Filipina In A Southern Kitchen

Guisá The Filipino Food Flavor Base

Guisá the Filipino Food Flavor Base
Guisá the Filipino Food Flavor Base

Filipina in a Southern Kitchen Discussion

“Here in Louisiana, we start most of our dishes with the Holy Trinity – green bell peppers, celery and onions,” states JoAnne, my mom-in-law (MIL), as she tips the bowl of the diced trilogy into a colossal heritage cast iron dutch oven. She shares with me the family kitchen traditions as I help her out prepare for Thanksgiving.

 “The Trinity and the roux (flour and fat) are essentials of Cajun and Creole cooking,” she continues to explain while I stir the vegetables. The crowd favorite, Stuffed Mirlitons (Chayote/Sayote), is under way.

She looks over my shoulder to check the cook of the trio when she asked, “Now, Mia, what is food from your country like?” While I quickly assemble a coherent answer in my head, she goes on, “Do you have an equivalent of the Trinity?”

“No, we don’t,” I flat out say with a bit of insecurity. And then I recovered as I talk about holiday entertaining in the Philippines. I go on and on about the famous lechon, rich tomato-based stews, our coconut cream dishes, condiments, and delectable rice cakes. 

This conversation was two years ago. But the question stayed with me for quite a while. It nagged me and started researching online. 

What makes our Filipino food Filipino?

The French have the mirepoix, the Italians the soffritto, not to be interchanged with the South America’s sofrito with each country having ingredient variations and names. And then, not-so-recently, I learned the American Southern cooking’s Holy Trinity.

I revisited the Philippine history, pored over the Manila Galleon Trade historical essays, and watched various online symposiums.  After reading countless culinary books that are history and culture driven, there are hints of the Filipino food flavor base. But nothing authoritative jumps out at me. 

Wait…what is a flavor base anyway?

Flavor base is foundation ingredients that contain essential flavors  which distinguishes one regional cuisine to another. These are the aromatics and vegetables added in a savory dish with soup or some sort of sauce or gravy.

Let’s take for example beef stew. Each country has different versions of beef stews each country will have different versions of beef stews – the French’s Beef Bourguignon, Puerto Rico’s Carne Guisada and our very own Beef Mechado. They are all fundamentally beef stews but there is drastic dissemblance flavor-wise because of the flavor base

What is Mirepoix, Soffritto…and other flavors of the world?

Mirepoix, French

Larousse Gastronomique  a stalwart culinary encyclopedia, defines mirepoix (meer-pwah) as a mixture  of diced vegetables (carrot, onion and celery). It is used to enhance the flavor of meat, game, and fish, in the preparation of sauces (notably espagnole sauce). Raw ham or lean bacon is added when the preparation is with meat.

The trio will eventually have an addition of herbs and stirred into butter and cooked gently for about 20 minutes. 

There es a white variation of the French mirepoix that uses leeks.

Mirepoix is the humble beginning of a fantastic ragout, coq au vin, chicken soup or chicken pot pie. 

Soffritto, Italian

Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine Italian defines soffritto (translated as stir-fry) it as a base made by slowly simmering chopped onions, carrots, celery in oil; it can also include herbs, tomatoes, pepper, and pork products.

Interpretations, names  and ratios of this flavor base, cooking techniques and food preparation vary per region, per cook. There is no exactness. 

Battuto is chopped onion, garlic, celery, and herbs as cooking base.  The Four Evangelists of Italian Cooking: Onion, garlic, celery and herbs. 

And then Tuscan Chefs describes the transition of odori (raw vegetables from the market) into battuto (diced up or prepped vegetables) and then cooked into a soffritto. 

Italian dishes that start with soffritto are minestrone, bolognese al ragu or pasta al pomodoro. 

I also have to reiterate that the Spanish (Catalan) sofrito is a totally different thing: tomatoes, onions, garlic and green bell peppers are the basic ingredient. And most probably, because of the colonization, it became global with a different variations in the New World. The Latin sofrito versions have different makeup, and sometimes different names per country. Puerto Rico’s, for example is called recaite.

