As the vice president and managing director of AHC+Hospitality, it’s no surprise George Aquino spends plenty of time traveling — and enjoying restaurants all over the world. From 2009-2012, Aquino shared many of his travel and food experiences through his blog, “My Hotel Life.” He also was approached that year to write a food and travel column for Lake Magazine, which he did for four years, and in 2011, he became the restaurant critic and travel writer for The Grand Rapids Press/MLive.
“All these ‘third shift jobs,’ as my wife Elena fondly refers to my writing stints, slowly had to take a back seat to my real job as a busy hotel executive at the end of 2017,” Aquino said. “After a two-year hiatus, I started a travel and food podcast, “The Spontaneous Table,” in partnership with WKTV Community TV in 2019. You can always catch up on my adventures on Facebook and Instagram.”
Aquino first discovered a love of food and cooking as a boy. “My grandmother Amelia Laurel Carandang ran the kitchen of The Manila Press Club in the Philippines in the 1960s, in addition to operating her own catering company. I lived with my Lola Mely for eight years so her passion for cooking and entertaining must have been passed on to me. There was always something cooking in her house and guests used to come and go as if her house was a 24/7 restaurant.
“I started cooking in college when I became desperate for the food I enjoyed when I was growing up in Manila. Chicken adobo was the first thing I learned to cook. My dinner soirees became a staple with my college friends and that tradition lives on to this day.”
“Adobo (not to be confused with the Mexican adobo) is the one Filipino dish everyone should master,” said Aquino. “There are countless variations of this vinegar, salt and garlic infused dish. The main ingredient can be anything you want — pork, fish, squid, vegetables, ribs. A bit of advice — someone else’s mother or grandmother’s version will always be better, so just have fun making yours until you find the perfect formula that makes you happy.”
Adobo is also a traditional item included in the Filipino boodle fight, a shared feast served over banana leaves and eaten without utensils. The offerings can be as vast as the 7,641 islands in the Philippines — grilled fish, steamed vegetables, chicken adobo, kilawin (local ceviche), tortang talong (eggplant omelet), lumpia (egg rolls), pancit (noodles), seasonal fruits and an assortment of dips and sauces. Of course, there is an abundance of rice.
“Kamayan, or eating with your hands, is expected,” Aquino said. “Plastic gloves and wipes are provided. The boodle fight’s humble origin can be traced to the Philippine Military Academy where officers and soldiers, as a symbol of camaraderie, share a meal while standing around a table.”
Yield: 4 servings
8 chicken thighs with bones and skin
1 medium onion (sliced)
1 cup coconut vinegar (or any white vinegar)
1 cup soy sauce
12 chopped garlic cloves (split into 2 portions)
3-4 dried bay leaves
Cracked black pepper to taste (or whole peppercorn for traditional method)
1 medium tomato (quartered)
2 tablespoons cooking oil
2 green onion stalks
Optional (these are not traditionally added, but I do when I’m in the mood to change things a bit)
2 stalks lemongrass
2 tablespoons jam (I use Bonne Maman berry. It helps cut the acidity and balance the saltiness.)
Place all ingredients (except half of chopped garlic) in a plastic bag and marinate for two hours or more in the refrigerator. You can skip this step if you don’t have time.
Place all ingredients in a pot with ½ of the garlic and 2 stalks of lemongrass (optional). Make sure all the chicken is covered in liquid. You can add water. Let it boil, then simmer.
After 30 minutes, pull the chicken out of the pot and set aside. Reduce the sauce by half.
While the sauce is reducing, heat oil in a non-stick pan. Sauté 1/2 of garlic. Once garlic is brown on the edges, add chicken skin-side down and fry until skin is brown and crispy.
Place chicken in a bowl and pour sauce over chicken. Garnish with chopped green onions. Serve with garlic fried rice.
Adobo, like wine, tastes better as it ages. Most Filipinos cook adobo at least one day before serving it. I prefer to freeze the sauce first so I can scoop out all the fat that settles on top of the sauce. I then combine it with the chicken until it is ready to serve.
Leftover adobo is a popular breakfast dish. Just add a fried egg with your hot rice and adobo.