Filipino Food – 21 Dishes To Try And Is It Any Good?

Filipino cuisine has become a hot topic in recent years but what is it and, crucially, is it any good? I spent just under a month exploring the Philippines. First, I’ve listed the 21 most popular traditional foods in the Philippines. Then I share my experience with the native cuisine. Meat-heavy, greasy and intensely flavored with salt, sugar and vinegar, I was left more than disappointed with the local food.

I’ve had a lot of backlash in the comments and on social media, especially from native Filipinos. I’m sorry if I offend you. I don’t mean to. I loved the Philippines. I just couldn’t get my taste buds around the food. The good news: if you’re trying international Filipino food, you might have more luck as the cuts of meat and key ingredients might be tamed for greater appeal. Here are some of the best dishes to try (and some to avoid – like fertilized duck egg!).

1. Adobo

Adobo with side of rice

Adobo is often cited as the national dish of the Philippines. What is it? It’s chicken or pork stewed or braised in a salty and tangy sauce that’s made using soy sauce and vinegar. Garlic, peppercorns, and bay leaves add the aromatics. Chicken adobo is my favorite. I also tried beef (but most beef tastes inferior since I ate Kobe beef, one of the best foods in Japan).

2. Kare-Kare

kare kare bowl in watery liquid

Otherwise known as peanut stew, kare-kare is made from oxtail and vegetables all simmered in a thick peanut-butter sauce. Beware, it can include tripe. You’ll often find it served with fermented shrimp paste, known as bagoong.

3. Balut

One of the most traditional Filipino foods (that most tourists will want to avoid) is balut. It’s a boiled duck egg that is fertilized, i.e. it has a partly developed embryo, sometimes including small feathers. Eat it seasoned with salt and vinegar (or don’t eat it at all!)

4. Sinigang

Sinigang is a meat soup. The broth is tart and sour since it’s flavored with tamarind. The meat can be any meat or seafood though pork, beef, chicken, and shrimp are most common. The soup includes vegetables such as radishes and green beans.

5. Inihaw grilled meat or fish

Chicken liver bbq inihaw

Inihaw was one of my favorite Filipino dishes since it was simply marinated grilled meat or fish barbecued on a stick. Look out for ihaw-ihaw eateries and street food stalls that specialize in inihaw. Read the label before you buy: I wasn’t brave enough to try these chicken livers (I was a bit jaded after trying deadly fugu in Japan).

6. Lechon de leche

On the theme of grilled meat, lechon or lechon de leche is another popular dish. Translated, it means suckling pig. Again, this might not be for everyone since suckling pigs are babies i.e. piglets. (It’s also a popular food in Sardinia, Italy). Lechon is eaten more at celebrations, family gatherings, and events.

7. Lumpia

Another favorite for me is lumpia which are Filipino spring rolls. They’re small in size and usually stuffed with vegetables rather than meat. They’re more of an appetizer, snack food (meryenda), or side dish than a main course and are tasty enough to rival the spring rolls I ate when I was exploring Vietnam. If you are a veggie in the Philippines, double-check if you order green mango from street vendors. It’s often served with baboong.

8. Kinilaw

If you love ceviche, try kinilaw, the Filipino version. If you aren’t familiar with ceviche, it’s raw fish or shellfish marinated in acidic ingredients that cook the fish. Kinilaw is marinaded in either vinegar or calamansi, a citrus fruit that is native to the Philippines, that looks like a lime. I prefer calamansi kinilaw as the flavor is gentler.

9. Sinangag

I love some leftovers and in the Philippines, leftover white rice is fried with garlic to create sinangag. You’ll often find this served at breakfast time.

10. Tapsilog and Filipino Breakfast

Tapsilog is a particular breakfast combination you will find on menus. It’s a dish of fried beef (tapa), garlic fried rice (sinangag) with a fried egg, known as itlog, on top.

Filipino Breakfast is a meat-heavy affair, heavily influenced by Spanish cuisine. As well as sinangag and tapa, you can find longganiza, which is similar to Spanish chorizo sausages. Tocino, the Spanish name for bacon, is also popular. You might also be offered bangus, milkfish.

11. Torta

torta on plate.
My home-cooked attempt at torta.

Another adaptation from Spanish cuisine, torta is a type of omelet. However, in Filipino cuisine, as well as egg and potato, you’ll often find ground beef or pork, and sometimes vegetables. It took me back to my days exploring the food and restaurants in Malaga, Spain.

12. Pinakbet

If you’re craving vegetables (which are deeply lacking in Filipino food, IMO), get some pinakbet. It’s a stir-fry containing a medley of vegetables. Common vegetables include squash, string beans, okra, and tomato. Beware: it’s usually cooked with bagoong, and shrimp paste, so it may not be veggie-friendly. Pinakbet is traditional in the Ilocos region.

