Photo by owyzzz / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Dried, cured meat – the Philippine equivalent of jerky – sliced thinly then pan-fried.

Often made with beef, though also applied as a curing method for poultry, fish and wild game such as mutton or venison.

Ubiquitous across the islands as an essential component of tapsilog, the breakfast (though really, anytime) trinity of tapa, fried rice (sinangag), a fried egg (itlog) and atsara (pickled papaya slaw).

Etymology: from the Sanskrit “tapas” which means “heat”.

Tapa is an old foodstuff. According to Sagisag Kultura, it’s ‘almost certain’ to have risen from the need of early mangangaso (hunters) and gatherers as a method of preserving deer or wild pigs (called baboy-damo) hunted in the mountains and highlands.

My research on tapa within its context as a staple Filipino food raised several questions whose answers will have to be on hold for now. Most recipes on the internet (and in published Filipino cookbooks) regard tapa as ‘marinated beef’ – cured, yes, slightly, often with coarse salt, sugar and pepper, with the addition of soy sauce, calamansi and minced garlic. Technically, once wet ingredients join the party, the method applied becomes a wet cure – which isn’t the same as air-drying, setting your tapa to dry under the sun (bilad sa araw) or some other modern method of dehydration through a low oven or turbo broiler. And so, for question one: can tapa be called tapa if the meat emerges from a wet marinade?

Question two: does anybody care about which cut of beef (or venison, or chicken) tapa is best prepared with? Does this fall under the umbrella of ‘it has never really been an issue, because tapa at its core is a food that stretches the most economical cut of meat available this week’? Is there a particular cut from the animal that shouldn’t be used? How important is it to slice your tapa against the grain? Can the ideal texture of tapa be defined? This last point is contentious, as some people like their tapa fried to a crisp, almost tooth-shattering like daing; others prefer tapa dripping with hot, soy-sauce spiked oil, plunked straight from the pan onto a steaming pile of rice.

Lastly, how long will Filipino-style tapa (made with a traditional dry cure, fridge-bound wet cure and just for kicks, a smoking/dehydrating combo) last once prepared?

Further reading:

• Marvin Gapultos’ post on Filipino tapa the Alton Brown way. As an AB groupie, using a box fan to dry meat indoors also sprang to mind the minute I thought about tapa!

• A short piece on the restaurateur who claims stake on coining the term “tapsilog”

• Batanes Islands as the Philippines’ first producers of certified organic beef tapa for export. I would love to learn where this currently stands!

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