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We asked some of Metro Manila’s best chefs to share some stories about this Filipino delicacy and tips on how to eat it.

It was once described as “the stinky secret weapon of Filipino food”. Bagoong (pronounced bago-ong) is made partially or completely of fermented fish or krill, or shrimp paste with salt. The scent, even to the most ardent fans, is bound to stun. However, no other ingredient or condiment can take its place with its complex flavours and intense umami.

You do not have to take our word for it. We gathered a few of our favourite chefs to weigh in on this revered Filipino pantry staple:

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Mikel Zaguirre

His irreverent approach to Filipino food classics at the popular Locavore is instrumental in shifting the local food scene’s perception of modern Filipino cuisine. Perhaps his palate got an early education from eating green mangoes and singkamas smothered in bagoong that he bought from the vendors outside his house. For chef Mikel Zaguirre, the best kind of bagoong is “stewed for hours,” chunky, and with a sweet/salty/spicy balance that will go well with his top five bagoong dishes: kare-kare, pork binagoongan, green mango with bagoong, bagoong rice, and a simple pork and sofrito stir-fry called basa alamang.

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Aaron Isip

After a highly-successful stint working in the most illustrious kitchens in Paris, Chef Aaron Isip came home to Manila a celebrated hero. We get to experience his refined skills as maître saucier in his latest venture Gastronômade Manila where he bottles up unique and flavour-packed sauces inspired by his travels. Chef Aaron grew up around the Ilonggo version of bagoong called ginamos. Like most who grew up in the Philippines, he learned to appreciate the ingredient early on by eating “street food snacks like green mango on a stick or homey dishes like kare-kare, and the like”.

Until now he prefers the ginamos of his mother’s Ilonggo heritage, the one made from krill, specifically “gisado, so that all the umami flavors come out”. He lights up when he shares his ingenious way of eating it. “Grilled pork belly with a dipping sauce of bagoong and vinegar is great! I also love it with fire or charcoal-grilled eggplant salad with fresh tomatoes, red onion, chives, and salted egg yolk.”

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Tina Legarda

Of all the chefs in this illustrious line-up, it seems that Chef Tina Legarda of Bamba Bistro is the most smitten with the pungent relish. Her early memories of bagoong are quite poignant, of her father’s short trips to the province for work, wherein he would bring home local goodies. “I think my turning point was the bottle of Alavar bagoong from Zamboanga, “ Chef Tina recalls. “To this day it remains one of my favourites.”

She is very particular, too, about how she likes her bagoong. “I like bagoong alamang gisado. Specifically, the one that has a lot of garlic, some sugar, chilli, and bits of pork fat. I also prefer my bagoong piping hot.” Her staff meals in the restaurant also awakened her love for dishes that mix pork, coconut milk, chilli, and bagoong. “We never used to have this at home growing up, but when I was working and had workmates who cooked this expertly, I was in heaven.”

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Stephan Duhesme

Chef Stephan Duhesme always loved food, and so it was only a matter of time until he decided to cook as a career by learning from the best in the busiest kitchens of New York, Tokyo, Manila, until opening his own restaurant in Bogotá where he spent three years. He came home to open Metiz and despite the international training and multi-cultural influences in his cuisine, he simply describes his food as “Filipino.”

Like most, the half-French, half- Filipino’s initial experience with bagoong was as a condiment to green mangoes and kare-kare (“nothing too unusual here,” he observes). He would force himself to swallow the stuff as not to offend those who served it to him but eventually learned to appreciate it. “The more you try to understand it, sometimes you get a palate ‘Eureka’ moment,” he explains. Now, he considers ginisang bagoong alamang as a “do-it-all sawsawan”. He enjoys it with kare-kare, of course, but he notes that a good bagoong can be eaten even just with rice or, in his case, with eggs.

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The Men of Hapag (Thirdy Dolatre, John Kevin Navoa, Kevin Villarica)

You would think that with their groundbreaking interpretation of Filipino cuisine in Hapag, Chefs Kevin Navoa and Kevin Villarica would have been adventurous eaters at an early age. Both admit to having been “forced” by their mothers to eat bagoong. For Navoa, it was bagoong’s association with kare-kare that turned him off. “I remember being young and thought that kare-kare looked unappetizing and weird,” he admits. Only the third member of this triumvirate, Chef Thirdy Dolatre, who took to the condiment whole-heartedly. He remembers family beach trips wherein his uncle would slice green mangoes and “bring out his freshly cooked, sweet, and spicy bagoong with chunks of toasted pork fat”.

Now, Villarica enjoys the bagoong they make in-house at the restaurant, which he describes as “very garlicky, sweet, and spicy”. To him, bagoong makes his mom’s ginataang gulay “the best”. Chef Thirdy agrees that it does wonders for coconut milk-stewed dishes, as well as the perfect accompaniment to sautéed and grilled vegetables. Navoa swears that he has not gone back ever since a family member taught him to eat sinigang with bagoong and calamansi. “If you have not tried it,” Navoa says, “I strongly suggest you start now and it will change the way you eat sinigang na baboy forever”.

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Carlos Villaflor, Gallery By Chele

While he flexes his creative muscles working as executive sous chef at Gallery by Chele, Carlos likes to keep his Filipino food at home simple and straightforward. He enjoys bagoong with kare-kare like how his grandmother used to serve it or cooked into dishes like Bicol Express and BInagoongan Baboy. He like ginisang bagoong alamang for its versatility—“it can be paired with anything, and it can also be a little sweet and very spicy.”

Chef Carlos admits that “kare-kare with a good bagoong” is still a nostalgic favourite, or ginataang kohol (snails) with kangkong that his grandmother cooked very well.

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