Filipino Adobo

Last week, an old friend of mine emailed me asking me what my recipe for adobo was. I was like, “I don’t know, the usual I guess, you know, vinegar, garlic, etc.” I guess he was crowd-sourcing this question, so he ended up coming back to me with more questions: “Do you use lemon instead of vinegar?” “Do you marinate?” The variety was starting to trouble me: a recipe without garlic. Wait. A recipe with liver pate. What?! When I got these messages, I was wondering if my lola (grandma) was spinning in her grave just because I knew about all of this. I checked around to make sure the lights weren’t flickering on and off in the house like she was trying to communicate with me, then I decided to write this post to help a brother out.

I’ll start with a bit of history. According to Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan’s excellent book, Memories of Philippine Kitchens, the vinegar braise that is the basis for adobo is indigenous. They point out that Ray Sokolov, in Why We Eat What We Eat, suggests that the Spanish gave the name adobo to this dish based on its loose resemblance to Spanish adobo (oil, garlic and marjoram).

As far as I’m aware, there are at least two ingredients that adobo needs to have to be called adobo: vinegar and garlic. Everything else is up in the air. But replace the vinegar with lemon? I’m going to say it, then I am going to immediately get an inbox full of hate mail: That. Ain’t. ADOBO. (And before you pound out that flame mail, did I mention how awesome Pacquiao is? Come on people, we can agree on something, right?)

I asked an expert:

Me: Does anyone ever use lemon?
Mom: For what?
Me: To replace the vinegar?
Mom: I thought you were asking me about adobo??

Notice that this question is so baffling that she answers everything with a question.

I also contacted fellow Pinoy food blogger, Arnold of Twitter:

crispywaffle: @inuyaki Imma ask you a crazy question: has anyone u know ever made adobo w/lemon instead of vinegar? A friend asked me & I said he was loco
inuyaki: @crispywaffle I’ve never done that. If I ever did, then I wouldn’t call it adobo. :)

What you add beyond vinegar and garlic is up to you. I have seen recipes with liver pate, ginger and green onion. I personally find this bizarre, but if it has vinegar and garlic, I’m not gonna say that it’s not adobo.

For pork or chicken adobo, there’s another thing that makes a ‘typical’ adobo: the process. Hell, there are only two necessary steps: braise and fry. “Reduce” is a new-fangled step that my grandma didn’t use, or that the Spaniards brought with them or something. (Okay, that speculation is not based on anything.) I like to reduce the sauce, but it’s not a necessity. But do you just braise the adobo without frying the meat? I’m sorry kids, but that is just nilaga. Fry the meat without simmering it? Isn’t that sisig?

Now that I got that off my chest, I will provide the ratios for my adobo. I won’t claim it’s “D BEST!” or anything, it’s just what I like, and it’s a very good basic adobo because I learned it from my mom who is a Kapampangan cook, who learned it from her mom who was also a Kapampangan cook. And Kapampangans make some slammin Filipino food, seriously. Let’s not argue about that.

Now that you are ready to make adobo, here are a couple of tips:

  • DON’T STIR THE SAUCE BEFORE THE VINEGAR COMES TO A BOIL. I should have this tattooed up my arms and then wear a t-shirt with the words printed on it backwards for when I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror in case I forget to look at the tattoo on my arms. Why? Because my mom can’t talk about adobo without saying these words. When you braise the adobo, you mix the sauce ingredients, but once you start heating it, Do Not Touch It. Mama’s not playing! Let the vinegar sauce come to a boil, then cover and allow to simmer until the meat is cooked through. This way, the acids in the vinegar mellow out and the ‘raw’ taste burns off. I have to admit, this has been so ingrained, I have never even tried to stir it. Why mess with what your mama says?
  • The amount of soy sauce you put in is up to you. Some don’t even have soy sauce. My grandma made a version of adobo that had coconut milk in it. And hard-core purists say you shouldn’t even use soy sauce because this is a Chinese ingredient that was brought to the islands later on. True as that may be, a typical adobo these days often has soy in it. I tend to use very little and put in some salt as well. Balance it to your taste, or leave out the soy sauce entirely and just use salt.
  • For a typical adobo, I go with vinegar and garlic, but also soy sauce, bay leaves and black peppercorns. This is not the law by any means, but many adobos I’ve had in Pinas, Europe, and the States, contain this quintet of ingredients. If you want to make a typical adobo, this is what you’d probably start with.

So that said, here is my version. I will stick with chicken for this because Filipinos may argue until they lose their voices about what cut of pork to use. For chicken, I like dark meat for adobo, but a whole, cut up fryer chicken will work perfectly.

Basic Adobong Manok (Chicken Adobo)
serves 4 with heaps of white rice
Adjust the ratios depending on how much sauce you want. I like a lot of sauce because that is the magic elixir for turning plain white rice into God’s Food. If you make a lot of sauce, you will have to reduce it at the end so it thickens. If you want to skip the reducing step, don’t add water to the initial sauce.

1 cup vinegar (I like palm vinegar best, but your favorite white vinegar will work, or cider vinegar as well)
1 cup water
2 tablespoons soy sauce (a light one like Kikkoman, not ‘Soy Superior’) If you prefer more soy sauce, add it, but don’t put as much salt in the mix
4 bay leaves
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
5 or 6 whole cloves of garlic (I like to smash them slightly with the side of a knife)
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
To this you will add about 1 kilo of chicken, cut up.

  1. Bring the whole thing to a simmer over medium heat in a large saucepan (if you are using a Dutch oven, make sure it is a Le Creuset or another kind of enamel-coated cast iron, otherwise it’ll react with the vinegar. Do not stir the mixture, cover and simmer over medium low until the meat is cooked through. For chicken, this won’t be more than 30 minutes. For pork, you can give it an hour or so, depending on the cut.
  2. When the meat is cooked through, remove it from the pot. Turn the pot with the sauce in it to medium high, and boil until the sauce reduces by about half. It should be much thicker. Remove from heat.
  3. Meanwhile, heat a few tablespoons of vegetable oil over medium high heat in a large saucepan. Add the chicken. If you have a splatter screen, use it. You’ll definitely see why. You can also cover it and just lift the lid when you need to turn the chicken pieces. Fry until they are crispy golden brown all over.
  4. Remove the chicken to a serving platter. You can either pour the sauce over directly, or use a strainer to strain out the bay leaves, garlic and peppercorns. My mom does that. I’m sure it’s because as kids we would scream whenever we’d bite into a peppercorn. But again, this is up to you. Maybe you like biting into peppercorns.