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A History Of Manila In 9 Dishes


Modified: December 28, 2023

by Lynnette Foy



Manila, the bustling capital of the Philippines, is not only known for its vibrant culture, historical landmarks, and stunning landscapes but also for its rich culinary scene. The diverse flavors and influences from various regions make Filipino cuisine a true delight for food enthusiasts.


From its Spanish colonial heritage, American influences, and indigenous cooking techniques, Manila’s culinary offerings reflect the country’s cultural amalgamation. Each dish tells a story, a history that dates back centuries.


In this article, we will take a gastronomic journey through the streets of Manila and explore the history of the city through its signature dishes. Get ready to tantalize your taste buds as we delve into the flavors that have shaped Manila’s culinary identity.


Join us as we explore nine iconic dishes that have become synonymous with Manila’s food culture. From the savory and aromatic Adobo, to the refreshing and colorful Halo-halo, each dish showcases the unique blend of flavors that make Filipino cuisine truly special.


Adobo: The Iconic Filipino Dish

When it comes to Filipino cuisine, no dish is more iconic than Adobo. Considered the national dish of the Philippines, Adobo has become a culinary symbol of Filipino identity.


Adobo is a cooking technique that involves marinating meat, usually chicken or pork, in a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, and spices. The marinated meat is then simmered until tender and flavorful, resulting in a mouthwatering dish with a unique balance of salty, savory, and tangy flavors.


The origins of Adobo can be traced back to the Spanish colonization of the Philippines. The Spanish colonizers introduced their cooking techniques, including marinating meat in vinegar, to preserve it in the tropical climate. The term “adobo” itself comes from the Spanish word “adobar,” meaning to marinate.


Over time, Filipino cooks put their own twist on the dish, incorporating local ingredients and flavors. Today, Adobo recipes can vary from region to region and even from household to household. Some may add additional spices like bay leaves, black pepper, or sugar, while others might use coconut milk for a creamier texture.


What makes Adobo truly special is its versatility. While chicken and pork are the most common choices of protein, you can find variations made with fish, beef, or even vegetables. The cooking method and the distinct combination of soy sauce and vinegar remain constant, creating a dish that is unmistakably Adobo.


Whether enjoyed with steamed rice or wrapped in warm tortillas, Adobo is a beloved staple in Filipino households and a must-try when visiting Manila. It embodies the rich history, diverse flavors, and warm hospitality that the Philippines is known for.


Arroz Caldo: The Hearty Rice Porridge

Arroz Caldo, a comfort food beloved by many Filipinos, is a hearty rice porridge that warms both the body and soul. With its rich flavors and comforting texture, it’s no wonder that Arroz Caldo holds a special place in Manila’s culinary landscape.


The name “Arroz Caldo” translates to “hot rice” in Spanish, reflecting its origins during the Spanish colonial period in the Philippines. The dish is believed to have been influenced by the Chinese congee, combining the use of rice and simple ingredients to create a soothing and nourishing meal.


Arroz Caldo is made by simmering rice in a flavorful broth, traditionally made with chicken, ginger, garlic, and onion. This combination infuses the dish with a fragrant aroma and a unique blend of savory flavors. The dish is often garnished with spring onions, crispy fried garlic, boiled eggs, and a squeeze of calamansi, a local citrus fruit.


While Arroz Caldo can be enjoyed any time of the year, it is particularly popular during rainy days or when seeking comfort during the colder months. The warmth and nourishment it provides make it a go-to dish for many Filipinos seeking solace and a taste of home.


Arroz Caldo is not just a comforting meal; it is also a dish that brings people together. It is often shared among family and friends, passed down through generations, and enjoyed during gatherings and celebrations. The act of preparing and sharing Arroz Caldo creates a sense of togetherness and fosters a feeling of belonging.


When in Manila, make sure to visit one of the many local eateries or street food vendors that specialize in Arroz Caldo. Taste the love and tradition that goes into each bowl, and experience firsthand how this simple rice porridge has become a staple in Filipino cuisine.


Halo-halo: A Sweet Escape from the Heat

On a scorching hot day in Manila, there’s no better way to cool down and indulge in a sweet treat than with a refreshing bowl of Halo-halo. Translating to “mix-mix” in English, Halo-halo is a beloved Filipino dessert known for its vibrant colors, layers of ingredients, and delightful combination of flavors and textures.


