Fiesta Filipino

By Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD

Check out the recipes!

Filipino cuisine has a knack for imitating and improving on foods from the many countries that have influenced this international nation. Look through restaurant menus and through cookbooks and you can see the flavors of Spain, the United States, Japan, Indonesia, China, France, Italy, and many Middle Eastern and Asian countries.

Many traditional Filipino flavors are reflected in "fiesta" food. Most towns have a long history of a yearly fiesta with foods made from local and internationally traded ingredients. According to Leonard Belmonte, writing in Philipine Fiesta Recipes (National Bookstore, Manila, 1987), "Filipinos have a passion for good food. The early Filipinos used simple cooking methods, such as broiling over an open fire, boiling, and roasting. With frequent trade, herbs and spices were introduced, as were different cooking techniques. This gives us the unique Filipino cuisine that we have today."

A basic Filipino food taste is that of offering sweet and sour in one dish. The sour can come from cooking with vinegar, tamarind, or kamias (a sour native fruit). If foods aren't cooked with these, then condiments, such as chili-spiked vinegar, lime or lemon juice, or sour fruit (green mango, guava) are often served as accompaniments to prepared items. Adobo, probably the most popularly known Filipino dish, is made by marinating meat or fish in a mixture of palm vinegar, garlic, and cracked peppercorns. (We've tried it with seitan and it works!) The sweet taste can come from palm, white, or brown sugar; fruit juice (pineapple, sweet mango, papaya, rambutan a cousin of the lychee--and oranges); or from home-prepared syrups.

Saltiness is another characteristic of Filipino cuisine. The traditional ingredient used is bagoong, a fermented fish sauce. Salt, pickles, MSG, kimchi (borrowed from Korean cuisine), and miso can be used instead of bagoong for salty accents. Pancit luglug (pancit are Filipino noodles, resembling rice vermicelli; the "luglug" is said to be the sound the noodles make when drained in a bamboo strainer) is another famous dish, flavored with patis (patis is the liquid strained from bagoong). Pancit is a stir-fry of rice noodles, hard-cooked eggs, and pork that is flavored with patis, shrimp sauce, calamansi (a tart, native lemon), pepper, and garlic. We have made a close replica using hot sauce, soy sauce, fresh lemon juice, pepper, and garlic as flavoring and grilled tofu as an ingredient.

Merienda (sunset) is a Filipino tradition that we try to uphold whenever we can. Dinner is usually eaten late in the evening, so snacks (the merienda) are eaten in the early evening to tide you over. Many of the snacks are based on coconut milk, such as suman (glutinous rice, coconut milk, and palm sugar) and bibingka (a charcoal-baked sweet rice flour cake that has different garnishes depending on the season). Sliced fruit, pickled fruit and vegetables, small noodle dishes, and baked items are also served at merienda.

My introduction to Filipino fiesta food was through dessert. I immediately developed a taste for halo-halo ("mix-mix"), a texture and flavor delight. Shaved ice is placed in a tall glass or parfait dish and coconut milk is poured over the ice. Then a smorgasbord of ingredients, which can include sweet beans, palm seeds, diced fresh and canned fruit, sweet corn kernels, toasted nuts and seeds, and crisp cereal are mixed in. I have found the halo-halo portion (all the ingredients sans coconut milk, ice, seeds, and cereals) of this dessert in glass jars in many Asian markets. I suggest you stock up!

There are more than 7,000 islands in the Philippine Archipelago, some of which have traded with Malaysia, China, India, and Arabic countries, and some that have been colonized at one time or another by Japan, the United States, and Spain. For this reason, regional cuisine is extremely diverse. The Ilocanos and Cagayanos of Northern Luzon mix boiled vegetables in many of their dishes, while Metro Manila citizens may use tamarind. The Bicolanos steep ingredients in coconut milk while the Visayans cook vegetables with ginger and green onion leaves.

