Adobo Heals: Healing Herbs in Filipino Cooking
DISCLAIMER: As an herbalist, I am not a doctor, nor do I intend for the following to cure, prescribe, or heal any disease or ailment. Please see a medical professional before consuming anything medicinally, changing your diet, or seeking holistic healing practices.
Growing up Filipino usually meant, “Anak, you will eat whatever we cook.”
Going to Filipino parties usually meant, “Anak, did you eat already? Go eat now!”
And while most of our childhoods were filled with arroz caldo, adobo, tinola, ampalaya - very little of us were aware of the hidden healing benefits that these delicious comfort foods provided.
For a long time, Filipinos relied on the manghihilot for healing. Hilot is the term referring to the ancient Filipino art of healing and the manghihilot refers to the healer, the practitioner. These healers most commonly practice healing through massage, energy work, and shamanism. Herbs were often administered to the physical body topically and through consumption.
Over time, Filipino culture came to evolve and grow - as did Filipino recipes. Rather than seeing someone to administer herbs, food became the healer. If I had a dollar for every time my mother said, “What? You’re sick? You need sinigang! You need sabaw,” - let’s just say I’d be pretty damn well off. The best source of healing would be the produce and the plants from the land - and when we analyze key ingredients that were available to our people, we can also observe how many dishes truly were the best remedy for any ailment.
Healing Herbs + Vegetables In Your Mother’s Cooking
Most commonly found in adobo, bay leaves have tons of benefits for the body, the immune system, and even the digestive system.
When ingested, bay leaves can help to aid the digestive process, reduce flatulence, inflammation, and ease the symptoms of coughs and cold. This herb works wonderfully with the gastrointestinal system, acting to soothe upset stomach, as well as stimulating urination, since it is a diuretic. This tasty leaf is also packed with Vitamins A, C, calcium, potassium, and iron.
When applied topically, bay leaf can help to alleviate respiratory conditions, acting similar to Vick’s VapoRub. Users can benefit from the natural essential oil that this herb contains - inhaling these vapors can help to loosen phlegm and congestion.
Malunggay (also known as Moringa)
I experienced Malunggay most often during my childhood when my parents made tinola. Malunggay works to normalize blood sugar, increase breastmilk production, and more.
Let’s be real here - a lot of Filipino food is not very healthy for you, often resulting in having yourself or family members susceptible to diabetes. Malunggay leaves help to normalize blood sugar levels - and can be a great aid in managing hyperglycemia.
Malunggay is a galactagogue - meaning, consumption of this herb can help to increase breastmilk production by interacting with organic chemicals in the body. Often used to treat lactation failure, mothers may be able to use malunggay tea to help stimulate breastmilk flow. Other galactagogues are fenugreek, milk thistle, and chaste berry.
Packed with Vitamins A, B, C, E, iron, thiamin, calcium, beta-carotene, and more - Malunggay also is thought to be great to strengthen the immune system and aid in supplementing malnutrition. These vitamins also help to relieve headaches due to low levels of Vitamin A and C, as well as strengthen the eye muscles.
Also known as Water Spinach, Kangkong is a delicious addition often found in Sinigang.
Sinigang always made me sleepy, and besides being a soothing soup that my mother often associated with being sick, kangkong was a huge contributor. Kangkong has elements such as selenium and zinc, that can allow the nervous system to relax. It acts as a mild sedative, helping not only to relax, but also to overcome insomnia.
Kangkong also aids the digestive system by aiding in the relief of constipation and flatulence. This leafy green is packed with iron and Vitamin C, helping to prevent anemia and increase immunity. Kangkong is also used to help absorb or regulate excess blood sugar, great for those with diabetes.
Ginger is in many Filipino dishes - but one of my favorites is arroz caldo (rice porridge).
One of the main properties of Ginger is that it contains Gingerol. This oil has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects on the body, making it a great addition to soups, stews, and even fire cider.
As a natural remedy for nausea, ginger helps to sooth the stomach. It acts as a digestive aid and is great for inflammation, bloating, and constipation. By relaxing the smooth muscles in your gut lining, Ginger can help move food along and through your bowels.
Ginger also helps to open up lymphatic channels, allowing toxins to break up and move through and past the respiratory system so that they can leave the body. It cleanses the lymphatic system and boosts the immune system allowing for clearer lymphs, and more often than not, clearer sinuses.
Ginger is also anti-bacterial, and can help against infections and diseases. I often use fresh ginger muddled in water to help kick a cold as soon as symptoms occur.
How do you use these herbs in your everyday cooking? Do you have any memories about them in foods growing up? I'd love to hear your stories in the comments below!
Colleen is a California-based reiki master, budding herbalist, and writer for her personal holistic wellness blog, Om in Bloom. As a 2nd generation Filipina and advocate for people of color in wellness, she strives to inspire others to explore all the Earth has to offer through holistic practices. Over 10 years of Folk Dance experience with PASACAT Philippine Performing Arts Company in San Diego has exposed her to many beautiful intersectional lenses across various regions of the Philippines and ignited her passion and appreciation for her culture and history. Today, she continues to explore through her research in ancient Filipino healing, and hopes to uncover the holistic practices amongst her ancestry.