Food Fiesta In The Philippines

Containing bits and parts of everything, but there's nothing quite like Filipino food. Venture out on a food pilgrimage to the Philippines and discovers its fine blend of cuisines.
Try itlog na pula which is salted duck boiled in pink water
Try itlog na pula which is salted duck boiled in pink water

How do you respond if someone greets you with the words &ldquoHalo-halo&rdquo In most places, you&rsquod just say &ldquoHi&rdquo. But if you happen to be in the Philippines and are fussy about your dessert, you might want to reply with, &ldquoUmm&hellipno purple sludge, please. And maybe no corn and cheese&hellipand I don&rsquot know about the chickpeas and sweet potato&hellip&rdquo

Halo-halo&mdashor mix mix&mdashis a popular street food in the Philippines. It&rsquos made of shaved ice, evaporated milk, coconut jelly, jelly beans and an unpredictable combination of fruits and vegetables piled into a glass. The first time I encountered it was in the queue for the Philippines visa. &ldquoYou must try halo-halo,&rdquo a young man enthused. He was teaching business management at a university outside Manila and was delighted to play the part of savvy insider. &ldquoHave a big bowl, tell them to put everything. It&rsquos an experience.&rdquo

Which is why, the moment I spotted the halo-halo counter at the buffet of The Oriental Legazpi, I marched towards it (stoically ignoring the siren call of the chocolate cakes and tiny mango cheesecakes). The girl at the counter picked up a large glass bowl and gave me an enquiring look. &ldquoPut everything,&rdquo I said nonchalantly. And then wished I hadn&rsquot. Not all the ingredients looked dessert-friendly. The green jelly beans, red jelly, milky coconut jelly and the various chopped fruit were fine. But I wasn&rsquot convinced about the nameless purple-black paste. Or the boiled corn and grated cheese. Too late.

The girl was a purple-paste-and-boiled-corn aficionado. She heaped them onto a base of technicoloured jellies. Then she topped the entire concoction with shaved ice and a generous glug of evaporated milk. My halo-halo was ready to go. I returned to the table and stirred the ingredients while the others look on with startled fascination. &ldquoCorn&rdquo they asked. &ldquoGrated cheese And what&rsquos that smushy stuff&rdquo It turned out to be purple yam. Good I didn&rsquot know that then. 

I took a spoonful, feeling like an insect under a microscope. To my utter relief, the halo-halo was not bad. &ldquoQuite nice,&rdquo I promised the others. &ldquoLike falooda gone rogue.&rdquo My sales pitch flopped. The others fetched mini-mousses and looked smug while I tackled my bowl of melting halo-halo.

Ten minutes later, I&rsquod reached a bunch of conclusions. That I&rsquom not a purple-paste person. Corn and grated cheese add interesting texture to desserts. And that, maybe, I had cracked the riddle of Filipino food.

Ever since we&rsquod landed in the Philippines on a press trip, I&rsquod been sampling local specialities. The little sticky-rice cakes on offer at airport lounges. The hearty rice-based breakfasts. The platters of rather plain fried seafood. And the chilli-infused vinegars that added pizzazz to every meal.

I&rsquod also quizzed the chefs we encountered about Filipino cuisine. Why&mdashunlike the well-travelled dishes of neighbouring countries&mdashwas this food relatively unknown What lay at the heart of this cuisine &ldquoFilipino food uses few spices,&rdquo explained Kiran Kumar Singh, the Indian chef at The Manila Hotel. &ldquoIt plays with sweet and sour flavours and uses a lot of coconut and fish.&rdquo

&ldquoIt is simple and adaptable,&rdquo added Chef Marlon at the Nurture Wellness Village near Tagaytay. &ldquoIf you substitute butter and lemon in an adobo, you get a French dish. If you add lemon grass to sinigang soup, you get a Thai tom yum. In the Philippines we are good at adding twists to traditional dishes.&rdquo

It made perfect sense that coconut and fish were essential ingredients in an island country. Just as it was natural that, in a land that had been colonised by four different powers over 400 years, the cuisine had absorbed foreign flavours.

