Sawsawan, that’s what it’s called. It’s something served on the side of a cooked dish and the cooked meat, seafood or vegetable is either dipped in it or small spoonfuls of the mixture is poured over the cooked food or rice, or both. The closest English translation would be a “dipping sauce” except that it really isn’t a sauce but more of a condiment. A flavor enhancer (which makes it akin to a seasoning) that is desirable but not exactly necessary.
Dipping sauces in the context of condiments served on the side are found all over Asia. In Vietnamese cuisine, there’s the ubiquitous nuoc cham. In Thailand, they have the nam prik (or nahm phrik) which can be prepared in so many ways. Sambal, a chili-based sauce, is found in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Sri Lanka. Chutney, wet or dry, coarse or fine, and its hundreds if not thousands of variations is found in various South Asian cuisines. Tentsuyu and ponzu are probably the most well-known among Japanese dipping sauces. Then, there’s the Korean ssamjang. In Chinese cooking, there are so many dipping sauces from soy sauce-based to ginger-based to fruit based.
In the Philippines, the sawsawan is usually a mixture that includes two or more of the following: patis (fish sauce), bagoong (native fish or shrimp paste), soy sauce, vinegar and kalamansi juice plus one or more minced or chopped spices like shallots, garlic, ginger and chilis.
Although there are no strict rules as to what sawsawan should go with specific dishes, there are traditional pairings like chicken tinola with patis and mashed chicken liver. Grilled pork or fish is often served with a mixture of vinegar, soy sauce, chopped shallots, garlic and chilis.
But the thing that really gets you about the sawsawan is that it is a personal thing. It’s not strange to simply mix your own. That’s why in restaurants, bottled seasonings are placed on the table and the diner can just create his own sawsawan. Like it saltier than sour? Use more patis or soy sauce than vinegar or kalamansi juice. Prefer a really hot sawsawan? Crush more chilis in the mixture.
Personally, I am not very fond of dipping sauces. If the food is already perfectly seasoned, I prefer not to ruin the experience with an overkill of seasonings. But for most Filipinos, having a sawsawan is a must. And I wonder if the sawsawan is really for flavor or to satisfy the almost automatic gesture of having something to dip the food in or something to douse the food with. Or, maybe, like many things we have simply come to accept as a matter of course, it’s just habit.