Filipino food is colorful and distinctive due to the blended influences of Malaysian, Polynesian, Spanish, and Chinese cuisines. There are three principles of Filipino cooking: never cook any food by itself, fry with garlic in olive oil or lard, and foods should have a sour-cool-salty taste. In place of the traditional clay pot, a large wok called a kalawi is used for frying foods. Fried foods are allowed to absorb more fat than is typical of other Asian cooking. Rice, steamed or fried, forms the foundation of the diet. Rice flour is used to make noodles and bread. Noodles made of mung beans or wheat are also common, prepared with a cooked protein (chicken, ham, shrimp, pork) in a soy and garlic-flavored sauce. Vegetables are mixed into stews, stir fries, and soups or braised and served as an entrée or a side. The amount of meat, poultry, or fish a family eats depends on economic status and are added as available to soups, stews, mixed dishes, and egg rolls (lumpia). All parts of the animal are used in cooking including the skin, blood, and organs. Rural Filipinos make one of the few native cheeses in Asia from water buffalo (carabao) milk. The water buffalo milk is also often used in desserts. Fermented fish paste or sauce is a popular seasoning used instead of salt. To add a sour-cool taste to foods, palm vinegar or a paste made from tamarind or kamis (cucumber-like vegetable) is used. A Filipino specialty, called kinilaw, uses sour ingredients to marinate and pickle raw foods including fruit, vegetables, meats, organs, and seafood. Lime wedges and chili-flavored vinegar are frequently offered on the table so that diners may add desired levels of saltiness or sourness to their food. The coconut is widely used in Filipino cooking as a vegetable or to make beverages, desserts, and sauces. Common desserts include custard (leche flan) and a parfait-like dessert made of shaved ice, coconut milk, mung beans, purple yam pudding, palm seeds, corn kernels, pineapple jelly, and other ingredients (halo-halo).
Regional cooking styles in the Philippines are divided into four regions: Luzon, Bicolandia, the Viscayan Islands, and Mindanao. Luzon is ethnically diverse and the cuisine is strongly influenced by the Spanish. In the northern areas, ocean fish and ample amounts of anchovy sauce and shrimp paste are commonly eaten. Boiling and steaming are the typical cooking methods, and spinach like greens (saluyot) and drumstick plant leaves (sili) are particularly popular. The central region is known for growing rice and for its freshwater fish. Dishes are richly sauced and flavored with onions and garlic. The most common cooking technique is stir-frying. Coconut products and tropical fruits are highly popular, and sweetened rice dishes are a specialty. Bicolandia is ethnically homogenous with culinary influences from Malaysian and Polynesian styles of cooking. Foods tend to be very spicy due to use of chile peppers, but the spice is balanced with coconut milk and cream. The fare in the Viscayan Islands includes abundant use of seafood, shrimp paste, and seaweed. Specialty candies and pastries are common due to the sugarcane plantations in the area. The cuisine of the Mindanao region is influenced by Indonesia and Malaysia. Little pork is consumed, as much of the region is Muslim. Sauces made from peanuts and chiles, curries, and other spicy fare are very popular.
At the center of the Filipino family is the extended family including all paternal and maternal relatives. Familial kinship may also include friends, neighbors, and fellow workers. Community obligations are initiated through shared Roman Catholic rituals and include shared food, labor, and financial resources. Elders are respected, and children are spoiled and adored by the family until the age of six. Children are expected to be obedient, to contain their emotions, to be very polite, to be quiet and shy, and to avoid all conflict.
Many Filipinos believe that health requires personal harmony with the supernatural world, nature, society, and family. Three practices promote balance and good health: heating (balance of hot and cold), protection (safeguards body from natural and supernatural forces, a layer of body fat for example), and flushing (cleansing the body of impurities).
The traditional Filipino diet is higher in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol than most Asian diets. Overweight can be associated with health and caretakers may try to overfeed babies. Southeast Asians may calculate age on a lunar calendar, starting with being one year at birth. This difference can distort use of standardized growth curves.
Lactose intolerance is common in Filipinos. Health conditions that may compromise nutritional status include tuberculosis, intestinal parasites, malaria, and Hepatitis B.
Calcium – Calcium is needed to build strong bones and teeth. It also plays a role in blood clotting, muscle contraction, and nerve-cell communication. In the long term, dietary intakes well below the recommended levels may impact bone development. Bones increase in size and mass during childhood and adolescence, therefore adequate calcium and vitamin D should be consumed throughout childhood into early adulthood.
Iodine – Iodine is needed for production of thyroid hormone. Deficiency of iodine can lead to development of an enlarged thyroid called a goiter, hypothyroidism, and mental retardation in children whose mothers were iodine deficient during pregnancy.
