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Kare-Kare: The Tastiest Filipino Dish You've Never Ordered

Apr 30, 2018

Courtesy of Isla Pilipina.

 

Exploring cuisines other than the ones we grew up with is a badge of honor for many of us, foodies or not. However hard you've worked to expand your palate, though, there are certainly dishes you haven't tried, buried deep in the far corner of your menu or on another "secret" menu entirely. We're here to help you push the boundaries of your palate to try dishes you've never even considered. Here's the best Filipino dish you probably haven't ordered—yet.

What is kare-kare?

Kare-kare is the best kind of Filipino comfort food: somewhere between a soup and a stew with a thick, rich broth cooked slow and long. It's time-intensive, and thus best served on special occasions, at family gatherings, or when a loved one just needs some warmth.

Ask any Filipino about kare-kare and they'll release a long sigh. When I spoke with Ray Espiritu, proprietor of Chicago's Isla Pilipina, he compared it to "an acoustic song under the stars on a summer night."

The meat

While variations include pork hocks or offal, the real deal is made with oxtail, skin on and bone in. Because the cut is bony, a long braise, as long as it takes, allows it to fall-off-the-bone tender. "Some call [oxtail] adventurous," says Ray, and he suspects this is why the dish has been the restaurant's most popular.

The sauce

It's hard to align Filipino dishes such as these with Western notions: is it a soup or a stew? Is it a main course? Filipinos will tell you there's no such thing as a single main course, especially at a party.

 

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No matter. Categories get thrown out the window with a sauce this thick and rich. For the sauce, the broth made from boiling the oxtail is blended with ground peanuts—or better, straight up peanut butter—for complexity, toasted rice for thickness, and annatto oil for color. According to Ray, the peanut sauce gives it "a certain balance, a symmetry" against the oxtail, bringing out its character. "I don't think you get that with a lot of other oxtail dishes," he says, because the oxtail can be "too much."

The Veggies

While veggies can often be an afterthought in Filipino cuisine, the ones added to this mix are often very specific. First there's sliced eggplant, followed by string beans and bok choy. All are tossed in at the end of the boil and all are hearty enough to stand up to the thick sauce.

Accompaniments

Though the stew could itself stand as a meal, Filipino dishes are never eaten alone. This dish is usually served with white rice, and as a condiment, alongside a small dish of bagoong, the salty fermented shrimp paste common in many Asian cuisines, including Thai.

 

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