Living Among Coconuts

Filipino Cuisine to Grace the Vegan Table

By Zel Allen

If the foods of the Philippines could speak, their words would reveal amazing tales of primitive tribes, power struggles and wars, invaders and settlers from foreign places, a wild land filled with natural beauty, and rich soil producing a lush jungle brimming with good things to eat. Foods of the indigenous natives gradually mingled with traditional cuisines of the settlers and became the colorful, flavorful melting pot of today’s Filipino cuisine.

Growing wild in the outlying island provinces, or in areas far from sophisticated cities like Manila, is an abundance of coconut palms, and banana, mango, papaya, and jackfruit trees. Beneath the soil are wonderful root crops like taro, cassava, and sweet potatoes of many varieties and colors. These tropical fruit trees and starchy roots are also part of the neighborhood landscape where all one has to do is pluck a mango from the tree or dig up a few taro tubers for dinner.

Leafy greens are ubiquitous. The leaves of the taro and sweet potato are valued as nutritious soup or stir-fry ingredients. Leafy plants like malunggay and the spinach-like kangkong also grow copiously along with varieties of long green beans, cabbage, and pumpkin. These gems of nature are essentials that bestow their singular quality on Filipino dishes. Tiny Philippine limes, called calamansi, are a staple in every kitchen. A squeeze of calamansi juice, frequently the finishing touch to a dish, is also used to create the pleasant, pungent tart flavor in soups or stews so prevalent in this cuisine.

A typical open-air market, dazzling with a splash of rainbow colors, displays fresh fruits and vegetables cascading from hand-woven baskets, or sprawled over fresh 12-foot banana leaves or color-infused batik cloth. Vendors and shoppers scurry through narrow aisles bargaining loudly for plump golden pineapples, whole hands of bananas, or ube, native bright purple yams. Fresh foods of every category intermingle with household items like handmade brooms, while intense smells of animal and vegetable products waft heavily in the hot, humid close quarters.

The early inhabitants of these islands were Malay, whose simple cooking methods contributed many of today’s popular dishes prepared with coconut milk. On less developed islands, coconut milk is still extracted by hand. Vinegar, fermented from coconut, allowed the native people to preserve vegetables by pickling or marinating, and then stewing.

Patis and bagoong, popular salty, fermented condiments, may have originated with early indigenous people and not only aided in preserving fruits and vegetables in early times but are also present-day seasoning essentials. The Philippines consists of an archipelago of many thousands of islands that sprawl between the Philippine Sea and the South China Sea. Because of their proximity to China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Japan, the islands became an essential trading port for purveyors of goods from those countries. Over time, some of the traders settled in the Philippines, bringing elements of their food traditions to their new homeland.

The Chinese influence is evident in the variety of noodle dishes, or pancit, and egg rolls, called lumpia. Steamed buns and dumplings are familiar foods, along with ingredients like soy sauce, ginger, tofu, dried mushrooms, and fermented black beans that have become essential seasonings embedded in everyday Filipino dishes.

When Spaniards occupied the islands during the 1500s, they left their influential culinary mark by introducing new and exciting fruits and vegetables like brilliant red tomatoes, squash, corn, avocados, chayote, annatto seeds, and cacao brought by trading expeditions from South America and Mexico. The islanders quickly embraced these exotic plant foods that evolved with time into a tasty fusion of European and Filipino foods. Today, Filipinos prepare Spanish dishes like paella, empanadas, almondigas, and ceviche, yet these food specialties have literally morphed to become distinctly Filipino. Leche flan, a favorite dessert seen on restaurant menus today, also traveled to the islands from Spain.

Because the country is so close to the equator, its hot and humid climate doesn’t entice one to spend long hours in the kitchen creating intricate dishes. Instead, foods are relatively simple, and quickly prepared using mainly stovetop cooking methods to create well-seasoned and sometimes spicy stir-fries, stews, soups, and pan-fried delicacies. Grilling is also popular.

Today’s distinctive Filipino cuisine is surprisingly diverse and offers a delectable, exotic, homogeneous, multi-cultural pot of flavors, reflecting the orchestra of cultures that settled in the islands. At the heart of everyday meals is white rice, a major staple that accompanies nearly all soups, stews, stir-fries, and deep-fried foods. Though traditional dishes almost always feature animal foods, vegetables and tofu play an important role. Tossed salads are rare, but pickled vegetable dishes frequently appear at festive meals or as accompaniments.

