Healthy Cooking, Filipino Style


With a little help from the farmers’ market

Story, photo, and recipe by Rezel Kealoha

Filipino cuisine is trending these days, but even so, it can be hard to move beyond misconceptions that this food is unhealthy, exotic, or just hard to make at home. As a Filipina home cook, food blogger, and recipe developer, I have been working to break through these stereotypes with easy-to-make, healthy versions of traditional Filipino dishes.

I do this partly for myself. A few years ago, when I was diagnosed with high blood pressure and high cholesterol, I went looking for ways to put more vegetables into my diet. I thought about how we were eating while living in the Philippines during my childhood. In my dad’s province, especially, everyone grew produce in the backyard, and the typical diet was certainly plant-forward. Of special importance was the malunggay tree (Moringa oleifera). In Filipino herbal medicine, malunggay is considered a cure-all, used specifically to treat inflammation, stabilize blood sugar and blood pressure, and strengthen the immune system.

The same time I was diagnosed with high blood pressure, my dad learned he had diabetes. Instead of eating the bland food both our doctors prescribed, we looked back to what my grandmothers gave us. If we were down with the flu, it would be a ginger broth filled with malunggay leaves. As we started incorporating more vegetables into our diets and shopping more at the farmers’ market, our ailments slowly started to subside, and at each checkup, our health numbers were better.

The food that I cook now is rooted in both my heritage and where I live. As an East Bay urban dweller, my “backyard” is the Diablo Valley Farmers’ Market, where the stalls are abundant with fresh fruits and vegetables. At the market, I’m inspired by the many ways I can marry my two worlds in pursuit of good flavor and good health.

Here are some Filipino dishes that I grew up eating pretty much every week. Each can be made using healthy, flavorful ingredients.

Arroz Caldo: This porridge made with rice, chicken, lots of ginger, and garlic is similar to Chinese congee. The condiments are simple: a little citrus from calamansi (a tiny lemon/lime hybrid), soy sauce, a hard-boiled egg, green onions, and lots of pepper.

Adobo: One of the more high-profile Filipino dishes, adobo is fundamentally a sauce of vinegar, soy sauce, and peppercorns. It’s used for braising meats and vegetables, but if you load it up with the latter and serve it over steamed rice, it can be as good and healthful as you want to make it.

Ginataang Sitaw at Kalabasa: Harder to say than to cook, this stew of long beans and winter squash has a delicious coconut-ginger sauce.

Pancit: A dish of stir-fried noodles, pancit gets its flavor from onions, garlic, lemon juice, and soy sauce. Meat is often a component, but the dish also relies on plenty of vegetables. In spring and summer, I might make it as a vegan meal with baby summer squash, radishes, colorful carrots, and squash blossoms. It’s so fresh and inviting that when the pancit hits the table, we all say “Kain na!” Let’s eat!

Farmers’ Market Pancit Udon

Here’s a recipe you can use any time of year to feature whatever combination of fresh farmers’ market vegetables seems most appealing. The fresh udon noodles can be replaced with Chinese style egg noodles or Filipino canton noodles, if you can find them. If using dried noodles, cook them first according to package directions.

Serves 4–6

20 ounces firm tofu
3 tablespoons olive oil
½ large white onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup baby carrots or larger carrots, sliced
½ yellow bell pepper, cut into strips
½ red bell pepper, cut into strips
½ cup green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 cups shredded purple cabbage
¾ cup coconut aminos (divided)
2 cups baby bok choy leaves
½ cup vegetable broth
18–20 ounces fresh udon noodles
For garnish
½ cup breakfast radishes
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro leaves
4–5 edible flowers
1 lemon, cut into wedges

Drain the tofu, pat dry, and cut into cubes. In a very large skillet or wok, heat the olive oil until it starts to shimmer, about 2 minutes. Add tofu cubes and fry until golden brown. Remove from pan and set aside.

Add onion and garlic to pan, stirring lightly until they start to brown. Stir in carrots and pepper strips. Sauté for 2 minutes.
Stir in the green beans and cabbage and create a well in the middle of the vegetables. Pour in half the coconut aminos. Cook for 3 minutes. Add the bok choy and cook for 2 minutes.

Remove the vegetables from the pan using a slotted spoon so the sauce stays in the pan. Add the broth and the rest of the coconut aminos (or soy sauce) and heat to a simmer. Add udon noodles and cook for 2 minutes. Add half the vegetables and half the tofu back into the pan. Cook for 2 minutes to heat through and coat with the sauce.

Plate the pancit on a large platter and top with remaining vegetables and tofu. Garnish with fresh radishes, cilantro, and flowers. Serve with lemon wedges on the side.

Walnut Creek–based photographer, food stylist, and recipe developer Rezel Kealoha focuses her cooking on seasonal California produce. Her recipes are inspired by her time living in the Philippines, Japan, Australia, and Singapore.