Filipino chicken adobo offers new flavor treat

Jasmine rice with toasted almonds provided the perfect accompaniment for sister-in-law Liwan's savory Filipino chicken adobe. BY JACK CLEMONS
August 13, 2012

Last weekend, my brother brought his family to visit. We filled the hours with typical summertime fun – beach, pool and dolphin watching on the bay. With more than the usual number of mouths to feed, it seemed like we spent the rest of the time in the kitchen – pancakes, omelets, fruit salad and dozens of sandwiches. Saturday evening, we received one of the best gifts a kitchen-qualified guest can offer her host: my sister-in-law Liwan volunteered to cook dinner.

She planned a menu featuring one of her specialties - chicken adobo. Although we had most of the ingredients on hand, we needed to make a trip to the grocery store. Fortunately, my niece came with me. Lauren knew which rice to buy, steering me away from Arborio to select a five-pound bag of jasmine. She also pointed out the correct version of Goya’s adobo seasoning from the half-dozen choices on the shelf: the red-capped bottle with the basic mixture – salt, garlic, pepper, oregano and turmeric.

Not to be confused with the Mexican chile stew or the spice blend, Filipino adobo is a traditional dish of pork or chicken marinated in vinegar, soy sauce, garlic and herbs. The meat is cooked in the marinade and sometimes browned to create a crisp crust. Adobo is popular because it’s easy to prepare and can be stored for days without spoiling (the vinegar acts as a preservative). Some cooks argue that it’s best eaten the next day.

There are more than 7,000 islands in the Philippines, and according to Li, more than twice that number of adobo recipes. Every family has its own combination of spices and unique proportions of vinegar to soy. Some will insist on a specific type of vinegar (Balsamic, palm, white or apple cider) while others throw in coconut milk toward the end of the simmering. The magic of the dish comes from its rich mouth feel and savory notes. Cooking softens the sharp vinegar and enlivens the nutty saltiness of the soy; garlic essence and hints of bay leaf add their signature flavors to the peppery sauce.

While the rest of us were cycling the Junction and Breakwater Trail, Li stayed back at the house to prepare the pungent adobo marinade. She improvised from our spice shelf and cupboards to create her variation on the national dish of the Philippines. Since we had chicken breasts instead of thighs, she also converted her recipe so we could cook on the gas grill.

Most basic recipes for adobo don’t include much more than vinegar, soy sauce and garlic; Li’s version was a sophisticated balance of flavors. She used sesame oil and ground ginger to play off the soy sauce, lots of garlic and two kinds of vinegar. Her (not so secret) ingredient is adobo seasoning, which adds even more salt, heat and garlic.

Li’s recipe (at least as she remembered it) comes with her added instruction to experiment with the ingredients to create the taste combination you and your family prefer. She serves her adobo over jasmine rice with stir-fried vegetables as a side dish, reflecting the migration of techniques and ingredients between the Philippines and other Asian countries.

I’ve included her recipe and two others that follow the more typical preparation style of simmering everything together. When I tried my hand at chicken adobo, I served steamed jasmine rice garnished with toasted almonds (see photo) – a delicious crunch complemented the tangy sauce. I hope they plan to visit again soon; we still have four more pounds of rice.

Liwan’s Grilled Chicken Adobo

2 lbs chicken breasts
2 T adobo seasoning
1/4 C apple cider vinegar
1/4 C Balsamic vinegar
1/2 C soy sauce
3 T sesame oil
2 t ground ginger
5 sliced garlic cloves
4 bay leaves
1 T cracked pepper

Cut the chicken breasts lengthwise into pieces about one-inch wide. Combine all ingredients in a large glass bowl (do not use aluminum). Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for four hours or more (up to overnight). Grill the chicken until cooked through, turning once. Serve with steamed jasmine rice. Yield: 6 servings.

Another Chicken Adobo

1 T sesame oil
8 bone-in chicken thighs
5 sliced garlic cloves
1/2 C apple cider vinegar
1/3 C soy sauce
2 t coarse ground pepper
3 bay leaves

Heat oil in a heavy skillet over medium high. Add the chicken, skin side down; cook until browned, about 5 minutes. Turn the chicken pieces and cook another 5 minutes.

Remove the chicken to a glass bowl; set aside. Return the pan to the stove; reduce heat to low. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute. Deglaze the pan with soy sauce and vinegar, scraping up the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the pepper, bay leaves and chicken, along with any juices from the bowl. Bring to a gentle simmer and cover; cook for 20 minutes. Uncover the pan and increase heat to medium. Cook for another 10 minutes to thicken, occasionally basting chicken with the sauce. Discard bay leaves and serve over steamed rice. Yield: 4 servings.

One-Pot Chicken Adobo

8 bone-in skinless chicken thighs
1/3 C soy sauce
1/3 C apple cider vinegar
1 T Balsamic vinegar
6 crushed garlic cloves
1 t coarse ground pepper
4 bay leaves

Combine all ingredients except bay leaves in a zip-top bag; marinate in the refrigerator for at least an hour. Place chicken, marinade and bay leaves in a deep skillet. Cook, covered, over medium-low heat until tender, about 45 minutes. Remove the cover and cook an additional 10 minutes to reduce the sauce. Discard bay leaves and serve over rice. Yield: 4 servings.

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