Food for Thought: The transformations of adobo

A dish, seasoning, sauce, or all of the above?

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ILLUSTRATION: Sandra Cao / The Peak

By: Marie Jen Galilo, SFU Student

As a second-generation Filipino Canadian, I grew up eating adobo. My favourite version of adobo is my mom’s “adobong manok,” or “chicken adobo,” which consists of chicken and chicken liver simmered in a savoury and tangy mixture of soy sauce and vinegar. After learning that adobo is also a part of Spanish and Latin American cuisines, I was intrigued. In Spain, the Caribbean, and Mexico, adobo is a seasoning or marinade rather than a dish. This prompted a question: why are there different versions of adobo, and how are they different? 

In Spain, adobo consists of vinegar, spices, pimentón (peppers), fresh garlic, bay leaves, olive oil, and wine. The process of using vinegar for marinating and food preservation was used by Indigenous peoples in the Philippines “to preserve proteins,” before refrigeration, so the concept wasn’t necessarily new there, but it changed over time. 

In the Philippines, adobo refers to a dish of meats or seafood in vinegar rather than a seasoning or marinade. The first version of Filipino adobo is said to be “adobong puti,” or “white adobo,” which mainly uses vinegar and salt. Soy sauce was added after Chinese traders introduced it to the Philippines. The most common version of Filipino adobo consists of vinegar, soy sauce, bay leaves, garlic, and black pepper. Different regions in the Philippines have their respective takes on adobo, with some adding turmeric to make “adobong dilaw” or “yellow adobo,” or coconut milk to make “adobo sa gata.” Adobo is a dish loved by many Filipinos and is considered the unofficial national dish of the Philippines.

“Food is more than a daily necessity or something that satisfies a craving we turn to food for comfort and connection.”

The process of marination comes from the Spanish word, “adobar” or “to marinade,” from which “adobo” was later derived. As the Spanish colonized different parts of the world, this method of food preservation spread to the Carribean and Mexico.

When the Spanish arrived in the Caribbean in the 1490s, they introduced adobo to Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. Some ingredients such as garlic, olive oil, and wine were not readily available. This is how the dry brine version of adobo came to be. Adobo seasoning in the Caribbean consists of garlic powder, paprika, oregano, cumin, onion powder, and turmeric — sometimes vinegar or orange juice is added for a sour kick.        

The Spanish also brought adobo to Mexico in 1519. Mexican adobo is also vinegar-based but uses local ancho and guajillo, which are variants of chilis, instead of pimentón.  

The version of adobo I grew up eating is Filipino adobo. I ate my mom’s adobo, adobo from restaurants, adobo cooked by my relatives, you name it but each version was uniquely its own. Different versions of adobo don’t just reflect regional taste preferences they also illustrate a history of resourcefulness and the strengthening of cultural identity through food. As an important part of daily life, food is interwoven into culture and identity, just as adobo has become an important part of cuisines around the world.

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