Food & Drink
10 Unique Filipino Ingredients That Will Change the Way You Cook
Purple Yam’s Amy Besa shares 10 extraordinary sources of flavors with which to relish the bounties of our native land.
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Amy Besa

1. Abra wild honey

Almost all the organic farms I’ve visited in Luzon and in Palawan produce their own raw honey. Wild honeybees, however, can be found in the mountains of Abra, housed by century-old narra trees and trees of other species. They produce honey with a very floral taste, like that of lavender. Other kinds of honey taste like port and other kinds of wine.


2. Kiwot honey

This is produced by the smallest honey bees native to the Philippines. These ant-like bees are stingless and have an enzyme in their stomachs that produces the very sour honey. The Arellano Farm in Castilla, Sorsogon, produces and sells it.


3. Karimbuaya

I found this plant at the Pamora Farm in Pidigan, Abra, where Tina and Gerard Papillon raise their free-range chickens. It is a succulent cactus-like plant that the Ilocanos use to stuff chicken and pork (for lechon). Dagta, its milky sap, when mixed with other ingredients like garlic, onions, and lemongrass, removes all odors of the internal cavity of the chicken or the pig, and gives it a pleasant clean citrusy aroma.


4. Hagikhik leaves

Named after the giggling sounds they emit when the wind blows, they are similar to the ti leaves the Hawaiians use for their cooking. I fell in love with them in Sorsogon, where they are used for coconut-based kinagang, a tamale-type delicacy that uses grated coconut and freshwater shrimp, and is topped with yerba buena (local mint) and lemongrass. A hagikhik leaf wraps the kinagang and is boiled in water or coconut milk.


5. Palm vinegars

We have four types of palm trees in the Philippines: coconut, nipa, buri, and kaong. All of these give us fruits with seeds and sap that can be turned into vinegar or sugar. The kaong is my latest discovery among these palms. I have taken the advocacy of convincing people to start using it as vinegar. Filipinos eat too much of the kaong seeds when put into the halo-halo. These are better used for propagation instead, since the sap suffices to produce kaong vinegar and sugar.


6. Fruit vinegars of Abra

My new discoveries from Abra include these fruit vinegars: bugnay, tamarind, and mango. I have used all three in adobo. They retain their colors and flavors in the dish, making our national food even more interesting, nuanced, and regional. The fruits can be paired with different types of proteins for delicious combinations, like the tamarind for chicken to play off the sinampalukang manok, an adobo borrowing a sinigang combination. The bugnay works with beef short ribs; and mango can work with chicken and pork.

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7. Buko, lukadon, and niyog

The coconut goes through three stages of maturity, from the buko (young coconut) to the lukadon (its middle stage), until it matures to the niyog. All three have different uses in Philippine cooking. We drink buko juice, use the lukadon for kalamay, and the niyog for coconut milk or as a topping for our kakanin or rice desserts. It was a delicious revelation to mix all three as a basis for the kinagang in Purple Yam. I used the mixture as a bed for the fresh shrimp, bay scallops, lemongrass, and mint; I wrapped everything in banana leaf, then grilled it until the shrimp was perfectly cooked.


8. Tutul of Guimaras

This block of sea salt cooked down with coconut milk is beautiful to look at. Just as waiters in Italian restaurants grate Parmesan cheese over the pasta, at Purple Yam we have our service staff grate the salt on garlic fried rice. Only a few families now make this type of salt. It is produced by gathering driftwood along the beaches, burning it, soaking the ashes in seawater, and straining them before cooking them down with coconut milk to form a huge block of salt. It is a dying art. Other areas in the Philippines have something similar, like the dukdok of Roxas City and the salt in bao in Bohol and Bicol.


9. Cordillera heirloom rice

I love the different varieties of our heirloom rice from the terraces: tinawon, which means “harvested once a year,” the unoy, ulikan red, and the diket. I have used these at the restaurant. Organic and heirloom varieties are the healthiest to eat, as their nutrients have not been diluted by hybridization. When planted and grown in pristine water and air, the rice gives the best flavor of the Philippines that one can get.


10. Kaman-diis

It is a very sour fruit that my husband, chef Romy Dorotan, and I discovered growing in the organic haven of Bulusan, Sorsogon, called Balay Buhay sa Uma. It is soft, and it looks like a cherry. Romy extracted the pulp and used the sour juice for his kinilaw. He turned the skin and pulp into a preserve, which was paired with the fish dish we had for lunch that day in Balay.


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