In his short story ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges describes a fictional book written by a Chinese intellectual called Ts’ui Pen, whose descendant - the main character in this story - comes to understand is an endless labyrinth; that it contains not a linear story but all the possible outcomes of that story that diverge and diverge in a series of infinite checkpoints. All this comes in the middle of what is essentially a wartime spy ripper, ending in a sudden burst of violence whose reason is revealed to be utterly banal next to the secret of the book. If you haven’t read it, then you can here — it will take about 15 minutes of your time but stays with you a lifetime.
The story came to mind when I first read writer and chef Mark Corbyn’s idea for a newsletter on the adaptability of the Filipino dish adobo. What if instead of a story of forking paths, it was a recipe? Recipes are set in stone; they tell you, with weighed precision and authority, how a meal is constructed. Then when you make it, you can say it’s ‘Nigel’s recipe’ or ‘Meera’s’ or, well maybe not now, ‘Alison’s’. Yet the best cookbook writers - Nigel Slater for instance - do not so much as teach you a recipe but ideas on how to cook which you then use to construct your own recipe. In this way they end up becoming a part of your cooking life in a way the most precise recipes rarely do. This is also why I love Thom Eagle’s book ‘First, Catch’, perhaps the only cookbook to tackle the concept of infinity, except in Thom’s case it is not made up of infinite choices but infinitely small discursions that converge and converge until he’s discussing the size of bubbles while boiling water, and ultimately no recipe is actually proffered. That his new book allegedly contains recipes is, in my opinion, close to selling out.
In today’s letter on adobo, Mark has more than risen to the challenge of producing an infinite recipe. I love how he has laid it out, in a way that diverges until it covers the possibilities of one dish with one name spread over 7641 islands and an entire diaspora. Not only are the possibilities of one meal infinite, but it sets into motion a chain of secondary meals which are in themselves infinite, and links this newsletter back to the first Vittles newsletter, by Coco Kwok, whose cooking is also a never ending loop. I promise that you will never look at adobo in the same way again.
An Adobo of Forking Paths, by Mark Corbyn
Adobo was one of the first things that my mum taught me to cook. In time-honoured tradition, I was not given any real measurements, instead being told to cook to taste. Adobo is really more of a technique than a specific recipe; it originates from early Filipinos learning to cook in vinegar and salt, as a very simple and effective means of making their food last longer. When the Spanish first arrived in the Philippines in the 1500s, they re-christened this as adobo because of its superficial similarities to other preparation techniques back home (its original indigenous name having been erased from history). Fast-forward to the present and adobo is now considered an unofficial national dish.
Suffice to say, the adobo I learnt to make with my mum is probably quite unlike what our ancestors ate. It even differs from what some other Filipinos eat too. A diner once commented after one of my pop-ups that they really liked my innovation of using soy sauce in place of salt. But this ‘innovation’ dates back centuries to when thousands of Chinese traders were encouraged to settle in the Philippines by the Spanish! This diner was an adherent of what’s known as adobong puti, or white adobo, the adobo that some consider to be closest to the original version. But is it really?
Think about it. There’s adobong dilaw (yellow adobo, with turmeric and no soy sauce) from Batangas, adobong pula (red adobo, with annatto seed oil) from Iloilo, adobo sa gata (with coconut milk) from the coconut-rich areas of Laguna and Bicol. Did adobong puti come before or develop alongside them? What about Visayan adobo, with its sweetness derived from the use of the sugar cane that grows in the region? Is adobong pusit (squid adobo), blackened with ink, a coastal forerunner of the use of soy sauce?
What is adobo then? I do wonder whether the Spanish, in giving their name to this technique, not only erased the indigenous name(s), but also inadvertently lumped together a number of different vinegar-based dishes into one. After all, they did something similar when they conquered the Philippines, grouping together nearly 200 ethnolinguistic groups, spread across 7,641 islands, into a single colony. The legacy of colonialism!