Iron – Iron is necessary for oxygen delivery to cells and regulation of cell growth. Iron deficiency develops gradually and is commonly seen in women of childbearing age and children. A lack of iron results in an insufficient supply of oxygen to cells eventually causing anemia, fatigue, poor work performance, slow cognitive and social development in children, and decreased immunity.
Selenium – Selenium is an essential mineral that acts as a protective antioxidant in the body and regulates thyroid hormone. Keshan disease is a cardiac problem that can occur in selenium-deficient children and mothers. Selenium deficiency often accompanies iodine deficiency.
Vitamin A – Vitamin A plays a critical role in healthy vision, growth and development, and immune function. Vitamin A deficiency is common in developing countries and is often accompanied by zinc deficiency. Symptoms of deficiency include blindness, diminished ability to fight infections, decreased growth rate, and slow bone development. Vitamin A helps mobilize iron from its storage sites, so a deficiency of vitamin A limits the body’s ability to use stored iron. This results in an “apparent” iron deficiency because iron levels in the blood are low even though body stores are normal.
Zinc – Zinc is involved in many important processes in the body. Symptoms of zinc deficiency include delayed growth, loss of appetite, impaired immune function, hair loss, diarrhea, delayed sexual maturation, eye and skin lesions, delayed wound healing, taste abnormalities, and mental fatigue.
Milk/Milk Products – evaporated milk (cow, goat), white cheese (carabao, made from water buffalo milk)
Meat/Poultry/Fish – beef, carabao, goat, pork, monkey, variety meats (liver, kidney, stomach tripe), rabbit, chicken, duck, pigeon, sparrow, anchovies, bonita, carp, catfish, crab, crawfish, cuttlefish, dilis, mackerel, milkfish, mussels, prawns, rock oyster, salt cod, salmon, sardines, sea bass, sea urchins, shrimp, sole, squid, swordfish, tilapia, tuna
Eggs/Legumes – chicken and fish eggs; black beans, black-eyed peas, chickpeas, lentils, lima beans, mung beans, red beans, soybeans, white kidney beans, winged beans
Cereals/Grains – corn, oatmeal, rice (long- and short- grain, flour, noodles), wheat flour (bread and noodles)
Fruits – apples, avocados, banana blossoms, bananas (100 varieties), bread fruit, calamansi (lime), citrus, coconut, durian, grapes, guava, jackfruit, Java plum, litchi, mangoes, melons, papaya, pears, persimmons, pineapples, plums, pomegranates, pomelo, rambutan, rhubarb, star fruit, strawberries, sugar cane, tamarind, watermelon
Vegetables – amaranth, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, beets, bitter melon, burdock root, cabbage, carrots, cashew nut leaves, cassava, cauliflower, celery, Chinese celery, drumstick plant, eggplant, endive, green beans, green papaya, green peppers, hearts of palm, hyacinth bean, kamis, leaf fern, leeks, lettuce, long green beans, mushrooms, nettles, okra, onions, parsley, pigeon peas, potatoes, pumpkins, purslane, radish, safflower, snow peas, spinach, sponge gourd, squash blossoms, winter and summer squashes, sugar palm shoot, swamp cabbage, sweet potatoes, taro, tomatoes, turnips, water chestnuts, watercress, yams
Seasonings – atchuete (annatto), bagoong, baggong-alamang, chile peppers, garlic, lemon grass, patis, seaweed, soy sauce, turmeric, vinegar
Nuts/Seeds – betel nuts, cashews, palm seeds, peanuts, pili nuts
Beverages – soymilk, cocoa, coconut juice, coffee with milk, tea
Fats/Oils – coconut oil, lard, vegetable oil
Sweeteners – brown and white sugar, coconut, honey
Three meals a day with a mid-morning and late afternoon snack (called meriendas) is the traditional pattern of eating. Garlic-fried rice or bread with eggs or broiled fish, sausage, or meat, plus hot chocolate or coffee is an example of a typical breakfast. Sweet, cheesy rolls called ensaymada are also especially popular for breakfast. Lunch and dinner are both large meals of similar composition that include soup, rice, a crispy or chewy dish, a salty dish, a sour dish, a noodle dish, and often, an adobo dish. Fresh fruit or dessert concludes the meal. Courses are served consecutively if the meal features mostly Spanish-style dishes. Conversely, all courses are served together, including dessert, if the meal features Filipino-style dishes. Snacks may be small or large. Almost all foods may be eaten as snack, except rice, which is served only at meals. Common snacks include fritters, pastries, fruits, ensaymadas, or lumpia.
Dining tables are frequently equipped with lazy Susan turntables so that all food is accessible to everyone. Tradition is that no one starts eating until the eldest male starts the meal. The western style of dining with forks, knives, and spoons is common, however, the use of just forks and spoons is also typical. The spoon is used to hold down the food while the fork is used to pull bits away, then the spoon is used to push food onto the fork for eating. In rural areas, fingers (of the right hand only) are more commonly used for dining. Small mounds of rice are rolled to form a ball that is dipped into sauce then pressed into meat or poultry and popped whole into the mouth. Taking the last bits of food from the central platter is considered poor etiquette.
