Afritada, Caldereta, Mechado, and Menudo: How Do You Really Tell Which is Which?
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Is the déjà vu effect real, or is it just a manifestation of memories we already have? But most haunting yet, especially for Pinoys thinking deep thoughts about their daily ulam—what’s the actual difference between afritada, caldereta, mechado, and menudo? If presented with one of these on the dining table, how would one be able to know which is which? This timeless question has become the subject of many a lighthearted internet debate and a rich crop of internet memes. But it’s also sparked earnest discussion among those who neither cook nor consume any of the four very regularly.
To some degree, it’s understandable that these four meat dishes get mixed up. They’re all made with a savory reddish sauce, and they also have some ingredients in common like chopped-up potatoes and carrots. But there are several ways that will allow you to tell these four iconic Pinoy ulams apart. You can look to their etymologies or their basis in Spanish words, as well as their key ingredients.
If you want the satisfaction of being able to tell menudo, mechado, caldereta, and afritada apart just by sight, this guide is for you. This article should also help you determine which of the four you’re craving most right now. Under those common blankets of delicious red sauce, different flavors await you.
Menudo: Small Bites, But Big Satisfaction
In Spanish, the word menudo means “small” or “minute.” This should give you a clue as to the size of the ingredients when they’re cooked. The meat and veggies that comprise menudo are typically cut into bite-sized pieces. There’s no need to use a knife when eating this dish—just gobbling it up with a spoon and fork suffices.
Menudo’s main ingredient is pork diced into small pieces. Sometimes liver chunks are added in as well. The main additions are diced carrot and potato, but some cooks make this dish with raisins, bell peppers, quail eggs, and even chopped-up red hotdog. All of these are tossed with a basic, but flavorful tomato sauce that’s livened up with sugar and soy sauce. If you crave a hearty and filling weekday dinner that’s also easy to freeze and save for later, you can check out this pork menudo recipe.
Mechado: Made Rich By a Fatty Taste
Something that’s not commonly known about mechado is that it takes its name from the Spanish verb mechar, which means to cook with lard. In mechado as well as in many other dishes cooked with this type of fat, lard is the secret to a rich, full-bodied taste.
Mechado is typically made with either beef chuck roast or pork shoulder. Added into this stew are potatoes, carrots, and other veggies like green peas and bell peppers. This is cooked in a tomato-based sauce that’s tempered with vinegar, soy sauce, and calamansi juice. When you’re cooking this ulam, season it based on your personal preference so that it’s rich, sour, or salty enough for you.
Caldereta: A Hearty Stew for Special Occasions
This ulam takes its name from the caldera, or cauldron, that was traditionally used to cook it. Most caldereta recipes call for beef cuts that need to simmer for a long time, like beef brisket or round bottom roast. On very special occasions, caldereta can also be made with goat meat or even lamb meat.
The veggies that often go into a recipe of caldereta are diced carrots, potatoes, red bell peppers, and green olives. These are stewed in a tomato sauce with liver spread, sometimes with red wine or cheese added in. The ingredients are thoroughly cooked down until the meat chunks are fork-tender. Altogether, the ingredients in this ulam result in a special kind of indulgence that’s perfect for occasions like fiestas.
Afritada: A Saucy Fried Delight
The last of the four is afritada. It takes its name from the Spanish word for “fry,” which indicates how the meat is traditionally cooked before the red sauce is stirred in. The star of this dish is most oftentimes chicken thighs or chicken drumsticks, although there are some variations with pork.
Along with potatoes and carrots being mixed in, chicken afritada can also contain either red or green bell peppers, as well as peas. Some like their afritada on the sweet side, and thus offset the tomato sauce with a little sugar. Again, each person has their own taste and can adjust their recipe accordingly. Given its affordable ingredients and ease of preparation, afritada is another great go-to weekday ulam.
Whichever one you like best, all four ulams are mainstays in Filipino cuisine. You can find these dishes at home as often as you would in the carinderia. They’ll also make an appearance during birthday celebrations, fiestas, and simple family gatherings alike.
Everyone has their own style and preferences for how sweet, salty, or savory each of these dishes should be prepared. Beyond carrots and potatoes, Pinoy cooks also have the option of adding trimmings like hard boiled eggs, hotdogs, raisins, or chili peppers, to name a few. The difference between afritada, caldereta, mechado, and menudo may at first be a mystery to the ordinary observer. But there’s no question of all four ulams being welcome to the dining table, and all four ulams being fitting companions to piping-hot rice!