13. Pancit guisado

stir fried noodles.

Pancit is a word to look out for on menus – it means noodles and usually, they’re cooked stir-fried (guisado). The word after pancit usually refers to the type of noodle. Popular options include:

  • pancit canton – egg noodles
  • pancit palabok – yellow cornstarch noodles
  • pancit bihon – rice vermicelli noodles

You can expect all sorts of vegetables, meats, and fish to be added to pancit guisado. The sauce that the noodles are fried in varies but typically includes soy sauce, fish sauce, shrimp paste, or fermented soybean paste. You’ll usually get a calamansi served on the side. Chicharon (pork rinds / pork crackling) is another popular garnish, crumbled on top. This noodle dish was one I returned to time and again.

14. Chicken inasal

Plate of grilled chicken inasal.

Chicken inasal is marinated, grilled chicken. Usually, you eat the breast or leg which has been coated in a marinade made from calamansi juice, coconut vinegar, black pepper, and a native tropical spice called annatto, which is like a peppery nutmeg. Inasal is served with rice, calamansi, and soy sauce.

15. Pork sisig

Pork sisig is minced pork fried with calamansi, onions, and chili peppers, usually served with rice. It sounds simple and potentially tasty but beware, the mince isn’t pork loin; it’s minced pig jowls (face), ears, and pork belly (the pig’s head is usually boiled first then stripped). Chicken liver is sometimes added. Angeles City in the Pampanga region is the home of sisig.

16. Arroz Caldo

Arroz caldo home made.
I liked this enough that I made it at home.

Arroz caldo is an adaptation of a Spanish warm rice broth. In the Philippines, arroz caldo is a comforting chicken and rice soup flavored with ginger, fish sauce, and soy sauce. This glutinous rice soup is often topped with a hard-boiled egg, calamansi, and scallions or green onions.

17. Humba

huma with rice and sauce.

You can see the influence of Chinese cuisine in humba which is like a sweet and sour made with the classic combo of soy sauce, vinegar sugar. Fermented black beans are usually added and the meat is traditionally pork, which is braised.

18. Dinuguan

I’m putting this on the list so you can avoid ordering it since it’s not for most people. Yes, dinuguan is a stew with vinegar as the base flavor. However, as well as the meat, you get pig’s blood and entrails. No, thanks.

19. Bibingka

While it’s most commonly eaten at Christmas, Bibingka – rice cake – is popular in Filipino cuisine. It’s made with rice which is usually fermented, sticky, and a little sour. It’s mixed with coconut milk, water, and sugar to form a batter. The rice cakes are cooked inside banana leaves. Toppings vary but can include fruit or salted duck eggs and cheese.

20. Halo-halo

Cup of halo halo being prepared.

Halo-halo is a dessert in the Philippines. It means ‘mix mix’ which is accurate since it mixes several ingredients. Typically, you can expect fruit, sweet corn, and buko (young coconut). It’s all topped with crushed ice and ice cream. Mine included the curious addition of pasta, sweet potato, and jelly. It was strange, but it worked.

21. Ube halaya

Purple Ube Jam in the Philippines

Ube halaya (also known as halayang ube) is a jam made from purple yam. It’s one of the few foods I miss from the Philippines. The yam is boiled, mashed, and mixed with melted margarine and condensed milk or sweetened coconut milk as a more traditional recipe. You can find ube halaya in jars or mixed into ice cream, halo-halo, or pastries.

Filipino Food – The Lingering Taste of Salty Disappointment

Lady grilling BBQ meat in Manila Philippines

“Food in the Philippines isn’t very good,” they were words from a fellow traveler and they came as a crushing blow. How could that be? I was in Asia, one of the cornerstones of the spice trade, a region that had sent its cuisine global with staggering success. With the South China Sea separating it from Vietnam, the Philippines had to have good food. It was its geographical birthright.

I looked down into my plastic bowl of pale brown watery sauce and floating pig fat. The restaurant had been recommended to me, the dish I’d ordered all on my own. It was kare-kare. Surely, it was a one-time bad order?

Apparently not.

For the following three weeks, from Manila to El Nido to the rice terraces in Banaue, I ordered food with increasing frustration, desperation, and eventual downright food depression. As a foodie, I wish this was something I realised before I planned my trip to the Philippines. Was the lack of Filipino restaurants outside the Philippines an early indicator? As I laid down my cutlery on another unfinished plate of food, I’d reached the sad conclusion – food in the Philippines simply isn’t very good. I say this carefully. The food is plentiful and provides essential nutrition (overly fatty meat aside). But for my inner foodie, sustenance wasn’t enough.

