Chicken Adobo, photo: David Hammond

Filipino cuisine is having a moment, with some calling it the new “hot” style of cooking, which is kind of funny as the basics, like adobo, have been around for centuries. Filipino is just being discovered by many of us, and some of us are surprised by what we’re finding.

Everyone, however, knows adobo or thinks they know adobo.  

Adobo is called the Filipino national dish. It’s also regularly said to be one of the first recipes that a Filipino boy or girl learns from his or her family. I can understand why it might be both. It’s an extraordinarily easy dish to make, and the first time I made it, I used a recipe that was actually a hybrid version of recipes I’d received from Chrissy Camba (Maddy’s Dumpling House) and Sarahlynn Pablo (filipinokitchen.com).

My recipe for adobo was stunningly simple:

  • Whole chicken, about four pounds, cut up

  • 2 cups soy

  • 1 cup white vinegar

  • 2 bay leaves

  • 10 cloves garlic

  • Two teaspoons black pepper

Despite the fact that “adobo” is derived from the Spanish “adobar,” which means “to marinate,” it does not seem that marinating is either suggested or required by most recipes I’ve come across. Some people marinate the meat; I never do. I just put everything – including the raw meat – into the crock pot, cook on low it for several hours and then serve it over white rice. It’s so very, very good, so stunningly simple, so easy and delicious. The vinegar in particular perks up the dish and, like the salt, it brings out the best in whatever protein you choose to cook in it.

Now, anyone who has made adobo will likely take exception to the above recipe. For instance, some, like Pablo, prefer to use just chicken thighs, and I get that, but I was curious to see how the breasts would come out in an adobo preparation (answer: fine…though I’d probably, like Pablo, all prefer thighs). I used Camba’s ratio of soy to vinegar, but as with any of the other ingredients, you can pretty much modify this recipe to your taste.

There are over 7,000 islands in the Philippines, so as you might expect, there are lots of variations on the basic theme. The cool thing about adobo is that it’s an extraordinarily open structure, allowing one to use any number of proteins (though chicken seems most popular) and many different ingredients. The absolute must-haves are salt (soy, fish sauce or, I guess, just salt) and acid (usually vinegar, but sometimes calamansi or other citrus juice). The bay leaves, garlic and black pepper are also de rigueur, though they seem somehow less essential.

For my second pass at adobo, I got cocky and started modifying the recipe: 

  • 4 pounds pork shoulder, cut up into irregular chucks

  • 1.5 cup soy

  • 1.5 cup coconut vinegar

  • bay leaves

  • 10 cloves garlic

  • I teaspoon black pepper

  • Small jalapeno, cut up

  • I large radish, cut into half coins

  • 1 medium-size rutabaga, cut into chunks

I used a 1:1 soy to vinegar mix because Carolyn thought my first adobo was a little too salty. I used cocoanut vinegar just to see how that would work out (and I was thinking there might be some sweetness in there that would work well with the pork). For variety, I added a small chopped jalapeno pepper; chilies are not uncommon in adobo, though one usually sees bird’s eye chilies (the Spanish galleon trade brought many Mexican ingredients to the Philippines, including chilies and annatto, which I’ve also seen in some adobo recipes, though it is not common). The radish and rutabaga were probably the most random ingredients; I used these root veg to test my theory that you could put almost anything into adobo (except maybe marshmallows or canned sardines) and it would turn out okay. I actually forgot about rutabaga and put it in about three hours into the cook; it cooked on low for another three hours or so, and it turned out crisp and fine: adobo gives you license to get away with many cooking mistakes.

How’d it turn out? Excellent. My daughter, Lydia, had two servings, complaining that she wanted more of that taste in her mouth though she had no more room in her belly. Carolyn still thought it was too salty, but there’s no satisfying some people (smile).

Adobo is one of those dishes you can cook for a long time without fear of over-cooking, and you can add stuff to it – like radishes and rutabagas – without fear of messing it up. Like a good friend, adobo is very forgiving and very accepting.

Overall, I think I may have preferred the chicken adobo; the “looser” chicken muscles seemed to absorb the sauce more readily. Chicken is perhaps the most common protein used in the Philippines, probably because it’s less expensive than other meats (beef adobo is not common, though I’ve see it here and there). I made a huge pot of the stuff using a huge five-buck pork shoulder from Pete’s Market. Like American BBQ, adobo is humble food, making use of less expensive ingredients to yield a wonderful taste; pork shoulder is not expensive, but you have to cook it for a long time to soften up the meat…and that’s what crock pots are for.

I’m in research mode now, so any adobo insights/recipes/lore you might be able to share here would be much appreciated.

Join the discussion on social media!

David Hammond

David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of LTHForum.com, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...