Oxtail, Peanut Butter, Shrimp Paste… What?


Destination: Boracay and NYC

Mode of Transport: Kare Kare

My surname is Tolentino.  It’s Italian, but I am of Philippine descent.  My wife, daughter and I actually made a pilgrimage to see the town of Tolentino when we were visiting the Marche region of Italy. However, growing up, most of my European cultural influences stemmed mostly from Spain rather than Italy.

Spain colonized the Philippines…

That’s of course due to the fact that the Philippines were colonized by Spain for nearly 400 years.  So when my friends humor me as to how I got my last name, I often joke (and by the way, also my theory) that there must have been an Italian on Magellan’s boat, sailing under the Spanish flag, when he discovered the Philippines.

Oxtail, Peanut Butter, Shrimp Paste... What? | Dish Our Town

Cathedral of St. Nicola Da Tolentino in the town of Tolentino in the Marche region of Italy.

I have an affinity for Spain.  I think it may have been all the Hemingway novels I’ve read; but I think mostly because every time I visit that country, something about certain dishes in their cuisine draws familiarity with the food I grew up eating.

Please don’t read me wrong, I’m not one of those Filipinos who prides himself as a descendant of a conquering Western European culture because of his namesake; not at the very least.  I simply see a food connection.

Oxtail, Peanut Butter, Shrimp Paste... What? |Dish Our Town

Spain is just one of the many cultures that influenced Filipino cuisine.  The other obvious one is that of China.  The one that is not referred to enough is that of the Malay.

The Malay Archipelago, also referred to as the East Indies, is made up of thousands of islands territorially owned mostly by Indonesia, Malaysia, New Guinea and the Philippines).

Parts, not all, of the Philippines belong to this group; but it’s the inclusion of this sub-culture that furthers the range and diversity of the country’s cuisine.

Oxtail, Peanut Butter, Shrimp Paste... What? | Dish Our Town

Bailey and I on our pilgrimage to the town of Tolentino in the summer of 2004.

One stew dish in particular called Kare Kare is from that region.  It’s a peanut based (in most cases peanut butter) curry-like oxtail stew, with vegetables (usually longbeans, eggplant and a cabbage or palm).

It’s usually eaten with rice and the condiment of choice is, the now popular, shrimp paste. Unlike most Filipino stews and soups, which have the same base ingredients and even look alike, Kare Kare is a departure. 

Oxtail, Peanut Butter, Shrimp Paste... What? |Dish Our Town

Kare Kare at Cafe 81 NYC

It’s aesthetically different from other stews in texture and taste. Though on the thicker side, the broth is not heavily seasoned.  The flavors are simply derived from the stock created by the boney oxtail and the fresh vegetables added later.

There’s a subtleness that sets it apart.  Then there is the curve ball: peanut butter! I attribute my elevated level for exotic tastes to this dish.  If there was one dish I would present to a Michelin Star Chef it would be this. For all I know, there may be a very cleaned up and expensive version of this dish somewhere in the Basque region.

Oxtail, Peanut Butter, Shrimp Paste... What? | Dish Our Town

This is shrimp paste, called bagoong in Tagalog (Filipino) which is always served with Kare Kare

There are many renditions and recipes for this stew, but I think the one found in Memories of Philippine Kitchens is probably most traditional and easiest to follow.

Filipino food is also having its’ moment (at least in New York) and there are some restaurants that are serving this dish up if you don’t have the patience to cook.  My favorite places are Cafe 81 and Maharlika located in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Oxtail, Peanut Butter, Shrimp Paste... What? | Dish Our Town

Cafe 81 located in the lower east side.

I’m a sentimental guy, so whenever I have Kare Kare, I am forever that little boy standing over my Grandmother, mouth watering, as she prepared the dish.

I watched intently, as to how she cut the vegetables, how she butchered the oxtail, how she skimmed the fat from the top of the broth – everything.

I am never able to replicate the goodness of her version, nor can the restaurants.  Maybe Juan Mari Arzak or Ferran Adrià can do it justice, a kind of counter influence if you will. 

Oxtail, Peanut Butter, Shrimp Paste... What? | Dish Our Town

Grandma (Lola) and me. Did you see my burgundy suit with matching bowtie? How dapper was I ?