Yet there is a connection, a sense of knowing, when you mention adobo to another Filipino. People say that “you just know the taste of adobo”, and I understand despite the fact we all seem to have grown up with different adobo. This makes sense when you think about Filipino food more broadly. At any meal, you might find bottles of soy sauce, patis (fish sauce) or vinegar, and jars of bagoong (fermented shrimp/fish paste) or pickled vegetable relishes like atchara, alongside a small dish of aromatics, whole chillies and calamansi, all ready to be combined in any number of different ways. These additional condiments are what we call sawsawan; it’s up to you, the diner, to shape your meal as you like. The chef just provides the starting point.
Our cuisine is often said to be defined by the home. Home is where we cook for ourselves, based on our whims and feelings. Home is where we make things our own. This, I believe, is at the heart of Filipino cuisine and explains why adobo appeals to us so much. Its embrace of adaptability and customisation is something we can all learn from during these times of lockdown, when we all have more time to explore what our home cooking is all about.
At its heart adobo relies on the interplay of a small number of key ingredients, and you can get just about everything you need in your local supermarket or corner shop. Its many variations mean you can just about use anything in your store cupboard to make your own version.
As for leftovers? Take inspiration from me. At this very moment, I have: leftover pork belly adobo slices, which I might pair with garlic fried rice (sinangag) and a fried egg (itlog) for an adobo-silog breakfast; a little box of fatty off-cuts, which I use like pancetta for a pasta lunch; a jar of lard skimmed off the top of each adobo pot, in which I tossed some oven chips; a ramekin full of garlic bits saved from my last batch, which I intend to fry until crispy and use as a garnish; and, lastly, a tub of leftover sauce, which will be poured over or used to cook any number of other things. You’d think that one could get tired of adobo, but more than 30 years on this earth convinces me otherwise.
Infinite Pork Belly Adobo
This adobo recipe is, at its heart, based on my mum’s original instructions, but has been modified and formalised over time into the dish that I serve at my supper clubs. Please don’t follow it religiously: at every stage feel free to customise to your specific circumstances and preferences and make it your own.
2 cups of jasmine rice
1kg of pork belly, skin-on and with the ribs
1 head of garlic
2 bay leaves
600ml of Filipino white cane vinegar
400ml of Filipino soy sauce
1 tbsp of ground black pepper
Wash the jasmine rice in a pot at least three times to remove excess starch. Top up with water – a good measurement is to stick your middle finger into the water until it touches the rice. If the water reaches up to the first joint, then you have enough.
Q: How does this work?
A: Only God knows, but it does. Just accept the mystery.
Q: That doesn’t sound very precise.
A: If you really want proper measurements for how much water to add, my wife likes 1.5 cups of water to 1 cup of rice… but the finger method is better.
Cook the rice over a medium heat, with the lid on, until the water is all absorbed.
Q: Why can’t I just drain the rice out of the water?
A: Just don’t, this bit is non-negotiable.
Portion up your pork belly meat into one-inch cubes. Leave the ribs as they are.
Q: Can I use other cuts of pork?
A: Sure, other cuts are fine, preferably ones on the bone, with some fat or collagen.
Q: What about other meats?
A: Yes, chicken is the other major meat for adobo, but beef, duck, turkey, lamb, liver, venison, squid and meaty fishes go down a real treat too.
Q: Does it have to be meat? Can I veganise it?
A: Yes, you can! Adobong kangkong (morning glory/water spinach) is a popular vegan version; you can also try cabbage, aubergines, sweet potato, young jackfruit, tofu… any vegetables, really.
Mince up the head of garlic and then fry it in oil in a large pot until it starts to turn golden.
Q: This sounds like too much garlic. Can I use less?
A: One head of garlic is not too much. Could you use less? Maybe. But why?
Q: But I really don’t like garlic. What else can I do?
A: Then you and Filipino food are not going to get along. But if you must, you can reduce or leave out the garlic.
Add the pork belly cubes and ribs, bay leaves and ground black pepper to the pot.
Q: I like my food spiced. Can I add other things for flavour and/or heat?
