snack time

FOOD was weird and not particularly wonderful in the Philippines. The concept of considered assembly and seasoning of dishes rarely appeared to register on a cook’s radar, and questions to locals of ‘what’s best to eat in this country?’ often fell flat, mustering a recommendation of grilled foods if one was lucky. That’s not to say all local dishes were abysmal, or that all locals were completely oblivious to the joys of food, just that from the off it was clear that in the Philippines attention to detail regarding this particular part of life – acutely observed in places such as Bali and Thailand – was severely lacking.

traditional dish of Homba - pork in a sweet sticky sauce that would have been great had the meat not been dry as bone and offering more fat than flesh; crunchy seaweed - pickled with ginger but ridiculously salty; stir fried noodles - nothing special, nothing bad

a stewed beef steak from a local eatery that was surprisingly delicate enough to be broken apart with a spoon, but the green pea stew - despite a rich broth - was over salted to the extreme

The one thing that did seem to register highly on the food radar in the Philippines though was snacks. In abundance. No matter how remote a place you found yourself in you were sure to come upon a ‘suri suri’ (kiosk) of some description. These hut-like stores ranged from the size of a photo booth to being large and open fronted, and generally sold something – predominantly of a junk food nature – that would satisfy a basic hunger need.

From what I can remember, the Philippines snack list included: peanuts (salted, spicy, sweet); coated peanuts (garlic or chilli flavour); toasted peas; cashew nuts; peanut or cashew brittle; skyflakes crackers; shrimp flavoured crisps; wholegrain crisps; cheesy puffs; cicheron (puffy pork-scratching type crisp – best when salt and vinegar flavoured); puffed fish crisps; popcorn; ice-cream; ice-cream in sweet burger buns; flavoured ice; flavoured jellies; halo halo (sundae-style flavoured ice with an assortment of sweet toppings);  mini packets of corn snacks;  Mucho chocolate bars (peanut butter, fudge or crispy); Fudge bars (moist sponge cakes with various fillings); mini jelly pots; mini pork kebabs; pigs’ intestine kebabs; shrimp balls; pork balls; sausage on a stick (reminiscent of a mini savaloy); grilled bananas; peanut biscuits; pancakes; gelatinous cakes (fried, sugared, sometimes filled); donuts; flatbreads filled with honey, orange and raisins; hard boiled eggs; quail eggs; salted eggs; Balut (fertilised duck egg served warm with chilli vinegar); and of course when snacking in the Philippines one can never forget the array of goods available from one of the copious bakeries, offering the likes of bao buns, plain (sweet) buns, cheese filled buns, peanut filled buns, sweet potato filled buns, meat filled buns, cream filled buns, cookies, sweet muffins, corn muffins, pies, giant slices of layered and iced cakes, buko cakes, meringue topped pies and biscuits ranging from chocolate to vanilla to dark purple in colour…

salted eggs are coloured fuschia pink

a bakery gets creative making pig-shaped bread

I made my way through a fair amount of these, mainly in desperation when nothing else took my fancy. Bakeries would fill a sugar craving, and a packet of Skyflakes in your bag was often a life saver when stuck on long jeepney rides or lacking inspiration for breakfast; but my sampling of the Balut egg was an experience. And for some reason this was embarked upon during a delicate hangover day (though in reality also possibly in the remains of a slight drunken haze).

Having just a moment before been slumped in my beach side beanbag, my excitement at having found someone passing by selling this local delicacy of hard boiled duck egg complete with fetus inside quickly turned into a crowd-drawing scene that saw my hands a-tremble as I brought the warm shell to my mouth to firstly drink its surrounding liquid (seasoned with the chilli vinegar sauce).

That was the easy bit. Next, now with the small feathery head in sight, the local who was taking me through the process peeled away the edges of the shell, in theory to enable me to eat the egg in one go. And so, yet again with trembling hands – proceeding forward in the experience almost solely so as not to disappoint the unwanted photo-taking audience around me – I took a bite. And another. And another. There was no way I could do it in one go.

Surprisingly there was no crunch. No feathers fluffed about on my tongue. Just an intense hard boiled egg taste overcame my mouth. Followed by an aftershock of wet dog. It wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t good either. And an hour or so later my stomach was gurgling in disapproval.

There were some good dishes though; not consistent in their production but great when made well (and horrific when not). Dish number one was Kinilaw, the Spaniards’ culinary gift to the Philippines. It is a type of ceviche in which fresh fish is ‘cooked’ in lime juice and a little vinegar, fresh chillies and ginger, served with cucumber and green mango.

The best version I had was when we went off piste from the menu at Bamboo in Port Barton, having heard that they had just received a fresh tuna fish that afternoon. Despite there being no mention of Kinilaw on the menu, with a little cajoling the kitchen was happy to serve us up three portions, and they were fantastic. The fish was plump and bouncy, still raw in the centre, with just a hint of sharpness from the calamansi juice and fire from the ginger. Driftwood Village’s version on Sugar Beach however was like putting paint stripper in your gut, along with chewy strings of unknown white sea creature.

Driftwood’s saving grace however was its sashimi platter. The name of the fish itself used in this instance escapes me, but its sacrifice towards my generous portion  and delicate oily flesh was savoured with every bite.

Kinilaw

a platter of fresh sashimi complete with wasabi theyand soy sauce for only 160 pesos

Pinakbet is also worth a mention, though not a picture. In its most basic form it is okra and aubergine cooked in a dark soy and shrimp paste sauce. But when a bit of imagination enters the mix – for this go to Kinabuch in Puerto Princesa – other vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers and onions are thrown into the mix, and it is topped with slivers of grilled pork and crispy scratchings.

And last but not least to the little Dillis. Appearing generally in dried form, I happened upon these tiny little fish (anchovies I guess we’d call them) at a tiny eatery on Siquijor, wrapped up in a tight bundle within banana leaves. They were eaten whole and had a slightly pickled flavour, and – in terms of novelty value at least – they were reasonably enjoyable.

NB. On a slight side note, in case anyone was wondering (as I was in an attempt to make myself feel better for going to the arena in Dumaguete) they do not generally eat the cocks after a fight in the Philippines due to the level of muscle that the birds contain, making the meat that they produce tough.

It’s a real shame those beautiful birds don’t at least die for any cause other than in an attempt to make someone’s wallet that little bit fatter.

But it’s not all doom and gloom in the Philippines. On the contrary – as I have said before – despite often lacking monumentally in the food department this country has won my most fiercest loyalty. And with views like this one I can forgive the odd flaw…

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  • and all that’s in between

    loves and hates, hints and tips, observations, musings and reviews; on food, fashion, travel and art; and all that's in between...
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