For the Love of Filipino Kare-Kare

Homemade Beef Kare-Kare

For dinner last Friday, I decided to try a Cebuano restaurant's take on kare-kare. Instead of beef, they used fried pork belly as the main meat. I was intrigued while reading the description on the menu.

Unfortunately, after partaking of their kare-kare fusion version, I wasn't too happy. There wasn't a lot of the peanut sauce. Their bagoong was too salty and tasted a little undercooked. I could count in one hand the pieces of vegetable (pechay, eggplant, string beans) that were on the plate.

I reluctantly took home the rest of the kare-kare and thought of how to redeem the dish. The following morning, I decided to re-heat the leftover food. I paired it with my favorite bagoong that I found in the fridge and the taste somewhat improved. In fairness, the pork was still able to retain it's crunchiness. I ended up enjoying that second chance meal.

I've grown to love eating kare-kare over the years. The bits and pieces of beef smothered in thick peanut sauce. The sweetness of the sauce complimented by the salty bagoong. The somewhat crunchy texture of the pechay, sitaw, banana heart (puso ng saging), and eggplant add layers to the kare-kare dish. I always look forward to having kare-kare in every Filipino buffet that I go to.

Fried Pork Belly Kare-Kare

Kare-kare is versatile. You can use any type of meat (beef, pork, etc.), seafood, and even vegetables as the main attraction. The annatto seeds or achuete as we call it in the Philippines, gives the dish its distinctive coloring.

It was my Dad's cousin, Tita Edith, who taught my Mom the kare-kare recipe that we adhere to these past years. Her method is a practical one, she doesn't shy away in using modern methods and ingredients when cooking her kare-kare. One key factor in this recipe is using commercially available kare-kare powder and it has to be Mama Sitang's. The powder compensates for the achuete water. 

Some kitchen purists would frown on the use of these ready-made ingredients. In order to enhance the flavor and texture of the dish, we still have to combine it with authentic ingredients like peanut butter and grounded peanuts.

We've been relying on this recipe for about twenty years and I should say that it has been a success each and every time we cook kare-kare. The only thing that we've changed is the kind of meat that we use. My Mom prefers to cook with either kalitiran (beef shoulder clod) or camto (flank steak) parts of the beef.

One of the origin stories on how kare-kare became a Filipino dish is food folklore. When the British invaded Manila in 1762, to augment their forces, they hired Indian Sepoys and French mercenaries.

For two years, the British formed a government in Manila and Cavite. By May 1764, the British was out and the Spaniards were back. But even before the announcement of the truce between these two European powers, a number of the Indian Sepoys ditched the British army and escaped to the mountains particularly around the area of present-day Rizal province.

They married into local families, formed their own communities, and recreated their hometown dishes.They taught their Filipina wives how to cook these kaikaari or curry recipes. These women then adapted, improvished, and innovated using ingredients that were available locally.

Vegetable Kare-Kare

These 17th century immigrants from South Asia noticed that there was a multitude of pilgrims in Antipolo who were paying their respects to the miraculous Nuestra Señora de la Paz y Buen Viaje (Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage ). They started selling food along the way to serve these groups of hungry travelers. These roadside eateries became known as karinderia or karihan (adding the Spanish term "eria" or the Tagalog suffix "han" which means place).

Filipinos are like kare-kare. We are made-up of different elements that when pieced together becomes a fusion of sorts. We Filipinized everything that we encounter because that's how we make it uniquely ours. 

At times, we're even confuse on what we are or who we are but at the end of the day, our innate Filipino culture comes out.

It also got me thinking about two things: how we should continuously reinvent ourselves and how we are given second chances in life.

We might stumble, we might fall, but we get up and continue to move forward.