Filipino cuisine is a reflection of the country’s history; it’s made up of traditional dishes, many of which have different variations unique to each region, but it also carries a lot of influence from Spanish cuisine and the cuisine of its neighboring countries. Many Filipino dishes share staple elements. For the condiments and seasoning, there are several tried-and-true ingredients that Filipinos rely upon to give dishes a distinct flavor, such as various types of vinegars, patis (fish sauce), and bagoong (fermented fish or shrimp paste). One ubiquitous ingredient, however, is used not only in soups, stews, and savory meat and fish dishes; it’s also a mainstay in many traditional desserts and snacks. We’re talking about coconut milk, or what is locally known as gata.
What is Gata?
Gata or coconut milk is a liquid that comes from the grated meat of mature coconuts. Because coconut trees are plentiful throughout the country, it’s rather easy to purchase coconut cream and milk from a local supplier. Coconut milk is sold in cans and packs in the local market, but many people also opt to make their own coconut milk at home using shredded coconut meat.
Medical professionals recommend the incorporation of coconut milk to one’s diet for its many health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels, treating digestive ailments, and contributing to healthier skin. But in itself, coconut milk is a tasty part of many traditional Filipino dishes.
Coconut Milk in Soups
A Filipino dish that contains coconut milk as a primary ingredient is called ginataan. As a result, many homemade recipes, particularly soups and stews, carry this name. These dishes include staples such as ginataang gulay, which is comprised of an array of vegetables cooked in coconut meat: eggplant, pumpkin, string beans, and much more; and ginataang hipon, which is made up of shrimp and various vegetables simmered in gata. Bicol express is another popular stew that usually contains coconut milk, pork, chili, shrimp paste, onions, and garlic. Because these dishes are soup-based, they are commonly served with steamed white rice, a staple in Filipino meals.
Coconut Milk in Main Dishes
Coconut milk not only pairs well with soups; it also adds flavor to a number of meat dishes, making them more savory. It goes well with pork, chicken, fish, and shellfish. There are even variations of adobo—often thought to be the national dish—with coconut milk in the recipe. Adobo makes use of soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, salt, and peppercorn and typically feature chicken, pork, or seafood like squid. The addition of coconut milk adds texture to the dish and makes the recipe creamier and richer than usual—a perfect complement to steaming white rice.
Coconut Milk in Desserts
Filipinos love desserts, which locals call kakanin. There are numerous coconut-based confections that are traditionally enjoyed at parties, served in specialty food outlets, or sold on the streets. Perhaps the most familiar is the sapin-sapin, which is a multi-layered pudding made from glutinous rice flour, condensed milk, and coconut milk. Another popular snack that has coconut milk in its list of ingredients is ginataang mais, a simple recipe consisting of sweetened sticky rice, corn kernels, and sugar. Sometimes, coconut milk is also added to the famed halo-halo, a colorful shaved ice dessert with sweetened fruits and beans, to give it a creamy yet more tropical flavor.
Because of its versatility and wide availability, it’s no wonder that the coconut is a featured ingredient in dozens of traditional Filipino dishes. It truly has a special place in the hearts and stomachs of Filipinos all over the world.