by Eric Ginsburg
I didn’t know when I ordered the “adobo” that it’s considered the national dish of the Philippines, I just knew that of the six dishes I could see, it looked the most promising.
I walked into Mequeni Pinoy Mart & Lutong Bahay knowing almost nothing about Filipino food; all I had to go on was the recommendation of a friend I trusted, who said to try the “sinigang.” Operating on blind faith, without so much as asking Siri what the word meant, I showed up for lunch.
Sometimes that sense of adventurism backfires, like the first time I tried truly authentic Chinese food and asked for my copious leftovers to go so as not to offend the proprietor, though I trashed the Styrofoam box as soon as I left the restaurant. But other times, you get lucky.
Mequeni Pinoy Mart is similar to other markets of its kind in the area, such as Jerusalem Market a couple doors down in the small complex towards the southwestern edge of Greensboro’s Gate City Boulevard: an international market with one-of-a-kind products that can’t be found elsewhere and a modest restaurant in the back for those seeking an informal or takeout meal.
Greensboro isn’t home to a large Pinoy — that’s another word for Filipino — population. The Center for New North Carolinians doesn’t list them among the 10 larger immigrant and refugee communities that hail from Asia. Only 4 percent of the city identified as Asian on the 2010 Census, and Hawaiian and native Pacific Islanders accounted for just 0.1 percent of the populace. But there are about 3.4 million Filipinos in the United States which isn’t as surprising if you know a little bit of the island nation’s history.
To understand Pinoy cuisine, you need to know a little bit about what influenced it. If you can’t picture it on a map, here’s a quick orientation: The Philippines are about equidistant from the coast of Vietnam to the west and China to the north, not far from Malaysia and Indonesia.
So it isn’t surprising that one of the earliest and most enduring influences on Filipino food came from China, which influences the sinigang dish that’s sort of like a hot and sour soup or lumpia — also on the menu at Mequeni — which is basically fresh or fried spring rolls. Malaysian ingredients, as well as others from Indonesia and India, played a role, too.
And then something massive for the Philippines’ culinary traditions happened, and much more significantly for its people: Spanish colonialism. In the mid 1500s, Spanish colonizers left what is now Mexico to seize the Philippines, and despite countless insurrections, they held power for several hundred years. Their reign didn’t end until the Spanish-American War in 1898, when Spain “gave” the country to the United States as part of a peace treaty. Rebels who had fought the Spanish took the fight to the damn Yankees, but become an independent nation until 1946.
The US established the Philippines as a semi-autonomous territory, known as a commonwealth, beginning in 1935 before surrendering direct control, and during that interim period, Japan invaded and occupied the country for a few years during WWII.
You might not remember all that, but it does help explain the connection between the US and the Philippines, and why English is one of the national languages. But as far as food is concerned, you mainly need to remember early Chinese influence and later the Spanish, who brought ingredients from Mexico with them.
That’s what enabled me, hundreds of years later, to try adobo, a Filipino dish with a Spanish-sounding name and some Mexican origins served in a Greensboro strip mall.
It’s fusion by force of history.
All I knew, when I bit into one of the tender chunks of pork at Mequeni, was that I loved it. I moaned with that first sample, quickly dipping the next piece into the juices that had pooled under the meat and scooping up some white rice with it.
Adobo is actually a term for chicken or pork braised in garlic, vinegar, bay leaves, and in some cases soy sauce. I didn’t stop to discern the exact flavors — at the time I didn’t even know what to look for — I just knew I’d tried something deeply memorable.
There’s a menu written in large print behind the counter at Mequeni, but I didn’t know what kare-kare (oxtail and veggie stew cooked in a peanut sauce), pancit (noodles that one food writer compared to Pad Thai but another more accurately likened to lo mein) or pinakbet (a squash, eggplant, beans, okra and tomato stew from the northern part of the Philippines) were. I just knew to order the sinigang.
Half a dozen choices were visible, warm and waiting behind the glass, and I asked about each. That’s how I knew I wanted the adobo, and a gigantic cut of fried eggplant.
The proprietor explained that sinigang is actually a soup, served with beef ribs in a tamarind broth. It also contained string beans and what I later identified as likely being kangkong, or water spinach. The tamarind makes the broth distinct and moderately sour, delivering an enjoyable amount of complexity to the small bowl of soup.
But the adobo proved to be the show stealer, and not because of its unofficial status as the nation’s foremost culinary dish. It’s the sort of delicious flavoring that commands your attention and encourages silence between friends as you dig in. Credit in part is due to the vinegar, an early Filipino ingredient that also helps preserve the meat.
The setup at Mequeni Pinoy Mart & Lutong Bahay (the latter part of which roughly translates to “homecooking”) lends itself to experimentation and sharing, which is in line with the country’s family-style dining habits.
Mequeni is unassuming, with only a few seats along the wall and limited square footage. But considering the Philippines’ blended culinary history, the unique dishes that translate well for an American palate and the millions of Filipinos in this country, it’s possible that Pinoy dishes like pancit, sinigang and adobo will be the next culinary trend.
Visit Mequeni Pinoy Mart & Lutong Bahay at 5002 Gate City Boulevard (GSO) or call 919.800.9440.