Food culture: Philippines
I gots a confession to make, y’all: I was a finicky filly when it came to eating in the Philippines.
Local delicacies include:
Balút: boiled duck egg with a partially developed embryo (bonus if it has feathers)
Pinikpikan: chickens first beaten while still alive, to coagulate the blood, then killed, cooked and served (this is mostly around the hill towns in the Cordilleras)
Lechón: suckling pig roasted on a spit
Fish, fish, and more fish
As my dad said (when I sent him this picture of what balút looks like) “it makes me wanna ‘balút’ all over the place.”
Having been raised in a culture where most of our meat is de-boned and then packaged nicely, it was hard for me to adjust my mentality and be open about sampling everything. I kept telling myself to just dig in, but dammit, its easier said than done!
So, as a natural consequence of my fussiness (and our commitment to eating cheap and local), I was stuck with a tedious repertoire of rice and whatever looked eatable at the moment.
It’s probably partly because of how I grew up, cause I’ve never really eaten liver, kidney, tongues, intestines, lungs, any ‘exotic’ stuff like that. My family stuck mostly to already deboned meat like chicken breasts, ground beef and hot dogs (yeah yeah i know the latter two are probably worse than anything the Filipinos dish up). Chicken legs and BBQ ribs were the few exceptions.
Doesn’t help that I also HATE seafood. (So much that I feel the need to capitalize the letters in the word hate). Any kind. Without fail, Filipino eyes turned into saucers when I grudgingly emphasized I don’t and won’t eat fish/seafood, as if it’s so hard to fathom.
(Don’t even bother asking me if I’ve tried this and that. Xiker and his family love fish and I’ve had to dutifully sample at least one bite of all the seafood that ends up on the table— it’s been 3 years and I still can’t stomach the stench of fish.)
But hey, though the Pinoy food culture isn’t as widely appreciated as, say, Italian or Indian, there’s stuff to be enjoyed (and avoided).
Here’s a very, very rough guide of where and what to eat, when traveling the Philipines, as a fussy eater.
WHERE TO EAT
First things first: the numerous local restos that dot the markets and line all busy intersections are called turú-turo (point and eat) eateries, where precooked meals are kept in pots and pans. Prices vary largely depending on the type of meat and dish you choose, but meals usually average between 35 to 80 pesos a plate.
If you should deign to go into a restaurant, expect meals to start at 100, and know that western options are usually doled out far smaller than the Philippine options. For example, if you order a burger and fries for 200 pesos, be prepared to get a small handful of potato fries (like, 15 sticks) and a burger no larger than the palm of my hand (the patties are always pitifully thinner than a mcdonald’s patty!)
It is also worth mentioning that much of the pinoy options listed on the menus are family-size servings, meaning the serving sizes are good enough for at least 2 people, often 3.
And finally, Jollibees, Mang Inasal, McDonalds, and a whole host of fast food chains are frequented by the mid and upper classes. But what really intrigues me is how so many people go into these places and order rice and fried chicken (yes even at McD’s). And nothing else. As if there weren’t already cheaper versions of fried chicken and rice in every eatery in town. (Ok ok, some people do order a side of spaghetti too.) Must be the air-con.
WHAT TO EAT
For breakfast, there are the -silogs, which means your choice of meat served with rice and fried egg. I adore the longsilog (pork sausage) but alas, not all sausages are created equal.
Donut shops and bakeries are EVERYWHERE, and towards the end of our two-month tour we became increasingly addicted to bakery goods. Donuts usually go for 20 pesos, but bakery items start at 1 peso and go up to 20, maaaaybe 30 pesos for big loaves of bread. Warning: chain store or not, they never serve the same things, so be brave and try, try, try!
For the rest of the day, besides the usual fried chicken, there is also.. fried chicken. For those of us who actually get tired of fried chicken, fret not, there are other types of cooked chicken. Chicken curry, and chicken adobo (sometimes pork, in a garlic/vinegar stew) are two of the most common chicken dishes found in eateries. Pork also features often on the menu, most commonly pork menudo (another kind of stew). There’s also fried pork jowls, and thick rashers of grilled bacon smell heavenly from a mile away.
Lugaw is a kind of rice soup (also called arroz caldo), mami is a noodle soup, and pancit bihon is stir-fried noodles with chef’s choice of meat (pancit canton— seafood version).
As for fish, the list is endless. Grilled fish, steamed fish, breaded fish, and of course, fish soup. The list is short here because I really don’t wanna know.
And that’s just the most common dishes we’ve seen on our travels. Plenty more to be had—pizza can be found here and there, though admittedly it hardly competes with international standards.
For street snacks, there is an endless supply of skewered meat. They cook practically everything they can salvage from the animal, which is actually a good thing and not at all wasteful. The only one I was brave enough to try is the hot dog, and it wasn’t all that bad. Sio mai dumplings can be pretty damn good, as well as the fried non-vegetarian spring rolls, and cooked peanuts are real yummy. And of course, don’t forget the ubiquitous balút!
As you can tell, Philippine food is long on meat and short on greens, so anyone who is a vegetarian would have a hard time finding a meal in a turú-turo without some kind of animal flesh.
So, I should add that chopsuey means steamed vegetables (mostly cabbage, a few carrots if you’re lucky) but rice isn’t usually included. Fried eggplants are delicious, but I never did learn the local word for it… On island-hopping tours they do offer seaweed salads, which are composed of eggplants, diced purple onions, tomatoes, limes and chili seaweed.
I know I’ve already waxed poetic about this, but it bears repeating: keep a eye out for Robinsons’ malls— their food stores usually offer self-serve salad bars (of varying degrees of quality). The one in Manila was heaven on earth after weeks of eating nothing but meat and rice!
Fortunately, fruit stands are easy to find, and Philippine mangoes are arguably the best in the world! Mango shakes are DELICIOUS, and never made in the same way, so try a new one on each island you visit!
When we wandered into the meat market in Baguio, our very first Philippine town, I was immediately nauseated by all the pieces of animal just hanging and lying around. I couldn’t last more than 5 minutes in there, and once we got to the fish section, I begged for mercy and waited outside while Xiker wandered around for another coupla minutes.