Adobo a go-go: Or, making adobo is terrifying

I’m making adobo! Adobo is a traditional Filipino dish that often contains a type of meat (chicken or pork is the norm, from what I hear) and the protein is simmered in and marinated with a sauce that typically has a vinegar, bay leaf, peppercorn, and garlic base. Yum.

I’ve actually been gearing up to make adobo for several months now, mostly since I saw Sam Sifton’s New York Times magazine article about adobo that was published in January. The recipe looked simple enough: the main ingredients were chicken, rice vinegar, soy sauce and coconut milk, and judging from the copious amounts of rice vinegar and soy products I go through every month, the flavor profiles seemed to connect perfectly with my favorites.

It wasn’t until recently that I decided to do a lot more research in order to delve into the esotericism of adobo — Sifton warned readers off the bat that the ingredients in adobo are furiously defended by and lovingly particular to adobo enthusiasts:

“Husbands argue with wives about adobo. Friends shoot each other dirty looks about the necessity of including coconut milk or soy sauce in the recipe. There are disputations over the kind of vinegar to use, over the use of sugar, over the inclusion of garlic and how much of it. Some use chicken exclusively in the dish, others pork, some a combination of the two.”

I wasn’t actually aware of how varied adobo recipes are until I started looking around on the internet, starting off first with the 200+ comments on Sifton’s NYT blog post “How Do You Make Adobo?” The post was created after Sifton’s email inbox overflowed in response to the adobo recipe that was published along with his article, which was adapted from the Purple Yam restaurant in Brooklyn. Sifton had so many people commenting on and altering the recipe that he decided to take the dispute to the community.

The resulting comments are extraordinarily different and opinions on adobo ingredients are more often divergent than convergent. For one “Don’t use soy sauce!” comment there are five differing responses, including “Do use soy sauce!”, “Use reduced sodium soy sauce!”, “Don’t use Chinese or Japanese soy sauce as that’s not traditional!” or “Use Filipino Silver Swan soy sauce!” Other variations include whether to use coconut milk (general consensus seemed to be no), and the state of the peppercorns (most people rooted for whole or crushed peppercorns simmered in the sauce and then strained out later).

Close to everyone who commented on the blog post was vary adamant about their version of adobo; it seemed like everyone had a grandmother who cooked the dish first and then passed the recipe down to them, which I thought was charming. It also made sense of the sometimes agitated adobo disagreements. Sometimes these disputes would border on uncomfortable — adobo newbies would post their own takes on recipes that adobo purists would take as sacrilege. Some people used lemon juice instead of vinegar (it can’t be! said some), beef instead of chicken or pork (too Americanized! said others), balsamic vinegar instead of white, rice or cider vinegar (you can’t do that! some said), added turmeric to the ingredients (that’s a curry, not an adobo! some moaned) and in an odd switch-up, Pinot Grigio instead of vinegar (no one responded to this one, maybe out of politeness).

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After reading all of the arguments, the idea of making adobo was terrifying — there were as many ways to do it right as there were wrong, and being Chinese-American, I didn’t have a relative to call up and ask. There is no canonical adobo; no agreed upon right way, and thousands of wrong ways. Sifton finished his adobo article by encouraging readers to tweak their own adobo recipes until they find a good fit for their own set of taste buds, and then ended by writing “This is adobo. Every man an island.” Intimidation aside (no right way means no expectations!), there were some decisions to make.

I decided ultimately to go with something similar to the recipe that accompanied the NYT article, which includes coconut milk as one of the base ingredients. I also decided that I wanted too much garlic, as in so much garlic I will include a picture of all of the peeled cloves so you will believe me when I say too much. I included three finger peppers (a pepper of many names: cayenne, bird, ginny; it’s supposedly a good substitute for a Thai chili pepper), which I put unpunctured and uncut into the marinade so as to imbue flavor but not too much heat. I also stuck with ground peppercorns, as it was simpler for me than straining the sauce afterward, as I am a woman of immediacy, and I wanted to be able to eat the chicken as soon as humanly possible when the dish was done cooking.

