FILIPINO FOOD AND ITALIAN WINE
In 2010 most of Manila’s - regrettably few - hardcore Filipino wine lovers thought either that the local gastronomy was not wine-pairable or that the relative exercise was utterly unexciting.
Filipinos, I was then repeatedly told, prefer consuming their traditional dishes along with homegrown spirits (also called wines), hard liquors or beer. More plausibly with ice-tea, fruit juices and sodas, I should have added...
In spite of, it was as early as 2013 that iPhor Italian wine importer, Philippine Sommeliers and iTrulli Italian wine-bar in Makati were successfully pairing Italian wines with Filipino dishes both in daily life and during public events. Agreed, at the time it was unconceivable for most locals that a Kalderetang Kambing (goat meat stew) could be enjoyed with a red Dolcetto from Piedmont at a road side eatery on the way to San Miguel (Luzon).
Today, however, the idea of pairing Filipino food with wine (made from fermented grapes) is somehow accepted by the country’s foodies and “winees” circles even though this newly achieved awareness is still largely limited to French, American and Australian wines.
Food is constantly searching for the best wine to be enjoyed with and Filipino food is no different. The main concept behind food and wine pairing is that certain elements such as texture, flavor, weight and body interact differently with each other. Finding the right combination of those elements would make your dining experience attain higher sensory pleasures.
Precisely the reasons why we need first to know the ingredients of the dish we want to pair our wine with: Filipino dishes are typically oily, sauce-oriented, rice friendly, bold, salty and sour loosely integrating ingredients and cooking methods borrowed from both Eastern and Western cuisines thus featuring a multi-faceted gastronomic character.
About that, there are two main theories circulating among local food experts, one claiming that Filipinos basically adopted Malayan-Indonesian cuisine, the other asserting instead that about 80% of national dishes are dominated by Spanish table. Both theories take for granted the past and present importance of Chinese cuisine while ignoring other countries’ cuisines recent, significant additions.
Pairing being a learned process, if we already know our wines, we should know our food as well. Before the Hispanic colonization and the ensuing Chinese immigration, indigenous Filipino staple food such as root crops, vegetables and meat (beef, fowl and wild game) were mainly boiled, roasted or broiled like Sinigang na kanduli sa miso, Kinilaw na tanguigue, and Tinolang manok. Seafood was also prepared matter-of-factly as Halabos na hipon, Inihaw na bangus, and Kilawing dilis still demonstrate.
Longstanding Malayan-Indonesian ascendance improved the local methods of boiling, steaming and roasting food by advocating the use of coconut and condiments like Bagoong (a fermented, salty fish sauce surprisingly sharing a lot in common with an ancient Roman specialty called then Garum and today Colatura di Alici). Other substantial examples of such influence are Kare-Kare, Laing and Ginataang Manok as well as dishes like Bicol pinangat, Ilonggo binakol, Quezon pinais and Puto (ground rice cake), all expressions of South-Eastern Asian cuisine.
On the other hand, Chinese traders - allegedly active in the Philippines since the 12th Century - and the ensuing waves of southern Chinese immigrants, brought in the Philippines spices, herbs and ingredients such as tofu, bean sprouts, soy sauce and other type of fish sauces (Patis) which were added to food with the method of stir/deep-frying and/or the use of soup bases. Thus, Pancit, Lumpiang, Batchoy, Siaopao asado, Kikiam, Arroz caldo and Chopsuey become some of all time Filipino favorite dishes asserting Chinese deep marks into the Filipino cuisine.
The massive Spanish contribution came later in the 16th Century with the introduction of elaborate food preparations such as Kaldereta, Mechado, Afritada and Adobo which were cooked with new techniques like guisa (sauteening in oil with condiments, olive oil, tomato sauces and sausages), asado and braising. During their three hundred thirty years of colonization, the Spaniards introduced also a long list of new products such as corn, flour (Pandesal), cocoa, potatoes, tomatoes, ham, coffee and beer. Of course, Paella, Relleno, Cocido, Puchero and Ensaimada all concede their Spanish origins, as well as desserts like Leche flan, Castillos and Torta del rey.
Eventually, most of these “imported” dishes were gradually adjusted to local ingredients and tastes. Adobo, for instance, can be made of pork, beef, chicken, but also of liver, gizzards, squid and even Bayawak (monitor lizard). No matter what, Adobo is consistently stewed with vinegar, garlic, bay leaf and peppercorns turning it either saucy, dry or even crispy.
Finally, among the 20th Century American legacy to Filipino cooking stand tall fast food (hamburgers, hot-dogs, fried chicken), canned products (corned beef, sausages), salads and sandwiches without forgetting the ubiquitous “French” fries and doughnuts.