A: Of course! You can take inspiration from some of the existing variations: for adobong dilaw or adobong pula, add turmeric or annatto seed oil instead of soy sauce; add chilli like they do in Bicol; add brown sugar for that Visayan feel. I’ve seen some versions from Mindanao use cinnamon too. Star anise would also be a welcome addition, but then your dish might start tasting like humba.
Add the vinegar and soy sauce to the pot.
Q: I don’t have Filipino white cane vinegar. What do I do?
A: Not to worry! You could try dark cane vinegar like sukang Iloko, or a palm vinegar like sukang paombong too – they’re the most common Filipino vinegars available here. Coconut sap vinegar (sukang tuba) works a beauty, but I prefer it for sawsawan. I haven’t tried it with pineapple vinegar, which I saw in Mindanao, but I imagine that’d be delicious too.
Q: Those also sound like vinegars I can’t get. Any other suggestions?
A: When I first moved here, the vinegar I used was distilled malt vinegar, which I quite liked because it was super punchy. I’ve also used cider vinegar, which gives it a good tang. Rice vinegar is a bit too subtle for me, but I know others like it. A friend of mine loves making it with balsamic vinegar.
Q: I also don’t have Filipino soy sauce. Is this a problem?
A:Most Filipino soy sauces fit the ‘light’ profile, but tend to be a tad saltier… so a light soy sauce would be a good swap-in. I did it with dark soy sauce once in uni – it was delicious but just a bit rich! Or, if you’re one of those adobong puti purists, just use salt instead.
Make sure that your meat is fully covered. You can either add more vinegar and soy sauce in a similar 3:2 ratio, or water if you want to dilute the sauce.
Q: That… sounds like a lot of liquid. Is it meant to be this saucy? Because my other Filipino friend uses nowhere near as much!
A: Ah, see, I’m from a family that loves adobo as a really, really saucy stew. One of my favourite childhood snacks was adobo sauce and rice! And I love having lots of leftover sauce – I use it to flavour all sorts of stuff… ever tried an adobo-based pasta sauce? But yes, other adobo recipes are drier – they use less liquid, and cook it down until it’s a bit more of a glaze. That’s fine too.
Bring the pot to the boil. Once this is done, bring it down to a simmer, and leave it to stew until the meat is tender, roughly about 1.5 hours.
Q: Is there anything else I need to do?
A: Why not try adding some coconut milk at the end of the simmer to make adobo sa gata? It will add some welcome creaminess, and can soften the tanginess of the sauce.
Using a ladle, skim as much of the fat as you can off the surface of the pot. Reserve this for later use.
Q: All that fat looks disgusting. Should I just bin it?
A: ABSOLUTELY NOT! You can fry other things in it! You can roast potatoes in it! You can even whip it into butter!
Remove and discard the bay leaves. Scoop all of the pork and garlic out of the pot. Shred the meat off the ribs. Fry the pork and garlic in another pot, using some of the skimmed off adobo fat if you like, with a couple of spoonfuls of adobo sauce. Fry until the sauce starts to caramelise.
Q: Hold on, is this necessary? I’m hungry now!
A: Okay, fine, you can eat the pork now if you want. But I love food fried in a bit of adobo sauce – it reduces down, gets all wonderfully sticky and caramelised, and adds additional complexity to the flavour.
Serve with more sauce, along with jasmine rice and accompanying vegetables of your choice.
Q: Does it have to be served like this?
A: I’ve had adobo with couscous, pasta, on bread, by itself… and you can skip the vegetables – but surely some veg is always good for you! At my supper club, I serve my adobo with rice, an aubergine relish, and a chopped tomato and onion salad dressed with a coconut vinaigrette. Whatever you go with, it’s all good!
Mark Corbyn is a London based chef who co-runs The Adobros supperclub. You can find him on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/theadobros/. He also used to blog, mainly about Filipino food at https://boymestizo.wordpress.com/. Mark was paid for this newsletter.
The illustration was done by Filipino artist Charlene Delim, who artwork you can find at https://www.instagram.com/charrrrzz_Art/. Charlene was paid for this newsletter.