Filipinos are among the friendliest, most hospitable people a traveler could ever hope to meet, and an extraordinary willingness to bid welcome to strangers is as apparent in their eclectic cuisine as it is in their ardent smiles.
Because the Philippine archipelago comprises 7,083 islands - many of them mountainous - regional cookery thrives here more vigorously than it does in most other countries today.
Early settlers on the islands were of Malaysian stock, and their influence on the Filipino kitchen is still evident in the frequent use of coconut milk as a cooking medium.
But by the 10th century, the Chinese arrived to trade, bringing with them the noodles that now play a large role in Philippine cuisine. They are known as pancit in Tagalog, the national language, and the best-known noodle dish is pancit molo, a specialty of a group of islands south of Manila called the Visayas.
On a recent visit to the Visayan island of Iloilo, I tasted a delicious pancit molo at the Anhawan Beach Resort. The owner, Magdalena Cocjin, is a keen cook and takes special pride in her kitchen's preparation of the dish, which is a very close cousin of the Chinese wonton soup.
Noodle dumplings are stuffed with chopped shrimps and ground pork, and then they are boiled in a rich chicken stock.
But the Chinese influence on Philippine cookery is modest compared with that of the Spanish. Magellan landed in 1521 on a voyage to circumnavigate the globe, and the Spanish began colonizing the country shortly thereafter, naming it after their King, Philip II.
''Some cooking experts say that about 80 percent of Philippine dishes are derived from Spanish cuisine,'' claims Gilda Cordero-Fernando, editor of a fascinating collection of essays and recipes called ''The Culinary Culture of the Philippines.''
According to Mrs. Cordero-Fernando, the Spanish introduced rice dishes such as arros Valenciana, joining their great love of garlic, onions, olive oil, and pork.
From Mexico, they brought many foods indigenous to the Americas that are now staples in the Philippine kitchen - tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and avocados, to mention a few.
The Spanish also gave the Philippines what is often called its national dish - adobo. Adobado, the Spanish technique of curing a whole loin of pork for weeks in vinegar, olive oil, and spices, gave way to the much less complicated Philippine adobo.
To prepare any adobo, the pork, chicken, beef, fish, or vegetables are stewed in vinegar and olive oil, which have been strongly seasoned with fresh garlic. Usually an adobo is finished by browning the meat or fish in very hot oil.
Another legacy of the Spanish is the Filipino love of sweets. Mrs. Herminia Alvarez, owner of the large Black Princess bakery on the island of Cebu, says that regional varieties of pastries and cakes abound.
In Cebu, there is the Torta de Cebu, made with the fermented sap of the coconut palm, eggs, flour, and butter.
Iloilo, says Mrs. Alvarez, is famous for its barquillos, crisp and paper-thin wafers made on a hot griddle and rolled into thin tubes. In Luzon, and particularly in Manila, there is a famous cake called bibingkang.
Made of glutinous rice, sugar, eggs, and salty cheese, it is a favorite snack for the merienda. Go to the coffee shop in the historic Manila Hotel any afternoon around 4 o'clock and you will find Filipinos indulging in this special treat at merienda time.
The merienda is more than a mere snacktime to the Filipino, who considers it as vital a meal as the three others he eats on any given day.
Filipinos have a penchant for extremes of flavor. As much as they like sweets , they seem to crave the sour and the salty. There is a category of dishes known as sinigang, the Tagalog word for a preparation of meats or vegetables boiled in a light broth that has been soured by fruits such as tamarind and green-mango pulp or calamansi juice (squeezed from a local citrus with a flavor that seems to blend orange and lemon).
To provide saltiness to food, Filipinos cook with two very popular condiments. One of them, bagoong, is a fish paste; the other, patis, is a fish-based liquid.
Both are made from dried, salted fish such as anchovies or tiny shrimps, and they closely resemble Chinese shrimp paste and Vietnamese nuoc mam.
The sourness and saltiness characteristic of many Philippine dishes provide a necessary contrast to plain boiled rice, the sine qua non of almost every meal in the Philippines.
Filipinos are also fond of sawsawan, a variety of dipping sauces usually present at every meal and intended to be mixed and matched. For example, over a dish of fish and noodle soup, a Filipino might add a squeeze of fresh calamansi juice, a few drops of patis, or some soy sauce.
