I’m Gonna Git You Suka (Filipino Vinegar)

Suka_filipino_vinegar

Vinegar, or Suka (as it is known in the Philippines), is one of the most used ingredients in the Filipino kitchen. The prevalent use of Suka is due in large part to the extended shelf life bestowed upon goodies cooked in vinegar–a necessary culinary “voodoo” needed for tropical climes during the days of pre-refrigeration. But aside from its preservative powers, we Filipinos also just happen to like the elevated flavor punch that vinegar provides–that certain Asim (sourness) that we love oh so much in our food.

For instance, vinegar is the key player in many Filipino dishes like Paksiw, Kinilaw (raw fish “cooked” in vinegar, kinda like a ceviche), various dipping sauces, and a variety of different marinades. And of course, Adobo is perhaps the prime example of a vinegar-based Filipino dish. Heck, as I’ve shown here in the past, with a good bottle of vinegar you can Adobo most anything: Chicken, squid, water spinach, pork belly, and even ribs.

Mmmm. Ribs. I sho’ am hungry…

Ah, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka. It’s a classic.

Anyways, while I’ve demonstrated a few different uses of vinegar before, I’ve never really explained that there are also quite a few different types of vinegar that may be found in the Filipino pantry. Seeing as how vinegar is such an integral part of Filipino cuisine, and because there’s such a wide spectrum of Suka in use in the Philippines, I thought I’d take the time to compare and contrast some of these potent potions (at least the ones that are readily available in my neck of the woods). Keep in mind though, that the vinegars I tasted are commercially made and probably can’t compare to the artisanal and local vinegars made in the different regions of the Philippines.

Palm Vinegar

Sukang Paombong (Nipa Palm Vinegar): Filipino Palm Vinegar is made from the fermented sap of the Nipa Palm and is perhaps the most used vinegar in the Philippines. It is also named for the region of the Philippines that is known for its Palm Vinegar–Paombong.

In her book, Tikim, the late and great Filipino food writer, Doreen G. Fernandez, explains that sap is extracted from the Nipa Palm by kicking a Nipa branch “20 times once a week for six to seven weeks.” Crazy right? I suppose all the roundhouses get the sap flowing (though I doubt commercial vinegars are still made in this way). Then after the JCVD Kickboxer treatment, the nipa fruit is removed from the abused branch and tapped for it’s sap, which is then naturally fermented in clay jars until it turns into vinegar.

Sukang Paombong is cloudy in appearance, and has a sort of lemony/citrusy flavor note to it (at least to me it does). Even the label on my bottle of Sukang Paombong touted it’s sourness with a tag emblazoned with “Super ASIM Talaga.” Which roughly translates to: “Hey my man, don’t be alarmed, but this vinegar you are about to purchase is more sour than you may think. So don’t go wasting it on salad greens, you punk,” or something like that.

Coconut Vinegar

Sukang Tuba (Coconut Sap Vinegar): Filipino Coconut Sap Vinegar is made from the fermented sap of a coconut tree. Extraction of this sap is similar to that of Nipa Palm sap, except sans the kicking–the inflourescence of the coconut tree is simply tapped for its sap and then fermented. Fresh coconut sap is known as Tuba, and then it’s called Sukang Tuba once it’s fermented into vinegar.

Marketman over at Market Manila has a couple of excellent posts that more specifically illustrate how Tuba is extracted and then how it is turned into Sukang Tuba.

Sukang Tuba is also cloudy in appearance, with a slightly sweet smell. Despite its origins, I couldn’t detect any actual coconut smell or flavor in this vinegar, though it is rather smooth tasting on its own and not as lip-puckering as the Palm Vinegar.

Cane Vinegar

Sukang Maasim (Cane Vinegar): Filipino Cane Vinegar is made from fermented sugar cane syrup. Sugar cane is first pressed for its juice and sap, then this juice and sap is cooked and then left to ferment into vinegar.

Sukang Maasim is only slightly cloudy, almost clear. The cane vinegar I sampled was the mildest of the bunch–still sour, but very smooth and not as acrid and acidic. Cane vinegar is actually my mother’s Suka of choice, using it for numerous applications such as marinating, pickling, and squirting into the eyes of her enemies.

Sukang Maasim is also the most commonly available Filipino Vinegar here in the states (well, at least in SoCal) and can usually be found in regular supermarkets. It’s a great all-purpose vinegar for use in everything from Adobo to dipping sauces.

Ilocano Cane Vinegar

Sukang Iloco (Ilocano Cane Vinegar): Filipino Cane Vinegar from the Ilocos region of the Philippines is a by-product of Ilocano Sugar Cane Wine known as Basi. Basi is made by pressing the sugar cane, cooking the cane juice to a molasses state, then placing the molasses in clay jars. The bark from the Duhat (Java Plum) tree is then added to the clay jars as a flavorant and fermenting agent. The molasses first turns into the Basi wine (which I’ve written about here), but if left to ferment longer and sour, the Basi then transforms to Sukang Iloco.

