Rowena Romulo on Filipino cuisine

by Henry Coldstream 17 February 2022

Filipino food might not have the same widespread popularity in the UK of other better-known Southeast Asian cuisines but thanks to restaurateurs like Rowena Romulo, more people are getting to grips with the Philippines' unique style of cookery. We chatted to Rowena to find out everything you need to know about Filipino food.

Henry is the features editor at Great British Chefs.

Henry is the features editor at Great British Chefs. Having previously written pieces for a variety of online food publications, he joined the team in 2021 and helps with all editorial aspects of the site. When not writing, Henry can usually be found eating and drinking his way through London's many restaurants and bars, or cooking in his kitchen at home.

Given the UK’s healthy obsession with Asia’s myriad of wonderful cuisines, it’s surprising that it’s taken as long as it has for Filipino food to get the attention it deserves in Britain, especially given it’s one of most distinct cuisines to come out of the continent. However, there are a few Filipino restaurant concepts in London and one of the people credited with bringing the cuisine to the capital is owner of Romulo Café and Kasa and Kin, Rowena Romulo. By offering both traditional and contemporary takes on classic Filipino dishes at her restaurants, Rowena aims to make the food as approachable as possible, whilst honestly showcasing the unique flavours of the Philippines; but what is it that makes this cuisine so distinct?

‘Fusion’ is a word that’s bandied around far too often when describing food but it’s difficult to avoid it when discussing Filipino food. ‘It’s a real combination of Eastern and Western influences,’ explains Rowena. ‘Filipino cuisine represents the history of our country. Over 300 years ago we were a colony of Spain, so you see a lot of that Spanish and Mexican influence in the food. On the other hand, we’re obviously in Southeast Asia so you’ll see a lot of Chinese and Malaysian flavours too. Overall, it’s a real blend of sweet, sour, salty and slightly spicy flavours.’

Flavours and ingredients

By nature of the Philippines being comprised of thousands of different small islands, there is a fair amount of regional variety on show when it comes to food, but there are certain flavours and ingredients which underpin the cuisine as a whole.

Vinegar

Perhaps the most important flavour of all in Filipino cookery is sourness, which is why vinegar is such a key element of a number of dishes. The Philippines has its own set of vinegars that differ from those found in European cuisines, with the most commonly used being cane vinegar. ‘We use a lot of vinegar,’ says Rowena. ‘One of the reasons we do is because it helps with preservation. Going all the way back to the Spanish times there obviously wasn't refrigeration, so they’d conserve the food with vinegar and it would last a few days more. That was just the way they ate.’ This has led to vinegar playing an important role is a number of the Philippines’ most traditional dishes, from kilaw to adobo.

Calamansi

Also used to bring a sour edge to dishes is calamansi, a type of lime native to the Philippines. Much like vinegar, it’s often used to preserve ingredients or as part of a marinade, though you may also see wedges of it served alongside dishes.

Soy sauce

While many of the core flavours in Filipino cookery come from further afield, the country still shares plenty of ingredients with nearby Asian countries. One of these is soy sauce, which is often used to balance out the sharpness of vinegar. ‘We use soy sauce like our Asian neighbours,’ explains Rowena. ‘But in the same way as we do with vinegar, we have our own version. Ours is very dark in colour and also saltier than a lot of other types.’

Annatto

Although a lot of typically Southeast Asian ingredients such as lemongrass and tamarind are used in the Philippines, one of the most common spices used actually hails from South America. ‘Annatto seeds are used a lot,’ says Rowena. ‘It’s a seed that’s grown in Mexico, which we use both for its aroma and also to give foods an orange colour. The seeds are usually infused into oil or ground into a paste.’

Rice and noodles

Rice is a very important part of the Filipino cuisine and is served with most meals, but you’ll also find a lot of noodle dishes. ‘It’s quite similar to Chinese food in that way,’ adds Rowena. ‘When people are sharing dishes around a table there’s normally at least one noodle dish, particularly when it’s a big group or a party. Sharing food is also a really important part of the cuisine; for Filipinos, coming together for a meal is like a celebration.’

Traditional dishes

Whilst there are thousands of Filipino dishes out there and even more variations of each of them, there are a few traditional dishes which are particularly common and act as a great introduction to the cuisine.

Adobo

Probably the most famous Filipino dish there is, adobo is a type of stew usually made with either chicken or pork belly. The meat is slow cooked for hours and hours usually in a combination of vinegar, soy sauce, garlic and pepper, before being removed from the sauce, which is sometimes then thickened and served as a gravy. ‘It’s a very versatile dish,’ says Rowena. ‘In fact, it’s really more of a cooking process than a recipe. You can even replace the meat with vegetables or seafood. Every family in the Philippines has their own recipe.’

Lechon

Another incredibly popular Filipino dish – especially for celebrations – is lechon; a whole roasted suckling pig. Other countries including Spain have their own takes on lechon, but what makes the Filipino version distinct is the fact that it’s not necessarily a baby suckling pig; in fact, it tends to be much bigger. ‘It’s normally a big ten kilo pig that we roast slowly over a fire,’ Rowena explains. ‘It’s usually served with the head and everything, and is stuffed with spices. Lechon is a very celebratory kind of dish though, so you see it most around Christmas.’

Kilaw

Also known as kinilaw, kilaw is the Filipino version of a ceviche and features raw fish in an acidic dressing usually made from vinegar or citrus juice. This is very much a dish which dates back to times when the Philippines were still under Spanish rule, as Rowena explains. ‘Kilaw was born from this lack of refrigeration hundreds of years ago,’ she says. ‘Using vinegar was the only way to preserve the raw fish, but it’s now become one of our most famous dishes.’