I don’t often cook Filipino food. There are various reasons. One is that it’s, you know, pretty easy to get Filipino food if you’re living in the Philippines. Another is that the most iconic dishes don’t convert very well into a vegetarian meal. We’re not vegetarians, but we don’t cook meat at home. It’s expensive and frequently suspect.
Filipino food, unlike other cuisines in the region, isn’t highly spiced. It depends for flavor largely upon vinegar and fat, especially pork fat. It’s true, there’s nothing preventing you from making a big pan of pancit (Filipino noodles) without any meat, but I know from experience that most Filipinos would dismiss the result as “walang lasa” (without flavor) or “hindi masarap” (not delicious). And the thing is, they wouldn’t really be wrong.
So, I’ve been trying for months to nail down a good vegetarian version of adobo. Adobo is a meat or vegetable braised in a mixture of soy sauce and vinegar and seasoned with garlic, black pepper and bay leaf. Chicken or pork adobo is delicious, and there are quite a few vegetable adobos that are common here. And there’s certainly nothing stopping you from using tofu in place of meat. Except …
But every time I’ve tried to make meatless adobo, it’s just been lacking. The vinegar is so sour, and the soy sauce is so salty, but there’s no richness in the vegetable to balance those flavors. You’re left with something edible, but … well, hindi masarap.
In searching for adobo recipes online, I found a lot of people put coconut milk in theirs. I dismissed this at first. Adobo doesn’t have coconut milk! Where were they even getting this? For someone who rarely cooks Filipino food and has only lived in two relatively close regions of a diverse country, I pass rather a lot of judgment on FilAm (Filipino-American) food blogs that don’t reflect my experience. (Ground meat in tortang talong? What?!)
But … well, I had a little leftover coconut milk from Sunday’s dinner, and I knew I wanted to make adobong kangkong (water spinach) with quail eggs. And maybe what my vegetarian adobos were missing was saturated fat!
What I’ve learned in my meager three-or-so years of cooking vegetarian food is you have to replace that animal fat flavor with something. You can’t just throw some veggies at a pot and have it taste good. My usual strategy is to brown everything very well. Brown the onions. Brown the garlic. Let the oil absorb all those flavors. Hell, when I cook beans, I actually fry up the soaked, uncooked beans in garlic and onion until they start getting a little brown too. (Then I often fry them again after cooking! Have I mentioned I’ve lost twenty pounds in the Philippines? I have absolutely no fear of fat anymore.)
But I was browning like crazy in my adobos, and it still wasn’t enough to compete with the acidity of the vinegar and the saltiness of the soy sauce. Caramelized onions can fix most ills, not this one.
All this to say: adobong kangkong with quail eggs and coconut milk was easily the most delicious Filipino food I’ve ever made. The coconut milk, soy sauce, and vinegar reduced into a rich, thick gravy that I could have eaten with a spoon. That, with the meaty, substantial kangkong stems, and the little creamy burst of yolk when you bite into a boiled quail egg … I’m hungry just thinking about it.
Unfortunately, I cooked the whole thing in the dark during a power outage, so no pictures, except this one of the leftovers. (We ate all the quail eggs the previous night. I don’t think they’d reheat well.)
Adobong Kangkong ni Emma
(Emma’s Water Spinach Adobo)
You will need:
One big bunch of kangkong, cut into 2-3″ lengths
4-5 cloves garlic, partially crushed and sliced
3-4 shallots, sliced
1 long red chile, Thai-style, with most of the seeds removed, chopped
1/2 cup vinegar
1/2 cup soy sauce
~1 cup coconut milk (less if using canned)
1 bay leaf
Vegetable oil (we tend to use palm oil)
20 quail eggs, hard-boiled and peeled (or 6 chicken eggs)
Yields 3 servings as a main dish, probably twice that many as a side.
In a wok, saute the shallots on a medium-low heat, allowing them to brown slowly. Before they get crispy, remove them from the pan. Add garlic and chile, saute until garlic is browned. (You COULD add the garlic to the shallots, but I’m not good enough at telling when the shallots are nearly done, and if they saute too long, they get bitter. Your call.)
Return shallots to wok. Add vinegar, soy sauce, coconut milk, bay leaf, and peppercorns. Simmer for a few minutes to let the flavors come together. Chicken adobo can simmer for hours–since the veggies cook much faster, the sauce needs a little time on its own to become delicious.
Add the kangkong to the wok. It will seem like too much. It isn’t. Let the heat wilt the greens, turning them gently with your spoon so that everything gets exposed to the sauce.
When the kangkong is soft and swimming in the sauce, turn off the heat and add the eggs. Mix gently so that the eggs sit in the sauce, and leave the dish for a while so the eggs can soak.
Serve with rice.