Veganizing the Filipino recipes for this article was actually an ideal way to enhance the delightful and intriguing cuisine with far more vegetables than present in their original versions. The dishes still contain the quintessential seasonings and the distinctive ingredients of the islands, yet become deliciously lighter, less fatty, more nutritious, and much more colorful. Most of the ingredients are readily available in regular markets, but a fun trip to explore an Asian or Filipino grocery may offer more choices and many tasty surprises.

Pancit Buko

(Coconut Noodles and Vegetables)

(Serves 6)

In Tagalog, pancit buko means coconut noodles. Taking the place of rice, mung bean, wheat, or yam noodles is the coarsely shredded mature coconut that offers delicious richness and pleasing texture to this easy-to-cook entrée. Don’t let the coconut deter you from this recipe. It’s easy to crack the tough shell with just a few strong whacks of a hammer. But if you’re intimidated by fresh coconut, you can buy frozen, grated coconut in Asian or Filipino markets.

  • 1 mature coconut or 2 cups frozen grated coconut
  • ½ pound extra firm tofu, crumbled
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 2 small tomatoes, chopped
  • 5-6 garlic cloves, finely minced
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 cups chopped green cabbage
  • 5 leaves Napa cabbage, thinly sliced crosswise
  • ½ pound green beans, sliced into ¼-inch lengths
  • 1 large carrot, cut into 1-inch-long matchsticks
  • 1 cup water
  • ¼ to 1 3 cup red miso
  • Pepper
  • Bagoong Miso (see pg. 20)
  • Paprika, for garnish

Put the coconut in a large plastic bag, place it on the ground outdoors, and use a hammer to crack it into several pieces. Separate the coconut meat from the shell with a firm paring knife. Rinse and dry the coconut. Use a hand grater or food processor to coarsely shred enough coconut meat to measure 2 cups. Set aside.

In a large, deep skillet, combine the tofu, onion, tomatoes, garlic, water, and olive oil and cook over high heat, stirring requently, for 5-8 minutes or until the onions are softened. Add both cabbages, green beans, carrots, water, red miso, and the shredded coconut and cook over medium-high heat for 3-5 minutes or until the vegetables are just tender. Season to taste with pepper and Bagoong Miso and transfer to a serving bowl. Finish with a sprinkle of paprika.

Total calories per serving: 347 Fat: 27 grams
Carbohydrates: 22 grams Protein: 9 grams
Sodium: 465 milligrams Fiber: 9 grams

Sinigang

(Tofu and Vegetable Tamarind Soup)

(Serves 8-10)

Here’s a soup that’s so packed with vegetables and stick-to-the-belly ingredients it can easily become the centerpiece of a satisfying meal. Tofu and mung beans replace the usual meat, chicken, or fish and lend heartiness to this lightly spiced, tangy, and savory-sour soup. Typically, white rice is added to the soup or served on the side, but consider the healthier option with short-grain brown rice. Filipinos leave many of the vegetables whole or cut into large pieces, but you can choose to chop them for convenience. The final seasoning will be left to the home chef to create the optimal sour and salty seasoning balance.

  • 2 large onions, coarsely chopped
  • 1 head garlic, coarsely chopped
  • 2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 10 cups water
  • 1½ pounds tomatoes, quartered or coarsely chopped, divided
  • 3 Tablespoons tamarind paste or 10 whole tamarind pods, coarsely broken
  • 3 medium carrots, peeled and thickly sliced
  • ½ pound firm tofu, cut into ½-inch chunks
  • ½ cup whole, split or sprouted mung beans, or brown rice
  • 2 whole jalapeños or other hot peppers
  • Freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • 1 pound Chinese eggplant, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 4 cups chopped cabbage, or 4-5 baby bok choy, halved
  • ½ pound Chinese broccoli, spinach, or kangkong (Filipino spinach), coarsely chopped
  • ¼ pound green beans, trimmed and cut into 1½-inch lengths
  • ¼ to ½ pound okra pods, whole, stem end trimmed
  • ¼ cup reduced-sodium soy sauce
  • 2 Tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1½ Tablespoons rice or apple cider vinegar, or to taste
  • ½ teaspoon salt or miso to taste

Combine the onions, garlic, and oil in a 10- to 12-quart stockpot and add about 1 cup of the water. Cook and stir over high heat for about 4-5 minutes or until the onions are transparent. Add small amounts of water as needed to cook the onions and prevent burning.

