Masarap: A guide to Filipino food for University students


Katrina Alonso

On March 12, The New York Times published a piece called “Filipino Food Finds a Place in the American Mainstream.” Written by Ligaya Mishan, the article features lush descriptions of unique flavors like that of salty, vinegary adobo and crispy, meaty lumpia — dishes that are hallmarks of Filipino cuisine and are often used as a gateway for foreigners who have never tried Filipino food before.

As a cuisine, Filipino food is forgiving for those who have never tried it: sinigang, for example, a sour tamarind soup that becomes the star of every meal during the monsoon season in that small tropical Southeast Asian country, suggests the familiar punch of the Thai tom yum soup, as Mishan wrote in her article. Ingredients like pork or shrimp, potatoes, tomatoes, green beans, spinach, and eggplant often find themselves in various interpretations of sinigang, and none of those would feel out of place in a typical American diet.

A bowl of shrimp sinigang (sour tamarind soup) with spinach, eggplant, Japanese radish, and green beans.
A bowl of shrimp sinigang (sour tamarind soup) with spinach, eggplant, Japanese radish, and green beans.

Conversely, adventurous eaters could try a traditional dish called dinuguan, a stew made of pork’s blood, pork meat (and sometimes innards), and a slew of spices and sauces that ultimately serve to balance out the stew, which is often served with sweet, plump rice cakes called puto. Perhaps it’s not for the faint of heart, but dinuguan is one of the many dishes that exhibit the artful range of Filipino cuisine.

Dinuguan (pork blood stew) garnished with scallions
Dinuguan (pork blood stew) garnished with scallions

In Manhattan, traditional Filipino food is somewhat difficult to find. So many of the popular examples on this island are Filipino fusion — a clue to the assimilationist streak in Filipino culture as a whole. However, one seeking to taste the new and exciting flavors that come married to Filipino cuisine need not look very far: these Filipino fusion restaurants, as all Filipinos do, carry a bit of the mother country with them.

Maharlika (East Village), for example, is mentioned by name in the Times for its “Filipino Moderno” (read: home cooking turned up a notch) style. Here, comfort food reigns king. There is, of course, adobo. But there is also kare-kare (peanut butter oxtail stew), breakfast staples like longganisa (sweet pork sausage) and tapa (dried marinated steak), and, for the newbies, chicken and waffles with a Filipino twist: ube, a sweet purple yam used to flavor (and color) many Filipino desserts, is mixed into the waffle batter, putting a vanilla-y Islander spin on a down-home American dish.

For those only looking to dip a toe in the water, restaurants like Lumpia Shack and Flip Sigi (both in the West Village) make Filipino food more accessible to the American palate. These restaurants serve small bites like lumpia and tacos filled with adobo, and they also plate up fried milkfish or short ribs made tender in a concentrated sinigang broth on beds of rice, the ultimate companion to Filipino cuisine. Here, the epicurean adventurer can soothe their gastronomic wanderlust without straying too far outside of their comfort zone: the familiarity of egg rolls, rice bowls, ramen burgers, and tacos yield to the sweet, zingy flavors of a new culture worth exploring.

Mushroom Lumpia (left) and Pork Lumpia (right) from Lumpia Shack
Mushroom Lumpia (left) and Pork Lumpia (right) from Lumpia Shack

A word of caution to those riding on a budget: Maharlika runs pricey for the average college student, serving dishes that run around $20 or more. Lumpia Shack and Flip Sigi are much more affordable, with small plates ringing in at $7.50 and full dishes costing between $10 and $13.

If you are really chasing authenticity and really not in the mood to empty your bank account, hop on the Newark-bound PATH train at the World Trade Center and get off at the Journal Square stop. A quick 10-minute walk will bring you to Little Manila in the heart of Jersey City. It is here that the bastions of Filipino cuisine live and thrive: Max’s, a chain restaurant that started in Manila in 1945 and was imported to the states by the grace of Filipino-American immigrants and the concept of franchising, Red Ribbon, one of the biggest Filipino chain bakeries, and Philippine Bread House all stand within feet of each other, but the competition is friendly and the options are boundless.

At Max’s you will find all the traditional Filipino dishes your heart desires, but their fried chicken is not to be missed. An entire half of a chicken will only run you $8.95, and the plump, juicy meat and thin, crispy skin, served with a healthy helping of rice and banana ketchup (a condiment to enjoy, not to question) will fill you up for days.

Red Ribbon is home to the famous Mango Supreme cake, a slice of which runs for about $4. You have not tasted a mango until you have tasted a Philippine mango, as many will tell you, and the fruit is paired with a delicate whipped cream frosting and chiffon cake — an arrangement that only serves to bring out the sweetness and lightness of the mango. Those without a sweet tooth will also enjoy a selection of $3 Filipino empanadas — baked, not fried like the Cuban ones from Sophie’s on Fulton St. are, but packed tightly with well-seasoned, tomatoey beef or vinegary chicken, these new takes on familiar creations will endear Filipino cuisine to any nonbeliever.

Finally, the simplest but most Filipino place on this list is Philippine Bread House. It’s a ways away from the former two restaurants, but the walk is worth it. This seemingly unremarkable structure, which actually does look somewhat like the many squat, Spanish-style houses in Manila, plays host to an equally-unremarkable linoleum-tiled bakery/restaurant combination. But its simplicity only serves to highlight its impressive selection of baked goods and prepared food.

Metal shelves carry bread and pastries of all sorts, many of which are typical fare in the shack-like storefront bakeries with no air conditioning in the Philippines. Bags full of the dinner-roll-like pan de sal and sweet, cheese-topped ensaymadas line the walls and the island in the middle. Then there are the glass cases, which house cakes of every flavor, color and origin, and the rolling carts behind the counter that hold pastries like bicho-bicho, a long, braided doughnut with a thick layer of granulated sugar on the outside, still warm from the fryer and ready to be packed away in white paper bags.

The restaurant on the other side of the room from the bakery serves Filipino food in the traditional turo-turo (literally point-point) style: large trays filled with various entrées are kept warm in a hot water bath and served, once pointed to, with a large helping of rice in a very affordable combo meal. TVs tuned to the Filipino Channel surround the dining area and provide diners with the distinct feeling that they have somehow transported to an eatery in Manila.

The Philippine culture is one that has long-deserved its time in the spotlight of the American mainstream: the unique cuisine, informed by years of experimentation and the influence of other cultures, is an experience that should be celebrated and explored to its fullest capacity. Though its presence in Manhattan may be somewhat sparse, perhaps in the coming years, it will grow to be just as much a part of the rainbow that is American cuisine’s paint palette as other Southeast Asian foods have become.