Between the years of 1565-1815, Spain transported goods between Mexico and the Philippines (two of Spain's colonies) via the Manila-Acapulco Galleons. These giant wooden ships traveled across the Pacific from Manila to Acapulco only once or twice a year. Once or twice a year may not seem like much, but once or twice a year for 250 years (250 years!!!) would rack up some serious frequent floater miles, no?
The galleons brought New World crops to the Philippines such as chocolate, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, pineapples, bell peppers, jicama, chayote, avocado, peanuts and annatto. And because the galleons traveled in both directions, the Mexicans received rice, sugarcane, tamarind, coconuts and mangoes from Philippine soil. As a result of the galleon trade, there are a number of Filipino dishes that have roots in Mexico.
One such dish is Chicken Pipian. In Mexico, where the dish originated, Chicken Pipian usually consists of chicken cooked in a mole sauce seasoned with epazote and thickened with ground pumpkin seeds. The Filipino version (mostly served in Vigan, Ilocos Sur—another stop on the trade route) features chicken cooked in a sauce seasoned with epazote, colored with annatto seeds, and thickened with ground toasted rice and/or ground peanuts.
If a sauce thickened with rice and peanuts sounds familiar, it's probably because you are thinking of Kare-Kare—a Pinoy dish of oxtails braised in a peanut sauce. So yes, Chicken Pipian (the Pinoy version, at least) is more or less a poultry version of Kare-Kare (but that's another recipe for another time)
Considering the epazote, annatto, and peanuts (all ingredients introduced from Mexico to the Philippines) its easy to see that Mexican Pipian and Filipino Pipian have more in common than name alone.
Epazote: AKA Giggleweed Stinkweed, Wormweed
For those of you unfamiliar with epazote, it is a wild herb native to Mexico that is commonly used to add flavor to Mexican stews, soups, and sauces. In the Philippines, it is known as "pasotes". The name "epazote" is actually a combination of Aztec words for "skunk" and "sweat." Given that, the herb is also known as stinkweed, or wormweed. But don't let the name fool you, epazote actually has a citrussy and grassy aroma and lends a sort of minty and peppery flavor to whatever it's added to.
For my version of Chicken Pipian, I incorporated a few more Mexican touches than is customary in the Filipino version. For the sauce, I actually steeped a dried Ancho chile in some chicken stock to give the final sauce a bit more depth of flavor. And while pumpkin seeds aren't normally used in the Pinoy version of Pipian, I just sprinkled a few seeds on the finished dish for garnish and more texture—it is Halloween, afterall, so I've got a few pumpkin seeds laying around.
Finally, the sauce of a traditional Filipino Chicken Pipian is usually thickened with ground toasted rice (like Kare-Kare). But I instead chose to dredge my chicken in rice flour—this not only helps the chicken to achieve a nice brown color, but it does indeed help to thicken the sauce. The addition of peanut butter, lime juice, and fish sauce all help to create a very complex Chicken Pipian.
Filipino Chicken Pipian
1 tablespoon annatto seeds
1 dried Ancho chile pepper
2 cups chicken stock
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 chicken thighs or legs, or a combination
1/2 cup rice flour
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon all-natural smooth peanut butter
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon Sukang Iloco vinegar, or cider vinegar
1 tablespoon lime juice
2-3 teaspoons dried crumbled epazote
Pumpkin seeds (raw or roasted), for garnish
Add the annatto seeds, Ancho chile pepper, and chicken stock to a small saucepan over high heat. Bring to a boil, then cover and remove from heat. Allow to steep for 30 minutes.
Season the chicken with salt and pepper, then dredge each piece of chicken in the rice flour, making sure to shake off any excess. Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over moderately high heat. When the oil is hot and shimmering, add the chicken, skin-side-down, to the pan (working in batches if necessary). Cook the chicken until nicely browned on both sides, 4-5 minutes each side. Transfer the chicken to a large platter and set aside.
Add the onions to the pan and cook until the onions begin to soften and wilt, 3-4 minutes. Stir the garlic into the pan and cook until the garlic just begins to brown, 2-3 minutes. Pour the chicken stock mixture through a fine-mesh sieve and into the saute pan, stirring to scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Discard the annatto seeds and chile pepper in the sieve.
Stir in the peanut butter, fish sauce, vinegar, and lime juice. Return the chicken to the pan, along with any juices accumulated on the platter, and bring the sauce to a boil. Cover the pan, reduce heat to low, and simmer until the chicken is cooked through, about 30 minutes. While simmering, rearrange the chicken and stir the sauce as necessary.
When the chicken is cooked through, transfer the chicken to a large serving platter and set aside. Stir the epazote into the pan and continue to simmer the sauce for 5 more minutes. If the sauce is thicker than you'd like, you can add water to thin it out. Taste the sauce and season with salt and pepper if needed. Pour the sauce over the chicken, sprinkle with pumpkin seeds, and serve immediately with steamed white rice.