Garlic and Wormwood
By Sara Bir
According to my dear friend Kelly, chicken adobo is the crown jewel of Philippine home-style cooking. Kelly’s parents emigrated to the United States from the Philippines in the 1950s. They were both doctors in the small, white-bread Ohio town where Kelly and I grew up. Despite several decades of acquaintance, Kelly and I never dined on chicken adobo together until I visited her in New York and we went to her favorite Philippine restaurant, Elvie’s Turo-Turo. “Turo-turo,” Kelly told me, loosely translates from Tagalog to “point-point,” and it refers to the restaurant’s buffet-style setup. Behind a spread of steam tables stood a man who plated up the goodies you pointed to. We tried kari-kari, an oxtail stew with the brilliant orange tint of annatto oil, and garlicky longaniza, sausages that are sweeter than their Spanish counterparts.
Nothing, however, could beat out chicken adobo in the garlic department. I was charmed by the dish’s unassuming nature (it’s basically braised chicken) but assertive piquancy. Upon returning home, I became determined to replicate it.Easier said than done. There’s a surprising dearth of cookbooks devoted to Philippine cuisine, and the recipes I located on the Internet varied wildly. The one constant was what I discovered to be the holy trinity of chicken adobo: garlic, vinegar and soy sauce. Even so, the hint of anise in the chicken adobo we had at Elvie’s charmed me, and a few pods of star anise seemed like a good way to infuse its flavor in my kitchen experiments. The dilemma: we had no star anise. We did, however, have a bottle of absinthe, a souvenir a friend had brought us back from a trip to Europe. I’m guessing absinthe is not a common Philippine household ingredient. But in my mashed-up adobo, it worked beautifully. I killed the whole bottle in flavoring subsequent preparations, calling Kelly often to report on my progress. “I think I have it now,” I told her. “It tastes like what I remember from Elvie’s.”
“Do your burps taste like garlic?” she asked. Yes, they did.
“Well, then, that’s it!”
May your burps taste like garlic, too.
Sacrilegious Chicken Adobo
You can purchase adobo mix in envelopes. Don’t.
1 whole 3- to 4-pound chicken, cut up
2 to 3 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 head garlic, chopped fine
1 medium onion, diced
1 two-inch piece of peeled fresh ginger, sliced into coins
1/3 c. white vinegar
1/3 c. soy sauce
2 tbsp. absinthe or 2 whole pods star anise
Heat a heavy skillet over medium-high. Add the oil and lightly brown the chicken pieces. (Ideally, this step should be done in two batches, but crowding the skillet won’t kill anyone, either.)
Dump the garlic, onion and ginger into the pan, and shuffle everything around. Add the vinegar, soy sauce and absinthe or star anise pods. Add enough water so that the chicken is immersed halfway in liquid. Add the bay leaf.
Reduce the heat and simmer gently until the sauce is reduced by at least one-third and the chicken is tender, about 20 to 30 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings (you may need to add more soy sauce or vinegar–the flavor should be bright, but the tartness should not be harsh or overpowering).
Serve with white rice and cold bottles of San Miguel beer.
From the March 9-15, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.