankong, which presented itself as leafy shoots of swamp cabbage (kankong) and red onions, steeped in garlic, salt, vinegar and soy sauce (adobo). Leave off the soy sauce, throw in some paprika and oregano, and you’ve got traditional Spanish adobo.
~ Adobong Kankong ~
Now if you’re a saltysour fanatic like I am – one who’ll prey on her fingertips to get those last vinegary crumbs after she’s emptied a bag of Lays Salt & Vinegar – you’d love this. It’s got the sour tart flavors all pulverized into a thin runny sauce, but with the chips replaced with braised, slightly crunchy greens that somehow, make it okay to indulge in the adobo sodium pool that this dish is bathing in. I just tipped the plate over onto my rice – because why have plain steamed rice when you can have flavour-busting salty vinegary rice?
Another dish that the Spaniards provided a pivotal ingredient for was the Pansit Palabok: angelic vermicelli strands topped with calamari rings, hard boiled eggs, crunchy scallions and a gloopy orange-red sauce that’d been infused with smoked fish.
~ Pancit Palabok ~
The fiery colour of the sauce was brought on by the use of what Filipinos refer to achuete, also called achiote by the Spanish who had introduced annatto seed-based colouring to the South-East Asian region in the 17th century. The smoky essence from the use of fish in the sauce made it the dish with the most complex flavour profile on the table – deep, heavy, not really fishy…and a notch more interesting with an acidic squish of lemon juice on top. It’s the sort of sauce that’d make you sit there, taste, smack the sauce about your tongue, and ponder…and taste some more, and ponder some more. It's one of the more thought-provoking plates of vermicelli I've come across.
There’s obviously a big time Chinese influence on the food as well – lumpia, toyo (soy sauce), patis (fish sauce) for instance …but somehow, given the geographical proximity, even an ignoramus like myself would expect that to begin with.
~ Chinese-influenced Lumpia Sariwa ~
Filipino food is far more minimalistic than what I’d thought. You’d think that being in the same South-East Asian neighbourhood as India, Thailand, Malaysia, Korea, spice-laden parts of the Szechuan province in China, that Filipino food would be immersed in spices and complex curries. I think the smelly-food-scare tends to reinforce that thinking.
Didi’s take on Filipino food was that it’s usually not spicy or overly bold at all. The dishes I sampled at Kabalen were simple homestyle fare, with a few recurring flavours like salt, pepper, vinegar, ginger, coconut and spring onions. The egg drop soup pioneered our meal with clear-broth simplicity, and the Beef Bicol Express, while reminiscent of coconut-based Thai beef curry, was far lighter and milder than a typical Massaman or Panang curry would be. The Pansit was as complex as it got, and even in that case, the complexity was less because of multiple flavours trying to gain the limelight, and more because of the deep smokiness of the fish used in the sauce.
~ Egg Drop Soup ~
~ Beef Bicol Express ~
Filipino food has some surprisingly refreshing treats that are perfect for a scorching summer. Of course it would. The Philippines has a tropical climate, so hot and humid is something they’ve learned to cook around. The dough-encased lumpia and our halo halo finale scored high on my refreshing, S.O.S-it’s-summer scale. But what I really feel bad about missing out, summer after scorching summer in this city, was this ridiculously refreshing glass of cool milk, pandan-infused gulaman jelly and buco (tender strips of baby coconut flesh). I wasn’t shy about shoving my fork into the glass to scoop up every last piece of cool gulaman and buco, while simultaneously reeling under the extreme shock that this drink has never taken this city by storm and ousted whatever frivolous food fad the PR companies import into the city each year.
~ Buco Pandan Drink ~
The fact that I had any conceptions about a cuisine I’ve never tasted in my life sounds ludicrous. But I have an inkling that there are others out there in the city who may believe some of these things too, and in the extreme, have even completely written off Filipino food before sampling it. The simple moral of the story is that Filipino cuisine, like any other cuisine of the world, comprises a range of dishes, some of which are specific to certain regions/cities and others of which comprise mainstream Filipino cooking. You can’t generalize, you can’t over-simplify, and you definitely can’t base your judgments on the packed lunches your Filipino colleagues reheat at work. You’ve got to know what to order, and give each dish – which itself can be prepared in a range of different ways depending on where you are in the Philippines – its own verdict.
If my frighteningly eloquent discourse on Filipino food has piqued your curiosity, I’d recommend you check out these other helpful resources to arm yourself before you trek down to Karama for some adobo:
- Didi’s blog D for Delicious – this Filipina blogger knows her stuff even though she’s really modest about it. Leave her an inquisitive, even politically ignorant comment about Filipino food, and I’m sure she’ll humour you with a response.
