On first glance the notion of food in the Philippines is a train wreck. Getting off the plane and travelling through Manila you will see huge volumes of American junk food chain stores on every block. Golden arches, burger king, KFC, pizza, Krispy Kreme, Starbucks and many more, they are all here, and here en masse.
Add to this a large number of local versions mimicking the American chains and there is no apparent hope in sight. Jollibee is a local fried chicken and burger joint that has sides that include rice and spaghetti. The spaghetti looks like a typical spag bol, but the sauce is much sweeter and is more akin to pouring jam on top of the pasta. I have been reliably informed that the chicken is actually pretty good.
Even a simple wander down a street will yield huge quantities of burgers, hotdogs and fried chicken. While I do accept that there is a place for these, surely this cannot be the main diet. Then you go to a store and find that all of the bread is HEAVILY sugared. This stuff is seriously sweet and even if you ask, there is no non-sweetened version available.
With the exception of the naming of certain items, very little of the Spanish influence seems to have lasted. Perhaps it is the availability of ingredients but the food here is much more localised in nature and is very different from what you may expect (or hope for) id a place with such a strong Spanish history.
Our first foray was to order food at the rooftop restaurant of our hotel, what a disaster. We tried to order a nachos, but ended up with cucumber, mayonnaise and canned american spray on cheese (cheese whiz) over the top of corn chips. There was no meat, no spice, no chilli, no sour cream and no guacamole. It was not heated, it was terrible. This was added to by a side of Hungarian sausage and some heavily garlic mushrooms.
Lechon was the first dish to turn the corner for us. It refers to spit-roasted pig or pork belly and is one of the most beloved and culturally significant Filipino foods. This was the first meal that we had that was not sickly sweet or sold from a large chain store. There is a chicken version that is known as lechon manok. Needless to say the chicken is nowhere near as good as the crispy pork.
Crispy pata was the second dish to get us over the Filipino food rut. This is in essence deep-fried pork trotters or knuckles served with a dipping sauce made with vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, onions, sugar, and ground black pepper (mine had a heap of fresh chilli added). This is a version of lechon, but given that it is the trotters, there is way more crispy skin to go around.
Pork Sisig – Is the one dish in the Philippines that best represents Filipino cuisine.As it turns out, the first bar that we had a drink with Brad and Nora, were giving away a free Sisig with every bucket of beer sold.
It is made with chopped pork face, ears, and chicken liver served on a cast iron sizzling plate. It was invented around the mid-1970s when a former US air base was seen to be discarding large amounts of pig’s heads. turns out, the first bar that we had a drink with Brad and Nora, were giving away a free Sisig with every bucket of beer sold.
Chicharon is basically just bags of crackling. It is the bits of a beast that can be made crispy once chopped up and deep fried. The main version Chicheron bituka is pork intestines that have been chopped up into bite-sized pieces and deep-fried.
Other meats are also used such as Chicharon manok which is deep-fried chicken skin, while chicharon bulaklak is deep fried ruffle fat pictured above), usually served with vinegar to help cut the fat.
Liempo is pork belly. It’s a popular dish that can be enjoyed with rice as an entree or as bar chow with beer. It’s usually served with a dipping sauce made with soy sauce and vinegar or vinegar with garlic and chili.
Lumpia is the local version of spring rolls.typically filled with sauteed ground pork, onions, carrots, raisins, and other vegetables
Longganisa is Filipino sausage, as with everywhere in the world, these are many and varied, and change from region to region.
By now you must be seeing a pattern. If it is not chain store junk food then it is pork, fatty pork, deep fried dishes and mystery meat parcels.
Adobo is everywhere, it is almost impossible to avoid. It is some type of meat, seafood, or vegetables (mostly chicken) that is marinated in a braising mixture of vinegar, soy sauce, black peppercorn, bay leaves, and garlic. If you do any type of tour or anything involving a set menu Adobo will be there.
Batchoy was the dish that we happened to order with our Lechon. This is a noodle (pancit) soup with pork or chicken meat in a clear broth. It was ok without being startling, however it was neither sweet nor oily and greasy, which was a blessing. It also introduced us to our first taste of the ubiquitous Calamansi.
Chicken inasal is one of the favorite Filipino comfort foods. It is charcoal grilled chicken marinated in calamansi, vinegar, pepper, and achuete. It is continuously basted with the marinade.
Pancit refers to a category of mainly Chinese-inspired noodle dishes usually made with rice noodles, vegetables, meat, and seafood. Chilli, soy and calamansi regularly also make an appearance.
Sinigang is another popular and important dish in Filipino cuisine. It is a type of soup or stew characterised by its sour and savory flavors Sinigang is usually made with different vegetables and some type of meat or seafood like pork, beef, shrimp, or fish. It’s usually paired with white rice and served with patis (fish sauce) as a condiment.
Bulalo is a light-colored soup made with leafy vegetables, corn on the cob, and beef shanks filled with bone marrow.
Kaldereta (or caldereta) is a goat meat stewed in tomato sauce. The one we had in Coron was not stewed long enough (so Nora tells us) as the meat was still tough and did not fall off the fork as it should have. THe Flavour though was fantastic.
Bangus refers to milkfish which is the national fish of the Philippines. As with the Adobo, this one is pretty hard to dodge, it will be served up at almost every opportunity. The taste is fine, without being startling. But be warned the milkfish is a very bony fish and you should be careful when eating them.
Silog has become our local breakfast option (whether you like it or not). it is basically a category of Filipino breakfasts that always include (VERY) garlic fried rice, and a fried egg. From here everything is on the table as to the type of meat that you add to it.
We have had so many variations that it would be crazy to list, needless to say pork and chicken is high on the list with a wide variety of how they are cooked. Spam, bacon, ham, sausage, hotdog, chorizo, corned meat, fish all feature and they all have their own name like Bacsilog for bacon or spamsilog for spam…and the list goes on.
And of course, my favourite, was the boodle fight. Such a simple concept, executed to perfection and a joy to take part in. I have been noticing, of recent times, the social media trying to replicate the concept with a dump meal. The modern equivalent seems more to mean dumping out the contents of the take away bag an hoeing in. The Filipino version is much more sophisticated, elegant and yummy.
And some stuff is just wrong and should not be eaten…
Balut is a fertilized duck egg embryo that’s been incubated for 14-21 days, boiled, and then eaten directly from its shell.
Now I have eaten some weird stuff over the years. Deep fried tarantulas, snakes, scorpions, any number of bugs and creepy crawlies. But Balut, no way on this earth will one of these pass my lips.
If you can get past the initial impressions, Filipino food is quite good. If you avoid the chain stores (at all cost) and limit the porky, crackly goodness that abounds, there are decent meals to be had. Garlic is a VERY big thing in almost all of the dishes, so if there is any fear of vampires then the Philippines may be for you.
Don’t get me wrong, even I, one of the world’s biggest carnivores, was looking for a salad by about half way through.
As a parting gift, our last meal before leaving was in fact Jollibee.