Add the remaining 9 cups of water, half the tomatoes, tamarind paste, carrots, tofu, mung beans, jalapeño peppers, and pepper to taste and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-high and cook about 8-10 minutes.

Raise the heat to high and add the eggplant, cabbage, broccoli, green beans, and okra and cook 5 minutes longer or until the vegetables are softened. Add the remaining tomatoes and cook 2 minutes more. Season soup to taste with the soy sauce, brown sugar, vinegar, and salt. Aim for a tangy soup with only a delicate hint of sweetness.

Note:Tamarind paste often contains a few tamarind seeds that are easy to spot and eliminate before adding to the soup. If using whole tamarind pods, tie them up in cheesecloth before dropping them into the soup kettle to prevent their shells and seeds from breaking off into the soup. If tamarind paste or pods are unavailable, substitute lemon or lime juice to taste.

Total calories per serving: 219 Fat: 7 grams
Carbohydrates: 33 grams Protein: 12 grams
Sodium: 455 milligrams Fiber: 10 grams

Chiken Adobo

(Faux Chicken in Vinegar Soy Sauce)

(Serves 4-5)

Adobo is the beloved national dish of the Philippines and is known for its multitude of variations. Every family has its own treasured recipe. Create your own variations using tofu or tempeh in place of the faux chicken, or bite-size zucchini in place of the bell peppers. Or, omit the faux chicken and make this a royal Vegetable Adobo with bite-size chunks of eggplant, zucchini, peppers, string beans, okra, bok choy, spinach, and cabbage. Serve over brown rice.

  • 2-3 Tablespoons water
  • 1 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, cut in half vertically and sliced into half-moons
  • ½ red bell pepper, chopped
  • ½ green bell pepper, chopped
  • 10-12 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
  • 2/3 cup rice or apple cider vinegar
  • ¼ cup reduced-sodium soy sauce
  • 3 Tablespoons water
  • 8-ounce package faux chicken strips
  • 1 Tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1 Tablespoon water
  • 1 green onion, sliced, for garnish

Heat water and olive oil in a large, deep skillet over high heat for 30 seconds. Add the onions and peppers and cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are transparent, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute.

Add the vinegar, soy sauce, water, and faux chicken and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, combine the cornstarch and water in a small bowl or cup and stir to form a runny paste. When the liquid in the skillet is boiling, reduce heat to medium and slowly pour the cornstarch paste into the bubbling sauce until thickened, about 1 minute. Transfer Chiken Adobo to a platter and garnish with the green onions.

Total calories per serving: 164 Fat: 5 grams
Carbohydrates: 13 grams Protein: 16 grams
Sodium: 749 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Sotonghon Guisado

(Sautéed Bean Thread Noodles)

(Serves 5-6)

Dishes featuring pancit, the Filipino name for noodles, are everyday staples as well as special occasion fare. The tricky part to preparing this dish is timing. Plan at least 2 hours or longer to marinate the tofu. The noodles require 15 minutes to soak and about another 15 minutes to cook. Don’t allow the noodles to soak longer than 30 minutes or they may become mushy.

  • ½ cup apple cider vinegar
  • ¼ cup-reduced sodium soy sauce
  • 5 Tablespoons water
  • 1 pound extra firm tofu, cut into long ½-inch strips
  • 10-ounce package mung bean noodles (called bean threads or cellophane noodles)
  • 2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into matchsticks
  • 1 large onion, sliced
  • 8 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
  • 2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • Water
  • 3 tomatoes cut into thin wedges
  • ½ pound broccoli, cut into bite-size florets, stems cut into matchsticks
  • 6 fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded, halved
  • 2-4 cups low sodium vegetable broth or water
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Bagoong Miso (see pg. 20)

Combine the vinegar, soy sauce, and water in a shallow baking dish. Add the tofu and set aside to marinate for 2-5 hours, turning frequently.

