I set out to make a pork adobo the way I suspected my forefathers did a couple of hundred years or more ago. And it turned out to be the BEST ADOBO I have ever made and/or tasted. THE BEST ADOBO. Knowing that I did it from scratch, and toiled over a palayok (clay pot) on a wood fire for nearly three hours, perhaps I was just woozy from the smoke and loss of body fluids and salts or simply romanticizing the results. But a few days later, I tasted the adobo again, after it sat on the kitchen counter in a large garapon (glass jar) under a layer of solidified lard, in the sweltering tropical heat, and I knew this was the real deal…
Who really knows how the first adobos were created and what they tasted like? We can only take intelligent guesses, and like many dishes from say 500+ years ago, they probably had very few critical ingredients. I would also take a wild guess that they were really more practical in natureâ€¦ meant to provide sustenance not palate or visual amusement, to preserve for many days or even weeks, and to be practical and uncomplicated. So my best guess is that the â€œoriginalâ€ adobos were simply wild boar or pigs, salt and possibly coconut vinegar. These basic ingredients all existed here hundreds of years ago. Black peppercorns may have come later, as did cloves of garlic and bay leaves. And certainly, soy sauce or toyo, which a whopping 70-80% of marketmanila’s readers polled said they added to their adobos, are something of the last 100-200 years or so. In fact, I suspect the sudden shift to soy sauce as an ingredient really only took hold in the past 40-50 years for the vast majority of the Filipino population.
The reason I was trying to do an adobo as it was probably made hundreds of years ago was to understand the “soul” of this dish. Adobo is so common today, available from carinderias to five star hotels, in several variations with coconut milk, soy sauce, chillies, etc.), but in many cases, it seems to lack character. I did a long post on a “blonde” and “brunette” adobo here, but even those versions were rooted in fond personal memories from cooking the dish when I was at college in Boston some 25 years ago, and it was definitely a more modern take on the dish… So here is a detailed description of my attempt to cook an adobo with character…
Ideally, I wanted to start with a freshly slaughtered pig. But the chilled section of S&R had to do instead. I got two large fatty pieces of pork labelled lechon kawali and I picked the packages with the MOST visible fat on purpose. Roughly 3 kilos of pork or roughly 6.5 pounds worth. Back home, I cut the pork into large cubes, say 1.25 inch square, and the several layers of fat were clearly visible (see second photo up top). I could have done just a vinegar and salt version (say circa 1500 or so) but I decided to go with a version with vinegar, salt, garlic, bay leaves and peppercorns instead (perhaps circa 1700-1800 or so). NO SOY SAUCE of any kind. For salt, I used sea salt or rock salt, without iodine, purchased along the Ilocos shore. For vinegar, I used organic coconut vinegar from Bicol. Around 15 cloves of smaller “native” garlic, lots of whole black peppercorns, and both dried bay leaves and several fresh bay leaves that I cut from our garden.
To cook, I started a wood fire on “low” intensity and into the palayok went the pork, garlic, bay leaves, peppercorns and a LOT of salt, say 1/3 cup for 3 kilos. Add about 1/2 to 3/4 cup of water and place the covered palayok, over the fire. About 10 minutes after it starts to boil, carefully toss the contents to prevent the meat from sticking to the bottom of the palayok, with the cover held down tightly to prevent a hot spill. Open, add about 1.5 cups of coconut vinegar and keep it uncovered until some of the vinegar evaporates, say 15 minutes. Cover the palayok again and maintain a low fire so the meat just simmers slightly… for 2 hours or so. What appears to be a bland pale stew slowly morphs into a light brown adobo with a sort of emulsified sauce that is rich and flavorful. My total cooking time was roughly 160 minutes. Add some additional water if it looks like it is drying out.
About two-thirds into the cooking, I instinctively knew I had a winner. This was clearly shaping up into one of the finest slow cooked dishes I have ever done. The aroma alone and the consistency of the meat and the bubbling fat bode well for the final product. I began to think about adobo more, and came to the conclusion that it was really sort of like a tropical pork confit, similar to duck legs that had been stewed in rich duck fat for a long, long time. And the use of a clay pot just added that special something to the simple ingredients… the pot seems to draw away moisture, intensify flavor and stew the meat more gently… If you can imagine a pot that starts off dry and lifeless and after nearly 3 hours appears to be glistening and sweating pork fat… that was what I was working with. Good stuff indeed.
The large palayok that was nearly filled with pork at the start, was now just over half filled with adobo, as it reduced and the fat was rendered and the moisture evaporated. When I finally pulled it off the fire, the contents were a rich brown, and many folks, if asked, would probably guess it included some soy sauce, if only because of the color. And the taste? Utterly superb. As I said in the title, the best adobo I have ever cooked. It was incredibly flavorful, and the flavor was imbedded in every shred of meat, not just on the surface of a cut of pork. The meat broke apart easily and the sauce was just screaming for its life partner, boiled rice. The dish was sticky and the fat deadly, but the taste was worth it. If there was one criticism I would have, it was that the meat was almost too smokey. I was a bit impatient and kept opening the lid of the palayok and I think the meat got too much smokey essence, but it added to the much sought after “character.” I realize many readers will think, “here he goes again, around the bend a little, a little OTT,” but until you have tried this type of adobo, don’t knock it. This definitely had LOTS of soul.
But I only ate a few pieces the afternoon that I cooked this. I waited for it to cool and stuck in in a large garapon (glass jar) and added all of the rendered fat as well. It seems incredulous, but I lacked fat to really cover all of the meat. The next time I have to add several more huge pieces of fat. I wanted to see if the adobo would keep several days on the kitchen counter, without refrigeration or preservatives, just like in the old days. We have friends who told us once that their lola used to make huge vats of adobo, keep it in a ceramic jar under inches of lard, and for several weeks would dip in to get a portion to fry up and serve at a meal… doesn’t that just sound fantastic? Of course this made sense as without refrigeration, and an abundance of meat when a pig was slaughtered, this form of preserving meat was totally practical! It is also the reason that adobo is the perfect picnic food or lunch meal brought out to the rice fields and left under the shade of a tree for several hours before it is consumed.
A few days later, we fried up half of the garapon of adobo and it tasted brilliant! I liked the freshly cooked version because it had a thick gravy or sauce with it. But I also liked the fried version as it had nice deep brown caramelized bits on the pork cubes, but the fat was in the form of less appetizing huge oil slick. Both versions paired brilliantly with some homemade papaya acharra. I also served the fried version with a bitter and bracing mustasa salad with a bagoong, kalamansi and chilli dressing. And the shredded adobo as a filling for pan de sal? Heaven, again. Ahh, there is the other half of the garapon to enjoy in a few more days… :)