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Food, Dining, & Drinks in the Philippines

WARNING: Terrorist threats continue in the Philippines, please read this travel warning before going!

Historic Diet

Filipino Food - Pork Adobo
Pork Adobo

The historic diet of the people that live in the Philippines years ago was what was available on each island or in each region. Their historic diet was based on fresh product, including fruits like bananas and vegetables, primarily numerous root crops. Animals, and hence, meats were also present, but were not as commonly consumed; among these water buffalo is among the most important proteins in their historic diet. More than meat though, fish and other seafood were very popular as the people had easy access to the sea and seafood. Grains like rice were not a common food source in the historic diet of the Filipinos, despite rice's popularity and reliance in many nearby nations.

Culinary Influences

Filipino Food - Bicol Express
Bicol Express

More than most Far East countries, the Philippines has an incredible diversity in their diet, which is primarily the result of foreign influences and immigrations. This diversity begins with the diversity of the country itself. The Filipinos are an ethnic combination of Chinese, Japanese, Malay, Polynesian, and Melanesian among others. With each group came new foods.

With each new ethnic group came new foods. The Chinese immigrants brought many traditional Chinese food and ingredients as even today rice, noodles, and soy products are commonly found in Filipino dishes. Heavily spiced foods influenced by India and coconuts arrived with the arrival of immigrants to the Philippines from Malaysia and Indonesia.

The next group to arrive in the islands, the Spanish in the 1500s, didn't settle, but still strongly influenced Filipino cuisine. The Philippines rarely traded with Spain itself, but the Philippines became a major trading partner with Spain's American colonies, in particular, Mexico. This trade led to the introduction of tomatoes, potatoes, and corn, along with a number of spices. All of these ingredients continue to be commonly found in the Philippines today.

Under Spanish rule, the Philippines became a trading hub and were very open to new foods as it became a destination for culinary influences from all over the world. Pastas and sauces from Italy were introduced while fresh uncooked fish grew in popularity when in contact with the Japanese.

Today the country's cuisine is a result of all these influences and still changing. The most recent changes to the diet have come in the past century under American rule. Processed foods have become more common as have fast foods and American favorites like pizza. Due to their adaptable past, there is little doubt Filipino cuisine will be open and adaptable to future introductions.

Staple Foods

Rice: a common base or side in the Philippines

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Adobo: pork and/or chicken stewed in vinegar, oil, garlic, and spices; often considered the national dish, although there officially is none
Bistek: thinly sliced beef marinated in soy sauce then fried in a skillet; typically served with onions
Mindanao: food from this region is generally heavily spiced, similar to Malaysian or Indonesian food and since many people here are Muslim, pork is forbidden
Stews: a very common dish, served in a wide variety of options

Dining Etiquette

It is a rare opportunity to be invited into a Filipino's house as it is more common to be invited out to a restaurant. If you do meet at a restaurant, get your vocal cords ready as karaoke seems to be the country's national past time and if in a karaoke restaurant you may be asked to sing and are expected to accept (Note: if there's a scoring apparatus on the karaoke machine, you gain extra points for volume, as opposed to quality).

If you are lucky enough to dine at someone's house be sure to bring a sweet as a gift, compliment their house, and don't be afraid to bring your spouse or a guest; the locals regularly show up with uninvited guests as any guest is always welcomed, even if not verbalized. Whether dining at a local's house or in a restaurant the etiquette rules are similar.

Arrive to a meal 15-30 minutes late, this time frame is the common schedule for the Filipinos who lived under the notoriously late Spanish for years and seem to be too relaxed to stress out about arrival times. Once at the restaurant or house, decline everything at least once; your host (don't use the word "hostess" as this is not a very flattering term), will insist you eat, eat more, drink, or drink more and declining on the first offer is actually considered polite.

Once at the dining table, keep your hands above the table so they can be seen at all times. You will most likely be offered a fork and spoon, the spoon should be held in your right hand and the fork in your left; use the fork to push food onto the spoon and eat from that. However, food in the Philippines is variable and if the main course is Chinese or Japanese, chopsticks may be offering in place of a fork and spoon. If Indian is the cuisine of choice, there may be no utensils at all, as the Indians generally eat with their right hand only.

Once it is finally about time to eat, wait until you are invited to begin eating. You may also be faced with alcohol, although it is more commonly served after a meal. The Filipinos do expect you to accept a beverage if offered, but they view getting drunk as rude, so the amount offered should be limited and if not, be careful to limit your intake to maintain sobriety.

If eating at a restaurant, the person who initiated the meal is expected to pay for all those in attendance, and remember that number may double as each person invited may bring a spouse or guest and they should feel welcomed. If eating at a local's house, send a thank you note the next day.

Tipping is growing in popularity, especially in western restaurants. However, many of these places automatically add a 10% service charge, so before tipping, check to see if this service charge has already been added; if not, tip up to 10%.

The last thing to be aware of is that in the southern islands there is a significant Muslim minority. If dining with Muslims try to dress more conservatively, avoid drinking alcohol, and don't eat pork unless your local host does. Most Muslims in the Philippines are quite liberal so take little to no offense to these items, but follow their lead none-the-less.

Celebrations & Events

The largest and most important festival in the Philippines is Christmas Eve, which comes with great foods. The main course is ham with toppings, multiple side dishes, and appetizers including Edam cheese, pastries, and puto bumbong, a purple yam-flavored dish. Wine and brandy are the drinks of choice at this meal.

During most festivals and holidays in the Philippines there are a few common dishes, which are considered luxurious goods and usually only served on special occasions. These dishes include lechon, which is generally a whole roasted pig, although other meats are also common. The most common dessert is leche flan, which is a Spanish-styled custard made from milk and eggs.

Drinks

While all drinks, including tea and coffee are common in the Philippines, a local specialty that can be found nearly everywhere are fruit shakes. These drinks consist of fruit, ice, and cream, but be careful as the ice can sometimes be contaminated.

Beers, brandies, and rums are the most common alcoholic beverages in the Philippines, a sign of their past under both Spanish and American rule. The most authentic alcoholic beverage in the Philippines is tapuy, which is a clear wine made from fermented rice and tends to have a sweetener added.

The tap water in the Philippines should not be consumed because in most places it is not safe. Be sure to also avoid anything with ice as it may have been made from the tap water. Salads and fruits may have also been washed in the tap water so be careful with those foods as well.

This page was last updated: March, 2013