PHILIPPINE cuisine is a cool breeze compared to the spiciness of its Asian neighbors' fare. It's sour, tangy, mild - and surprising. ``An example of the sour taste at its very best is sinigang,'' says Socrates Inonog, an award-winning chef and teacher of Oriental cuisines. Today he is cooking some of his traditional Filipino dishes at home with the help of his two daughters, Susan and Marichelle.
``Sinigang is a soup of meat or fish cooked with sour fruits and several vegetables,'' he explains as he lines up eggplant, yard-long green beans, and daikon radish all purchased this morning at a local Asian market.
``The broth of this dish has such a splendid flavor, we'll have a cup as a first course. Then the vegetables, greens, and shrimp will come later as the main course,'' he says to his guests.
The broth is wonderful, but hard to describe. It doesn't have the puckering sourness of a lemon but a compelling flavor you can't quite put your finger on. Mr. Inonog explains that there are nearly endless variations of sinigang. A chef can choose among fish, poultry, or meat and various fruits that combine to make a distinct flavor.
``Unripe tamarind is ideal for the sour taste,'' he says, as he washes the fat brown pods, then wraps them in a cheesecloth bag to be cooked in a large pot of shrimp stock.
``Tamarind is traditional, but it must be the unripe or green tamarind,'' Inonog continues. ``Good substitutes are guava, green mango, lemons, or vinegar for the sour taste.'' He also adds one small, green hot pepper and explains that Filipinos aren't as big on hot foods as other Asians.
As Mr. Inonog slices the long, narrow Oriental eggplant and adds it along with other vegetables to the shrimp broth and tamarind, he hands a large green mango to his daughter Susan, 12, for peeling.
``My grandmother was my babysitter when I was small,'' she says. ``I learned to like Philippine food from her as well as from my parents.'' She eats lots of American food, too, she adds.
Mr. Inonog slices the peeled mango. ``Here is an example of another of the unusual tastes of Philippine food,'' he says. ``This is our famous salty fish spread called bagoong. Try it on a slice of the green mango,'' he offers.
Salty it is, but delicious, too. Bagoong is made by putting salt and anchovies or shrimp in a ceramic pot and letting it sit for weeks. Teamed with the slightly crisp green mango slices, the balance of opposite flavors is perfect. This particular bagoong was made from a tiny Philippine shrimp called titi shrimp.
Saltiness, the second dominant Philippine taste after sourness, is also known in a transparent amber liquid fish sauce called patis. This fish sauce takes the place of salt in many dishes.
Mr. Inonog, who makes many of his own sauces and has developed eight Asian sauces for a private company, says that both the patis bottle and the bagoong jar appear in every proper Philippine kitchen and are used as well at table.
In general, patis is used in soups or dishes with broth, while bagoong is eaten with dry fish, chunky stews, with plain white rice, or - as in this case - an appetizer with green mango.
As Susan pounds peppercorns and bay leaf with a mortar and pestle, her father combines chicken and pork for adobo, the national dish and probably the most well-known of Philippine dishes. The chicken and pork, the meats used most frequently for this dish, are marinated in tangy palm vinegar, garlic, and other seasonings, then simmered in the marinade, browned, and served with a rich brown sauce.
IN spite of years of Spanish rule and occupation by the United States, the Philippines have fostered an indigenous cuisine all its own. In a nutshell: Spanish rule brought Christianity and a taste for rich desserts; the US occupation brought American slang, Coca-Cola, steak, and hot dogs.
Many dishes have Spanish names, but unique flavors. Philippine adobo, for example, is nothing like the Spanish or Mexican adobos.
``Adobo was originally a way of preserving meat - and sometimes fish - during long journeys. A good adobo will keep four or five days without refrigeration,'' says Inonog, an executive director at the Culinary Arts Division of Johnson & Wales University, Providence. ``Some say it tastes even better two or three days after being cooked,'' he adds.
``The distinctive sour taste comes from the palm vinegar, which is not as sour as wine vinegar,'' says the chef, who is writing a cookbook on Philippine foods.
``In a first-rate adobo, the flavor of the meats is dominant along with the good sour tang,'' Mr. Inonog says, as he tosses some blue crabs in boiling water for another dish. ``It has many variations, too,'' he says. ``It can be cooked with coconut bagoong, and it's very good with squid and other meats.''
Except for rice, and a few kinds of fish that may be broiled or grilled and served with bagoong, Filipinos almost never cook anything by itself. Vegetables, meats, fish, chicken, noodles, all go into stews and soups and one-meal dishes served with rice. The diner mixes the rice and other foods together on his plate, using a spoon and fork. (The Philippines lie outside the ``chopstick belt.'')
Inonog's oldest daughter, Marichelle, a student at Emerson College, has also been helping in the meal preparation, although she says her favorite cuisine right now is Italian. Mrs. Flora Inonog also cooks both Philippine and American foods, but is busy at her office today in a Providence bank.
``My wife prepared some of the vegetables last night, so that makes our cooking easier today,'' Inonog explains as he adds ginger, coriander, and black beans to a sauce for the blue crabs.
But ask any Filipino what food is the most important of all, and the answer will likely be rice. ``It's not unusual to have rice three times a day,'' Inonog says.
``A Philippine breakfast always includes a little rice,'' he continues. Today, he had cooked it with a little oil, garlic, and soy sauce. Sometimes he adds peas, a little egg, or ham.
Although Filipino cuisine is typically sour and salty, it is also known for its sweets, such as those served for merienda, an afternoon mini-meal of tarts, cakes, and fritters.
The merienda is one eating time when no rice is served, says Inonog: ``That is when we show off our fabulous pastries.''
For our dessert, Inonog makes delicious fritters called turon. Sliced bananas and jackfruit are placed inside pastry wrappers, sprinkled with brown sugar, folded, deep fried, and served hot. (Jackfruit is a very large fruit - sometimes weighing up to 70 pounds - with a rough, yellow-green skin and pale golden flesh. The green, unripened fruit is used in cooking in tropical countries.)
In addition to the sweets at merienda, ``we add a few savory things as well,'' says Inonog. ``We have a deep-fried vegetable and shrimp combination that is somewhat like [Japanese] tempura, and we have a few other very tasty meat savories.'' But, he adds, ``as long as no rice is served, this afternoon party doesn't qualify officially as a meal.''
Next week: Korean cuisine