Filipino, also known as pan de sal, is a popular type of bread commonly eaten in the Philippines. The bread has a distinctive slightly sweet taste and a characteristic shape, with a crusty exterior and a soft, fluffy interior.
Despite its popularity and ubiquity in the Philippines, many people wonder about the origin of its name. Why is this bread, which is so deeply rooted in Filipino cuisine and culture, called “Filipino” when it does not seem to contain any traditional Spanish ingredients? The name suggests a Spanish influence, yet the bread has a unique Asian flavor profile.
In this article, we will explore the history of Filipino bread and the Spanish colonial roots of its name. Understanding the background of this iconic food provides insight into the blending of cultures that characterizes Filipino cuisine.
Spanish Colonial History of the Philippines
To understand why Filipino bread is called “Spanish bread,” we must first look at the history of Spanish colonialism in the Philippines. The Philippines was colonized by Spain for over 300 years, from 1565 until 1898. This long period of Spanish rule has had a major influence on Filipino culture, language, and cuisine.
The Spanish introduced European baking methods and wheat-based breads to the Philippines. Under the Spanish, the islands became a colony that supplied food to Spain’s colonial empire. Wheat was grown in the Philippines and shipped back to Spain to support its expanding population. Spanish friars and bakers lived in the Philippines, and taught local bakers their recipes and techniques for European breads. These influences laid the groundwork for breads like Filipino to develop.
Names and Ingredients Reflect Colonial History
Many classic Filipino breads, including pan de sal, reflect this Spanish colonial heritage in their names and ingredients. For instance, pan de sal means “salt bread” in Spanish, describing a basic bread eaten throughout Spain and its colonies. While Filipino bread has adapted to local tastes and cooking methods, its Spanish name has stuck.
The use of wheat flour, yeast, salt, sugar, and milk are hallmarks of European baking that shape the texture, flavor, and crust of Filipino bread. In many traditional Filipino bread recipes, lard or shortening is used rather than butter, which was rare in the tropics. Despite using local substitutions, the basic procedures of kneading, proofing, and baking bread in ovens came from Spain.
When and Why “Filipino” Bread Got Its Name
So when exactly did this bread start being called “Filipino” rather than pan de sal or other Spanish names?
The name seems to have emerged in the early 20th century, after the Philippines gained independence from Spain. By that time, breads like pan de sal had been developed and popularized in the Philippines. Calling it “Filipino bread” or “pan de sal” distinguished the local version from breads made in Spain or other Spanish colonies.
Although the Philippines was ceded to the United States after independence from Spain, the Spanish influences remained deeply embedded in the culture and cuisine. Using a new name, Filipino, helped give the bread a national identity, separating it from its colonial origins.
The name Filipino bread stuck because it reflected the uniqueness of this bread compared to its Spanish ancestors. It had come to incorporate local flavors from ingredients like coconut milk, margarine, and sugar. The dough fermentation, shaping, and baking process also evolved to suit the humid, tropical environment of the Philippines.
A New Name for an Old Bread
Calling this bread “Filipino” acknowledged that it was no longer truly Spanish, after generations of adaptation. It had taken on a life of its own in Filipino bakeries, homes, and restaurants. The name Filipino bread reflected its integration into the culture, becoming an icon of Filipino cuisine.
Distinct Qualities of Filipino Bread
While Filipino bread was influenced by Spanish baking, it has developed distinctive qualities that set it apart:
- A soft, fine, milky crumb: Filipino bread has a lighter texture and is less dense and chewy than a typical pan de sal.
- Sweet flavor: It gains a slightly sweet taste from added sugar or margarine.
- Milk gives it a whiter color and richer flavor.
- Small round or oval shape: Filipino bread comes in a smaller individual size compared to a large Spanish loaf.
- Thinner, crisp crust: The exterior is thin and crusty rather than chewy.
- Slightly salty taste balanced by sweetness: True to its Spanish roots, it is flavored with salt.
- Use of coconut milk or coconut oil: Some recipes incorporate coconut for even more Filipino flavor.
These traits make modern Filipino bread recognizable globally as a distinctly Filipino food. The fluffy texture, semi-sweet taste, and bite-sized shape give the bread a unique personality.
Cultural Importance of Filipino Bread
Beyond taste and texture, Filipino bread has become an integral part of Filipino culture and day-to-day life:
- Ubiquitous breakfast food: It is eaten alongside coffee, eggs, and meats for a classic Filipino breakfast.
