Cooking is 80 percent confidence, a skill best acquired starting from when the apron strings wrap around you twice. — Barbara Kingsolver


It is no secret that I started to learn to cook only after I moved to California. It was out of necessity, out of my rootlessness. I was plagued with a terrible homesickness after the big move and I turned to food and cooking to appease my longing for my connections with home.

My once-a-week long-distance phone calls to my mom practically turned into impromptu cooking lessons. I asked her how to make chicken stock for pancit and arroz caldo and what cuts of meat I need for caldereta and mechado. How much fish sauce should I use for menudo? How much vinegar for adobo? My questions were endless. “Taste it and you’ll learn,” my mom repeated over and over.

Oftentimes, I failed miserably, confusing tomato paste with tomato sauce. I always had the tendency to over-salt, drowning my chicken thighs and legs in too much soy sauce, making them completely inedible. But despite my mishaps in the kitchen, there was one skill I proudly possessed. I know how to cook rice.




Back home, rice isn’t cooked through the effortless flick of a switch in a rice cooker. The process is more elaborate, more involved. It begins with measuring uncooked rice — bigas [bee-gas] — by the gatang [gah-tahng], the smallest measure of rice, roughly the size of a can of condensed milk. One gatang feeds four. Two for those with larger appetites.

The uncooked rice, properly measured, is placed in a bowl or basin where the rice hulls and grit left behind after milling the grains are picked meticulously by hand. The cleaned rice is transferred to a pot and washed by hand with water, reserving the starchy wash water — hugas bigas [hoo-gas bee-gas] — for use as stock in dishes like pesa and sinigang. The proper depth of water for boiling is measured by dipping a hand in the pot, fingers first and fingers straightened, and using the folds of the middle finger as a measuring guide. At times, a knot of pandan leaves is buried underneath the bed of rice to give the cooked rice — kanin [kah-nin] — a sweet fragrance. As soon as the water comes to a boil, the heat is turned low and the rice is allowed to cook in a gentle simmer until the water has boiled off and the grains have become tender.

I learned to cook rice, I guess, after having burned rice far too many times while growing up. This is not to say that the scorched crust that forms at the bottom of the pot — tutong [too-tong] as Filipinos call burnt rice — is deplorable. I do not mind a little imperfection every now and then. A liberal douse of sauce from a braise fixes the flaw. For some, the crusty tutong is not even a flaw. It is the best part. And, mind you, rice that skews dry to burnt is, in my book, impeccable when fried for breakfast the following day. Fried rice — sinangag [see-nah-ngahg] — with fried eggs and fried pork is pure breakfast bliss.

But, I digress. A big part of cooking is about being confident and confidence only comes from doing, from wrapping the apron strings around you twice. Confidence in the kitchen comes from cooking and making mistakes. Burning the rice. Over-salting the chicken. It comes from learning from your mistakes and from doing it again.

“Taste it and you’ll learn,” my mom has always taught me. If I had half of my mom’s confidence in the kitchen, I’d be a happy man.


Adobo Fried Rice Recipe, makes four to six servings

2 tablespoons canola oil
4 cloves garlic, crushed
3 cups leftover cooked rice at room temperature (1 cup uncooked gives roughly 3 cups cooked rice)
1 cup adobo flakes
1 teaspoon sriracha
salt to taste

Heat oil in a wok or large pan over high heat. Add garlic and saute until brown and fragrant. Mash the rice gently with clean hands, breaking apart clumps of rice. Pour rice into the hot wok and stir well, again breaking apart clumps of rice with a spatula. Stir fry until grains are separated and dry. Add adobo flakes and sriracha and stir well. Season with salt to taste.


Pork Adobo and Pork Adobo Flakes Recipe, makes four to six servings

1 lb pork shoulder or pork butt
1 lb pork belly
1/2 cup vinegar
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon coarse sea salt
12 whole black peppercorns

Cut the pork into 1 to 2-inch cubes. In a large bowl, combine pork, vinegar, garlic, bay leaves, sea salt and peppercorns. Cover with plastic wrap and let the pork marinate in the refrigerator overnight.

Transfer pork and marinade to a medium pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer covered until pork is cooked and tender, about 45 minutes to an hour. Remove the cover and continue to cook until the sauce is thickened.