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I ended up using the vinegar, coconut milk, and soy sauce proportions suggested by Inuyaki.com, a food blog by a Arnold Gatilao, a Filipino writer and gastronome. I stumbled upon the recipe while I was looking at the various comments on the NYT blog, and found that the ingredients Gatilao used were similar to those used in the NYT recipe. Gatilao said he tried the recipe with various different types of vinegars and he decided that Filipino cane vinegar was the best. Ultimately I tweaked his recipe a bit (used unseasoned rice vinegar; added finger peppers; used much more garlic) but his proportions stayed the same. I’ll probably do what Sifton suggested and tweak the recipe for myself when I get around to making this again.

Post-adobo observations: The flavor of the adobo sauce turned out pleasantly vinegar-y, although I felt it was lacking some sweetness and saltiness; I’ll probably add a little more soy sauce next time and possibly a spoonful of sugar (which some adobo enthusiasts have deemed okay to do, but others, obviously, not). I reduced the sauce for quite a bit until it reached a cream consistency, and over the course of reducing, tasted the sauce — it became more and more sweet and the flavor became deeper as time went on.

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My main problem with my adobo was probably a technical thing: The flesh of the chicken had not absorbed the adobo flavor, which was rather disappointing. This probably has more to do with marination time and how many times I basted the chicken in the sauce while broiling it. I only marinated the chicken thighs for two hours and limited my basting to putting sauce over the chicken after it had been broiled crispy. While I was eating the chicken, though, I found that spooning adobo over the meat while eating it helped to keep the flavors in.

The ever-elusive general agreement among adobo lovers is that adobo tastes better the day after. I saved two chicken thighs submerged in adobo for tomorrow’s lunch — here’s hoping the flavor will stick a bit better after a night’s rest.

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The adobo excursion’s been initially terrifying and ultimately tiring (I would say the recipe is incredibly time intensive, but not necessarily labor intensive; marinating takes all night, cooking the meat in the adobo takes 45 minutes, reducing the sauce takes about 15, broiling the meat takes about ten minutes, and rice is a whole other thing to time). Ultimately Sifton’s advice sticks: Add more of this, add more of that, do what tastes right. I’m including my recipe in case you’d like to make your own attempt and revisions. I’ll also include what I’ll likely do to my next batch as well.

Chicken Adobo

Ingredients
1 1/4 cup of rice vinegar
1 cup of coconut milk (from a can)
1/3 cup of Kikoman soy sauce (I’ll increase this to 1/2 cup to 3/4 cup the next batch)
1 whole large garlic bulb’s worth of garlic cloves, crushed (YES)
3 green finger peppers, washed but not cut
3 bay leaves
As much freshly ground pepper as you can grind without your wrists giving out (about 1 tbs)
4 chicken thighs (or about 1.5 to 2 pounds of meat)

Instructions
1.) Place all the ingredients, including chicken, into a tightly sealed ziplock bag.
2.) Mix the ingredients by agitating the bag a bit, then place in the refrigerator to marinate overnight.
3.) Pour the contents of the bag into a large lidded pot or pan (including chicken). Place the chicken in the pan so that the skin is facing down. Bring the sauce to a boil.
4.) When the sauce is boiling, lower the heat until the sauce is lightly simmering, and put the lid back on the pot. Simmer for about 25 minutes, then turn the chicken over (they should be skin facing up) and simmer for another 20 minutes.
5.) Take the chicken out of the pan and place on an aluminum foil-lined cookie sheet.
6.) Remove the bay leaves and the finger peppers from the adobo and discard. Reduce the adobo sauce in the pan for about 15 to 20 minutes, or when the sauce reaches a thick-ish cream consistency. During this time, you should broil the chicken — cook the chicken on one side and baste the pieces with the adobo sauce, then turn them over to cook the other side, continuing to baste the pieces. Keep basting until the chicken becomes golden brown.
7.) When the adobo sauce has reduced enough, return the chicken to the sauce and simmer the chicken in the sauce, for a few minutes, making sure the adobo covers the chicken.
8.) And you’re done! Place chicken on plate with a liberal amount of sauce and garlic cloves. Serve with jasmine rice.

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2 thoughts on “Adobo a go-go: Or, making adobo is terrifying

  1. The Mouse says:

    if making a dish for two, simmer it for about an hour or more or until the “soup” is a bit thick. I suggest start with the most way of making adobo (google for a filipino homecook blogs than chef recommendationd) to get the “drift” on it. Once you’ve mastered the basocs, you open a myriad of ways to tweak the adobo.

    And marinating before does not really help with the taste. The secret is long simmering. A dish for one or two servings takes ab out an hour. You know youve got it right when the adobo tastes better the next day.

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