Bringing together two of the country’s well-loved dishes, Nina Daza-Puyat shares her delicious take on adobo: Adobong Pancit. Tara, kain na!
This month’s recipe takes inspiration from three pivotal moments in my life—beginning in Paris, continuing on to the southwest of France, and finally to upstate New York. I’m sure you would never have guessed that these stories involve our humble Filipino adobo. But indeed, they do.
It was the summer of 1976 and I was going to spend my 13th birthday in Paris. My mother, Nora Daza, opened up an elegant restaurant in Paris called Aux Iles Philippines four years earlier and I had heard from my siblings how our mom was so incredibly brave to bring Filipino cuisine to the culinary capital of the world.
My older brother Sandy recounted how challenging it was to introduce an unknown Asian cuisine to the discriminating French at a time when the French knew next to nothing about the Philippines. But Nora Daza, unfazed and determined, persevered. She was convinced that compared to the few Vietnamese, Chinese, and Japanese restaurants around the 5th arrondissement in Paris, Filipino food would stand out. She always said that Philippine cuisine was truly special because of its unique blend of Spanish, Chinese, Malay, and American influences and she believed that the French diners could be won over if they only gave it a chance.
And she was right. Aux Iles Philippines made its mark in Paris and flourished for a total of 11 years.
At that very impressionable age, I saw how my mom became a culinary ambassadress of the Philippines as she proudly introduced our everyday Filipino food such as adobo, sinigang, lechon kawali, caldereta, fresh lumpia, and pancit. The stars of the menu were the Lamb Caldereta (enriched with crème fraîche), Sugpong Pampango (prawns blanketed by taba ng talangka sauce), and of course, the Chicken Adobo—which the French sometimes pronounced as “abodo!”
It was quite amusing to see how many of the customers would ignore the white rice and instead, mop up the adobo or caldereta sauce with slices of baguette.
Les-Eyzies-de-Tayac, France, 1984
Through my mom’s friend, Mr. Jean Rougie (owner of the famed foie gras factory in France), I was able to obtain an internship at the Hotel du Centennaire, a two-star Michelin restaurant in the Perigord region of France. There, I worked as an all-around kitchen helper—assisting chefs in the different stations by doing simple tasks like chopping fresh mushrooms (including the fragrant fresh cèpes!), peeling potatoes and carrots, or shucking oysters.
As the days went by, I was given more responsibilities, like final garnishing on the plate, mixing spices for the spiced honey for the roast pigeon, and preparing the Flan de Foie Gras—a clever way of using up scraps of fresh foie gras.
I was the only female and Asian in the kitchen, helmed by Chef Roland Mazère. Monsieur Mazere was strict and hardly ever smiled, but he was kind to me. There were about six sous chefs and two other interns—David, the American, and Paul, the Englishman. We worked in a large, well-appointed kitchen and it was my first time to see equipment like the sous vide (which was just a vacuum sealing machine—not the sous vide we know today), a salamander (broiler), and the “piano” (a flat iron grill).
Food was served on expensive dinner plates by Villeroy & Boch and fine silverware and crystal glasses were used in the restaurant. After all, there were only less than 80 restaurants with a two-star Michelin rating in the whole of France and I was lucky to be working in one of them.
Our work started after lunch because the restaurant was only open for dinner. I used the mornings to walk around the small town, buy some snacks, or do my laundry. During my internship, I was given a room to share with the hotel chambermaid—a young Spanish girl named Mercedes. A few times, I went out drinking at the local pub with the waiters after service, and by the end of the three weeks, I had become buddies with the cooks and waiters.
As a surprise for them, I decided to cook lunch the day before my departure. The hotel cashier Martine kindly agreed to drive me to the nearest city of Sarlat, where I found a small Asian grocery. There, I bought white vinegar, soy sauce, and egg noodles to make chicken adobo and pancit. I also made sure to purchase 3 kilos of white Thai Jasmine rice.
Chef Roland liked the “plain rice” and even asked his sous chef Gerard if he saw how I cooked it. Gerard mimicked how I dipped my fingertips into the water, made a circling motion, and then gave a shrug as if to say he didn’t quite understand. It was hilarious!
Well, I’m happy to report that the guys loved my adobo and pancit, and even gave me a round of applause after the staff lunch that day. Thinking about it now, I wonder if those guys still remember me, my adobo, and my pancit.
