Leave Adobo Alone
On July 9, the Department of Trade and Industry announced it was aiming to standardize the cooking technique of the Philippine adobo. It enlisted the help of Manila-based star chefs to help it define what adobo is.
A flood of criticism forced the DTI to issue a clarification on July 11, which looked like an anger-laden, CAPS LOCKED statement that begs for an exclamation point.
“THE ATTEMPT IS TO DEFINE WHAT WE WILL PROMOTE INTERNATIONALLY and NOT REDEFINING WHAT ADOBO IS TO DIFFERENT PEOPLE NOW.”
But that's not what was stated in the July 9 press release. In fact, that press release reads:
“Standardizing the basic cooking technique for Philippine adobo will help ordinary citizens, foodies, and food businesses determine and maintain the authentic Filipino adobo taste.”
Once the DTI has drafted its “Philippine National Standards” adobo recipe, this “will be circulated nationwide, once available, for review and comments of concerned stakeholders.”
But who gets to say what is the perfect adobo representative of the whole nation? Are they the culinary experts and gastronomists from Manila? Will there be historians involved? How will they ensure the perfect international adobo recipe remains untarnished?
Let food evolve.
The adobo today wasn't even the adobo 500 years ago. A hundred years from now, what will be considered adobo? The reason adobo changed over time was because of the evolving situatedness of Filipinos in their relationship with geography and trading partners.
The earliest account of an “authentic” Philippine adobo was recorded in Ruperto Nola’s as Libro de Cocina (1529), only to change 70 years later in El Arte de la Cozina by Diego Granado (1599).
What’s interesting in these recipes is that they exclude soy sauce, a common ingredient for modern adobo. In those times, adobo was a meat dish marinated in vinegar, which was the main condiment used.
Max Miller, a popular content creator on YouTube, recreated Nola’s 1529 adobo recipe in this video. The result doesn’t look anything like the common adobo we eat today.
In a 2019 interview with Esquire Philippines, Spanish culinary scientist and chef Borja Sanchez, who extensively studied the evolution of Philippine adobo, emphasized its roots and variedness.
“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.”
Where will the various regional adobos fall in the DTI's quest to standardize a perfect recipe? How will the adobo sa gata, adobong Bisaya, adobo sa puti, adobo sa asin, and adobo sa pinya, among hundreds of others, fare, knowing these could be relegated as something “non-standard”?
And what will happen when a recipe deemed perfect by the DTI, is finally approved? Will the DTI execute its mandate to promote consumer protection when a dispute arises over a local restaurant serving non-standard adobo?
We don’t need to standardize adobo for Filipino restaurants and domestic stakeholders if this will lead to disputes about recipes’ authenticity. If a person likes a version of adobo at a particular restaurant he will patronize that. Otherwise, he will not.
Instead of focusing on adobo and other famous Filipino dishes in the name of “preserving” Filipino heritage, the DTI should invest its resources into promoting actual endangered heritage ingredients of the Philippines, such as Ifugao rice.
Who are we to declare that adobo stopped evolving at some point and became the real adobo? Leave adobo alone.