To make adobo flakes, shred adobo by hand or with a fork. Fry adobo in its own oil or canola oil in a wok over medium-high heat, stirring continuously until golden brown and crisp.


Adobo Fried Rice

Adobo Fried Rice


Learn the alphabet of Filipino food through our glossary. So much is lost in translation, I know, but I hope this glossary will help those unfamiliar with Filipino food become more informed.

A is for Achuete
B is for Barako Coffee
C is for Camarón
D is for Dinuguan
E is for Ensaimada
F is for Fish Balls
G is for Gata
H is for Himagas
I is for Itlog na Maalat
J is for Jackfruit
K is for Kamayan
L is for Longganisa
M is for Mani
N is for Noche Buena
O is for Omelet
P is for Pancit Palabok
Q is for Queso
R is for Relleno
S is for Sawsawan
T is for Tutong

  • Annapet

    Favorite part of adobo ends up in fried rice!  Love, love!

  • Jun Belen

    And the favorite part of leftover rice — tutong! — ends up in fried rice, too.

  • Ann Mah

    What a beautiful post. My dad learned to cook in similar circumstances — when he left home and moved to North Carolina in the 1960s and missed Chinese food. He and I share many similar phone calls as I try to learn from him. He taught me how to measure the rice-to-water ratio with the joints on my pinky finger :)  

  • Kristine Komlosy

    jun, just wondering is there no soy sauce for the adobo? thanks! i’m hungry already. beautiful photos as always.

  • Jun Belen

    Thank you, Kristine. My mom doesn’t use soy sauce when she makes adobo. It’s just vinegar, salt, black peppercorns, garlic, and bay leaves.  It’s a version some people call adobong puti because it doesn’t have the caramel brown color of soy sauce.  

    There are so many versions of adobo across the islands.  Some add soy sauce, which is clearly a Chinese influence. Some add coconut milk. Sam Sifton of the New York Times wrote an interesting piece about it here:

    Does your family’s adobo have soy sauce?

  • Jun Belen

    Ann, thank you for you lovely note! If you used your pinky, my mom taught me to use my middle one.

  • Row

    Hee, I learned how to cook rice the same way: trial and error (my first batches usually ended up too wet).  I use my middle finger to measure the water.  Thanks for the adobo fried rice recipe.  I’ll try it the next time I make adobo.  Come to think of it, my parents gave me the same advice when it came to cooking.  Best way to learn. :)

  • Liren

    Ah, the tutong! To my grandmother, it was her favorite part, and one I very slowly learned to appreciate. I secretly thought it my was grandmother’s way to be kind about my mom’s sub-par cooking, but I think now that perhaps they overcooked the rice intentionally for the tutong.

    As for trial and error – I can identify with that so well. With both my grandmother and mother gone, so much of my cooking was learned this way, coached by my aunt on the phone. Thank goodness for the telephone :)

  • Alisa

    I love this series Jun! I cant wait to see what the U is? Makes me wish we had more letters to the alphabet :)

  • faye

    Reading your blog always bring back a childhood memory. I learned to measure rice the same way and I always thought it was just something my Mom made up. Thank you for the wonderful recipes. Can’t wait to try them.

  • Katherine Agudera

    Thank you for this wonderful post. :) My mouth watered looking at the images and imagining as you paint something delicious with your words. And the message about confidence is truly inspiring, exactly what I need at the moment.. :)

  • Jun Belen

    Thank you, Leah for pointing me to the Inquirer article about adobo with kaffir limes.  We have a small kaffir lime tree at home — the adobo recipe will be good to try.

  • Jun Belen

    Katherine, thank you so much for writing.  We all need a boost of confidence every now and then.  I’m so happy you enjoyed the post.

  • amelia

    Jun: I absolutely “need” to get around doing this. The photo popped right out of my screen as if I were sitting in your kitchen watching you talk on the phone with your mom, measure rice by the gatang, and gently ladle the fried egg over the end product. I still battle with confidence in the kitchen so I call my mom in Italy any time I forget her secrets… what a wonderful way to stay connected miles away.

  • Avebayle

    thanks for sharing this delicious recipe :)

  • Avebayle

    thanks for sharing this delicious recipe :)

  • Momgateway

    nothing can beat adobo fried rice.

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