Sukang Iloco (also spelled Iloko) is deep amber in color. Sukang Iloco is somewhat mellow in flavor, though it does have a hint of sweetness to it. Although Ilocano Cane Vinegar can be used in a wide variety of applications, I find it best when used in Ilocano foods such as longanisa or as a dipping sauce for Ilocano Empanadas.

I’m a Sucka for Suka

Other Types of Vinegars: There are a plethora of other Filipino Vinegars that I did not cover in this post simply because I could not find them locally.
There are vinegars made from Duhat (Java Plum), guava, coconut water
(as opposed to the sap), and probably a whole range of other fermentable liquids that I’ve
never heard of before.

For the most part, the Filipino Vinegars I covered in this post can be found at most Asian Markets here in the
U.S. for under $2,
though the types, quality, and brands will vary depending on where you
reside. As you can probably see in my pictures, the Datu Puti and Tropics brands of vinegar are what were available to me. Other brands, such as Silver Swan or Tropical, will more than likely taste differently than what I sampled here, so please keep that in mind. I tend to always purchase Datu Puti only because that is what my mother buys.

Also,
Filipino Vinegars usually hover between 4 to 5 percent
acidity–about the same as apple cider vinegar. Despite the similar
acidities, Suka is usually milder in flavor than apple cider
vinegar. With that said though, you can still use apple cider vinegar, or even white distilled vinegar, for Filipino recipes if you can’t find Filipino vinegars (I tend to use apple cider vinegar for pork recipes). In fact, along with things like canned foods, hot dogs, and Spam, the American colonization of the Philippines brought about Del Monte and Heinz vinegars.

Lastly, another point I want to make is that Suka mellows even more in flavor
(or perhaps becomes more complex) once it is cooked, so the flavor profiles are quite different when used
in an Adobo. With that said, don’t be afraid to utilize
different Filipino Vinegars in different recipes: use Sukang Iloco in a squid adobo, dip your lumpia in Sukang Paombong, or use Sukang Tuba to marinate some tasty ribs.

And don’t feel restricted to just Filipino foods–do feel free to experiment with Suka for things like vinagrettes, pickles, and blinding your enemies.

  • Arnold May 17, 2009, 6:26 pm

    This is great post. That’s all I can really say about it. It does trip me out to see Datu Puti at Safeway though. :)
    — posted from 35,000 feet thanks to Virgin America :)

    Reply
  • jenn May 17, 2009, 7:17 pm

    Nice post. I’ve mostly used the sukang maasim. I didn’t even know there were was a variety.

    Reply
  • Remil May 17, 2009, 7:45 pm

    My grandparents used to have thier own tapayan. And they would make their own palm vinegar. I wonder what happen to that tapayan?

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  • Words and Nosh May 17, 2009, 8:14 pm

    great post. I’ve been branching out and buying more Filipino vinegars lately- my favorite (because I’m lazy) is the Datu Puti “Spiced” Sukang Maasim, with all the peppers put in already. So good for dipping lumpia!

    Reply
  • Mila May 17, 2009, 9:49 pm

    There’s this suka with chilli combination that I found in one of the farmer’s markets in Manila that I love, I think it’s pinakurat or something, hopefully someone else will remember the name; it’s got tons of chillis and the suka used is the nipa suka, so it’s super maasim, and super maanghang. Gah, searingly good with pork! Will make you cry with the heat, but in a good way, you know?
    Have you tried to make your own vinegar Marvin? I think the folks at Serious Eats once posted a recipe, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to make your own.

    Reply
  • Manggy May 18, 2009, 6:24 am

    Oi, that got me thinking of the difference between suka (soo-kah) and suka (soo-ka). One is vinegar and one is, er, vomit, heh. Be careful what you ask for! Just kidding, no one packages the latter (I hope).
    Thanks for this educational post! I never even really bothered to know the difference before this :)

    Reply
  • Tangled Noodle May 18, 2009, 11:02 am

    Excellent tutorial! My Filipino vinegar options here in MN are quite limited – I had a hard time just finding coconut vinegar (White Swan). I really appreciate your clarifying the differences between the various kinds. Now, I want get the Iloco cane vinegar!