Holy Trinity, Louisiana (American South)

Guisá the Filipino Food Flavor Base
Holy Trinity the Flavor base of most southern Dishes

Cajun Holy Trinity is a must in Louisiana cooking. It is equal measures of the three ingredients onions, celery, and bell pepper. This is usually added to a roux. Adding garlic is sometimes called the pope

Gumbo, Jambalaya and étouffée all begin with a trinity. 

Samin Nosrat gives a sweeping overview of some of the most popular aromatics around the world in her book, Salt Fat Acid Heat (also a Netflix documentary show).

What is the Philippines’ Flavor Base?

There are numerous accounts of what makes the Philippine flavor profile, not discounting the fact that the archipelagic cuisine is a complex intermixture of regional pre- and colonization culture. Our cuisine is a confluence of Indo- Malayan, Chinese, Spanish (European), American and Japanese. Sometimes the antecedent is very distinctive, and at times, it’s simply ingredient- or method-traced evidence in our food.

Across these multitude of cultures, our common daily dishes start off with a guisá. And to be honest, when I am stumbling for food ideas, a go-to start is guisa, and everything just flows. 

Past conversations ran through my head: with my mom, between my Lola (grandmother) and the mayordoma (main steward), cooks in the family, friend’s help or yaya, neighborhood carinderia (food stall) owners, etc. Whenever I would ask how a certain Filipino dish is made, the common, more often than not response is “I-guisá mo…”

This is not textbook. But from fellow Filipino home cook to another, I infer that Guisá is Philippines’ answer to Mirepoix and Soffritto. This is our distinct Filipino food flavor base, among other things. 

Guisá or gisá came from the Spanish word guisár meaning to cook. Guisada in the Latin culture translates to stew and they have various Carne Guisadá or Guisado  (meat stew) dishes. 

While most Spanish speaking culture apply the word guisar per se, Guisá is a different cooking technique in the Philippines. 

Guisá Guisado Gisa Ginisa

Kulinarya, A Guidebook to Philippine Cuisine (2nd ed, 2016), states Guisá (also gisa), in the Philippines ‘implies a traditional flavoring base of onions, garlic and tomatoes.’ And it can also mean to just sauté, according to Robert Alejandro, author of The Philippines Cookbook (1985). 

Felice Sta. Maria, Philippine culinary historian remarks in her book The Governor-General’s Kitchen(2006) remarks that guisa (in some) means ‘to brown sliced or diced onion, pounded garlic and chopped tomato in a little oil that’s about to smoke…similar to sofrito.

To the common cook, guisá ‘s basic ingredients are usually equal parts onion and garlic. The aromatics are sautéed in neutral oil that gives that distinct Filipino food flavor. This is utilized all over the archipelago. Pancit Guisado (noodle dish), Lumpiang Sariwa (vegetable crepe rolls) commence with the basic guisa.  Guisado, on the other hand, is the finished quick dish that started with a guisá. 

A very common variation is the addition of tomatoes.

The ratio generally speaking is equal part onion and garlic, and two parts tomato. The tomato’s liquid sets the flavorful thick sarsa (sauce) in motion. 

An equally important aromatic traditional flavoring is garlic, onion and ginger

We must not discount that we also have a substantial amount of dishes that use this trio. In this case, one part garlic, one part ginger, and double the onion, a variation of the Filipino food flavor.

Mindanao, the main southern island in the Philippines, utilizes this in most of their dishes. Two reasons may be possible. First, it is heavily influenced by the proximity to Indonesia. And secondly, perhaps because it partially dodged the Spanish colonizers. Loosely speaking, Spain occupied the the northern coastal towns of Mindanao. And the Spanish-Moro Battles kept the mainland  Borneo Muslim territory kept the colonizers at bay.

I digress.  

However, the ultimate arbitrary of cut and ratio is the cook

To guisa is second nature to any Filipino cook. Our daily dishes include rice and a vial or two. More often than not, the jump off point of that ulam (viand or main dish) is a guisa. And so guisa has constant presence in the kitchen. 

The experienced cook decides how chunky or fine the cut of the vegetables. No textbook dictates this. It usually varies on the final expected outcome and preference of both the cook and the eater. Let’s say a long cook is required of the dish, big cubes are prepared and sometimes just roughly chopped because the vegetables disintegrate and form into a thick gravy. On the other hand, more precise and fine cuts are done if it is a quick cook like a stir fry for evenness of cooking. It is also important to note that we rarely remove the juices and seeds of the tomato. 

