But which adobo to showcase abroad?
As part of our course on Philippine cultural diplomacy at the Foreign Service Institute, a session on Filipino food tasked us to cook adobo that would cater to one’s assigned country. After drawing lots, the participant who got Japan made adobo sushi with a spicy sauce on the side. Another participant assigned to Italy made adobo pasta in brown savory sauce. And the one who got Saudi Arabia made chicken adobo wrapped in pita bread like a shawarma.
This made me appreciate the versatility of the dish — how it can be adjusted to a foreigner’s palate, dining preferences, and even cultural sensibilities. It also made me question all these cooking efforts just to cater to foreign tastes. But then I realized that modifying adobo reflects how we are as a nation—hospitable, adaptable, and accommodating to others.
This activity came back to mind because of the online commotion regarding adobo. It actually runs counter to the Department of Trade and Industry’s plan to standardize the recipe of adobo for overseas promotions. Its aim is to establish a basic recipe for Philippine adobo that can be distinguished from others like Mexican adobo. According to the DTI, this will “determine an authentic adobo dish and pave the way for a distinguished Filipino food culture.”
The idea makes sense, considering that there are many versions of adobo in the country, making the dish difficult to stand out internationally. The ingredients used by Filipinos are different for each region, province, or even family, which makes the taste, smell, and sight of Philippine adobo so varied that it paradoxically becomes more obscure and less recognized. The DTI wants to achieve international awareness for adobo by establishing common denominators in its various recipes.
However, establishing a common adobo “standard” tends to conceal the versatility of the dish and the diversity of its country of origin. The fact that Philippine adobo has many versions highlights the country’s varied cultural traditions, local flavors, and culinary environment. In Mindanao, adobo uses either beef or chicken for Muslim consumption. That’s in contrast to the brown pork adobo in Manila that commonly uses soy sauce, or the adobo in Batangas that has a red-orange color due to achuete.
The fuss about the DTI’s proposal presents a valid moment of introspection into our nation’s food and culture. As a dish, adobo can be “personal,” modified according to one’s regional origin or culinary preference. Yet as a way of cooking, adobo is “national” because of its primary use of salt and vinegar to preserve the taste of the dish and the freshness of the meat.
In promoting Philippine adobo abroad, do we focus on its commonality or highlight its diversity? The answer to the question depends on how we want to project ourselves as a nation, especially after the DTI clarified that its proposed standard for adobo is meant for international promotion.
As hospitable as we Filipinos are, I will personally refrain from improvising adobo solely to accommodate foreign tastes. While I will consider giving the DTI’s “official” adobo a chance, I intend to cook as many local versions of adobo as possible for foreign friends. Whether it be spicy adobo, white adobo, or adobo in coconut milk, cooking and promoting this beloved dish with its many varieties will inevitably make for an interesting conversation about the Philippines.
ANDREA CHLOE WONG
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