Fill an extra-large bowl with hot water and submerge the noodles.Soak noodles for 15 minutes to partially soften.

Put the carrots, onions, garlic, olive oil and 1 cup of water into a large, deep skillet or a flat-bottom wok and cook while stirring for about 7-10 minutes or until softened. Add more water as needed to prevent burning.

Add the tomatoes to the skillet and cook for 10-15 minutes, or until they are broken down. When softened, add the noodles to the skillet. Use kitchen scissors to quickly snip them into comfortable eating lengths. Add the broccoli, mushrooms, and previously marinated tofu along with all of the marinade.

Add about 2 cups of broth or enough liquid to partially submerge all of the ingredients. Cook, uncovered, on medium-high heat, stirring frequently, for about 12-15 minutes or until the broccoli is tender, the noodles are soft, and most of the liquid has been absorbed. Season dish to taste with Bagoong Miso or enjoy the condiment on the side.

Total calories per serving: 412 Fat: 11 grams
Carbohydrates: 67 grams Protein: 13 grams
Sodium: 533 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams

Pinkabet Ilocano

(Vegetables Sautéed in Bagoong)

(Serves 6)

I must admit I’ve taken grand liberties with this recipe that originated in Ilocos, the northern region of Luzon, which is the largest, most populated island of the Philippines. This tasty, vegetable-packed stew traditionally receives its savory flavor from pork and anchovy paste. To transform the stew into one that vegans will fall in love with, I’ve given it a tomato base and replaced the pork with chunks of tempeh. For seasoning, my miso-based, garlic-enhanced bagoong adds irresistible flavor and scents the kitchen with its hefty fragrance. Prep all the vegetables first. Then, the flavorful dish will be ready to serve within 30 minutes.

  • 8 ounces tempeh, cut into ½-inch pieces
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 7 garlic cloves, finely minced
  • 1½ cups plus 3 Tablespoons water
  • 1 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 8 medium tomatoes, diced
  • 1 pound eggplant, peeled and cut into bite-size pieces
  • 3 cups whole or thickly sliced fresh or frozen okra
  • 2-3 cups butternut squash, peeled and in bite-size chunks
  • ¼ pound green beans, trimmed and cut into 1½-inch pieces
  • ¼ cup Bagoong Miso (next recipe)
  • Pepper to taste
  • 3 Tablespoons minced parsley, for garnish

Put the tempeh, onion, garlic, 3 Tablespoons of the water, and olive oil in a large, deep skillet. Cook and stir over high heat for about 3-5 minutes or until the onions are softened. Add 1 or more Tablespoons water as needed to prevent burning.

Add the tomatoes and cook about 3 or 4 minutes, or until they begin to break down. Add the remaining 1½ cups water, eggplant, okra, squash, green beans, Bagoong Miso, and pepper. When the liquid begins to boil, reduce the heat to medium. Simmer, uncovered, 10-15 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender. Adjust seasonings, if needed. Spoon into serving bowls and top each with a sprinkle of parsley.

Total calories per serving: 236 Fat: 9 grams
Carbohydrates: 32 grams Protein: 13 grams
Sodium: 402 milligrams Fiber: 9 grams

Bagoong Miso and Patis Miso

(Sautéed Condiment Paste)

(Serves 8)

Taking the place of salt are two essential flavor enhancers that play an important role in Filipino kitchens. Bagoong, pronounced with three syllables, bago-ong, is a thick, salty, fermented fish-based condiment used daily to season a multitude of dishes. The other is patis, a liquid fish sauce. Vegan Bagoong, with its generous measure of garlic, is a delicious, thick, and aromatic miso version of shrimp or anchovy paste that makes an irresistible seasoning for stews, soups, and stir-fries or to serve on the side.

  • 7 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2/3 cup red miso
  • 2 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon vegan sugar
  • Pinch cayenne

To make Bagoong Miso, cook and stir the garlic and olive oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat for about 2 minutes. Adjust the heat as needed to prevent burning.

Add the miso, vinegar, sugar, and cayenne and mix well with a wire whip to incorporate all the ingredients. Use immediately or refrigerate until ready to use. Refrigerated, Bagoong will keep for up to one month.