Halo-halo is a medley of ingredients that are carefully layered in a tall glass or bowl. The base usually consists of crushed ice, sweetened beans (such as kidney beans and garbanzo beans), sugar palm fruit (kaong), and jelly (nata de coco). On top of the ice, various toppings are added, including sweetened fruits like bananas and jackfruit, leche flan (caramel custard), ube (purple yam) jam, and sometimes even a scoop of ice cream.


The art of enjoying Halo-halo lies in the mixing. Once the ingredients are assembled, the dessert is given a good stir, blending all the flavors and textures together. Each spoonful offers a delightful combination of sweet, creamy, and chewy sensations that provide a cooling respite from Manila’s tropical heat.


While the exact origins of Halo-halo are debated, it is believed to have been influenced by the Japanese dessert “kakigori” and the Chinese dessert “bao bing.” The dessert has evolved over time, with Filipino flair being added to create a distinctly local version.


Halo-halo has become an integral part of Filipino culinary culture, particularly during the summer months. It is a staple in local eateries, street food stalls, and even upscale restaurants. It is often enjoyed as a midday snack or as a special treat after a delicious Filipino meal.


When in Manila, be sure to seek out a reputable establishment that serves Halo-halo. Savor the explosion of flavors and textures as you mix and enjoy this delightful dessert. It’s not just a sweet treat; it’s a quintessential Filipino experience that provides a much-needed escape from the heat.


Pancit Palabok: A Noodle Dish with a Twist

When it comes to Filipino noodle dishes, Pancit Palabok stands out with its unique flavors and vibrant presentation. This beloved dish is a favorite among Filipinos, and its roots can be traced back to the culinary influences brought by Chinese immigrants.


Pancit Palabok is a noodle dish made with rice noodles, typically topped with a rich, savory sauce made from shrimp or seafood stock. The dish is then garnished with an array of toppings, including shrimp, crushed chicharon (pork cracklings), hard-boiled eggs, green onions, and sometimes fried tofu.


What sets Pancit Palabok apart is its distinctive orange sauce, made from a mixture of shrimp, annatto seeds, and other flavorful ingredients. This sauce is what gives the dish its savory and slightly tangy taste, making it a true culinary delight.


The dish’s name, “Palabok,” comes from the Filipino word meaning “to spread” or “to smear.” The name reflects the preparation process; the vibrant sauce is spread generously over the noodles, giving them a beautiful orange hue. The toppings are then added, creating a visual feast for the eyes.


Pancit Palabok is often enjoyed during special occasions and gatherings, as well as a popular street food option. It can be found in local eateries and food stalls throughout Manila, each with their own twist on the dish. Some may add additional toppings or spices, but the core components of the flavorful sauce and rice noodles remain constant.


For noodle lovers visiting Manila, trying Pancit Palabok is a must. Get ready to experience a burst of flavors and textures as you indulge in this hearty and delicious dish that is an essential part of Filipino cuisine.


Lechon: The Beloved Roasted Pig

In Manila, no feast or celebration is complete without the presence of Lechon, a whole roasted pig that holds a special place in Filipino cuisine. With its crispy skin, succulent meat, and mouthwatering aroma, Lechon has become a beloved centerpiece at gatherings, weddings, and special occasions.


The tradition of cooking and serving Lechon can be traced back to the pre-colonial era, where it was prepared during festive occasions as a symbol of abundance and prosperity. The Spanish colonization further influenced the preparation and flavors of Lechon, as the technique of roasting the whole pig on a spit was introduced.


To create the iconic Lechon, the pig is marinated in a special blend of herbs, spices, and seasonings, often including lemongrass, garlic, and black peppercorns. It is then roasted slowly over an open fire, ensuring that the skin becomes irresistibly crispy while keeping the meat moist and flavorful.


The result is a gastronomic masterpiece – the crackling skin is the highlight, boasting a golden brown color and a satisfying crunch. Underneath the crispy exterior lies tender and juicy meat that has absorbed the flavors from the marinade.


Lechon is often accompanied by a variety of dipping sauces, such as vinegar infused with garlic, soy sauce with calamansi, or liver sauce, which adds a tangy and savory element to the succulent meat.