My parents emigrated to the U.S from the Philippines.

I haven’t been back to the Philippines since my parents emigrated to the U.S. when I was four. But I do plan on being at crystal blue beaches in the island of Boracay, on the Malay Archipelago, in the near future; eating some oxtail stew originating from those parts.

And when I do, I’ll be thinking about my grandmother and the Lower East Side along with wondering about that first Tolentino from Italy, at that age of discovery that Spain bankrolled, and what he may have thought of the place when he arrived and if he had anything to do with this dish I consider to be a national treasure.

Did you like this dish? Please let us know your experience in the comments with Kare Kare, if any. We’d love to hear them. We’d love for you to share this with your friends! Thank you so much!


0 Replies to “Oxtail, Peanut Butter, Shrimp Paste… What?”

  1. Thanks for sharing your story. Love the look of Kare Kare. Makes my mouth water just looking at it. I’m going to have to hunt down a recipe. Love that old photo of you and your grandmother by the way!

    1. Mui: Thanks for reading, I’m pleased that it made your mouth water. I do hope you are able to taste the dish one day. Hope you join us for our next journey. Andrew

  2. That stew looks like the French onion soup – so interesting to see how more and more people are mixes of cultures, rather than only one. Today, when you ask “what is your background”, you better expect a longer story, intricate and at least very interesting. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Llyane: Like many soups, cultures are certainly getting more and more mixed up as the world seems to get smaller every day. I think it makes for a more interesting pot, if you will. Thank you for journeying along with us and hope to hear from you again in the future. Best, Andrew

  3. That looks delicious! As a Pinay, I’m not a big fan of kare kare. I know I probably lost some Filipina points there 🙂 But, my husband loves it. I remember the great aroma growing up though with my mom and Lolas cooking them. I am a big fan of bagoong with mango though. 😉 Like you, I haven’t been back to the Philippines since we emigrated. We missed venturing to the Spanish towns of our last names but I guess it’s another reason to go back to Spain. Lucky you! It’s great to virtually meet you both.

    1. Mary: You gained your Filipina points back with the bagoong with mango; I like it especially when the mango is on the sour side. I appreciate you reading along and commenting. I hope to continue to keep you interested. Please continue to journey along. In the meantime, you may enjoy a post my wife Brenda wrote some time back called, “Were the Catalans in the Philippines”. Many thanks, Andrew

  4. No, I’ve never tried a recipe even close to that. You’ve got me curious though!

    1. Tami: It is really a great dish. I you like curry, this is on the lighter side. I don’t know where you live, but if you are able to get to a Filipino Restaurant any time soon, give it a go or get the cookbook I mentioned in the blog and give it a whirl yourself. Thanks for reading and hope to continue to make you curious. Andrew

    2. Tami: It is a curious recipe; and it will definitely be mind-blowing once your get to opportunity to taste it. Thank you for joining the journey. Andrew

  5. love love love the photo of you with your grandma! and thanks for sharing the wonderful memory you have of her preparing kare kare.

    1. p.s. my maiden name is italian! 🙂

      1. They were everywhere…

    2. April: I dug that up from a box of old pictures. I wish I kept a box of her old recipes. Memories will have to do. Thanks so much for your kind words as always. Hope you enjoy the next one. Andrew

  6. NO one can replicate grandma’s loving preparations Andrew! And that pic is adorable. One of my favorite things about NYC is the food and now you’ve given me two more places to check out. Thanks again for another great post. Can’t wait to see what you cook up next 😉

    1. Puja: Glad you liked this one. Yes, nobody can replicate grandma’s hand when it comes to cooking. I really appreciate your comments. Thank you, Andrew

  7. That was interesting, I’ve never even heard of this dish! I hope I can have the chance to try it one day. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    1. Francesca: We hope to be able to find more dishes such as these; as to keep things interesting. I do hope that you run into this dish in your many travels. All the best, Andrew

  8. Love that pic of you and your Lola! Norm and I love Kare Kare too. He makes a mean one… When you come to Chicago, he’ll dish one up for you for a taste test!

    1. Erika: We will definitely make a special trip to Chicago to take you up on your offer. I’ll go just about anywhere for a good kare kare. Talk soon. Best, Andrew

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