Is increased affluence and junk food at the heart of the problem? Like many developing countries there is a point where income, at least for some, affords more dining choices. As a consequence, fish, meat, vegetable, and rice staples are often passed over in preference for junk food. The result? An unsatisfying culinary mid-way. Traditional recipes are no longer at their best, slowly being forgotten on a generation-by-generation basis. Yet the new wave of fast food is a poor-tasting substitute, even if it is an ironic indicator of increased wealth. And its impacting the children in the Philippines, according to UNICEF.

Amongst the upcoming Filipino masses, Jollibee with its McDonald-style burger meals and platters of pasta that would make the Italians want to throw in the kitchen towel, was sadly one of the most popular eateries I saw. I ate there twice – once for breakfast, another time for dinner. Both occasions left me with an inner food sadness. I also tried the ubiquitous Kenny Roger’s Roasters (I’m serious – this does exist and no, it’s not the world’s greatest chicken, as the slogan suggests). I slipped out mid-meal to pick up an avocado from the market to add more pizzazz to my meal. I’m not usually a fan of chain restaurants but the local restaurants were proving too salty, greasy, sugary, and unpredictable for my taste.

Foil dish of bbq meat on sticks in Manila

The street food, which is my go-to in Asia, managed to tick the happy food box as I savored barbecued everything from innards to unidentifiable pieces of meat, but a girl can’t live on BBQ alone. Halo halo was also fun, but equally, sugar cannot form my entire sustenance.

brigh coloured juices in philippines

On Palawan, I tucked into some delicious tuna, tried the deep-fried bananas, and sampled the strangest coffee combination that included mushrooms and Korean Ginseng and was surprisingly nice. But none of these foods were natively Filipino.

fish in spices in palawan philippines
Delicious tuna stir-fried dish.
deep fried bananas in the philippines
Deep-fried bananas. Divine but not a daily indulgence.
5 in 1 coffee mix
Coffee mix which was surprisingly nice.

By far the best local food I ate was the lunch served up in El Nido. It was cooked on firewood on a beach during my time on a boat tour and gave me a hint that home-cooked food Filipino might be a different thing entirely. Except I didn’t have a local home to go to. I had to risk the restaurants like any tourist.

bbw on the beach with fresh fish in el nido

So, beyond those few examples, I was stumped.

I tried beef tapsilog at breakfast and it seemed promising but it was consistently over-salty. The accompanying garlic rice was just too intense first thing in the morning, even if it was offset by an egg. I will give credit to Ube jam, which is worth a try and probably the best breakfast item I tried the entire time I was in the Philippines.

Otherwise, I ordered kare-kare, adobo and sinigang with increasing dread.

As time passed and my interest in Filipino food waned, I lost my guilt at eating more internationally. Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, and even vegetarian food all stepped confidently into the breach. Yet, it was nothing new; nothing I could take with me as a distinct culinary memory of the Philippines.

vegan sausages with risotto in the philippines
Yes, they are vegan sausages and yes they were vile, but the risotto was edible.

But I refused to give in. I researched, I tasted and then I found the answer I’d been looking for – the promise of a food utopia nestled in the heart of the Philippines: the Manila Sunday Brunch. No, this story doesn’t end with me devouring the best Filipino food of my life. It ends with me sniffing my way to the European cured meats and cheese room and dining on the quality of sushi I’d tasted in Japan.

Perhaps that was my problem. Perhaps I’d eaten too well elsewhere in Asia. From the foods of Vietnam to Japanese okonomiyaki to the surprising find of a good vineyard near Bangkok, were my expectations too high? Speaking to other travelers who had recently spent time in South Korea and Taiwan, the Philippines’ food seemed a trade-up.

One day, I’ll return to the Philippines (though next time I won’t get caught out by the Philippines entry requirements), and I’ll try the food again. If you have any suggestions for where and what to eat next time I visit, please share. Otherwise, I’ll be taking a jar of (unsweetened) peanut butter and saving my main meal for the weekly Sunday brunch.

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collage of filipino foods

Read more of my posts about the Philippines and Asia

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Author - Jo Fitzsimons

Hi, I'm Jo, the writer behind Indiana Jo. In 2010 I quit my job as a lawyer and booked an around the world ticket. As a solo female traveller, I hopped from South America to Central America, across Asia, the Middle East and Europe. It was supposed to be a one-year trip but over a decade later, it's yet to end. I've lived in a cave, climbed down a volcano barefoot, spent years as a digital nomad, worked as a freelance travel writer, and eaten deadly Fugu. Now I'm home, back in the UK, but still travelling far and wide. You can find out more About Me.