Globe-trotting Filipina chef Yana Gilbuena shows how to dig into the food of the Philippines — fingers first — wherever you live.

By Yana Gilbuena
Carson Downing

About Yana

Yana Gilbuena is a Filipina immigrant cook, author, and traveler who has brought regional Filipino cuisine to all 50 American states and 11 other countries over the past six years through Salo Series, a succession of pop-up kamayan (eat-with-your-hands) dinners.

Her work celebrates culinary traditions in the Philippines, adapting favorite Filipino dishes with seasonal ingredients from wherever she happens to be. Yana now calls San Francisco home, but you're more likely to find her traveling the world, working to spread her love of kamayan dining and Filipino food to all seven continents. Follow her (mis)adventures on Instagram at @saloseries.

Filipino Food Means Home to Me

I have left many homes — my first home in the Philippines, my adopted homes of New York and San Francisco, and the dozens of homes I've stayed in during more than six years of nomadic food tours. Throughout my wanderings, this thought kept me grounded: As long as I have my food, home is where I am, wherever I choose to be.

As a cook, I like to say that I am ancestrally taught. My lola, my titas, and our cook got me into the kitchen at a very young age. Cooking was not just a necessity for survival but also an integral part of Filipino life — from daily meals to big family gatherings to village fiestas. It was skill, craft, and innovation combined, and it flowed from them and our ancestors to me.

So what is Filipino food? Put simply: It's what you'd get if Asian, Spanish, and American food had a baby. It also reflects our history as indigenous islanders who drew ingredients and influences from our Chinese, Malay, Japanese, Arab, and Indian neighbors and settlers; the flavors we adopted from Mexico and parts of South America, due in part to the spice and silk trade; plus ingredients and dishes we "Filipinized" from colonizers like Spain, Portugal, Britain, and America.

Carson Downing

The flavors produced by this multicultural food baby are sweet, salty, tangy, bitter, sour, funky, spicy, and every combination of those tastes that you can imagine! Because of our Asian influences and island location, fresh seafood and fermented fish sauce are staples. Vinegar has been in our cuisine since precolonial times. (We had adobo before the Spaniards named it that.) Sweet and tangy flavors come from the abundance of tropical fruits like tamarind, guava, pineapple, jackfruit, and the unique Philippine lime, calamansi. And we like a little heat, too.

What's more, Filipino food is best eaten with your hands. It might seem uncivilized to some, but there's an ancient wisdom and etiquette to kamayan (hands-on) dining. When you try it, you'll see it's intuitive, sensual, and only natural. Our fingertips are sensitive—loaded with nerve endings. If you don't use them to eat, you miss out on a whole other dimension of your food.

Filipino food also tastes best when you eat it with others, whether as a family or a community. Filipinos never dine alone. Heck, we never even cook for less than four! A true Filipino feast is more than a shared table or shared food. It’s a delicious shared experience. That’s why I choose to do communal kamayan dinners, where we connect with the food — and with each other.

Key Filipino Ingredients

Banana leaves (dahon ng saging) serve as wrappers, pan liners, and compostable table coverings. Look for them folded and frozen at Asian markets. Thaw them a day ahead in the fridge or run them under hot water, then unfold, rinse well, and wipe dry.

Filipino soy sauce (toyo) is so distinct from Japanese or Chinese soy sauce. There’s no light or dark—just toyo. I like Datu Puti brand.

Filipino vinegars (suka) are many and varied. My favorite is sinamak, a spiced cane vinegar with chiles, garlic, and onions. There’s also the spiced coconut vinegar tuba, the palm vinegar paombong, and the cane wine vinegar sukang iloko. I like Datu Puti and Mama Sita’s brands. You can use white vinegar, apple cider vinegar, or rice vinegar as a substitute for cane vinegars. And Whole Foods carries a coconut vinegar called Coconut Secret. But dude: Go to the Asian market!

Fish sauce (patis) is the ultimate umami sauce and the reason I rarely use salt. I always look for ones with just three ingredients: anchovies, sugar, and water. I really like Megachef brand.

Philippine limes (calamansi) have a juice that’s unparalleled. They taste like a cross between mandarin orange, lemon, and yuzu. At the Asian market, look for Sun Tropics brand bottled unsweetened juice on the shelf—or Manila Gold juice packets, often frozen and sold near the banana leaves. In a pinch, substitute a half-and-half mixture of lemon and lime juice and a dash of sugar.

Preserved young coconut strings (macapuno) are sold in 24- to 32-oz. jars, near other preserved fruits at Asian markets. I like Sun Tropics or Kapuso brands. In a pinch, you could use sweetened shredded coconut instead.

Ube yam spread or jam (ube halaya), a sweet paste made from purple yams and sweetened condensed milk, is common at Asian markets (I like Sun Tropics brand). Feel like making your own? Try this recipe for Purple Yam Jam from Allrecipes.