Filipino cuisine is shrouded in mystery for most Americans, except for some of the most extreme dishes like balut, a developing duck embryo that’s cooked alive, or durian, a fruit that literally smells like trash.
Since I'm only half-Filipino, my family had to trick me into eating the exotic traditional dishes that always turned out to be delicious. So here’s a guide to some dishes that might have intimidating appearances, but are actually tasty.
Every Filipino you meet will have a story about this ominously brown soup. Parents sadistically tell their kids dinuguan is chocolate soup but in reality it’s made of pig's intestines, kidneys, lungs, heart and snout cooked in blood. Now this may make you cringe, but honestly it's not terrible. The taste is similar to blood sausage or British black pudding.
My grandmother was very resourceful and always bought whole chickens and butchered them instead of buying precut meats. Coincidentally every time after my grandfather made lugaw. Lugaw is rice porridge with ginger, garlic, chicken stock and chicken – or so I thought. Much later in life after my grandfather’s death, I noticed my grandmother didn’t make lugaw when she bought chicken. It turned out she didn’t know how to treat the chicken innards like my grandfather did.
Growing up I never questioned that sisig was anything other then delicious fried pork bits. Well it's fried to cover up the texture of pig's face and liver. Since it's marinated in lemon juice and vinegar the gamey flavor is covered up.
This single dish scarred me from eating shellfish for a good portion of my life. The soup itself is a pretty standard Asian cellophane noodle soup with chicken or seafood broth. So what could possibly be so bad about crab? Well my grandparents ate the head of the crab, which to my complete shock looks nothing like the leg meat. It's a light green soupy mess and if you're lucky the crab might have bright orange eggs inside of it.
To be honest I’ve never had the most infamous Filipino dish, balut. Or at least I think I haven't. When I was ten-years-old I watched in horror as my grandfather fed my baby cousin balut saying it was a hard-boiled egg. The poor toddler had no idea what she had gotten herself into and wanted a second egg. I worry if I was once that gullible too and perhaps enjoyed balut before I knew what it was.
This is a clear broth made by cooking down the collagen of beef shanks and bone marrow. Served with bok choy and corn it tastes similar to the Vietnamese soup pho. But the highlight of the dish is the giant bones filled with marrow. As a kid I was told the marrow was no different from beef and to slurp it out of the bone but my eyes and taste buds certainly begged to differ.
Yet another well disguised pork dish. This fried, salty, goodness of pork is actually made from the pig's knuckles. A fact that I didn’t even know until I started writing this story and called my family for recipes. But don't let the region of the pig this dish originates from scare. Crispy pata not only my favorite Filipino dish, but my favorite preparation of pork. You would never guess it was knuckle by how tender the meat is and the fatty crunchy skin gives bacon a run for its money.