Vinegar with crushed garlic is often spooned over charcoal-broiled foods, roast pork, and the fried spring rolls called lumpia.
And wherever there is a Filipino dining, a small bottle of vinegar flavored with hot red chili peppers is never far away.
A number of Philippine cookbooks (including Mrs. Cordero-Fernando's ''The Culinary Culture of the Philippines'' and Mrs. Alvarez's ''Philippine Cookery and Household Hints'') are readily available by mail order.
For further information and prices, write Alemar's America Inc., 34 West 32nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10001.
2 1/2 pounds chicken, cut into serving pieces
1 pound lean pork, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/3 cup mild cider or wine vinegar
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons soy sauce
3 large cloves garlic, gently crushed
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon peppercorns, gently crushed
Salt to taste
2 to 3 tablespoons lard or oil
Place chicken and pork in large stainless steel or enameled stew pot. In a bowl, combine remaining ingredients except lard. Pour this marinade over meat and let stand 1 hour, turning every 15 minutes.
Bring to boil, cover, and simmer over low heat until meat is tender, turning occasionally, about 1 hour. Remove meat and garlic cloves with slotted spoon. Drain and pat dry. Reserve cooking liquid.
In large enameled skillet, heat lard or oil. Brown garlic and then discard it. Brown chicken and pork, a few pieces at a time. Reserve browned meat in a warm place.
Pour any remaining grease out of skillet and add reserved cooking liquid. Boil 2 to 3 minutes, scraping all browned bits sticking to the pan.
Pour sauce over meat or serve it on the side. Serve with plain boiled rice. Serves 4.
Philippine Coconut Chews
3 cups loosely packed sweetened, flaked coconut
1 cup sugar
1 2/3 cups (1 13-ounce can) evaporated milk
3 egg yolks, lightly beaten
1/2 cup flour
Grated rind of 1 lemon
In large, heavy saucepan, combine coconut, sugar, and evaporated milk. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, 20 minutes. Remove from heat and cool for 10 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Add egg yolks, flour, and lemon rind to coconut mixture and cook over low heat 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Take care that bottom does not scorch.
Drop mixture by tablespoons onto greased cookie sheets and bake in center of oven until golden brown on bottom, about 15 minutes.
Cool on a rack and store until needed. These chews will last 1 week in a well-sealed container stored in a cool place. Makes about 2 1/2 dozen chews.
Pochero is actually a two-in-one dish, in that the liquid base is served as the soup course, followed by the meat and vegetables.
Pochero (Philippine Beef Stew)
2 pounds lean beef stewing meat, cut in 1 1/2-inch pieces
2 chorizos (spicy Spanish sausages), casings removed and sliced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon peppercorns, slightly crushed
7 cups water
2 large green, unripened, plantains, peeled and sliced (see note)
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, about 14 ounces, peeled and thinly sliced
3 large cloves garlic, passed through a press
1 cup tomato sauce
1 cup cooked chick peas
1 small head Chinese cabbage, coarsely chopped
6 scallions, cut into 1-inch lengths
Eggplant sauce, recipe below
In large, heavy soup pot, combine beef, chorizos, salt, and pepper with 7 cups water. Bring to boil, reduce heat, and simmer covered 1/2 hour. Add plantains and cook another 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat oil in large saucepan and saute onions and garlic until onions are soft, 3 to 4 minutes. Add tomato sauce and simmer another 2 minutes.
Add tomato mixture and remaining vegetables to beef. Simmer, covered, until all vegetables are cooked and beef is tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Adjust seasonings.
To serve, remove beef, sausage, and large pieces of vegetable with slotted spoon. Arrange on platter and keep warm. Serve remaining soup as the appetizer, followed by beef and vegetables accompanied by eggplant sauce and plain boiled rice. Serves 6.
It's a good idea to prepare pochero the day before, refrigerate it, and then remove the fats that solidify on top. Then reheat and serve as directed.
Note: To peel a green plantain, score the skin lengthwise in four or five places. Cut off tips and remove the peel strip by strip.
2 pounds eggplant, boiled in ample water to cover
2 to 3 cloves garlic, to taste, passed through a press
2 to 3 tablespoons mild wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Peel and mash eggplant. Combine with remaining ingredients, adjusting seasonings to taste. Serve warm or at room temperature.