Monday, August 9, 2010

Chicken Adobo and the 59th Street Bridge Song

We had our friends Chris, Melissa and their eight-year old son Gabe over to Friday dinner last week, and served Chicken Adobo, a Filipino chicken dish which will be familiar to frequent readers of this blog since I have adopted some of the method to other cuisines. (Stew the chicken without browning, and then broil at the end. You get crisp skin and less mess.)

Both of my kids have been sleepaway counselors for eight-year olds, and there is a particular endearing goofiness to that demographic. My daughter's campers would wake up in the morning and ask "Is it time for dinner yet?" We lit candles and Gabe asked "Is it Hanukah?" When we uncovered the challah, he wanted to know "Where's the matzah?" Perhaps a better analogy than my daughter's campers would be our Russian cousins, who immigrated to the US a few days before Pesach in 1993 and wanted to bring a challah to our seder. (Not that I should talk. We discussed, and avoided discussing, lighting Shabbat candles for 12 years before actually doing it.) Anyway, we spare our guests and never sing on Shabbat, other than kiddush, not zemirot (after dinner songs), not even Shalom Aleichem before dinner. But Gabe treated us to a rousing performance of Simon and Garfunkel's 59th Street Bridge song ("Feeling groovy") after dinner, which actually struck me as the sweetest of all possible zemirot, and perfectly descriptive of the purpose of the day.

Chris wanted me to post the recipe for the Chicken Adobo. I had a few qualms about copyright infringement, since I didn't consider my recipe sufficiently original, but I really shouldn't since if you change an ingredient or the method it does qualify as a new recipe. This is also a good opportunity to plug the two cookbooks from which I derive the recipe: Reynaldo Alejandro's The Philippine Cookbook, and Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan's luminous Memories of Philippine Kitchens, which is travelogue, memoir and anthropology as well as a cookbook. Amy and Romy are also the owners of the late lamented Cendrillon which used to be our favorite restaurant, and current owners of Purple Yam, which might be if it were not in yenem velt (Ditmas Park). Beside, other than Chicken w Sumac (see my earlier blog entry) Chicken Adobo is one of the dishes with the highest satisfaction relative to cost and effort. Here is how I make it:

Chicken Adobo

  • 1 chicken, cut into 10-12 pieces (the breasts of poor chickens are so overgrown nowadays that they take so long to cook so I cut them in half)
  • 12-30 cloves of garlic (ideally fresh smashed and peeled, but pre-peeled are fine and that is what I used last week -- smash them a bit if it makes you feel better; I usually use about 25 for one chicken, depending on size of garlic and chicken)
  • 1/2 to 1 tablespoons whole black peppercorns
  • 2-4 bay leaves
  • 1 teaspoons rosemary, crumbled a bit between your fingers
  • 1 or two whole dried red chili peppers (omit if you are serving small children)
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce (see below)
  • 3/4 cup vinegar (see below)
  • 1 can coconut milk (optional but nice; it smooths out some of the harsh edges of the vinegar. I used "lite" -- use full fat or make your own if you are up for it.)
  1. Put the chicken in a pot.
  2. Add the seasonings.
  3. Pour the liquids over the top. You can marinate it for a few hours or overnight but it really isn't necessary.
  4. Bring to a simmer on top of the stove.
  5. Cover and simmer for 30-45 minutes until the chicken in barely done.
  6. Remove the chicken to an oven-safe serving dish, skin side up.
  7. Broil 6 inches from the heat until the skin is crisp. (If you have time, you can broil skin side down, which will crisp the bones a bit, and then turn skin side up to finish. Be careful not to overcook.)
  8. Meanwhile, boil the liquid down over high heat until reduced at least by half, and more if you have time.
  9. Skim some fat off the gravy (I usually don't bother, pour it over the chicken and serve.
  10. Ideally, serve at once, but it can keep for a while covered in a warm oven and reheats well too.
  11. That's it. Serve with rice.
Soy Sauce: The better the soy sauce, the better the dish. (The same goes for the chicken.) A good aged soy would be wonderful, but frankly, I generally use Kikkoman. It is nice to substitute a tablespoon or two of Bragg's aminos' a soy-sauce like product with wonderful umami flavors for some of the soy sauce. IF you like the dish a bit sweet, substitute a tablespoon or so of kecap manis, Indonesian sweet soy sauce, or just add a spoon or two of brown sugar.

Vinegar: Some recipes call for plain white vinegar, which I think is boring. I have seem others which ask for balsamic, which is too much, and lots of balsamic doesn't taste all that good, and the good stuff might be overwhelmed in this dish. I tend to use apple cider vinegar, especially a fruity kind rather than supermarket standard. Again, Bragg's makes a wonderful cider vinegar. Sherry vinegar is also good in this, but expensive, so I used 1/2 cup of cider vinegar and 1/4 cup of sherry vinegar.

A nice treat with leftovers: This dish is great reheated and served with rice, and it will be very easy to remove the extra fat which will have hardened on top. For a real treat though, make a Filipino version of a torta, a Mexican sandwich. Since Mexicans also make their own chicken adobo, this seems like a nice thing to do. Take a crusty long roll or a section of French bread and toast it lightly. Meanwhile, warm some chicken and garlic cloves in a microwave for a minute or two. Mash the garlic cloves and spread on the bread. Put the chicken on top, add sliced avocado, red onion, and some cilantro if you want, and enjoy.


  1. Alan, my recollection of pork adobo from a trip to the Philippines isn't pleasant--they served it as dryish, deep fried pork with plain white rice and I wondered where was any curry to douse the rice with... I'm going to try using your recipe though. Possibly using skinless chicken, like I always do, and even though it may suffer in its taste, it'd be a non-Indian way to cook chicken.

    Do you add coconut milk at the beginning itself? Usually, one worries about the milk splitting so south Indians cook chicken in watered down (thin) coconut milk and add some thick milk at the end.

    And, no water while cooking the chicken?


  2. The lack of water may have to do with the difference between American and Indian chickens. American chickens tend to be big-breasted, tender, quick-cooking and frankly not all that flavorful, and will cook through in the liquids in the recipe in 30-40 minutes when cut up. If Indian chickens are more muscular (and flavorful), it may take longer and you may want to add a bit of water. You just have to boil it down more at the end.

    Skinless chickens are the Indian way of solving the flabby skin problem, so I wouldn't broil them at the end. This would also dry it out. You might want to fry the chicken pieces in a little oil.

    Regarding the coconut milk, it doesn't make a creamy sauce, just softens the edges of the vinegar and soy and gives it a nicer flavor. If you like it creamy, by all means do the thin/thick trick of from the South. I have found that the coconut milk doesn't curdle (split?) , and in any case, you boil the sauce vigorously at the end. They key may be in the "lite" coconut milk that I used, which omits a lot of the fat by adding stabilizers.

    Try it and let me know how it works out. The chicken is permeated by the black pepper flavor (is this like some Chettiar dishes?) and we love it.

    Good luck!