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Filipinos Were Eating Adobo Before the Spaniards Came, Says Spanish Culinary Scientist

The Philippines may have influenced the Spanish adobo, and not the other way around.
IMAGE Wikimedia Commons/Wikipedia
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“Filipinos had adobo before Spaniards came to your country, and I have proof,” said Borja Sanchez, a Spanish chef and culinary scientist.

Sanchez revealed his findings at a lecture titled “Adobos, Vinegars, and Other Cultural Connections between the Philippines and Spain” at the Ateneo de Manila University.

Sanchez pored over ancient records and books discovered from Spanish galleons such as this. 

IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons
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Sanchez pored over tomes and tomes of books from Spain’s ancient archives to find out everything about the history of adobos, vinegars, and ancient Filipino cuisine. Sources for his research include records of ingredients brought to and from the Philippines aboard the Spanish galleons, and ancient cookbooks such as Libro de Cocina by Ruperto Nola (1529) and El Arte de la Cozina by Diego Granado (1599).

Cover of Libro de Cocina by Ruperto Nila (1529)

IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons
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“You’d think it was so interesting poring over these old books, eh?” Sanchez teased the audience. “No, it’s not interesting,” he jokes, then tells how monotonous and unanimated old books were.

In his research that retraces more than 500 years of gastronomy, Sanchez revealed that globalization during the 16th century was not a one-way street from the Spain to the Philippines, as what many would suggest. In fact, his research points to the fact that many traditional Spanish cuisines were influenced by ingredients brought to Spain by way of trading with Asian countries. 

“I want to emphasize that our cultures share more than brotherhood. Many traditional Spanish dishes we have today use ingredients from Asia in the 16th century,” explained Sanchez.

“Spanish cuisine is what it is because of globalization, because of Spain's interactions with Mexico, Africa, Colombia, the Philippines, and more," said Sanchez.  "For example, when we eat escabeches, we used many ingredients like bay leaves and black pepper. Same as when we ate natillas, one of our famous desserts, we used cinnamon. These are ingredients from Asia, including the Philippines. We wouldn’t have many Spanish dishes we have today if it weren’t for the connection of our two countries,” said Sanchez.

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Vinegar: The universal preservative

Before talking about adobo, Sanchez emphasized the historical role of vinegar in Spain and in pre-colonial Philippines.

“Among all the products used in preservation methods, vinegar is the sole ingredient that has been used in so many cultures and places, including the Philippines, and this is key to making adobo,” said Sanchez.

“Vinegar has powerful antibacterial properties, which makes it an effective food preservative, historically.

What is adobo?

Sanchez’ research brought him to the conclusion that adobo in Spain and in the Philippines is historically and primarily vinegar-based, with a mix of other spices, liquids, and other ingredients.

“Pedro de San Buenaventura is an important reference when it comes to talking about adobo because he is the first one who called adobo as ‘adobo’ in the Philippines,” explained Sanchez. San Buenaventura is a Spanish Friar who wrote the book, Vocabulario de la Lengua Tagala (1613).

“He saw kilaw as the adobo of the natives. He called it the ‘adobo of the natives,’” said Sanchez. "He remembered how Spanish adobo is similar to kilaw."

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Sanchez then emphasized the same hydrogen potential and acidic level of the marinade used for Spanish and Filipino adobos in the pre-colonial eras.

“In Spain, adobo is a traditional gastronomical element consisting of a protein element, which means meat or fish, immersed in a concentrated solution known to us as salsa or adobo. Adobo is the liquid in which we cure the meat. This salsa has a hydrogen potential, and is quite acidic – the pH level is so low. It is usually composed by vinegar as the principal ingredient, with some spices,” said Sanchez.

“Historically, in the Philippines, adobo is directly associated with some specific cooking processes and flavor. Its first characteristic is the marinating of meat in a liquid component of high acidic hydrogen potential,” he continued.

The Philippines also influenced Spanish cuisine

Sanchez then implied that instead of Spain handing down adobo recipes to Filipinos, he explained how much of Spain’s traditional adobo ingredients have spices that came from around the world, including the Philippines.

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“We go back to the concept of globalization, because although Spain had adobo as early as the 12th century, actual recipes were also influenced by globalization. We wouldn’t have the many versions of adobo today if we didn’t explore the world and find its spices in the 16th century,” said Sanchez.

Adobo de Carneo Recipe by Ruperto Nola (1529) 

IMAGE: Borja Sanchez
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The original Filipino adobo

According to Sanchez, Pedro de San Buenaventura selected the word “adobo” in the 16th century for a Tagalog word called kilaw – a mixture of salt, vinegar, and chili pepper into which was put meat, fish, venison (deer meat). “They set it out until tenderized. Native Filipinos also used carabao meat for cooking kilaw and used vinegar as a base to make it malinamnam,” said Sanchez.

Asked about why soy sauce is not a main ingredient of adobo, Sanchez explained that hundreds of years before Filipinos discovered soy sauce through the Chinese, they were already using vinegar. He then reiterated that vinegar is the real base ingredient of adobo, based on historical and modern definitions.

Borja Sanchez gives a lecture at the Ateneo de Manila University

IMAGE: Mario Alvaro Limos
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The original purpose of adobo

“Really, there are many kinds of adobos, and their mixture of vinegar and spices depend on the geographic region,” said Sanchez, “but they all have one thing in common, which is vinegar.”

“Adobo, in regional gastronomy, becomes more important in humid environments because vinegar is an important preservative ingredient in coasts and regions surrounding bay areas. Historically, vinegar was used more as a preservative than an ingredient for flavor, because it prevents the growth of bacteria. That’s the original purpose of adobo, especially in places with high humidity, like in coastal and bay area regions in Spain, much more in the Philippines which is an archipelago.”

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Mario Alvaro Limos
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