The uses for the Filipino braise go way, way beyond meat
There are two things I always have big bottles of in my pantry: soy sauce and vinegar. Each is useful in its own way. But of course, it’s no coincidence that together, the two make up the base of Filipino adobo, the simple braise that so often appears on the table in homes across the diaspora.
Adobo varies by cook, by household, and by region, but the formula of the adobo I know is simple. You sear your meat, then add soy sauce, vinegar, bay leaves, crushed garlic, and black pepper and simmer until the meat turns tender. Still, I’ll be the first to admit that adobo, which in my house growing up featured either pork belly or chicken thighs, wasn’t always my favorite; I love the flavors, but not the textures of those proteins. But then I got older, started cooking (mostly vegetarian), and realized I’d gotten it all wrong: I liked adobo — loved adobo, even — but I just needed to do it with vegetables.
For me, the gateway was eggplant adobo. I seared sticks of slim Chinese eggplants until they were charred on the outside and silky on the inside, then added the sauce and let it simmer. I usually start with a 1:1 ratio of soy sauce to vinegar, until it just covers, and then I adjust to taste. Too strong? Add water. Too salty or too tart? Add a little bit of brown sugar. Filipino soy sauce, like Silver Swan, and Filipino cane vinegar, like Datu Puti, taste the most “right” to me, but the immigrant palate is one honed by making do; any soy sauce will work, as will white vinegar, rice vinegar, or apple cider vinegar.
The fact that eggplant is spongier than meat is an advantage for weeknight dinner: You don’t have to braise eggplant anywhere near as long as you’d braise chicken legs. Sometimes but not always, I take cues from adobo traditions that include coconut milk and stir in a little bit of it right at the end, for balance. In any case, in just about 10 minutes of simmering, the eggplant is full of flavor and ready to be spooned over warm rice.
I’ve since learned that the technique of searing and then softening in sauce extends to other vegetables: Mushrooms, cabbage, cauliflower, okra, squash, and even wilted greens like water spinach all welcome the process of adobo. Writer Ria Elciario makes green bean adobo, topped with crumbled tofu. (Naturally, tofu is also a great protein for adobo.) And the next bunch of collard greens that sees my fridge will likely get the adobo treatment too. None of these ideas are new — Filipino cooks have been using adobo for vegetables all along — but none of them appeared on my childhood table. When I came to understand that adobo is a technique rather than a singular dish, Filipino food opened up to me.
My home cooking is better because of it. For one thing, adobo is quick, cheap, and flexible, ready to be applied to all the vegetables I tend to have on hand. You probably have vinegar. I hope you have soy sauce. So you should adobo it — “it” being any vegetable you like.