The smell of Filipino barbecue skewers grilling over hot coals instantly transports me back to my childhood. As a kid growing up in the Philippines, my mom (or sometimes my aunties) and I would wander the streets and buy piping hot chicken barbecue from vendors.
After moving to America at 11 years old, I struggled to find that familiar flavor. Sometimes they would be available outside Filipino supermarkets in Los Angeles, California, but the flavor combination wasn’t exactly what I remembered. Having recently moved to Idaho, it became even harder to find good Filipino food. So, I just started developing my own recipes for my favorite Filipino dishes.
After some good ol’ research and using my instincts to attempt a recipe, I finally got the perfect, flavor-packed Filipino barbecue skewers! That first bite of the chicken barbecue I made brought back a flood of happy memories. The garlicky, savory and slightly sweet flavors were just as I remembered.
Though the recipe may seem simple, to me this dish represents love, comfort and belonging. Sharing this small taste of home with friends and family is my way of honoring where I came from, and keeping my Filipino heritage alive, even from far away.
What makes this barbecue recipe unique
What makes this Filipino barbecue recipe unique is how it blends sweet and savory flavors that just work. With added banana ketchup – a popular Filipino condiment made of mashed bananas, sugar, vinegar and spices – the marinade offers a good depth of flavor with varying levels of sweetness, savoriness, and acidity.
On top of that, I added lemon-lime soda to the marinade. The acidity in the soda helps break down the chicken fibers, making the meat very tender. The sugar also causes the chicken to caramelize as it cooks, giving it a gorgeous glazed look. The carbonation in the soda helps the chicken stay juicy when grilled over hot coals. The distinctive citrus notes also come through in the smoky char of the grilled chicken.
If you don’t want to use skewers, that’s totally fine too! You can just cook the chicken thighs whole instead of slicing them into strips. You just might need to adjust your cooking time slightly. Use a meat thermometer to check that the internal temp of the chicken is at least 165 degrees F once cooked for safe consumption.
Don’t want chicken? Try pork! Even though I chose chicken for my barbecue skewers, you can actually find pork as an option just as frequently back in the Philippines. If you do opt for using pork, pork shoulder or belly are excellent cuts for skewers. They have enough fat to stay juicy while grilling. For pork belly, score the skin in a crosshatch pattern before marinating to allow the flavor to penetrate. You’ll need to adjust the cooking time as well as these will need slightly more time than the chicken will.
Using a pellet grill vs. charcoal grill
When it comes to cooking this, I prefer using a pellet grill over a charcoal grill. While Filipino barbecue is traditionally cooked over a charcoal grill, a pellet grill gives me more control over the temperature and cooks the chicken more evenly. With a charcoal grill, it can be tricky to maintain an even temperature. The coals tend to burn hotter in some spots, leading to uneven cooking. Some pieces end up charred while others are underdone.
A pellet grill uses small wood pellets as fuel to produce smoke and heat. Not only can I set the temperature precisely, but the grill also automatically feeds pellets into the firepot to maintain the target temperature. This results in chicken that’s perfectly cooked all the way through, moist and juicy, with a delicious smoky flavor from the pellets. The chicken picks up the subtle woodsy notes of hickory, maple or whatever pellets I’m using.
While I do love the rustic charm of cooking over hot coals, a pellet grill is just more convenient and foolproof, especially when I’m making food to share with others. The results are consistently great and I don’t have to babysit the grill or worry about hot spots and temperature swings. For me, that’s one less thing to stress over and more time to enjoy good food and company. When I want that classic charcoal-grilled taste, I’ll add some wood chips to the pellet grill for extra smoke. The best of both worlds!
Complementary side dishes
The perfect side for these Filipino barbecue skewers is achara, a pickled green papaya salad. It’s basically just shredded green papaya mixed with vinegar, sugar, garlic, and chili peppers. These days, you can find prepared achara in most Asian grocery stores. If you can’t find any achara, a simple cucumber salad also pairs great with the barbecue chicken. Just slice cucumbers and toss with rice vinegar, sesame oil, salt, and chili garlic sauce.
Grilled corn, tomatoes, and eggplant are also delicious sides for these skewers. And of course, you can never go wrong with a big pot of rice to soak up all the flavorful juices. My mouth is watering just thinking about it!
- 1.5 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs
- 1.5 tbsp juice of calamansi (or lemon)
- 1/2 cup soy sauce
- 2/3 cup Sprite (or any lemon-lime soda)
- 1/3 cup brown sugar
- 2 tbsp white vinegar
- 1/3 cup banana ketchup
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp ground pepper
- cornstarch slurry (1 tbsp cornstarch, 2 tbsp water)
- 12 bamboo skewers (mine were about 12 inches long)
- Slice the chicken thighs into thin strips, about 1.5 inch wide. Set aside.
- Make the marinade by combining the calamansi juice (or lemon juice), soy sauce, Sprite, brown sugar, white vinegar, banana ketchup, minced garlic, salt, and pepper in a large side bowl (big enough for the chicken strips to fit in). Stir until the ingredients have thoroughly mixed together.
- Add the chicken strips to the marinade and make sure every strip is coated and covered in the marinade. Use a cling wrap to cover the bowl, but making sure the cling wrap pushes down on the marinade slightly before having the cling wrap edges stick to the edges of the bowl. This will help keep the chicken strips submerged in the marinade. Refrigerate for 2.5 - 3 hours.
- About 30 minutes before the marinading time is done, fire up your pellet grill. For the pellet grill, I use apple-flavored wood pellets, but you can use any mild-flavored wood pellets. Set the temp to 400 degrees F and let it rise to temp. On a regular grill, temp should be medium-high. Meanwhile, make sure your bamboo skewers are soaking in water for at least 30 minutes. These will prevent them from burning in the grill.
- Once the chicken strips are done marinating, carefully thread the skewers through them. Make sure that all parts of the chicken strips are exposed and not too folded on themselves so that they cook evenly. Then, put the leftover marinade in a sauce pan on the stove on medium heat with the cornstarch slurry to reduce and thicken slightly. This will serve as your basting sauce.
- Place your chicken skewers evenly in the pellet grill. Do not crowd them in the grill -- you may have to do this in batches depending on how big your pellet grill is. Brush the top of the chicken with the basting sauce, then close the grill lid and cook the chicken skewers for 7.5 minutes on each side, for 15 minutes total for each batch. When you turn them over at the halfway mark, baste them again before closing the lid and continuing the cook.
- Serve with rice and preferred side dish!
Looking for more Filipino recipes? Browse here!
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