Predominantly of Catholic faith, Filipinos celebrate many religious festivals and saints’ days. Abundant food served buffet-style with roasted pig as the centerpiece is customarily served on all special occasions.
Most grocery stores (ethnic foods aisle)
Asian specialty markets
Farmer’s markets (or grow a garden)
Whole Foods and natural food markets
1½ pounds cooked pork (see note)
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon fish sauce (nuac mam)
1 head cabbage, cut into 1 inch wedges
2 carrots, julienned in 2 inch lengths
2 stalks celery, thinly sliced
1 (6 ounce) package shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and sliced
2 cups chicken broth
1 (6 ounce) package rice noodles
1 bunch green onion, thinly sliced
2 limes or lemons, cut into wedges
Note: You can roast pork in a crockpot or poach pork in a small amount of water, saving the cooking liquids to use as broth where chicken broth is called for in the recipe. You may also use other meats/fish.
Soak rice noodles in hot tap water in a large bowl for about 20 minutes, then drain in colander. While noodles are soaking, prepare and chop the vegetables.
Heat oil to medium heat in a very large pan with deep sides (use a wok if you have one). Sauté onion and garlic for 3 minutes. Add meat, soy sauce, and fish sauce. Turn the heat up to high. Add cabbage, carrots, mushrooms, celery, a pinch of salt and pepper, and 1 cup of the broth. Stir-fry for 2 minutes or until vegetables are crisp tender. Reduce heat to low and add rice noodles, in small amounts, stirring to break up. Add broth as needed to keep mixture from becoming too dry.
Cook just until noodles are warm. Serve with lime or lemon wedges, green onions to sprinkle on top, and extra soy sauce. You may also offer cilantro leaves and hard cooked egg slices.
Try this lower fat version of a traditional Filipino favorite. Kids will enjoy helping to create the rolls.
1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 cups dried black beans, soaked 6-8 hours and drained
1 dried chipotle chile
4 cups water
2 teaspoons sea salt
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 pound ground lean pork (or other protein like chicken or shrimp)
1 medium carrot, finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 (8 ounce can) water chestnuts, drained and finely chopped
1 (8 ounce can) bamboo shoots, drained and finely chopped
8 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 package wonton wrappers
1 large egg, beaten
¼ cup packed brown sugar
½ cup distilled white vinegar
1 teaspoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons water
1 teaspoon cornstarch, mixed with water
2-3 teaspoons freshly grated ginger
In a large bowl, combine the pork, carrot, onion, water chestnut, bamboo shoots, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, and pepper. Stir mixture until thoroughly combined. At this point you can cover the mixture and refrigerate over night if you like.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Lay out wonton wrappers. Roll the meat mixture into cigar shapes about finger thickness and length. Brush the ends of the wrappers with beaten egg to seal each roll. Place seam side down on a cookie sheet.
Bake rolls for 20 minutes, turning them once during cooking. They should be cooked through and the wrappers golden brown. Serve hot with dipping sauce.
Alternately, you can freeze the rolls after baking. To reheat, thaw the rolls and bake for 10 minutes in a 450 degree oven.
To make dipping sauce, mix together brown sugar, vinegar, and soy sauce in a saucepan. Stir over high heat until sugar dissolves. Mix the cornstarch/water and add to the sugar mixture, stirring until the sauce boils. Remove from heat and add ginger. (Makes ⅔ cup)
Kittler PG, Sucher KP (2008). Food and culture, Fifth Edition. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadworth.
Amarra MSV, Bongga DC, Peñano-Ho L, et al. Effect of iodine status and other nutritional factors on psychomotor and cognitive performance of Filipino schoolchildren. Food Nutr Bull. 2007; 28(1): 47-54.
Angeles-Agdeppa I, Magsadia CR, Capanzana MV. Fortified juice drink improved iron and zinc status of schoolchildren. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2011; 20(4): 535-543.
Gibbs MM, Carriquiry AL, Capanzana MV, et al. Establishing desirable fortificant levels for calcium, iron and zinc in foods for infant and young child feeding: examples from three Asian countries. Matern Child Nutr. 2012; doi: 10.1111/j.1740-8709.2012.00405.x. [Epub ahead of print].
Maramag CC, Ribaya-Mercado JD, Rayco-Solon P, et al. Influence of carotene-rich vegetable meals on the prevalence of anaemia and iron deficiency in Filipino schoolchildren. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2010; 64: 468-474.
Tengco LW, Rayco-Solon P, Solon JA, et al. Determinants of anemia among preschool children in the Philippines. J Am Coll Nutr. 2008; 27(2): 229-243.