Seeing a sizzling plate of sisig whets the appetite of Maricel Louis, 28, a human resource crew coordinator who works in an oil and gas company. She savors each spoonful of the delightful crispiness of pork cheeks and ears—all the more when she adds toyo, sili and kalamansi.
“Filipino food is very, very fatty, but it’s tasty. First thing they’ll teach in culinary school is, fat is flavor. That’s why Filipino food is very flavorful ‘di ba? And we love it,” says Edward Bugia, chef and owner of restaurants Pino, Pipino, Burger Project, Barangay Bagnet and Pino Kitchen Studio.
Josefina Gonzales, science research specialist II of the Food and Nutrition Research Institute-Department of Science and Technology (FNRI-DOST), observes that Filipino dishes have a strong flavor, and the foods that Filipinos enjoy eating include the four basic tastes—sweet, sour, salty, bitter—and the fifth, umami or linamnam.
Some local dishes, however, are loaded with fat, salt and sugar. So we asked experts for strategies to add a healthy spin to some of our favorite Filipino comfort foods.
According to Gonzales, tofu is high in protein, contains essential amino acids and flavones, and may help prevent cancer and other diseases. Using this soy-based food also lowers the fat content of any dish. Gonzales suggests replacing chicken with tofu to make kaldereta. For tokwa’t baboy, eliminate the pork and add more tofu.
A 2008 study published in Food and Chemical Toxicology revealed that coconut water had the same effect in lowering cholesterol as a certain statin drug. Gonzales adds that coconut contains lauric acid, an amino acid that boosts immune system function. Chef Lucrecia Buking, sous chef of The Farm at San Benito, maximizes this ingredient in her halo-halo deluxe recipe (see sidebar) by using coconut water instead of ice, and the “breakfast milk,” which is a blend of coconut milk, coconut meat and coconut water, explains Chef Buking.
· Brown or unpolished rice
Gonzales says this type of rice is high in vitamin B complex, which helps boost the immune system and strengthen the nervous system. Other food sources rich in vitamin B complex include dry beans and nuts, while trace amounts are found in meat and liver. Cook lugaw and arroz caldo using this rice variety, which is high in fiber and contains more vitamins and minerals versus white rice.
· Sweet potatoes
Swap potatoes with kamote when making menudo or other dishes that call for potatoes. Gonzales says sweet potatoes contain antioxidants, which strengthen cells and help prevent cancer and other diseases; fiber; and vitamin A, which contributes to healthy vision while giving skin and hair a glow. Bugia suggests adding orange kamote to adobo dishes for a rich, full flavor and an added hint of sweetness. Corner Tree Café’s fried spring rolls incorporate sweet potatoes in their lumpia stuffing of mung bean sprouts and green beans, while eschewing meat.
“Use fruits in your meals—not just in dessert. I put mangoes everywhere,” says Bugia. He suggests adding mango to fried rice. And instead of patis, make mango salsa to go with fried fish. Also try using green mango in sinigang dishes. Green and yellow mangoes are a good source of vitamin C and antioxidants, adds Gonzales. And to keep our vision healthy, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics cites eating various food sources, including mangoes which contain the nutrients zeaxanthin and lutein, to help protect against eye conditions such as glaucoma and cataracts.
Bugia suggests using mushrooms as “meat,” especially for vegetarians. Available in many varieties, they can be incorporated in various ways, depending on the diner’s preference. “Mushrooms absorb a lot of flavor. Use it anywhere—in soups, salads. They say mushrooms are full of umami.” Skip the beef and make mushroom salpicao. When making menudo, Bugia suggests taking out the pork and adding tofu and mushrooms.