While Lechon is often associated with festive occasions, it has also become a staple in Manila’s culinary scene. Lechon stalls and restaurants can be found throughout the city, offering this iconic dish for locals and tourists alike. Some establishments even specialize in different variations of Lechon, such as lechon de leche (roasted suckling pig) or lechon belly (pork belly).


Experiencing the joy of eating Lechon is a must when visiting Manila. Join the locals in savoring the crispy skin and flavorful meat, and embrace the festive spirit that this beloved roasted pig brings to every occasion.


Bibingka: A Delicious Rice Cake with a Twist

When it comes to traditional Filipino desserts, Bibingka takes the spotlight with its unique flavors and captivating aroma. This beloved rice cake holds a special place in the hearts and palates of Filipinos, especially during the Christmas season.


Bibingka is a sweet rice cake made from glutinous rice flour and coconut milk, giving it a soft and slightly chewy texture. It is traditionally cooked in clay pots lined with banana leaves and topped with salted duck eggs and grated coconut. The cake’s distinct flavor is enhanced by the addition of butter, sugar, and a sprinkle of cheese.


What sets Bibingka apart is its cooking process. Traditionally, it is cooked in a special type of oven called a “pugon,” which is made of clay and uses charcoals to create heat from both the top and bottom. This unique cooking method imparts a smoky and earthy flavor to the cake, adding to its overall appeal.


Bibingka is closely associated with the Christmas season in the Philippines. During this time, makeshift Bibingka stalls can be found along street corners and near churches, offering hot and freshly cooked Bibingka to passersby. The aroma of the cake wafting through the air is enough to entice anyone to try a piece.


Modern variations of Bibingka have also emerged over time, with different regions putting their own twist on the classic recipe. Some versions include toppings such as salted caramel, slices of salted egg, or even a dollop of creamy coconut custard. These variations showcase the versatility of Bibingka and highlight the creativity of Filipino cooks.


When in Manila, be sure to try Bibingka from a trusted vendor or a renowned Bibingka specialty shop. Experience the delightful combination of flavors and textures as you bite into this traditional rice cake that has captured the hearts and palates of generations.


Sinigang: The Sour Soup that Packs a Punch

In the realm of Filipino comfort food, Sinigang reigns supreme as a flavor-packed and hearty sour soup that is loved by many. This popular dish is a favorite among Filipinos for its unique tangy taste and the array of ingredients that make each bowl a comforting delight.


Sinigang is a soup traditionally made with tamarind as the souring agent, although other fruits such as guava, calamansi, and kamias can be used as well. The soup is typically prepared with a variety of meats, such as pork, beef, shrimp, or fish, and loaded with an assortment of vegetables, including onions, tomatoes, radishes, eggplant, and kangkong (water spinach).


The sourness of Sinigang comes from the tamarind broth, which provides a refreshing and tangy flavor that is balanced by the richness of the meat and the freshness of the vegetables. The combination of these contrasting flavors creates a harmonious and comforting taste that is loved by Filipinos of all ages.


Sinigang is not only known for its robust flavors but also for its ability to bring people together. It is a dish often shared among family and friends, served during gatherings and special occasions. The communal act of partaking in a steaming pot of Sinigang reinforces the spirit of togetherness and creates lasting memories.


There are many variations of Sinigang across the Philippines, with each region adding its own local flavors and ingredients. Some variations may include adding taro or saba bananas for added texture, or using different types of meat and seafood to suit individual preferences.


When seeking out Sinigang in Manila, it is best enjoyed at local eateries or restaurants that specialize in authentic Filipino cuisine. Sit back, spoon out a generous serving of this tangy soup, and let the flavors of Sinigang transport you to a place of comfort and satisfaction.


Champorado: The Chocolate Rice Porridge

Champorado is a delightful and comforting dish that holds a special place in Filipino cuisine. Often enjoyed as a breakfast or dessert, this unique rice porridge is a staple in Manila’s culinary scene, offering a blend of rich flavors and creamy textures.


Champorado is made by simmering glutinous rice in water and adding cocoa powder to create a chocolate-infused base. The porridge is sweetened with sugar or condensed milk and is typically served with a swirl of evaporated milk on top, adding a touch of creaminess to the dish.


