Filipino food has flown under the mainstream radar for quite some time, but that may be about to change: There were 3.4 million Filipinos living in the United States as of the 2010 census, an increase of 30 percent over three decades ago. Filipinos are now among the three largest Asian-American groups in the country, along with Chinese and Indian people. And international food critics like Anthony Bourdain are now predicting that Filipino food—a melting pot of Japanese, Chinese, Malaysian, Indian, and Spanish flavors, plus its own unique flavor profile—will be the next big thing in ethnic cuisine.
You can expect an appealing combination of salty, sweet, and sour flavors as the base of any Filipino meal. As delicious as it can be, though, Filipino cuisine has its health pitfalls. Fatty meats, salty sauces, and fried vegetables are common ingredients, though they can often be replaced with healthier alternatives. And there are also many dishes with (non-fried) exotic vegetables and fruit that help compensate for the less-healthy ingredients.
Here’s a listing of healthier options to look for—and less-healthy options to avoid—when you venture to a Filipino restaurant. Note that the majority of Filipino dishes are served with white (refined) rice; when possible, ask if you can substitute brown rice.
6 healthy Filipino dishes
- Laing. Comprised of dried taro leaves simmered in coconut milk, this dish often also includes shrimp paste and chili peppers—though you can generally opt out of either if you want to reduce the sodium or spice level, respectively. Laing is a good source of B vitamins, vitamin C, dietary fiber, and potassium. (While coconut milk is high in saturated fat, it doesn’t seem to have the detrimental effect on blood cholesterol that saturated fat normally does.)
- Ensaladang talong. This eggplant salad is often eaten alongside grilled meat, but it’s hearty enough to serve as its own vegetarian main dish. You can often find the salad topped off with garlic crisps.
- Gising gising. This dish gets its name—which translates to “wake wake” in English—from a hefty dose of chili peppers. In addition to chilis, you will also find this dish packed with green beans and coconut milk.
- Pinakbet. A healthy vegetable stew filled with squash, tomatoes, bitter melon, and okra, this dish is rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. As with laing, some cooks may prepare this dish with a little too much shrimp paste, which drives up the sodium content; so ask that yours be prepared with less than the usual amount of shrimp paste when you order.
- Kare-kare. This classic stew normally combines oxtail and vegetables in a thick peanut sauce, but you can often opt out of oxtail and substitute healthful tofu instead.
- Ginisang ampalaya. This dish—also known as sautéed bitter melon—is sometimes called the “healthy man’s dish.” Widely grown in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, bitter melon is high in vitamin C and also a good source of vitamin A, vitamin B6, and magnesium.
5 less-healthy Filipino dishes
- Lechon. The quintessential food at Filipino festivals, this roast pork dish is packed with saturated fat and calories.
- Sisig. This traditional dish is made from pig’s head and liver and also typically includes chili peppers, Filipino limes, and egg. It’s fried, high in saturated fat, and salty.
- Dinuguan. Sometimes called by the nicknames “blood pudding” or “chocolate meat,” dinuguan is pork meat in simmered pork blood gravy. Avoid at all costs.
- Pancit canton. This combination of fried noodles, fried vegetables, and a generous amount of soy sauce is high in saturated fat and sodium.
- Lumpia. This dish consists of deep-fried dough with deep-fried meat filling. Enough said.