Other countries’ culinary cultures have also influenced Filipino cuisine: during the British invasion of Manila in the 18th Century, British Army’s Indian soldiers brought along Curry and curry-based dishes which became hugely popular in Manila and were made available also in the street food stalls located along the Pasig River, hence dubbed “curryinderias”. Additionally, the favorite national dessert Halo-halo is largely inspired by the Japanese Kakigori, while the families favorite Jollybee Pinoy spaghetti is yet one more (illegitimate) declination of the famous Italian Pasta, similarly to all local endless adaptations of the universally beloved Pizza.
The diversity and assortment existing within the Filipino cuisine would actually help whenever we attempt matching one of its dishes, traditional or modern, with wine. Since perfect matches don’t occur easily during pairing exercises, we should simply try – through tasting, tasting and… tasting - to understand and learn all the sensory interactions happening in the process, possibly leading to the best balances.
Flavor is basically 80% aroma, 15% taste and 5% trigeminal sensations, the latter being the feelings given by food and wine pairing sensory combinations. Food that is consumed with wine has an objective, scientifically proven effect on the way a wine taste, and vice versa. This is basically why certain foods and certain wines taste better when paired: their compounds’ qualities complement one another according to a series of specific chemistry relations involving, among others, acids, fat, tannins, sugar, salt and alcohol.
If we say that acidity level in wine should be higher than in the food we are not expressing a personal opinion, we are stating an objective, scientifically verifiable truth. While palate (taste) and personal preference are subjective deciding factors, there are objective scientific reasons why a wine might heighten the experience of a meal or detract from it.
So, we have seen how Filipino dishes may contain vinegar, soya and a series of other intense flavors. Preparations may be greasy, salty, sour, funky and exotic: cook or order your food first, consider all its dominant ingredients and condiments, then pick your wine. Far from being an absolute rule, sweet-ish white wines with a medium to high acidity are usually suggested by most sommeliers in order to match the bold, savory flavors of Asian and Filipino dishes.
Which wines, though? When you say wine in Manila if you don’t even consider 7-Eleven’s Novellino, Santa Helena or Carlo Rossi, you will generally mull over international grapes such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.
However, from 2015 to 2020, what have astonished wine lovers in Makati City was the incredible diversity of fine, native Italian varieties, terroirs and production styles of wine available at iTrulli Italian wine-bar. Not exactly a novelty for the knowledgeable, because according to wine writer Ian D’Agata’s Native Wine Grapes of Italy, Italy cultivates roughly 2,000 (!) autochthonous grape varieties, although “just” under 500 are used to make wine in commercially significant volume, a number nevertheless totaling more native grape varieties than France, Spain, Germany and Greece combined.
Since 2013, Philippine Sommeliers and the Italian Wine Club have successfully organized a series of Italian wine paired dinners events at Casinos, 5-Stars Hotels, Restaurants, Wine-Bars, Fairs and Wine Stores all over Metro Manila. With names such as Arneis, Barolo, Barbaresco, Amarone, Soave, Pinot Grigio, Ribolla Gialla, Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Verdicchio di Jesi, Trebbiano, Prosecco Cartizze and Franciacorta evoking images of historical Italian terroirs, expensive bottles, autochthonous and exclusive grapes, the challenge was simply to focus the attention of more Filipino palates on the diverse native varietals and let the Italian wine do its magic with food.
Italian wines are extremely food-friendly. Since the times of the Etruscans and the Romans, Italians have been drinking their wines with their meals. Thus, each region in Italy has developed – as centuries went by – a perfect feel in balancing local traditional food with native varietals of grapes. Italian sommelier guilds have taught food and wine pairing classics and techniques since early 1950s, long before today’s trendy international wine education organizations introduced in their courses, late in the 21st Century, food and wine pairing exercises.
As pairing study cases, among the many preparations of the Filipino cuisine, I have selected Sinigang, Adobo, Lechon and Kare-Kare. Being wine an acquired taste, I have suggested, as possible pairing candidates, multiple grape varietal choices not only because of the sheer quantity and quality wines available in Italy but also as a way to encourage consistent drinking practices with the purpose to acquire longer segment of learning process.
Sinigang. Sinigang is a sour stew which can be prepared with different types of meat and seafood (beef, pork, goat, shrimp, fish or chicken), different kinds of vegetables (spinach, ladies’ finger, eggplant, string beans, radish or taro) and different types of souring agents (tomato, vinegar, tamarind, mango, lime, jackfruit, guava, pineapple or watermelon).