Ithaca, New York, 1986
Throughout my student days at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, I carried that same pride for our Filipino culture and culinary heritage—grown from the seed that was planted in my heart as a young teen.
When we became restaurateurs for one night as a culminating activity of HA 331 class, my lab partner Emily Ching and I transformed the school’s Main Dining Room into “Barrio Filipino.” Emily was in charge of the front-of-the-house service—under our teacher Guiseppe Pezzotti—while I was in charge of the kitchen, under Chef Robert White. It was a real restaurant that was open to the public and this was our chance to show everything we had learned about menu planning, food costing, marketing, and the like.
Our menu offerings were Lumpiang Shanghai, Shrimp Sinigang, Chicken Adobo, and Inihaw na Isda wrapped in banana leaves. I had to teach my classmates how to singe banana leaves over an open flame to make them soft and pliable, and even Chef White was impressed. My biggest challenge was sourcing fresh banana leaves in the middle of winter! Fortunately, Cornell stretches over 745 acres and I found banana leaves in one of the greenhouses of the College of Agriculture.
To be honest, I cannot recall if the Adobong Manok sold more than the Inihaw na Isda, but I do remember how extremely proud Emily and I were to introduce Philippine cuisine to our classmates.
The Versatility of Adobo
Those past experiences seem light-years away now, but my commitment to sharing our Filipino food culture has only grown and deepened.
Having worked in Appetite Magazine for six years (where I met so many talented cooks from all over the Philippine regions), I now know that there are countless versions of adobo from Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. Aside from the common chicken, pork, or beef adobo, other ingredients made into adobo are pusit, oysters (talaba), mussels (tahong), duck (pato), chicken gizzards (balun-balunan), kangkong, sitaw, talong, to name a few. Based on The Adobo Book by the Adobo Queen Nancy Reyes and Ronnie Alejandro, other exotic ingredients that can be made into adobo are snipes, quails, frogs, eels (palos), and snakes (sawa).
But what is common to all of these adobo recipes? It is the use of vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, salt, and peppercorns. Fortunately, different kinds of vinegar are abundant and accessible all over the Philippines. The more common ones include vinegar made by fermenting sugar cane juice, young coconut water, mature coconut water, coconut flower nectar, and nipa palm sap. Vinegar is a natural preservative and in the absence of refrigeration, Filipinos turned to this key ingredient to make dishes like paksiw, kinilaw, kilawin, and adobo.
Variations of the basic adobo formula include one or some of the following ingredients: bay leaf (laurel), onions, ginger, annatto oil (atsuete), calamansi juice, turmeric (luyang dilaw), and lemongrass (tanglad). Some other flavor additions might be oyster sauce, fish sauce, buko juice, or even liquid seasoning. Pinoys abroad oftentimes resort to using “imported” vinegar out of sheer necessity and determination—resulting in a “mestizo” adobo.
Comfort Food is a Matter of Taste
For this home cook, meat adobo is a matter of personal taste and preference. I believe that one’s favorite adobo is the kind we’ve come to love as a child—for tied to it are childhood memories of meals with family. Is your family’s adobo saucy, oily, or dry? Is it deep, dark brown, or pale in color (without soy sauce)? Is it simply stewed altogether, or fried first, and then braised?
What do we usually pair with adobo? I know some people who eat adobo with a ripe banana or a yellow mango on the side. Others prefer to have a side dish of chopped tomatoes or atsara.
(Confession: I like eating my adobo with a smear of wasabi. This flavor pairing was an accidental discovery many years ago when we smuggled chicken adobo into Tokyo for my daughter, who was an exchange student there.)
How do you like your adobo? Mine has to have enough sauce with the perfect balance of savory and sour, coupled with that unmistakably fragrant whiff of garlic and bay leaf. The pork (spareribs or belly) and chicken (thigh, leg, or wing) must be tender and almost falling off the bone—with bits of rendered fat. With this in mind, I thought of applying the very distinct flavors of my favorite adobo into a noodle dish using rice sticks or pancit bihon.
The result is another unique and creative way to hopefully tickle your adobo taste buds. Here’s my recipe for a Pinoy favorite that I hope you’ll love as much as I do:
A proud home cook and cookbook author, Nina is in love with the cooking process. She believes there's something magical about bringing random ingredients together to create a cohesive dish that's delicious, nourishing, and satisfying. She likens cooking in the kitchen to a dance, with its many movements, rhythmic sounds, and stimulating smells, all working together in perfect harmony and synchronicity.
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