What sets Champorado apart is its combination of sweet and bitter flavors, creating a satisfying balance that lingers on the taste buds. The rich chocolate taste of the porridge pairs perfectly with the creamy milk, resulting in a comforting and indulgent treat.


Champorado’s origin can be traced back to the Spanish era, where the dish was adapted from the Mexican Champurrado. The Filipino version substituted masa harina with local glutinous rice, showcasing the country’s resourcefulness in adapting foreign influences to local ingredients.


In Manila, Champorado is enjoyed throughout the year, but it is especially popular during the rainy seasons or on cool mornings when a warm and soothing dish is craved. Its velvety texture and chocolatey goodness provide a sense of comfort and nostalgia.


Champorado is often served with a side dish of tuyo (dried fish), creating a delightful contrast of sweet and salty flavors. The combination of the sweet porridge and the salty, savory tuyo adds a unique twist to the dish and is a beloved combination for many Filipinos.


Experience the warmth and sweetness of Champorado in Manila by visiting local eateries or cafes that serve traditional Filipino breakfast or dessert. Indulge in the creamy, chocolate goodness, and let Champorado transport you to a place of comfort and bliss.


Halo-halo with a Twist: Bringing Innovation to a Classic

While traditional Halo-halo holds a special place in Filipino culinary culture, Manila has also seen the rise of Halo-halo with a twist, as creative minds and innovative chefs have taken this beloved dessert to new heights. These unique interpretations of Halo-halo bring a refreshing spin to the classic treat, captivating the taste buds and surprising food enthusiasts.


Manila’s food scene is known for its constant innovation and experimentation, and Halo-halo is no exception. Chefs and home cooks alike have started to incorporate modern and unconventional ingredients into their versions of the dessert. From adding cereal or cookies for extra crunch to infusing unique flavors like matcha or ube into the mix, these imaginative creations elevate the Halo-halo experience to new levels.


Beyond the traditional toppings of sweetened beans, jellies, and fruits, you might find Halo-halo with unconventional ingredients such as boba pearls, edible flowers, or even bacon bits. These additions not only add visual appeal but also provide a delightful interplay of textures and flavors that surprise and delight the taste buds.


Moreover, innovative twists have extended to the choice of base ingredients. Alternatives to the usual crushed ice and sweetened beans have emerged, such as using shaved ice cream or frozen yogurt as the base for Halo-halo. This departure from tradition adds a creamy and indulgent dimension to the dessert, creating a luxurious treat that melts in your mouth.


These inventive takes on Halo-halo showcase Manila’s culinary creativity and willingness to push boundaries. It’s a testament to the city’s vibrant and dynamic food culture, where tradition and innovation coexist to create unforgettable taste experiences.


When in Manila, seek out the local dessert shops and restaurants that offer Halo-halo with a twist. Embrace the spirit of culinary adventure, and let yourself be surprised by the unexpected combinations and unique flavors. These modern takes on the classic Halo-halo will surely satisfy your cravings and leave you with a newfound appreciation for this beloved Filipino dessert.



Manila’s culinary scene is a reflection of the rich history and diverse flavors that define Filipino cuisine. From iconic dishes like Adobo and Lechon to comforting treats like Arroz Caldo and Champorado, each dish tells a story and carries with it the heritage and cultural influences of the Philippines.


The food culture in Manila goes beyond simple sustenance; it is a celebration of community, traditions, and the joy of sharing a meal. Whether it’s gathering with family and friends for a feast or exploring the bustling food stalls and eateries that line the streets, Manila offers a flavorful journey for food enthusiasts and travelers alike.


The city’s culinary landscape is not limited to traditional recipes, as innovative twists and creative fusions have brought exciting variations to classics like Halo-halo. Manila’s chefs and culinary artists consistently challenge conventions, pushing the boundaries of flavors and presentation to create culinary experiences that surprise and delight.


Visiting Manila means indulging in dishes that have stood the test of time, while also embracing the new and exciting flavors that emerge from the talented hands of the city’s culinary innovators.


So, whether you’re savoring the iconic flavors of Adobo or exploring the unique twists of Halo-halo, let Manila immerse you in a gastronomic adventure that will not only satisfy your taste buds but also introduce you to the rich history, vibrant culture, and warm hospitality of the Philippines.