The Ilocano region, in the Northern part of Luzon Island, developed a cuisine known for its frugality because of the area's barren geography. One of their vegetarian items (although it is flavored with bagoong) is a vegetable stew made with eggplant, tomatoes, and ampalaya (a bitter melon). Tagalog and Pampango cooks are known for their sophisticated Spanish and Chinese influenced menus. Their dishes are spicy and colorful. Dishes that resemble paella, cocida (stew), galantines (pates), and relleno (batter-fried) can be found in these areas. The Bulacan region is known for its sweets and candies used for desserts and snacks. Sweetened red beans and garbanzos as well as chutneys are popular. Ube, a delightful purple yam (we have found frozen ube in Asian stores), is also common. Ube can be cooked, mashed, and sweetened and used as an ingredient in quick breads or muffins or as a filling for turnovers. The Bicol region is known for the use of coconuts and very hot chilies. Steamed rice dumplings are wrapped in gabi leaves (gabi is a form of taro), stewed in thickened coconut milk and seasoned with hot chilies. We've included a Bicol-influened recipe below, the coconut pudding. Visayan cooks prepare simple but elegant meals using boiling, broiling, sauteing, and stewing. Pancits are very popular in this region. There is a Muslim community in Mindanao whose cuisine shows Indonesian, Malaysian, and Indian influences. Curries are very popular, as is the use of turmeric, cumin, bell pepper, garlic, coriander, mustard seed, ginger, and almonds.

Regional and national fiestas are great times for cooking. Christmas in the Philipines stretches over three weeks. Before and after holiday masses, rice cakes are served with hot ginger tea or hot chocolate. Meals seem to begin at four in the morning and last until well after midnight.

A word about traditional Filipino cuisine and vegan dishes: there aren t a lot of them! Animal products are used as either main ingredients or as flavorings. However, the flavors of many favorite dishes can be easily carried by vegetables and grains, as you will see with the recipes we have included. There is a growing number of vegetarians in the Philipines who are adapting traditional cuisine to more earth-friendly ingredients. Many Filipino ingredients can be found canned or frozen in Asian markets and--except for a few--ingredients you have in your pantry can be used. I have enjoyed Filipino flavor for years and hope you'll join me in the fiesta!


Please note that the following recipes have been vegan-modified. There are very few traditional Filipino recipes that do not contain animal products. We have attempted to capture the flavor, texture, and appearance of the original dishes while eliminating animal ingredients. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is added to many Filipino recipes. We have eliminated this, as we found the flavors came through quite satisfactorily without it.

Coconut Pudding with Baked Bananas

(Serves 4)

This is a high fat recipe. Eat in moderation.


  • 3 Tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1/3 cup dry sweetener
  • 1 1/2 cups canned coconut milk (divided)
  • 1 teaspoon ground star anise

Mix cornstarch, sweetener, and 1/4 cup coconut milk together in a small bowl to form a smooth paste (do not overmix). In a small sauce pan heat remaining coconut milk until just warm. In a double boiler, combine paste and warm coconut milk, stirring constantly over medium heat until thick. Add anise and stir to combine. Pour into individual dishes and chill until firm.

Baked Bananas:

  • 4 ripe bananas
  • 3 Tablespoons melted margarine

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with foil. Cut bananas in half, lengthwise and then slice. Spread out on sheet and brush with margarine. Bake until bananas are just soft, about 20 minutes.

To serve: Spoon hot baked bananas onto cold pudding and serve immediately.

Note: It is traditional to tint this pudding with red food coloring so that it takes on a pink hue. Shredded coconut that has been toasted or caramelized is used as a garnish.

Total calories per serving: 495 Fat: 33 grams
Carbohydrates: 50 grams Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 123 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Creamy Corn Soup

(Serves 6)

For additional texture, add fresh corn that has been cut from the cob.

  • 1 cup frozen corn, chopped to a paste
  • 2 1/2 cups vegetable broth
  • 1 cup soy milk
  • Vegetable oil spray
  • 1/4 cup chopped onions
  • 1 clove minced garlic clove
  • 1/4 teaspoon white pepper

In a small saucepan, combine corn, broth, and milk and allow to simmer. Spray a frying pan with oil and saute onion and garlic until soft. Add veggies to milk, season with pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, allow to simmer for 10 minutes. Serve hot.

Total calories per serving: 62 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 4 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 35 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Sopa de Ajo  (garlic soup)

(Serves 4)

This fragrant soup is used as both a fiesta dish and for treatment for a sore throat! Traditionally served over ham or chicken, we have used tofu. You can also use cooked, cubed potatoes.