    Reply
  • Burnt Lumpia May 18, 2009, 11:03 am

    Thanks Arnold. I’m hoping you post something on your site about the blogger conference;)
    Hi jenn. It’s worth experimenting with the other types to see what you like best.
    Hi Remil. I bet your grandparents had the best vinegar!
    Hey there W&N! I also like the spicy vinegar, but I make it myself. That’s the next post actually;)
    Mila, is Pinakurat the brand, or is that what it’s called? I thought it was just called “sukang sili”. I’ve never attempted my own vinegar, though I will definitely look into it.
    I thought vomit was “bakwar” or something like that, manggy. Geez, only you could get me talking about barf in a perfectly tame post;)
    Definitely seek out the sukang iloco, tangled noodle! Sukang Iloco is one of my favorites.

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  • Rolfe Bautista May 18, 2009, 12:37 pm

    I love the sukah with the little chilles in it. It is sooo good but it does make you sweat haha.

    Reply
  • Julie May 18, 2009, 1:39 pm

    I never considered myself fond of sour things until you mentioned adobo and paksiw. That stuff never necessarily tasted sour to me–just good. Time to reevaluate!

    Reply
  • Erin May 18, 2009, 1:50 pm

    I am going to have to check these out after the move. Now if I can just find a good Asian market in Sonoma. I am going to miss Uwajimaya. Great post.

    Reply
  • Albert Balbutin Jr. May 18, 2009, 2:16 pm

    Holy tae forget Napa valley, im gonna go to Pacific Super and go “vinegar-tasting!!!” haha

    Reply
  • MRU May 19, 2009, 2:24 am

    I agree with Manggy. Suka (soo-kah) is vomit while suka (soo-ka – with a slight pinch on the throat at the “a”) is vinegar. Never heard of bakwar.

    Reply
  • Burnt Lumpia May 19, 2009, 2:53 pm

    I too like the spicy suka, Rolfe. It’s very easy to make yourself.
    Hi Julie. Yeah, adobo and paksiw aren’t necessarily sour because the sourness is cooked out of the vinegar, but they are still very piquant because of the vinegar.
    I’m sure you’ll be able to find plenty of Asian markets in the new neighborhood, Erin. Good luck.
    Holy tae is right Albert!
    Hello MRU. Bakwar must be ilocano, or it could just be some made-up word I remember from my child hood;) It’s always difficult to explain pronunciation via writing as opposed to actually saying and hearing the word.

    Reply
  • Jikuu May 19, 2009, 7:51 pm

    Hey Marvin! Great post on vinegars, although I’ve never seen my grandmother use them.
    And congrats on getting on Serious Eats!
    http://www.seriouseats.com/2009/05/guide-to-filipino-vinegars.html

    Reply
  • Mila May 20, 2009, 6:25 am

    The spicy vinegar I was thinking of is called sinamak not pinakurat as I typed above; it’s got chillies, garlic, ginger, black peppercorns, and it’s allowed to steep for a few weeks to intensify the flavor.

    Reply
  • Richie@DeepFriedKimchee.com May 20, 2009, 8:47 am

    Great post! Funny and informative. Congrats on seriouseats.

    Reply
  • foodhoe May 20, 2009, 10:49 am

    Awesome, I can’t believe the variety of vinegars! I do have a bottle of coconut vinegar sitting in my cupboard that I still haven’t opened… you’ve almost got me inspired to cook something!

    Reply
  • bagito May 21, 2009, 8:54 pm

    “…blinding your enemies” LOL!!! I don’t even know your mom but I’m already planning to be on her good side. Hahaha!

    Reply
  • abby May 23, 2009, 12:32 am

    oh man true Filipinos love vinegar! i absolutely love it myself!!! i can’t help but have it whenever i eat a Filipino dish.. it’s a complete must!

    Reply
  • caninecologne May 23, 2009, 10:08 pm

    hi marvin
    i only use vinegar in my adobo, but don’t use it as a dip for food. yes, a sacrilege for a Filipino. wait, i lie. i used vinegar for that shrimp with coconut milk recipe that was in the december issue of saveur. it was a coconut vinegar that had a different quality than the others i’ve used in the past.
    liked your use of the chris rock video clip. i used the same one a few months back for a post on a soul food joint i went to. “just one rib!” ha ha. good times.

    Reply
  • Mike May 24, 2009, 10:50 pm

    One of my favorite applications for suka (paombong) is “basic pulutan”. Simply pour some over cornick/fried corn, add a bit of fish sauce or salt and minched hot peppers. Garlic and black pepper is optional.
    I’ve even seen drunks argue over who gets to sip the remaining vinegar when all the pulutan is gone.