- Nappytales, a talented Filipina chef who introduced me to the ube cupcakes that have put a shotgun to every other cupcake that’s met my palette in this city.
- Daisy Carrington’s review in 2008 of Kabalen – I read her review after writing my own, and wasn’t surprised to see that she dealt with the issue of reluctance to try Filipino food head-on in her article. Her description of the food possessing a certain sense of vibrancy is spot-on. That said, I’m somewhat miffed that she didn’t adore the lumpia sariwa as much as I did.
- Of course, Wikipedia...what would I do without you? [It’s disgraceful how much I rely on the Internet for research. One of these days I’m going to botch up so badly on my facts that I’ll offend a wise reader who will shut the browser in disgust and never return.]
- The travelling blogger from The Longest Way Home who’s got an array of informative posts describing Filipino food.
If you drive from Spinneys towards Bur Juman, you will see Pizza Hut on your right. Take the right at Pizza Hut and drive down the road till you hit a T-junction. Take a right at the T-junction and drive down the right until you see Kabalen on your right. (It is right next to Urban Tadka)
Phone: +971 (4) 397-8839
By Machboos, Dosa, and Disco Tea…Plotted on the Oversimplified Food Experience Graph. | I live in a Frying Pan. 8 Mar ’12 at 7:46 am
By Jump starting my Filipino food quest with Adobo Manok and soupy Lomi at Delmon, Karama. | I Live in a Frying Pan 18 Sep ’13 at 8:49 am
Great post. Have tried Filipino food a couple of times but it’s been more a case of a dish here and a dish there. Inspired to try some more of it in the form of a full meal :)
What a wonderful introduction to a cuisine that hasn’t got it’s due credit. I am one of those who never felt I ever needed to taste FIlipino food. You have clearly motivated me to try and I am going to. Thanks Arva
This frighteningly eloquent discourse on Filipino food has indeed piqued my curiosity. Spot on that I thought it was all white rice, white fluffy buns, fried fish and pork. Having discovered the delights of Nappy Tales purple yam cake I’m ready for a full conversion.
And this is just a scratch on the surface of Filipino food Arva! Thanks for having to courage to try out Filipino food :-)
@Radhina – Yay for inspiration to try more! Do it, and share the knowledge of newfound Filipino dishes around!
@Sliceofmylyfe – Woo hoo! Better late than never! (If only my blog could change the world…I would be betting on stocks of Filipino food supply companies right now.)
@Sally – now, now, white fluffy buns don’t sound that bad do they…I love fluffy food. Oh and that purple yam, maybe PURPLE fluffy buns stuffed with ube (=purple yam. yay for my token tagalog words.) Anything with ube has to be amazing.
@Didi – I know. What was I DOING all those years. To fix it, I’m just going to have to take some extreme measures, like maybe eating through every Filipino dish in a month to get over my ignorance…? Anyone wanna join me? Can never have too much Buco Pandan I say…
We should go to that Filipino bakery soon :-) And maybe Barrio Fiesta and Max’s Fried Chicken, so you can taste Filipino fried chicken eaten with kamote fries and BANANA ketchup. Yes, ketchup made from bananas
Strange – I almost never thought about these preconceptions. But there is only one, which makes me shy away of Pinoy cuisine: the restaurants are more like cafeterias, where you get some homely dishes – never really restaurant style food.
Sorry – I am not very much on the authentic trip – most of the times, I don’t like bones in my food, but I love refinement. Also I am not a big sucker for fish [only filets in good restaurants] – and fishy things are anyway a nightmare for me.
But honestly, I think it is a pity, that there is not one refined Filipino restaurant in the city [maybe even not in the Philippines?].
I think that this is reflective of the profile of the Filipinos here. We don’t have the "refined" Filipino restaurants because there is no market for it. Bulk of the Filipinos here are from the working class, who have average palates, looking for a taste of home. These people are not looking for a refined version of what they enjoy back home, but simply a taste of home to help alleviate the feelings of homesickness.
There are refined Filipino restaurants, but not here in the Middle East. You can find some in Manila, Philippines as well as in New York City and Los Angeles because there is a market for it. Filipinos, who have developed better palates along with the better lives they’ve built for themselves. So if that’s what you are looking for, it is best to hop on a plane to Manila / NYC / LA to enjoy it.
I don’t think there is nothing wrong with homely because, after all, all good cooking started from inside the home.
@dominik mj – I’m with Didi on this one, nothing like home cooking. I recently attended this unnamed event with Asian food. Fabulous flavours, gourmet celeb chef, the works. But somehow, we missed the real authentic stuff. For instance…a rendang is a rendang is a rendang. Serve it up to me on my plate like it is, that’s all I care about. ;)
On a separate note, God I hate bones in my fish too.