  • 1 cup dry croutons
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 Tablespoons chopped garlic
  • 2 Tablespoons chopped onion
  • 3 1/2 cups vegetable or mushroom stock
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup cubed firm tofu

In a dry frying pan, toast croutons and set them aside. In a saucepan, heat oil and saute garlic and onions (don't let brown). Add stock and salt, bring to boil, reduce to simmer. Allow to simmer for 5 minutes.

Place small amount of croutons and tofu in the bottom of 4 soup bowls. Add broth to bowls and serve immediately.

Total calories per serving: 146 Fat: 10 grams
Carbohydrates: 9 grams Protein: 7 grams
Sodium: 452 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Papaya Pickles

(Makes 2 pounds)

It's worth searching the stores for green papaya (try Asian and  Indian markets). Make this savory pickle and serve it as a  condiment  with soups, stews, grains, vegetables, and rice.
  • 4 cups grated green papaya
  • 2 cups vinegar
  • 1/2 cup dry sweetener
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 5 chopped green onions
  • 1 cup chopped red bell peppers
  • 1 ounce minced fresh ginger
  • 5 minced garlic cloves

Squeeze papaya to remove as much juice as possible.

Rinse papaya and drain on paper towels. In a saucepan, combine 1 cup vinegar, 1/4 cup sweetener, and 1 teaspoon salt. Add papaya and boil for 5 minutes. Add onions and pepper and boil again for 2 minutes. Drain papaya and discard liquid.

Return papaya to saucepan. Add remaining vinegar, sweetener, salt, ginger, and garlic. Let simmer for two minutes. Remove from heat and cool.

Total calories per 1 oz. serving: 24 Fat: 0 grams
Carbohydrates: 6 grams Protein: <1 gram
Sodium: 144 milligrams Fiber: <1 gram


(Serves 6)

This dish resembles its Spanish cousin in texture, but not in flavor or shape. We have used

"fake meats" (experiment with smoked or barbecue-flavored tofu or seitan strips) to replace ham and

pork strips. You can also use grilled vegetables, cut into strips (try peppers, zucchini, and onion).
  • 1 cup rice flour
  • 1 cup coconut milk
  • 2 1/2 cups vegetable stock
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 3 Tablespoons peanut butter
  • 1 cup "fake meat" cut into strips
  • 1/2 cup chopped green onions

Toast rice flour in a dry frying pan until golden in color. Remove from heat and slowly add coconut milk, stirring until smooth. Return to heat and slowly stir in stock, pepper, and peanut butter until a thick paste is formed (about 10 minutes).

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place paste in a 9-inch pie plate (or small square baking dish) and flatten for evenness. Top paste with "meat" slices and onions. Bake for 3-5 minutes (just to heat). Serve hot.

Total calories per serving: 282 Fat: 16 grams
Carbohydrates: 24 Protein: 10 grams
Sodium: 250 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Fruit Salad

(Serves 6)

I fell in love with this "sinful" fruit salad the first time I tasted it at a Filipino potluck.

Frozen, thawed strawberries can be used if fresh are not available.

  • 12 ounces drained canned fruit salad
  • 1 cup halved fresh strawberries
  • 1 cup fresh melon balls
  • 1/2 cup sliced bananas
  • 1/3 cup vegan mayonnaise
  • 1 Tablespoon orange juice concentrate
  • 2 Tablespoons grated toasted fresh coconut
  • 1/3 cup prepared vegan whipped topping

Combine all fruit and chill for 30 minutes.

In a bowl, combine mayonnaise and concentrate. Fold in coconut and whipped topping. Mix fruit with dressing. Serve on bed of lettuce.

Total calories per serving: 140 Fat: 6 grams
Carbohydrates: 21 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 140 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Bamboo shoot salad

(Serves 6)

This salad is easy to toss together. Cook the sweet potatoes the day before for a firmer texture.

  • 3 cups canned bamboo shoots
  • 2 cups cubed sweet potatoes (boiled, peeled,cubed, and cooled)
  • 1/2 cup chopped onions
  • 6 Tablespoons vegan Thousand Island Dressing

Drain bamboo shoots and cut into thin slices. Combine shoots and sweet potatoes and toss with onions and dressing. Serve cold.

Note: Garnish with sliced tomatoes.

Total calories per serving: 145 Fat: 6 grams
Carbohydrates: 22 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 121 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams

Nancy Berkoff is a foodservice advisor to The Vegetarian resource Group. She lives in California and teaches in a culinary program.