The main idea is to soften the vegetables. After all, it is a travesty if one bites onto a raw chunk of garlic, no?

The frizzle of oil as the vegetables touch the hot oil is a signal in our home that my mother is cooking. And I know it’s really good because the smell wafts from the kitchen up to our rooms. Yes, we don’t have vents or fans in the common Philippine kitchen. At least at the time when I was growing up. 

Crack in a Packet

Not so recently, Ajinomoto (the makers of MSG) Ginisa Mix made its way to the Philippine Kitchen. A competitor also has its version aptly named theirs Magic Sarap (Delicious). I would think economics and convenience brought these powder in packets version of the old fashioned flavor base in almost every Filipino household. Just like MSG, the umami crack,  just a dash of powdered version brings the Filipino flavor upfront and center in any dish. It’s so good, you’d put it in anything. 

Ginisa Mix & Magic Sarap artwork
Ginisa Mix and Magic Sarap are popular Filipino flavor seasonings. Artwork by Misty Belardo

Gateway Dishes to Guisá 

Here are a few dishes you may want to look up and try just to get your hands into the Philippine Cuisine. You may have already tried some of the dishes. 

Basic Guisado (Onions and Garlic)

Pancit Bihon Guisado and most panic (noodle dishes). Misua Guisado (salted noodles with wheat flour) is noodle dish that may or may not include tomato. But I personally prefer it with tomato because it has a richer taste and a wonderful color. 

Ratio of basic guisa Filipino Food Flavor
Basic Guisa, onion and garlic (artwork by Misty Belardo)

Guisa with Tomato

Guisado or quick stir-fries where the vegetable is the hero of the dish is , and flavored with minced or fatty meat. Some popular ones are Sayote Guisado, (mirlitons or chayote), Ginisang Upo(bottle gourd), and Guisadong Ampalaya (Bitter Gourd/Melon). 

Hearty dishes that employ the tomato trio are the Mechado (Classic Filipino Beef Stew), Binagoongan (Pork stewed in Shrimp Paste), Afritada, Filipino Menudo, Monggo Guisado, Kaldereta, Pecadillo and Adobong Pusit

Guisa Variation with Tomato Filipino Food Flavor
Guisa variation with tomato (artwork by Misty Belardo)

Guisa with Ginger

Some Guisado with ginger dishes are Tinolang Manok, Binakol and Arroz Caldo, Dinuguan, (blood stew). Notable coconut based dishes also usually start off with the trio of ginger, garlic and onions. Bicol Express, and the Philippine Adobo sa Gata (Adobo braised in coconut milk) and the Guisado versions of the vegetables but with the addition of coconut milk. 

Guisá The Filipino Food Flavor Base
Guisa variation with ginger (artwork by Misty Belardo)

So what now?

The everyday use of guisá ensues commonness. It maybe an unimportant discussion or idea to most Filipino cooks in the Philippines. But the kitchen culture of ginisa packets counters this.

But for someone who wants to get to know the Filipino cuisine, someone somewhere may just be revisiting their Filipino roots and don’t know where to begin. A discriminate cook may want to zero in on Filipino cuisine and flavor. They might want to go beyond the balut (duck embryo) and the adobo. Knowledge of this guisá gives you a head start. The guisá is essential. It is a building block of our kitchen. It is our flavor, our cultural culinary identity. 

I can confidently say that..

Guisá is the Filipino Food Flavor Base

Next time, when somebody asks me about Filipino food, I will deflate the reputation of greasy, oily dishes, the infamous balut and other cosmetic knowledge of the food. I will respect the inquiry and provide a more penetrating response. I will be (Andrew) Zimmern-ish and say, “Let’s start with guisá, to better understand the Filipino food flavor.”


Thank you, Misty Belardo for the beautiful digital artwork. 

I wrote this article as a kickoff to the Filipino American Heritage month celebration. Happy cooking!

In the name of full transparency, please be aware that this blog post contains affiliate links and any purchases made through such links will result in a small commission for me (at no extra cost for you). 

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