A deep (and umami-rich) dive into chicken adobo, the ultimate in Filipino comfort food.

Chicken Adobo
Dan Goldberg

I grew up in a Filipino-American household, but for dinner we mostly ate the greatest hits of the late 20th century Midwestern kitchen: spaghetti, hard-shell tacos with ground beef and supermarket seasoning, beef bourguignon. But occasionally when there was chicken in the fridge and nothing much else my mom would make a dish taught to her by the cooks at her home back in the Philippines and I’d think: Now this is what I’m talking about. 

The dish was chicken adobo, a salty, garlicky, peppery, boldly flavored, umami-rich dish of comfort, each soy-glazed tender bite full of all the things we love about food: it’s rich from the slow braise of chicken thighs; a little tangy from the vinegar it’s simmered in, together with soy sauce the two ingredients balancing each other as they reduce, taking on the deep earthy flavors of bay leaf; the alluring punch and sweetness of abundant cloves of garlic; and true black pepper flavor from a generous scattering of whole peppercorns that perfume and infuse the sauce at a level ground pepper will never achieve. It’s a round pepper flavor, floral and fruity with a little heat but none of the sharpness you get from ground. Together they make for a dish you never tire of bite-to-bite as the flavors dance and morph and never resolve. 

It’s a dish of very few but very flavorful ingredients you likely have on hand at all times: besides the chicken, just the soy sauce, bay leaves, whole peppercorns, vinegar, garlic. In each case you use more of each than you might be inclined to. In my book: six or so cloves of garlic, two teaspoons of whole peppercorns, a cup of soy, a cup of vinegar. Magical things happen as it all simmers and reduces and does what all good food does, adding up to something greater than the sum of its parts. The chicken flavors the sauce and vice versa and the peppers and garlic soften and become sweet and tender and add pops of flavor. Served with rice it becomes a perfect meal, the grains soaking up the sauce you’ve reduced to just the right thickness. It’s as comforting and fortifying to the soul as chicken soup and as with that dish there are no real rules or indicators as to its perfect state. How long does this take? Until the chicken is tender and the glaze is just right, not too thick, not too thin. As with anything that speaks to the soul, you’ll know. 

Nico de Leon Basting
Chef Nico de Leon cooking at home

Thomas J. Story

The history of adobo is, of course, layered. That salty tangy perfection at the heart of the dish was not originally one of pleasure but of preservation. Nico de Leon, chef at Filipino restaurant and natural wine bar Lasita in Downtown LA says. “Adobo isn’t a dish but a technique for preserving whatever protein there was with salt and vinegar.” Chinese immigrants brought soy and the Spanish gave it their name for marinade. Aromatics like bay leaf and garlic were added along with pepper and you’ve got the modern version we make today. 

There are as many variations of adobo as there are households, and most often cooked by heart. Still, there’s a checklist of qualities it must have, which de Leon describes as “having a pronounced garlic flavor but not raw so you have to slow cook it to get there. You need to taste peppercorn. My mom left them whole, which I prefer as well but I give a disclaimer to whoever’s eating it. There should be a floral and earthy savory note from bay leaf. Vinegar should be apparent but not astringent. You want just enough to wake up the palate and enough umami and salt from the soy to round it all out. In the last few minutes I’ll add a pat of butter so it finishes rounder and stretches that flavor out further.” 

Ever the chef, de Leon will play by adding miso or dashi or tomatoes for more umami. He’s even gone as far as dehydrating the components and using the powder as a seasoning on potato chips or popcorn. For an especially rich version he’ll add coconut milk. And while he’ll cook the classic version for staff meal he never puts it on the menu.  “In the end adobo is a preference thing. You’re never going to like one better than your mom’s or your lola’s. [Lola being Tagalog for grandma]. Chances are you’ll try mine and you might say ‘that’s not how Lola does it,’” says de Leon. “And I’m not about to compete with Lola.”

Make It at Home

Chicken Adobo

Inspired by the Philippine national dish, this Easy Chicken Adobo uses a simple blend of garlic, vinegar, and soy sauce to give chicken a zingy boost.

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