Great post (and great research too)! I have been eating Filipino food since birth (albeit on and off, courtesy of mom) but some of them are my comfort food, like chicken adobo and that egg drop soup.
I have to say that I am not versed with Philippine’s cuisine!! And admit that yes I have not gone out to find out more… The very few times I tried some preps, they were not exactly good, so maybe that’s why I never went any further with this quest. But I trust your judgement and the pics look mouthwatering, so am sold, and will go try this place, maybe finally I can put this to rest!
Enjoyed reading your post Arva :)
I also will correct a few things :-) My history teacher and my dad will kill me. We were under Spanish rule for 333 years, American rule for 48 years and Japanese rule for around 5 years :D It’s also just tuyo, salted dried fish, which is usually herring. Fermented fish is another thing called "Buro" in the province of Pampanga. It also stinks! hehehe!
@nadia – Aha, another erudite victim to drag out on a Filipino food date! The world is begging you to give us some intel on Filipino food on your blog Nadia. (the world = me. but a very loud me.)
@Dima’s Kitchen – Fingers crossed! Just sample what Didi ordered for me – safe bet before venturing out to the other dishes. I would say the beef bicol express, the egg drop soup, the adobong kankong and the buco pandan drink are your safest bets, if you don’t wanna go all out and order everything we did. Though I loved the lumpia sariwa too -peanut sauce on anything can seduce me. The pancit palabok is tricky – I would order it again for sure, but I think people might fall either way on that one, sort of an acquired taste maybe.
@Didi – Corrections noted my shining Filipina guru! But dare this stupid student ask a question – my recollection of history (aka wikipedia. If there’s something I suck at more than cooking, it’s history.) says that the Spaniards ruled from 1521 (arrival of Ferdinand Magellan) to 1898 (Spanish-American War), which makes it 377 years? Or am I (wikipedia) off here…?
And dayam, it was so much more fun to say tuyo tuyo. Like halo halo. I love cute dual-syllable repetitions. They have this addictive drumbeat about them.
..but yeah, I will go back and delete the second tuyo even though it’ll BREAK MY HEART doing it. ah life.
Hahaha! Actual Spanish colonization started in 1565 and not 1521…1521 was when Magellan discovered and set foot on Philippine shores and was killed by local warrior Lapu-lapu (which is also the name for the Grouper fish / Hammour)
Tuyo-tuyo does sound very cute :-) and this is your blog, so I guess you can get away with tuyo-tuyo with my blessing. hahahaha!
oh my gosh! You are making me hungry. I love adobong kangkobg
But it is difficult to find one here in Arizona. Instead, I use spinach our bakchoy, I thought it was great.
The Fresh Lumpia, hmmm yummmm. Someone I know could make it as good as the home made one.
I miss pancit palabok. I have tried pancit palabok in Vallejo, Ca. It was not as great as the ones in Las Pinas, Manila. Nice Blog and great Photos too. Thanks for sharing.
Love what you do Arva! I am always curious about the Filipino foods section in the supermarkets but never knew any restaurants even existed…I am not surprised about the impressive amount of healthy ingredients in the cuisine- South East Asian cuisine beats them all!
Is Filipino food vegetarian friendly…? I’m pretty sure there is no Filipino place in Mumbai and even if there was we would have Gujju and Punju-ized the food….
There are a number of dishes that can be vegetarian friendly…after all the rural folk could not afford the luxury of meat back in the day (and perhaps until this very day). So to be safe, just ask the servers if the dishes are veg. I can point out some dishes if you need any recommendations :)
Thanks and good to e-meet you Didi! I would love recommendations… although chances of my finding ANYTHING remotely authentic in Mumbai are zero. We still haven’t got basic Mexican right, so Filipino is too much to ask for :)
An eye opener, still not sure if I want to try that. Keep up the good work and keep educating us
@filipinaaz.com – Hello there from Arizona! You know, methinks I might have upsold the food here….remember, it was my first time and I have never pranced around in Manila…maybe time for a foodie vacation in the Philippines…on the list, after Beirut and Taipei!
@Shumaila – Thanks hun! Maybe you could try growing kankong at home…conquer a pool area if you have one and sprout some swamp cabbage in there…plates of salty vinegary kankong later, you’d know it was TOTALLY worth it ;)
@Radz – Yeeah. Somehow Filipino food in Mumbai seems like a disaster, just based on how we’ve manchurianized Chinese food. But I would definitely take Didi up on her offer for simple homemade Filipino green goodness!
[pssttt…@Didi…thanks for being the helpful guru answering questions on this comment stream. I would sound like a total ignorant fool without you. No scratch that, I already do, but you’re there to save the day with the real Filipino deal.]