To make Patis Miso, add enough water to 2-3 Tablespoons of red miso to create a runny sauce about the consistency of tomato juice. Use as needed for seasoning. To store, pour the patis into a narrow-neck bottle and chill. Refrigerated, Patis will keep for up to one month.

Total calories per serving: 82 Fat: 5 grams
Carbohydrates: 7 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 854 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Laing

(Spinach with Coconut Milk)

(Serves 4-5)

Replacing the typical measure of pork and shrimp with earthy Portobello mushrooms transforms this traditional spinach recipe into a delicious vegan vegetable dish. While spinach or taro leaves are usually the focus of this side dish, I thought kale bathed in the coconut milk would taste sensational, and it does. If you like spicy flavors, consider adding a pinch or two of cayenne.

  • 4 cups finely minced kale (1 medium bunch), ribs discarded
  • 1 large Portobello mushroom (about 5 ounces) diced
  • 1½ cups light coconut milk
  • ½ cup diced onions
  • 1 Tablespoon peeled and finely minced fresh ginger
  • 1 jalapeño, seeded and finely minced
  • ½ cup coconut cream
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • Bagoong Miso to taste (see pg. 20)
  • 1 roasted red bell pepper, cut into ½-inch strips, for garnish
  • 1 Tablespoon crushed no salt roasted peanuts, for garnish

In a large, deep skillet, combine the kale, mushrooms, light coconut milk, onions, ginger, and jalapeño. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until the kale is very soft and the mushrooms are cooked, about 15-20 minutes.

Add the coconut cream, salt, and pepper and cook about 2-3 minutes to blend flavors. Season dish with Bagoong Miso to taste. To garnish, surround the Laing with the bell pepper strips and sprinkle the top with crushed peanuts.

Total calories per serving: 200 Fat: 13 grams
Carbohydrates: 17 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 638 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams

Ube Halaya

(Purple Yam Pudding)

(Serves 4)

This thick, satin-smooth pudding-like dessert is a familiar favorite on the Filipino dessert scene. Ube, pronounced “ooh-beh,” is a type of yam grown in the Philippines and is often grated, cooked, and combined with coconut milk and sugar to make pudding, jam, or cake. Ube’s intensely bright purple color makes for an utterly dramatic presentation. Frozen ube is available in Filipino or some Asian markets, but you can substitute sweet potatoes or yams with excellent success. Be sure to defrost the ube before using.

  • 1 pound package frozen, defrosted ube or 1 pound yams or sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into ½-inch slices
  • 14-ounce can lite coconut milk
  • ¾ cup sugar (vegan brand)
  • ¼ cup vegan margarine
  • 7 ounces coconut cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Sliced bananas, for garnish
  • Halved strawberries, for garnish

If using ube, empty the package into a 3-quart saucepan and add 1 cup water. Cook, uncovered, over medium heat, stirring constantly, for about 5 minutes or until the ube is softened. Add small amounts of water as needed to prevent burning. If using yams or sweet potatoes, put them in a 3-quart saucepan with about ½-inch of water. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low and steam for about 4-5 minutes, or until the potatoes are fork tender. Drain excess water.

Thoroughly mash the cooked ube or sweet potatoes in the pot and add the coconut milk, sugar, and margarine. Cook over medium- low heat, stirring frequently, for about 30-40 minutes or until the mixture turns into a very thick paste and begins to pull away from the sides of the pan.

Add the coconut cream and vanilla, mix well, and spoon the mixture into 4 lightly-oiled 3-inch ramekins, custard cups, or dessert dishes. Place a piece of plastic wrap directly over the pudding in each bowl to prevent the tops from drying. Refrigerate for several hours.

The ube becomes firm enough to invert onto dessert plates or can be served from the ramekin. The sweet potatoes or yams do not unmold well. Serve in the ramekins or spoon onto a dessert dish and reshape with the back of a spoon or a knife. Garnish with bananas and strawberries.

Total calories per serving: 570 Fat: 26 grams
Carbohydrates: 82 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 162 milligrams Fiber: 7 grams

Zel Allen is a regular contributor to Vegetarian Journal. She is the author of several vegan cookbooks including The Nut Gourmet and Vegan for the Holidays. These books are available from www.vrg.org/catalog.