I opened the plastic lid on the styrofoam bowl.
I’m supposed to be impartial because I’m judging Adobofest.
Yet, when I open a container of adobo, here’s what I expect to see.
A lot of sauce. The juicy, dark meat chicken is coming off the bone. It’s steaming hot, with a bunch of freshly cooked jasmine rice at the ready.
Much like in yesteryear high school cafeterias, I silently, unjustly and completely judge other people, their choices in fashion and calling into question their behavior, behind sunglasses while observing strangers at the beach, on a sunny plaza, at a sidewalk cafe, at church or at the bar.
Seriously, I know better. I know I know better!
An annual community event seven years strong, the Chicago festival brings together Filipino families, food enthusiasts, home cooks, Pinoy-owned and operated restaurants, caterers and other businesses. It’s hosted by The Filipino American Network of Chicago (FAN-Chicago).
The vibe is very family-oriented, picnic style, tucked away in LaBagh Woods forest preserve on the city’s northwest side. I’d actually never been to Adobofest before judging this year’s competition. I sometimes get cage-y around too many Filipinos, but that’s a different story for a different day.
Said Edgar Jimenez, president of FAN-Chicago, “I think it’s one of the most successful and well-attended community events of the year because there’s no drama.”
Most participants are there for one reason: to eat and celebrate the glory of adobo.
What’s Adobo? Filipino Adobo?
The answer depends on who you’re asking: a Spaniard, a Filipino or a Mexican. Or a Portuguese or anyone from Latin America. I don’t mean that to sound like the opening line of a bad joke, but it’s true. Though the dishes share a name and a history, what turns up on the plate in each country is very different.
Spanish adobo marinades include wine vinegar, oregano, garlic & pimenton. Fish or meat is drained (important difference: not braised in the marinade), fried, grilled or roasted notes Janet Mendel in her 2002 book, “My Kitchen In Spain.”
“Typical Mexican adobos are stewlike presentations of meat in savory red chile sauce,” write chef-restauranteur, TV host and Chicagoan Rick Bayless, in his 1996 book, Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen.
Filipino adobo usually refers to a braised meat dish with vinegar, bay leaf, garlic and soy sauce. “Usually” is the operative word, because of the many differences in regionality, family recipes, and personal taste.
“Filipinos are as likely to agree that adobo should be considered the national dish of the Philippines as they’re liable to disagree on every other point about its preparation and enjoyment,” writes Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan, in Memories of Philippine Kitchens, their 2006 book. They own New York City Filipino restaurant Purple Yam, where Dorotan is the chef.
Still others, who say that their form is ‘purer’ and without influence from “pervasive Chinese,” stick to adobong puti which spurns soy sauce, notes Besa, which was brought to the Philippines by Chinese traders centuries ago.
For example, my family is from the North, so we would never put coconut milk in our adobo, even though it's customary for many Visayans. And I have made vegan (not to be mistaken with Vigan) adobo recipes with extra firm tofu that were really tasty and easy to make. (Thanks, Astig Vegan!)
Who am I to deny the vegan Filipino adobo, the Visayan Filipino coco-adobo, or the adobong puti -- just because they don’t look like mine? They are like fingers on a hand -- separate, different and equal.
Chicago Pinoy MasterChef: Battle Adobo
‘Twas my MasterChef fantasies, Chicago Pinoy style, come true. Six eager home cook contestants, and their ten-pound batches of adobo:
- Jel-Ann Magellanes Dolomente's adobo sa ibis with chicken adobo soup
- Gil Valenzuela's the ultimate adobo plate
- Clarissa Gorska's pork adobo sa gata
- Carmen Pena's Adobo in Tortilla Wrap
- Maria Delora Candido's Aling Tining's Special Cebu Adobo
- Leticia Jimenez's Mama's Mussels adobo
On the other side of the table: me and my fellow judges: Donna Reyes, host of Mango Rice; Attorney Mary Carmen Madrid-Crost, last year's Adobofest winner; Maridel Anama Menguito, chef-owner of Mrs. A Cupcakes in Park Ridge; and Chef Jing Palasigue, pastry and baking instructor at the Cordon Bleu Institute in Chicago and owner of Cakes n' Crumbs in Morton Grove.
The judges’ ballot instructed us to score 75% weighted on taste, and 25% on creativity.
My inner dialog went: Does this taste great? Do I want seconds? Does this have vinegar-soured, bay leafy, salty or soy sauce-d, black peppercorny, and/or garlicky elements? Is this presented in a fun and unexpected way? Do I want to tip over the bowl and drink straight out of it?
Contestants’ dishes were served to us judges on stage in anonymous, lidded bowls. We had water, fresh forks and rice for palate cleansing. Our emcees, Alpha Nicolasin and Mark Dinglasan, kept things fun for the audience, interjecting facts about adobo while asking us judges' opinion on the rounds of adobo.
Maridel Menguito Anama said, “It was a wonderful experience tasting the different adobos cooked in our kababayans' (fellow countrymen) kitchens, I find that when they think of the contest, they tend to change their regular recipes in hopes of making a difference. We [judges] all agreed that the basic components need to be in the dish to make it adobo... Anything else they add should complement it, whether it is a simple can of liver paste, cooked down liver, sugar, Seven-Up etc. Still their ability to take on this venture is admirable.”
I scored the adobong tahong highest among the six entries -- Adobo mussels on the shell. Super garlicky, nicely cooked. Not a ton of the basic components that Anama mentioned, but it was the best tasting, even served lukewarm, and I did drink the sabaw (broth) from the bowl. The other judges came to the same conclusion and we crowned Leticia Jimenez's Mama's Mussels adobo.
There is of course the People’s Choice Award. For a $5 fee, Adobofest attendees get a sample of each of the contestant’s dishes, steamed rice, and one vote towards People’s Choice. Natalia assured me if we judges had been served the adobong burrito with the sauce, I’d have chosen that one. The world will never know.
Maria Delora Candido took home the People's Choice Award with her Special Cebu adobo.
More Festivities at Adobofest
The festival kicked off in the early morning with a 5K fun run hosted by Filipino immigrant activist group, AFIRE. A few of our friends ran including Filipino American Young Leaders Program (FYLPRO) alumni Julien Baburka. Baburka together with three Chicago-based FYLPRO alumni (Jan Paul Ferrer, Abbey Euseubio and Louella Maniningas Cabalona) are leading a dual citizenship initiative in the Midwest. Dramatist of the group Circa Pintig Levi Aliposa, who ran in his signature Igorot bahag, loincloth of the northern indigenous tribe. No, we didn’t run, and no, we don’t have pictures of Levi!
In Illinois, we will be (re)/electing a governor, among other leaders this November. AFIRE’s civic engagement initiative, Rock the Balut, registered voters in anticipation of the upcoming mid-term elections. (Pardon the pun!) Balut are fertilized chicken or duck embryo that are matured 16 to 21 days.
Later in the afternoon, AFIRE held a balut-eating contest -- a test not of how many balut could be eaten a la the annual contest at New York City’s Jeepney and Maharlika restaurants, but HOW WELL it could be eaten. Quite the inelegant dining challenge for the uninitiated! Friend and community youth activist Lakhi Siap won the contest. Stylin & profilin.’