- Mid-day snack: Filipino bread is a popular merienda (snack) in the afternoon.
- Street and fast food: Pan de sal is easy to eat on the go from panaderias (bakeries).
- Special occasions: Round cakes called monay are made for Christmas, New Year’s, and fiestas.
- Represents family: Eating pan de sal is associated with intimate family meals.
- Symbol of bonding: Sharing bread with someone expresses friendship or reconciliation.
This cultural significance elevates humble pan de sal from a daily bread to an icon of Filipino identity. The tradition of making and enjoying this staple bread connects generations.
How Filipino Bread is Made
While recipes vary somewhat between bakers, the basic process of making Filipino bread is:
- Bread flour – High protein content for structure
- Yeast – Active dry yeast to make the bread rise
- Salt – For flavor
- Sugar – Provides food for the yeast and sweetness
- Shortening or butter – Richness and moisture
- Milk – Boosts flavor, softness, and moisture
- Water – Hydrates the dough
- Eggs – Optional for richness, browning, and binding
- Activate the yeast by dissolving it in warm water with a little sugar.
- In a mixing bowl, combine the activated yeast with flour, salt, sugar, eggs, shortening, and milk.
- Knead the dough until smooth and elastic.
- Let it proof at warm temperature until doubled in size.
- Punch down risen dough to release air bubbles.
- Portion into small rounds and let rise again.
- Bake at 350-400°F until golden brown.
Mastering these steps and ingredient ratios is how Filipino bakers achieve the bread’s signature texture and flavor.
While pan de sal is recognized throughout the Philippines, there are some regional differences in recipes and names:
Pan de Coco
In southern Luzon and the Bicol region, coconut milk is added to the dough. The coconut gives the bread extra moisture and a sweet, nutty flavor.
Pan de Iloko
From the Ilocos region of Luzon, this version uses mashed purple yam or ube to naturally color and flavor the dough. It has a pretty pinkish hue.
In the Visayan islands, they make a round fatter bread, analogous to a dinner roll. It has a soft, cottony texture.
Pan de Suklay
On Mindanao, this rope-shaped pan de sal resembles a comb or suklay in Tagalog. It has a moist, salty-sweet taste.
Where to Buy Filipino Bread
While making Filipino bread from scratch is rewarding, you can also find fresh, high-quality loaves at:
- Filipino bakeries like Goldilocks Bakeshop, Julie’s Bakeshop, or Panaderia de Molo
- Asian grocery stores often have baked or frozen Filipino bread
- Local Filipino restaurants may serve a complimentary small loaf
- Some international grocery stores sell imported or local versions
Buying Filipino bread is an easy way to sample this iconic food without making it yourself. Look for evenly shaped loaves with a thin crackly crust. Inside, the crumb should be very soft and featherlight. Sweet, milky notes should be well balanced with a subtle saltiness.
How to Eat Filipino Bread
Now that you understand the history and origins of Filipino bread, how do you eat and enjoy this delicacy? Here are some authentic ways to serve and savor pan de sal:
As a Breakfast Bread
– Split in half and slather with butter or coconut jam
– Dip in coffee, hot chocolate, or milk
– Make mini breakfast sandwiches with cheese and ham
– Use to scoop up meat stews and soupy dishes
– Make pan de sal stuffing with chicken or pork
– Hollow out and fill with an omelette
– Layer with sliced cheese, meat, and veggies as a sandwich
As a Snack
– Top with sliced bananas or strawberry jam
– Flavor it with vanilla ice cream as “dirty bread”
– Coat with butter and sugar or cheese powder
– Bake into chips or bread pudding
– Bake into bread rolls filled with yema (egg custard)
– Make French toast with sliced pan de sal
– Use as a base for bread pudding or dessert sandwiches
With a bit of creativity, Filipino bread can be enjoyed morning, noon, and night!
Filipino bread has a fascinating history and iconic standing in Filipino cuisine today. Its Spanish colonial origins shaped its ingredients and baking process. But over generations it evolved into a beloved staple bread with a distinctly Filipino identity.
Getting to know the story behind foods like pan de sal provides insight into the blend of cultures in Filipino cooking. The name Filipino bread reflects how traditional recipes got “lost in translation” through exchange between different groups. While foreign influences are clear, the bread came to represent national cuisine after taking a life of its own in the Philippines. Beyond just flour and water, it is a symbol of Filipino tradition passed through generations.