    Reply
  • joey May 26, 2009, 7:37 pm

    Great post Marvin! You are so right about the Filipino pantry and suka…we have tons here and my pantry is not large by any means!
    Yes, sinamak is the one with chilis/garlic/ginger/peppercorns…you can easily make some yourself with your datu puti sukang tuba or cane vinegar. We do this here all the time…just topping up with vinegar or chilis when needed. After some time it is wonderfully potent!
    Pinakurat is another type of vinegar, also with its own blend of spices but which are pretty much disintegrated — so the lower part of the bottle is kinda like “silt” and the whole mix dark and murky. But it is GOOD! Kick-tush flavor! Personally, I love it :)
    I also love sukang Iloko! I discovered it when I visited the region…they say it makes the best adobo and I must admit, the adobo I have made using sukang Iloko is extra delicious!
    Wow, this is long…but you have obviously touched a favorite subject :) I love vinegar :)

    Reply
  • Mai Mai May 27, 2009, 9:41 am

    Very comprehensive post on vinegar! This post made me crave for paksiw na bangus :)

    Reply
  • Sonicdawg May 29, 2009, 8:16 pm

    I love your blog! I’ve been reading all your back posts, smiling and laughing to myself, drooling at the pictures and inspired by your look at food and identity. I love it so much I sent it to all my cousins (and my cousins cousins)! I’ve also been cooking lumpias and buying halo halos (too much work to make my own) and preparing myself to make all the other great recipes you share. Ube and blueberry ice cream? Genius! Thanks for writing!

    Reply
  • Lori Lynn @ Taste With The Eyes May 30, 2009, 10:11 am

    Excellent post, very informative. I will keep my eye out for some of these and give it a try.

    Reply
  • Burnt Lumpia June 10, 2009, 10:40 am

    Thanks for pointing out the SE link, jikuu!
    Sinamak, thanks Mila. I’ve never heard that word before you mentioned it.
    Thanks Richie!
    Coconut vinegar is very versatile, foodhoe! I hope you do do something with it.
    Yes bagito, it is best to get on my mom’s good side;)
    Very true, abby. Vinegar is like ranch dressing to us.
    Hi caninecologne! Great minds think alike;)
    That sounds like the best pulutan ever, Mike. I wouldn’t mind downing a few beers with vinegar-soaked cornick.
    The last few adobos I’ve made, joey, have also been with sukang iloco. I can’t get enough of it’s “kick-tush flavor” as you put it;P
    Oooh, i’ve never had paksiw na bangus, Mai Mai. I’ll have to do some research on that.
    Thanks very much for reading, Sonicdawg.
    Thanks Lori Lynn, I’m glad I could inform others on new ingredients.

    Reply
  • Austin October 22, 2009, 7:31 am

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  • Caron Golden January 7, 2010, 4:38 pm

    I loved your descriptions of the different vinegars and was able to purchase all four at Seafood City in Mira Mesa, a San Diego suburb. Now my question is which vinegar to use for which application. Recipes I’ve been looking at don’t specify.

    Reply
  • Burnt Lumpia January 7, 2010, 5:37 pm

    Hi Caron. There are no hard and fast rules as to which vinegar can be used for which recipe. A very general rule to follow though, is that if you’re making a recipe from a specific region, use the regional vinegar–i.e. ilocano food use sukang iloco, pampangan cuisine use poambong. Other than that, you can use any vinegar for any application really. Feel free to experiment.

    Reply
  • Josep Britto January 11, 2011, 10:41 am

    Hi,
    My name is Joseph, and I live in Croydon, Surrey area. I would like to buy your lovely palm vinegar. Can you please tell me where I can buy it from? I will be most gratefu.
    We use lot palm vinegar for our cooking. It is healthy and delicious
    specially the one which comes from the Philiphines.
    Many thanks
    Kind regards
    Joseph

    Reply
  • elmar stewart January 11, 2013, 1:32 pm

    what a clever title. that alone made me read this.
    i’m gonna get you suka is now a t shirt i own. hahaha

    Reply
  • Kevin August 10, 2013, 11:34 pm

    Just wondering …is there a difference between coconut vinegar( I get “SILVER SWAN” brand down here in New Zealand )and coconut sap vinegar?

    Reply
  • Rom Alexis December 3, 2014, 6:28 pm

    I’m a Filipino native and I love your blog post! It is definitely true that Filipinos love vinegar! We use it as a cooking ingredient in a lot of cuisines, and when we don’t, we use it as a dipping sauce. My favorite vinegar dish is tuna kilawin. I live in the Visayas region, close to the Pacific ocean, and we get really fresh tuna there. My mother’s recipe involves just vinegar, coconut milk, ground garlic, chili, and onion shoots. Another dish I love is traditional tuna paksiw cooked in a clay pot with red tuba vinegar and ginger using a wood stove. Red tuba vinegar is unique, as like sukang iloco, it’s made from wine. Tuba (coconut wine) when allowed to ferment/age for 3 to 6 months turns into a really sour vinegar (akin to sukang paombong) with an acidic taste, but a mildly sweet after-taste. It, combined with the clay pot and wood stove, makes a really unique-tasting, smoky and flavorful reddish paksiw.

    Reply

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