Even if, for Southeast Asian tasters, the aromas of lime and tamarind are usually perceived as not very acidic, if you take for instance Shrimp sinigang (Sinigang na Hipon), it is definitely a sour and savory soup which would definitely increase the perception of bitterness and acidity in your wine. Therefore, aromatic, lightly fruit flavored and acidic white wines such as Pinot Bianco, Garganega (Soave), Traminer, Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, Grillo and Carricante (Etna Bianco), Falanghina, Vermentino, crisp Vernaccia, Pigato, Fiano, Timorasso, Grechetto, mineral and herbaceous Pecorino, soft, fresh and structured Catarratto, Nascetta and Malvasia Bianca all should be able to ensure nice pairings without risk of being overpowered.
Adobo. Adobo is basically pork, chicken or beef braised in oil, soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, black pepper and herbs. Adobo is typically flavorful and luscious, with a salty finish. Saltiness in the food creates an impression of less bitterness in wine, so given the burst of tartness and saltiness of the Adobo, balance is what you’re after when pairing it with wine. A dry, full bodied, creamy white like Verdicchio di Jesi, elegant, structured and persistent, could complement the chicken Adobo’s sauce quite well. Likewise, a medium bodied, acidic red wine like Chianti could also emphasize the taste of pork Adobo without being drowned out by the soy sauce and vinegar marinade. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Nero d’Avola and Barbera might as well be great choices for a beef Adobo while some would opt instead for a sparkling Prosecco or Franciacorta in their Extra-Dry styles to balance its acidity and saltiness.
Lechon. known for its crispy pork skin, tender meat and buttery juices that add a salty and savory richness to the meal’s overall taste, Lechon can be prepared with herbs and seasonings made with breadcrumbs, pork liver, sugar, vinegar, and spices. In order to find a perfect wine to complement and balance your lechon Baboy, you should focus on these basic components: flavor, weight, structure, saltiness and oiliness. Wines with medium-high acidity match nicely with rich, fatty foods as they cut through the oiliness by cleansing the palate. But alcoholic content also serves to deal with fatty foods even if lechon is kind of delicate in its “fatty/oiliness”. The wines we should choose shouldn’t overpower the flavor of the lechon, they should harmoniously interact with it instead.
An Old-World wine lover would choose a light red with his/her lechon. Indeed, well-balanced light to medium bodied red wines from north Italy, with the right level of tannins, would work well with Lechon even though some rose’, white and sparkling wines may also “marry” happily.
As far as the reds are concerned try Freisa, Dolcetto, Grignolino, Barbera, Lagrein, Schiava, Bardolino, Valpolicella and Refosco. If you love whites: Vermentino di Sardegna, Soave, Friulano, subtly aromatic Ribolla Gialla, Verdicchio, complex and mineral Greco di Tufo and full bodied, savory Fiano di Avellino. For the rose’ Cerasuolo, Primitivo, Negroamaro and Vernaccia Nera. Finally, you can try the frizzanti Lambrusco and Bonarda or the sparkling, in their Brut styles, Franciacorta and Prosecco di Conegliano.
Kare-Kare. Kare-Kare is a stew of beef, oxtail and other cuts of meat cooked in thick peanut sauce mixed with different sautéed vegetables such as eggplant, cabbage, string beans and banana blossom, always served with Bagoóng sauce. This popular, albeit “difficult”, dish has been always considered not wine-pairable and even the conventional, “pair-with-any-Asian-food” German aromatic white wines won’t ideally match. Sagrantino is a red Umbrian wine that blasts the palate with volume, astringency, acidity and wild waves of strong flavors. It is a vigorousbut soft and velvety grape varietal that displays bold fruit layers of black forest fruits, held together by tannins. Not by coincidence it pairs well with black truffle, for example. In this unprecedented pairing, the bitterness and astringency of Sagrantino mirrored the Bagoóng condiment’s saltiness and sourness by contrast while its powerful softness matched Kare-Kare’s peculiar flavors enhancing its earthy, mouth coating and umami zest.
Durian. I know, obviously Durian is not a dish, it was not in my list above and you would probably assume that it is quite unmatchable, right? Wrong! Not for the faint of heart but I would pair Durian with a fruity, bubbly, low alcoholic, sweet Moscato d’Asti.
At the end of the day, food and wine are not only objects of pleasure but also objects of knowledge. In the words of Luigi Veronelli (Italian oeno-gastronomist and wine philosopher) “the sense of taste, by itself, is not sufficient to create relationships between wine, food, palate and culture; only through education you will obtain pleasures that are not only sensory and sensual, but also reflections of your soul.”