@saleem – thanks Dad! I think I’m going to have to lure you out to try this someday….can’t live in Dubai for all these years and not have tasted it! And that adobong kankong has your name all over it. ;)
I read your awesome post while munching on baby carrots and ricotta. That sounds kinda sad, like the opposite of Filipino food, but…but that’s the snack I have right now. Le sigh. [continues to munch]
Anyhoo as I said THIS POST IS AWESOME. (I could never write a post like this; it would take me glabajillionbluhblahforever minutes.) I freakin’ love Filipino food. The first time I had it I didn’t understand why it wasn’t more popular. And…I still don’t. It seems to be getting more popular in NYC–a few new restaurants popped up in the last year or so outside of Queens–but I wonder if it’ll ever reach the popularity of other Asian cuisines.
I must admit, I love love love the big fried meat chunks–lechon kawali and crispy pata, mostly–but next time I eat Filipino food I will set my eyes on the not so heavy/gout-causing foodstuffs.
OMG ROBYN!!! *fangirl squeal!!!!*
Filipinos LOVE their pork. The Lechon (whole roasted pig) ain’t the star of the fiestas (town celebrations) for nothing. I have read your posts on lechon kawali and crispy pata, which are heart stopping dishes BTW. Literally. But stil YUM!
I read that you’re trying to eat a healthier diet. if you can let me know what stuff you are avoiding, I could recommend. definitely no monggo (mung bean soup) for you. I wish you could sample a good kinilaw (the Filipino version of the ceviche using not gout causing fish) with vinegar, coconut milk, cucumber and chili. that’s healthy and YUM! especially if the fish is super fresh.
@Robyn – Yay for liking the post! And aww dayaaam, for one of my all-time fav bloggers having to be resigned to carrots and ricotta. I’m a little stumped about why Filipino food hasn’t taken off the same way too, especially in Dubai where the number of Filipinos is second probably only to Indians and Pakistanis.
…and yeah, no more lechon kawali and pata for you. Adobong kankong and clear BUTDANGITSGOOD soup all the way. Just had chicken mami with Didi the other day when I had a tummy upset. It’s Philippines’ answer to chicken soup for the gluttonous-but-in-tummy-rehab soul.
@Didi – woman, I need to try some of that kinilaw too. Lead the way, and I shall follow [hungrily].
Devina and I stumbled upon a resto where there’s kinilaw. we didn’t try it cuz she wasn’t a fan of "raw" fish. technically, it isn’t raw since the vinegar cooks the fish. We can schedule a trip to that resto soon :D
@Didi – sounds like ceviche to me, and I loooove ceviche. Let’s add kinilaw to the bottomless list of things we’ve gotta eat.
i love your post. 2 thumbs Up for u :)
if you want to taste filipino food in a classy restaurant, you may try MAX’s chicken in Karama beside Spinneys and McDO near Burjuman Mall. Also, we have buffet restaurant that you will surely like the ambiance located at Asiana Hotel. Lamesa offers an amazing Filipino dining experience.
Ruth – Thank you! Shoving MAX’s fried chicken and Lamesa on the list – thanks for the recommendations!
Enthusiastic thoughts and brilliant performance in food articles. We really appreciate you and many thanks for the filipino cuisine information brought to our notice.
Keep up your great work,
sureshkumar ks – thanks for the encouraging words, hope this prompts you to try filipino food!
I enjoy reading your review. It’s great that a non-Filipino like you appreciate and is able to get to the heart of true Filipino food. It left me beaming with pride and kept my heart aflutter for every word you’ve written. Thank you and all the best to you!
@71d15a9a96ab4a9e6df61634ea77f700:disqus – thanks for the lovely comment, and yes, non-Filipinos can and SHOULD appreciate good Filipino food! :)
Some of the foods are my favorites. Halo halo was my daily merienda because of this hot summer.
@594b557db242a8b1bcbbf6bd5108f4bb:disqus – talking of merienda, I need to go out exploring more…I just realized that my merienda vocab is severely restricted to halo halo…
What an awesome post, had me grinning from ear to ear! More than my biased thoughts on this post being Filipino myself, I am a big fan of your writing. It never fails to put me right under a spell :)
@twitter-595289592:disqus – awwww thank you! your comment has my grin extending even beyond my ears! (…the back of my head perhaps? ew. maybe not. on second thought, let’s leave it at the ears.)
Lol…Oh, and I thought it was funny to blame the Americans when in doubt *wink*
I visited one bakery shop in International City, El Panadero bakery, and their range of Filipino sweets and breads are amazing. most specialy their signature pastries – ensaymada and egg pie…absolutely fantastic!
Mari, thanks for the recommendation, I love Filipino baked goodies so I’m going to have to add El Pandero to my list! Thanks for the foodie intel :)