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A Paradise of Flavor Amid 7,600 Islands

Rather than a single piece of land, the Republic of the Philippines is comprised of more than 7,600 islands that form an archipelago in the western Pacific Ocean. And when you begin exploring Filipino cuisine, it seems there are as many different approaches to local food as the country has islands.

When faced with this many delicious things to discover, we generally try to find a street food tour. It’s a terrific way to sample lots of dishes and get to know a city at the same time, and we hit the jackpot with our guide, Vincent Lafradez, during our stay in Cebu.

Known as “the Queen City of the South,” Cebu is the oldest city and first capital of the Philippines. It was colonized by the Spanish in the 1500s and used as a Japanese military base during World War II, and you’ll find traces of these cultures in the city’s cuisine.

Over the course of three hours, we sampled everything from fresh and fruits to the national dish of the Philippines:

is roasted suckling pig that’s traditionally cooked whole for family gatherings and celebrations. But your everyday cravings can be sated at a food stall with generously-loaded skewers of juicy, grilled pork that’s seasoned with a marinade of scallions, bay leaves, peppercorn, garlic, salt, and lemongrass. Street food chefs baste the meat as it roasts over coconut husk charcoal, giving it a perfectly crispy, caramelized skin.

We also feasted on crispy fried seafood that was caught just a couple of miles away along the Cebu coastline. We tentatively tried homemade pig’s brain gravy sopped up with little bundles of steamed rice. We ate our weight in tiny pork dumplings inspired by traditional Chinese dim sum.

And after three straight hours of eating, you would think we’d be full, wouldn’t you? But the first thing Mr. Michael Ballard wanted to do when we returned to our Airbnb was get a plate of the deep-fried salt-and-pepper ribs he and Ben had eaten the day before. “A palate cleanser,” he joked.

I have to admit that the ribs were lovely. Lightly dusted with rice flour before being fried in peanut oil, they were consistently crispy yet tender and perfectly seasoned.

I’m still working to master many of the other Filipino dishes we ate in Cebu, but I’ve finally mastered those salt-and-pepper ribs. And I’m sharing that recipe with you this week.

This week’s subscriber exclusives: If you’ve only ever had sweetened coconut, then you’re in for a pleasant surprise. The unsweetened version — or, better yet, the fresh version — has a slightly earthy, vegetal flavor that goes well in a wide range of savory dishes. In my Tropical Filipino Slaw, it soaks up the delicious vinegar dressing and provides a different kind of crunch than the fresh purple cabbage, crisp matchstick carrots, and bright snow peas.

The classic Tom Collins cocktail is essentially grown-up sparkling lemonade, and it’s very refreshing enjoyed outdoors on a hot day or alongside a plate of spicy food. The addition of lemongrass in my Lemongrass Collins Cocktail makes it a particularly lovely pairing with Asian food, especially Filipino, Thai, Vietnamese, and Cambodian cuisine. If you aren’t a gin fan, I’ll tell you how to substitute your favorite spirit instead.

Subscribers to Around the World in 80 Plates have access to both of these refreshing recipes for palm tree dining wherever you are.

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Filipino Deep-Fried Salt-and-Pepper Ribs

In a Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil over medium heat.

Using a butcher’s knife or kitchen shears, separate the ribs into single-bone pieces with meat on either side.

Place the flour in a bowl and season with salt and pepper, mixing thoroughly with a fork or whisk. Dredge each rib in the flour mixture.

Fry the ribs in batches of 2–4 at a time, depending on size, to avoid crowding the pot. The ribs are cooked when they are browned on the outside and a quick-read thermometer registers at least 145° when inserted into the pork (avoid touching the bone with the thermometer to get a more accurate reading).

Season the ribs with additional salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.

Can be served with a side of rice wine vinegar seasoned with fresh lemongrass matchsticks or jalapeño slices for dipping if desired.

This week’s recipes for subscribers only:

  • Tropical Filipino Slaw: If you’ve only ever had sweetened coconut, then you’re in for a pleasant surprise. The unsweetened version — or, better yet, the fresh version — has a slightly earthy, vegetal flavor that goes well in a wide range of savory dishes. In this dish, it soaks up the delicious vinegar dressing and provides a different kind of crunch than the fresh purple cabbage, crisp matchstick carrots, and bright snow peas.
  • Sparkling Lemongrass Collins Cocktail: The classic Tom Collins cocktail is essentially grown-up sparkling lemonade, and it’s very refreshing enjoyed outdoors on a hot day or alongside a plate of spicy food. The addition of lemongrass makes it a particularly lovely pairing with Asian food, especially Filipino, Thai, Vietnamese, and Cambodian cuisine. If you aren’t a gin fan, I’ll tell you how to substitute your favorite spirit instead.

Subscribe now

Food and folklore from my travels to over 100 countries.

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