As I examined the bowl of halo-halo&mdashwith its overtones of Indian falooda, the shaved-ice desserts of Japan and the jelly-based ones of Indonesia&mdashsomething clicked. Filipino food had borrowed dishes and techniques from other world cuisines over the centuries, and then added a local flourish. Little wonder, then, that Pinoy cuisine is often referred to as the first great fusion experiment.

Over the next few days, I became an expert at identifying the local twist. I was not a fan of jackfruit flan. Or coconut pie. Or kwek kwek&mdashwhich despite the playful name was stodgy, boiled-egg fritters. I wasn&rsquot brave enough to sample balut&mdasha street food popularly believed to have aphrodisiac properties (chicken or duck eggs are incubated till an embryo develops, and then boiled). But I enjoyed champorado&mdasha sweet breakfast porridge flavoured with cocoa that&rsquos eaten alongside salty, dried fish. Itlog na pula&mdashduck&rsquos eggs submerged in brine or salty clay for about three weeks, and then boiled in pink water. The caramelised banana chips. And, of course, the marvellous, caramelised, pili nuts. Most of all, I adored sili ice cream in Legazpi.

Unlike the rest of the Philippines, the Bicol region is proud of its tempestuous volcano and fiery dishes. &ldquoChilli and coconut is a marriage made in heaven,&rdquo explained Maria Ravanilla, former director of tourism. &ldquoThey are the basis of our spicy Bicol Express dishes.&rdquo 

Little wonder, then, that the 1st Colonial Grill in Legazpi used coconut milk and chilli to come up with its bestseller. The small eatery serves traditional dishes like honey-glazed squid and blackened ribs. But it&rsquos the chilli ice cream that keeps the crowds coming. Newcomers are counselled to start with Level 1 and slowly work their way up the spice ladder. Those who order Level 4 chilli ice cream are heroes. The bright red dessert arrives alongside a small glass of soothing milk and a board that proclaims &lsquoCertified Oragon&rsquo and &lsquoVolcano Level&rsquo.

&ldquoAn oragon is someone who is brave and unafraid,&rdquo explained Rowena Aspe, who has helped develop some unique ice cream flavours, including sweet potato, cucumber and roasted rice. &ldquoOur ice cream was used as a challenge on the Amazing Race. Please try some Level 4 ice cream.&rdquo We weren&rsquot sure whether we were up to Amazing Race standards, but we needn&rsquot have worried. The ice cream was stunning. The first impression was sweet and creamy after which came a simmering, volcanic heat.

Funky desserts apart, breakfast was my favourite meal in the Philippines. Decades ago, a cookbook introduced me to a quick fix described as &lsquoFilipino Breakfast&rsquo. This consisted of garlicky rice topped with sea salt, two fried eggs and generous splashes of chilli-vinegar. My husband and I promptly converted this Manila breakfast into a Mumbai dinner.

For years I wondered whether the Filipinos actually breakfasted on this hearty dish. After reaching the Philippines, though, I realised that mine was the skinny version. The real deal involves additional servings of crunchy dried fish. Or juicy slices of indulgent, Spanish-style lechon&mdashroasted pig served with a sugar-vinegar sauce. Or chicken adobo&mdasha variation on the Mexican comfort food (here made with a marinade of soy sauce, vinegar and garlic that gives it a Chinese punch). If that was breakfast, I wondered, what was left for the rest of the day.

Well, maybe a platter of crispy pata (deep-fried pork leg). Or kare-kare, an oxtail stew cooked with peanut sauce with distinct Indian and Indonesian overtones. Or calderata, a beef stew cooked with pineapple and veggies&mdashand subtle Spanish flavours. Or a fried chicken meal at Jollibees&mdashthe wildly popular American-style fast food chain. Followed by a pie that looks like it should be apple but is probably filled with tender coconut. In short, the world on a plate&mdashserved Filipino style.

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