Vinegar, or Suka (as it is known in the Philippines), is one of the most used ingredients in the Filipino kitchen. The prevalent use of Suka is due in large part to the extended shelf life bestowed upon goodies cooked in vinegar--a necessary culinary "voodoo" needed for tropical climes during the days of pre-refrigeration. But aside from its preservative powers, we Filipinos also just happen to like the elevated flavor punch that vinegar provides--that certain Asim (sourness) that we love oh so much in our food.
For instance, vinegar is the key player in many Filipino dishes like Paksiw, Kinilaw (raw fish "cooked" in vinegar, kinda like a ceviche), various dipping sauces, and a variety of different marinades. And of course, Adobo is perhaps the prime example of a vinegar-based Filipino dish. Heck, as I've shown here in the past, with a good bottle of vinegar you can Adobo most anything: Chicken, squid, water spinach, pork belly, and even ribs.
Mmmm. Ribs. I sho' am hungry...
Ah, I'm Gonna Git You Sucka. It's a classic.
Anyways, while I've demonstrated a few different uses of vinegar before, I've never really explained that there are also quite a few different types of vinegar that may be found in the Filipino pantry. Seeing as how vinegar is such an integral part of Filipino cuisine, and because there's such a wide spectrum of Suka in use in the Philippines, I thought I'd take the time to compare and contrast some of these potent potions (at least the ones that are readily available in my neck of the woods). Keep in mind though, that the vinegars I tasted are commercially made and probably can't compare to the artisanal and local vinegars made in the different regions of the Philippines.
Sukang Paombong (Nipa Palm Vinegar): Filipino Palm Vinegar is made from the fermented sap of the Nipa Palm and is perhaps the most used vinegar in the Philippines. It is also named for the region of the Philippines that is known for its Palm Vinegar--Paombong.
In her book, Tikim, the late and great Filipino food writer, Doreen G. Fernandez, explains that sap is extracted from the Nipa Palm by kicking a Nipa branch "20 times once a week for six to seven weeks." Crazy right? I suppose all the roundhouses get the sap flowing (though I doubt commercial vinegars are still made in this way). Then after the JCVD Kickboxer treatment, the nipa fruit is removed from the abused branch and tapped for it's sap, which is then naturally fermented in clay jars until it turns into vinegar.
Sukang Paombong is cloudy in appearance, and has a sort of lemony/citrusy flavor note to it (at least to me it does). Even the label on my bottle of Sukang Paombong touted it's sourness with a tag emblazoned with "Super ASIM Talaga." Which roughly translates to: "Hey my man, don't be alarmed, but this vinegar you are about to purchase is more sour than you may think. So don't go wasting it on salad greens, you punk," or something like that.
Sukang Tuba (Coconut Sap Vinegar): Filipino Coconut Sap Vinegar is made from the fermented sap of a coconut tree. Extraction of this sap is similar to that of Nipa Palm sap, except sans the kicking--the inflourescence of the coconut tree is simply tapped for its sap and then fermented. Fresh coconut sap is known as Tuba, and then it's called Sukang Tuba once it's fermented into vinegar.
Sukang Tuba is also cloudy in appearance, with a slightly sweet smell. Despite its origins, I couldn't detect any actual coconut smell or flavor in this vinegar, though it is rather smooth tasting on its own and not as lip-puckering as the Palm Vinegar.
Sukang Maasim (Cane Vinegar): Filipino Cane Vinegar is made from fermented sugar cane syrup. Sugar cane is first pressed for its juice and sap, then this juice and sap is cooked and then left to ferment into vinegar.
Sukang Maasim is only slightly cloudy, almost clear. The cane vinegar I sampled was the mildest of the bunch--still sour, but very smooth and not as acrid and acidic. Cane vinegar is actually my mother's Suka of choice, using it for numerous applications such as marinating, pickling, and squirting into the eyes of her enemies.
Sukang Maasim is also the most commonly available Filipino Vinegar here in the states (well, at least in SoCal) and can usually be found in regular supermarkets. It's a great all-purpose vinegar for use in everything from Adobo to dipping sauces.
Ilocano Cane Vinegar
Sukang Iloco (Ilocano Cane Vinegar): Filipino Cane Vinegar from the Ilocos region of the Philippines is a by-product of Ilocano Sugar Cane Wine known as Basi. Basi is made by pressing the sugar cane, cooking the cane juice to a molasses state, then placing the molasses in clay jars. The bark from the Duhat (Java Plum) tree is then added to the clay jars as a flavorant and fermenting agent. The molasses first turns into the Basi wine (which I've written about here), but if left to ferment longer and sour, the Basi then transforms to Sukang Iloco.
Sukang Iloco (also spelled Iloko) is deep amber in color. Sukang Iloco is somewhat mellow in flavor, though it does have a hint of sweetness to it. Although Ilocano Cane Vinegar can be used in a wide variety of applications, I find it best when used in Ilocano foods such as longanisa or as a dipping sauce for Ilocano Empanadas.
I'm a Sucka for Suka
Other Types of Vinegars: There are a plethora of other Filipino Vinegars that I did not cover in this post simply because I could not find them locally. There are vinegars made from Duhat (Java Plum), guava, coconut water (as opposed to the sap), and probably a whole range of other fermentable liquids that I've never heard of before.
For the most part, the Filipino Vinegars I covered in this post can be found at most Asian Markets here in the U.S. for under $2, though the types, quality, and brands will vary depending on where you reside. As you can probably see in my pictures, the Datu Puti and Tropics brands of vinegar are what were available to me. Other brands, such as Silver Swan or Tropical, will more than likely taste differently than what I sampled here, so please keep that in mind. I tend to always purchase Datu Puti only because that is what my mother buys.
Filipino Vinegars usually hover between 4 to 5 percent
acidity--about the same as apple cider vinegar. Despite the similar
acidities, Suka is usually milder in flavor than apple cider
vinegar. With that said though, you can still use apple cider vinegar, or even white distilled vinegar, for Filipino recipes if you can't find Filipino vinegars (I tend to use apple cider vinegar for pork recipes). In fact, along with things like canned foods, hot dogs, and Spam, the American colonization of the Philippines brought about Del Monte and Heinz vinegars.
Lastly, another point I want to make is that Suka mellows even more in flavor (or perhaps becomes more complex) once it is cooked, so the flavor profiles are quite different when used in an Adobo. With that said, don't be afraid to utilize different Filipino Vinegars in different recipes: use Sukang Iloco in a squid adobo, dip your lumpia in Sukang Paombong, or use Sukang Tuba to marinate some tasty ribs.
And don't feel restricted to just Filipino foods--do feel free to experiment with Suka for things like vinagrettes, pickles, and blinding your enemies.