For the last couple of years, food writers have been predicting that Filipino cuisine would become be the next foreign fare to take hold of American taste buds. Although any such craze tends to take a bit longer to creep up into Maine, I haven’t noticed it popping up on Facebook, or the Food Network, either.

Two Filipino cookbooks, however, appeared in the Maine Sunday Telegram food editor’s mail in recent months, which may be an indication that it’s finally happening. As a fan of Southeast Asian food but unfamiliar with that of the Philippines, I eagerly picked up “Quintessential Filipino Cooking,” an approachable paperback of 75 recipes, from soups to noodle dishes, dipping sauces and desserts. Every recipe is accompanied by a full-page photo, making it easy to get a sense of the cuisine just by flipping through the cookbook.

The author, Liza Agbanlog, is a Filipino woman who immigrated to Canada and found herself struggling to re-create the meals she grew up eating, without being surrounded by people who could help or without having access to all the ingredients. She started a blog as a way to archive and share recipes, and that lead to the cookbook.

The recipes looked simple and contained familiar ingredients – a lot of chicken and pork, garlic and soy sauce – but still offered combinations that were new to me. There was tomato and salted egg salad, which is simply those ingredients, plus green onions, chopped and stirred with fish sauce and black pepper. Sinang or garlic rice looked like white rice with a fried egg on top, which it basically is, but with six cloves of garlic sautéed until brown. The fried chicken is first marinated in vinegar, soy sauce, garlic and peppercorns.

Other recipes called for more exotic ingredients – oxtail, sponge gourd, bitter melon and bone marrow – and yet others, like empanadas and flan, reflected the Hispanic influence on the island chain, named for King Phillip II of Spain.

For my introduction to eating and cooking Filipino food, I chose Chicken Bicol Express – spicy chicken in coconut milk – because it looked easy yet different from anything I’d made before.


Simmering the chicken in coconut milk made for tender meat, and the minced chiles gave it a good kick. The only wild card on the list of ingredients was shrimp paste, which, unsure if I was supposed to sauté it separately first, I added straight from the container. That might have accounted for the strength of the unfamiliar funk that it gave the dish, signaling that I was eating something new – and I liked it.


2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 onion, diced

1 tomato, diced


2 pounds chicken breast, cut into 1-inch cubes

1 3/4 cups coconut milk

3 finger-length green or red Thai chiles or a mixture of both, minced

1 tablespoon sautéed shrimp paste

Steamed rice, for serving

In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of oil over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and sauté for about 1 minute.


Add the onion and tomato. Continue to sauté until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes.

Add the remaining tablespoon of oil. Add the chicken and sauté until the chicken is no longer pink, about 10 minutes.

Add the coconut milk and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium and simmer for 12 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through, stirring periodically.

Stir in the Thai chiles and simmer for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the shrimp paste. Serve over steamed rice.

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