Both A Flavor And A Way To Cook
I'm writing about adobo because of a rotisserie chicken.
Rotisserie chickens are my concession to take-out food. That's because a market with a rotisserie oven does a good job of turning a little 3-pound bird into a quick and tasty dinner one night and then leftovers the next for not much more than the cost of a raw chicken. Or I shred one into chicken sandwiches or salad, as in a favorite recipe for summer suppers, Rotisserie Chicken Salad. See our link.
I've digressed. This isn't about chicken. It's about adobo.
One of my neighborhood markets sells excellent rotisserie chickens cooked with either rosemary or adobo. I always chose one with rosemary because, candidly, I wasn't sure what adobo was. I had seen the Goya containers in the Latin food section of my grocery markets. Or little cans of chipotle peppers cooked in adobo. And I'd heard of adobo pork. But I had no idea what it was.
One night I went late to buy a rosemary chicken and none were left. Only the adobo version. I'd planned our dinner around that rotisserie chicken and there wasn't time for me to cook one. The choice had been made for me: adobo it was.
Dinner that night gave me a flavor lesson as I learned that in this case, adobo meant the chicken was seasoned with a dry rub of spices -- garlic, cayenne pepper, oregano, salt, black pepper and cumin. Nothing radical or too hot, and the flavor was excellent. In fact it was subtler and more complex than the rosemary and from that point I've preferred the adobo version.
But it made me curious about what made this particular seasoning adobo and not something else. I associated the word adobo with Latin cooking so I asked a friend who is Dominican and always nostalgic for his mother's cooking. Indeed, he told me that in the home where he grew up, adobo was a spice mix that his mother would put together and add to foods the way others might use just salt and pepper. It was a definining flavor of Dominican cuisine.
I did more research and as is so often the case with culinary archeology, I found a rich complexity of tastes, ingredients, and cooking methods as well as ingredients that connected a global kitchen.
A Flavor and A Process; A Noun And A Verb
A Spanish word that means sauce or marinade, adobo is both a noun and a verb. That's because in some cultures adobo refers to a mix of spices, as with my neighborhood adobo chicken or my friend's mother's signature seasonings. But in other cultures it is instead a method of cooking that uses a marinade that includes something acidic.
As with some other modern foods (cured meats, confit, smoked fish), adobo began as a way to preserve meat. Animals would be slaughtered and butchered and then mixed with highly spiced marinades and sauces to help keep the meat from spoiling until it was needed. The method is said to have originated in Spain where native Iberian spices like paprika would dominate the mix and help in the preservation.
From Spain adobo moved to Latin America and the Caribbean, and to the Philippines where adobo is not a spice mix but instead a way of cooking poultry and pork with an acidic ingredient. Like vinegar or citrus.
In Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, adobo can be wet or dry. Wet adobo combines garlic, olive oil, salt, pepper, and something acidic, like orange or lime, which is used as a marinade. In dry adobo, it's a spice rub. For some, adobo has a bad reputation for being too salty but that is primarily due to the packaged adobo mixes found in some grocery stores. If shopping for adobo, look instead for one that is 100 percent spices, so you can add your own salt separately.
There are also versions of adobo in the cuisines of Peru, Argentina, the Caribbean, Mexico, and other Latin American countries. And both the seasoning and the method -- the noun and the verb -- have made their way to parts of the Pacific. But it is very much an aspect of the home kitchen and not any kind of haute cuisine; as confirmation of that I checked all my Mexican and Spanish cookbooks and there wasn't a single mention of adobo in any of them.
Still, in many cuisines adobo is a cultural touchstone, something uniquely personal to every home cook. Like a curry or a tomato ragu passed down from generation to generation.
All this from buying a rotisserie chicken.
Cooking With Adobo
If you are a fan of spicy Latin seasonings, you can either mix your own adobo or buy one already made. Goya makes several, all with salt and some with or without pepper, or with bitter orange, cumin, lemon, hot or light (with 50% less sodium which gives you a tip-off that Goya's adobo mixes are very salty).
Looking for one without salt? Penzeys Spices sells their own Adobo mix that includes onion, garlic, black pepper, Mexican oregano, cumin, and cayenne pepper. It's been ground into a fine powder.
Adding flavor with a dry mix of adobo spices can be as easy as adding it to a barbecue dry rub, or sprinkling on a chicken, pork tenderloin, seafood, or even plain potatoes before roasting. You can also purchase chipotles in adobo (these are ripe jalapeños cooked in a spiced tomato sauce) and add them to a marinade or when you make your own barbecue sauce.
But if you are interested in adobe as a verb -- as a way of cooking -- it's best to turn to the foods of the Philippines, where many consider adobo the national dish.
Earlier this year Sam Sifton wrote a piece in The New York Times Magazine about the Filipino version of adobo including a recipe from Purple Yam, a restaurant in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. In this version of chicken adobo, a sauce is made with vinegar, coconut milk, soy sauce, garlic and fiery Thai chilies. As the weather begins to get a chill, this is a very appealing dish. See the link for the recipe.
Adobo's flavors and methods can also be adapted for vegetarian cooking, using green beans, okra, or eggplant instead of meat or chicken.
At a time when there is so much stress in our world, I found it comforting to come across a simple word -- adobo -- that offers flavor as a shared pleasure. It's another reason to cook.