Kare-kare is a peanutty curry stew traditionally made with oxtail, eggplant, banana blossom, snake beans, and bok choy. Like much of Pilipino cuisine, kare-kare has regional and even family-specific variations. My lola included beef tripe in her kare-kare, and my mom does too, but to save time, she uses the widely popular Mama Sita’s Kare-Kare mix to get the same flavors as Lola’s kare-kare. When we immigrated to the U.S., my mom started using canned banana blossom instead of fresh, and less-expensive cuts of beef instead of oxtail. My mom uses smooth peanut butter, not chunky, but the brand she uses is too sweet for me. I found a peanut butter I like, but Chef Jan Parker recently taught me how to make the freshly ground peanut butter she uses in her kare-kare recipe.
To explain the etymology of the word kare-kare, let’s start with its origin story, or rather stories. For as many different ways as there are to cook kare-kare, there are nearly as many theories about its origins. Some say that it was first created in Pampanga, the self-styled culinary capital of the Philippines. To be fair, Pampanga is the original home of sisig, my favorite pulutan. However, I think other regions could lay claim to the culinary capital title by virtue of their signature dishes. I would argue, for example, that Davao is the culinary capital of any kind of seafood ihaw-ihaw.
Others say that the thick peanutty sauce of kare-kare originated during the Spanish Galleon trade, when it was called cari, describing its golden-brown color. The color might have been from annatto, a popular Spanish spice. Another maritime-related theory says that kare-kare evolved from the Indonesian curry or kari, which is also called gulai. Since gulay also means “vegetables” in both Indonesian and Tagalog, this seems like a solid theory for kare-kare's culinary and linguistic etymology.
The most obscure—and therefore my favorite—theory is that kare-kare as we know it today was a dish born of longing. It was supposedly created by Indian sepoys, soldiers in the British East India Company. After the Sepoy Rebellion ended in 1859 and the East India Company was abolished, a group of survivors sailed to the Philippines and settled in Manila. Longing for familiar food, the homesick sepoys improvised a kind of curry thickened with a slurry made with local peanuts, perhaps a precursor to peanut butter. They called it kari-kaari, with kari meaning “curry” or “thick sauce” and kaari meaning “serviceable.” Regional usage eventually yielded our current phonetic spelling of kare-kare.
If you live in the Seattle area and would like to taste kare-kare at its finest, my top three are Musang in Beacon Hill or O-Mart hidden deep in Pike Place Market for a sit-down meal or JanParkerCookery.com for catering. Watch for pop-ups around the city from all of these ladies and get your kare-kare fix during the warm summer months.