She’s so adamant about this regional-focused definition of Filipino cuisine that, after a recent visit to the Philippines to conduct research for her cookbook, she took her restaurant’s menu offline to rethink and tweak it.
Cavite (pronounced like the dental problem), the province on the southern shores of Manila Bay where her father was born and raised, has become a culinary mecca. It is known for treasuring ingredients introduced by a once strong Mexican presence (immigrants brought by the Spanish as workers)—foods like a salty cow’s milk cheese, reminiscent of cotija, and tamales that use a masa-like flour made, not from corn, but from stone-ground rice, and that are steamed in banana leaves as in the traditional way.
“My mom comes from the north, an area that is driven by farmers who are more thrifty, so the use of meat is not as prevalent because they would rather sell it to make money,” says Ponseca, who notes this region’s cuisine, as a result, can be more vegetable-forward with the use of fermented shrimp and fish sauces.
Regional differences are evident throughout the islands. For instance, venturing into an area in the South Philippines that is less well-known by Americans and that has a predominantly Muslim population, you won’t find the many pork dishes there that characterize the more central parts of the country.
Aside from the cultural and regional influences, Filipino dishes are most recognizable by a heavy use of vinegar and citrus as souring agents meant to cut through some of the richness and likely used as a method of fermentation before the dawn of refrigeration.
“We use three types of vinegar, or suka—coconut, sugarcane, and a certain kind of rice vinegar that’s almost alcoholic in taste,” Ponseca says. “Filipino cooking doesn’t end once food has left the kitchen, because we have these vinegars tableside.” Everyone has their own mixture of sawsawan, or condiments like suka, calamansi (Filipino lime juice), and petis (an aggressively umami-rich and salty fish sauce) used to make personalized dipping sauces.
Vinegar is used heavily in kinilaw, typically known as Filipino ceviche, and prepared with calamansi fruit to “cook” the fish—historically crawfish—in the Philippines. At Bad Saint in Washington, D.C., the tiny, no-reservation Filipino eatery that recently earned the title of the No. 2 restaurant in the U.S. from Bon Appetit magazine, Chef Tom Cunanan uses a spicy cane vinegar for his ukoy, a bright orange ball of shredded sweet potato and shrimp that diners tear off with their hands.
And dinuguan—a take on what people might recognize as morcilla, or blood sausage, but in stew form—uses vinegar as the main acid ingredient to cure the blood, Ponseca explains.
Tamarind, another souring agent, is the main ingredient in sinigang (pronounced sin-ee-gong), a popular, brothy soup with tomato, onions, green or long beans, and other vegetables like cabbage or bok choy. At the Pan-Asian Sunda in Chicago, Chef Jess DeGuzman changes things up by adding sea bass and chayote squash to his tamarind broth. More classic renditions, like those found at Isla Pilipina at the northern end of the city, showcase pork, chicken (manok), shrimp (hipon), or milkfish (bangus), the national fish of the Philippines.
As a child, Ponseca says, she always felt a twinge of embarrassment around her heritage cuisine, especially among non-Filipino crowds. “My Dad would always eat with his hands, and I used to be so embarrassed by it growing up as a brown kid,” says Ponseca, but adds “at the restaurant we made kamayan eating a special night” and has since seen the trend catch on around the country (at Sunda, for one). In the kamayan style, diners are encouraged to make their own nigiri-like balls using sticky rice and scooping up different meats and vegetables without the food actually ever touching their hands.
Ponseca’s also not afraid to showcase some of the more offal-based dishes, like the aforementioned dinuguan. And while balut, a boiled, fertilized duck egg embryo, might make some Americans cringe, it’s considered a street-food delicacy in the Philippines and often served with beer as a snack.
Her favorite dish made by her dad—and a popular one at the restaurant—remains arroz caldo, a rice porridge made using homemade chicken stock softly scented with garlic and ginger, chunks of chicken, saffron, and achuete oil, a blood orange–colored finishing oil made from annatto or achuete seeds, which made their way to the Philippines from South America.
Mexican influence can also be seen in adobo, the unofficial national dish of the Philippines and a favorite on many Filipino restaurants in the U.S. It showcases braised meats with rice. Ponseca makes her adobo with chicken thighs braised in cane vinegar, soy sauce, and peppercorns, but the dish can also take on regional nuances. “I discovered an adobo sa gata made with suka and rounded out by coconut milk, and another one, a red adobo, completely omits soy sauce and uses more fish sauce and achuete oil.
At the Asian-inspired pop-up Kraken Congee in Seattle, Chef Garrett Doherty makes his adobo with braised pork belly and swaps the sticky rice base for lugaw, a Filipino rice porridge that’s on the mild side, but meant to be layered with other richer flavors.
Similarly, many Filipino dishes center on pork as the main ingredient—from the addictive, ubiquitous lumpia, Chinese-inspired miniature egg rolls stuffed with ground pork and cabbage or other vegetables, to lechon kawali, a Filipino-style barbecue pork, to sizzling pork sisig.
“In Cebu where I’m from, for our lechon we stuff the pork belly with a lot of garlic, onion, and lemongrass, before roasting it and then serving it with a type of rich brown gravy made with pork liver, sugar cane, and soy sauce,” says Siap, of Isla Pilipina.