Kain tayo = “Let’s eat!” in Tagalog, the widely spoken language in the Philippines.
During my stint as Nurse Clinician with Aramco, Saudi Arabia, I befriended Fleur, my Filipina co-worker.
I had spent a considerable amount of my time at Fleur’s. Why? Because she was an excellent cook! Duh. And I? Oh, I’m every good cook’s dream guest! Because I love good food, I am not afraid to try out things I have never eaten before and I am definitely not afraid to voice my opinion.
With Fleur and her group of friends, the words, “Kain tayo!”were tossed around a lot. Yes, I spent many happy hours around food with my friends. Filipino cuisine is not as hot/pungent as I have come to prefer, but it was tasty enough to eat on a regular basis. Pancit (noodles), Lumpia (spring rolls), Adobo (a soya sauce-vinegar-garlic meat dish), Kare-Kare (oxtail peanut stew) and Longganisa (sweetish sausage) were eaten often enough by my friends to be considered staples. Which is why I grew to enjoy these preparations.
Having had such a wonderful gustatory experience with Filipino food in Saudi Arabia, it was only natural that I visit the country properly to enjoy the real deal.
Four years ago, I visited the Philippines on my own because Fleur and I could not coordinate our holidays. She was (and still is) with Aramco and I had long since left. I wasn’t too disappointed because I liked exploring a bit of her country on my own. But the food? It was a letdown.
Sadly, “real” Filipino food did not live up to the fantasy experience I had envisioned and hoped for, or even what I had experienced with Fleur and friends.
Disclaimer: When I travel, I avoid international food chain outlets, and I avoid high end restaurants. I love street food and I patronise small and/or family run eateries for a more authentic or organic experience. So my experience below may come across as skewed.
Overall, I found the commercial fare in the Philippines very greasy, the portions small and not “meaty” enough. On the whole, there was nothing that blew me away. The warm, melded flavours were Asian in some ways, but there was, once again, that noticeable absence of spice and heat (pungency). I preferred the street snacks by far.
The tastiest ‘proper meal’ (i.e. in a restaurant) I ate was at a food court in a mall in Manila. It was my last lunch in the country, and after a mostly non-exciting experience with restaurant food, I went in for known favourites.
I ate Bihon Noodles (vermicelli-thin noodles) and Stir-Fried Squid (with the ink). I did not pay attention to the prices when ordering and chose from the array on display. Those turned out to be some of the cheapest options, but ironically, that meal was the most expensive I had had in my 2 weeks in the Philippines. That’s because that mall was none other than the largest in Asia and therefore, appropriately called The Mall of Asia.
Although I was disappointed with my overall eating experience in the Philippines, I did try out a whole lot of new dishes during my time there. The following put a smile on my food-fussy face. Not surprisingly, everything I liked was from the street hawkers. With the amount of time I have spent eating on the streets of Asia, my tummy has been galvanised. 🙂
1. Puto BongBong: Sweetened sticky rice, coloured a bright purple, that’s put in a small bamboo mould and pushed out to form a 10 in (25 cm) long roll. Topped with grated coconut and brown sugar. Served on a bit of banana leaf.
2. Pinagte: A leafy veggie pie (local spinach?) cooked in a fish-based gravy and cut into big, soggy squares. And I ate that out of a plastic bag. 🙂 The texture reminded me of Spanakopita.
3. Piaya: A flattened pop-tart. Flaky pastry with ube (taro) and date filling. I tried the other fillings with mung beans and camote (a sweet potato-like root veggie), but liked the ube one best.
4. Puto: Tiny, steamed, rice cupcakes. These were a favourite that Fleur often cooked just for me. I had to be very strict with myself not to gorge on these in the Philippines so I could try other stuff. I had them just once. 😦
As always, I tried out a different item every opportunity I got. Here are some that were a first for me, and quite possibly I won’t ever go back for seconds. All, but the first one (i.e Chicken Skin), were dipped in thick batter to bulk up the bits, and deep fried.
1. Chicken Skin: These bits of pure chicken skin were cut up in pieces and were nicely crisp, but they had an overpowering chicken taste. I could almost taste the chickens scratching around in the yard!
2. Chicken Oesophagus: (Not!) These bits looked like pretzel sticks. They were equally firm and crunchy. The vendors called them “throat”. When I looked askance, they offered “neck”. Turns out they were bits of oesophagus. That’s what I thought until I contacted Sidney Snoeck to request the use of this image of his.
This is not what I ate. I mean, what I ate did not look like this. They really looked liked broken bits of deep-fried pretzel sticks. I’ve chosen to include this image because I quite possibly ate the deep-fried version of …. chicken intestines. Ack!
These are the grilled version. Sidney’s site (URL above) has a lot of, um, interesting stories.
3. Chicken “Nuggets”: This snack saddened me. I got 5 pieces for 10 PHP/15p/25¢. The first one I bit into was all batter and bone. So was the second. I thought I just got unlucky with those 2, but all the pieces I had were the same. Later, my volcano trek guide confirmed that that’s what chicken nuggets are. I felt very sorry for those who could not afford to buy real chicken nuggets because bony bits in batter is what street snack consumers knew of the popular meat(ish)-only snack.
4. Camote: Camote is a kind of white-fleshed tuber. Not too starchy like the potato, but a little smoother like the sweet potato. It’s just the tiniest bit sweet, too.
And I’ve saved the best of my Filipino foods for last!
Balut: Dude, I psyched myself about this well-known delicacy for months before I got there, but plucked up the courage to eat it …. only on my last night. What a wimpy (overgrown) kid!
Balut is … deep breaths, everyone … boiled duck embryo.
The Day 16 one is for losers. 😉 I’m no loser, yo, so brave heart that I am, I went for the Day 19 one, which is recommended, because the embryo is better developed with the downiest of feathers in view.
Quack Pot. That’s what Elmer Fudd calls me, but I’m talking about what’s in my right hand. You cannot see it very clearly. That’s a quack in a pot. Okay, in a shell. It’s a Balut, the boiled duck embryo. Of course, I ate it. And? I absolutely loved it!
The shell at the pointy end of the egg has to be gently broken and the broth, uh, amniotic fluid, is to be drunk. That heady fluid tasted like a strong crab broth. Slurp! I peeled off a little more of the shell and peered very briefly at the little duckie with its eyes wide shut, dismissed its little face from my mind, ignored the network of blood vessels all around it and bit right into it. Soft, smooth and savoury. There was no turning back now. What little trepidation I had left crumbled like the rest of the egg shell.
The white of the egg was a disappointment. It was hard. Oh, very hard and had none of the rich flavour of the developing yolk.
A real pity I summoned up the courage to eat this night snack on my last night in the Philippines.
Balut is a late evening snack and is sold by vendors on bicycles. I plucked up the courage to flag down the last vendor to walk into the street I shacked up for that night and the chicken that I was, I bought just one.
Well, I’ll just have to go back to the Philippines for more one day.
P.S.: Cheerful Monk adds a footnote to every post acknowledging those who comment on her previous post. She also links the commenters’ names back to their own blogs.
I like both these practices of acknowledging the time and effort made to comment, and the free advertising! So I’m doing what I do well – being a copycat!