If “halo halo” was the first Tagalog phrase I learned, “kain na tayo” or “let’s eat now” was close on its heels. That they were both in some way food related is no coincidence – eating seems to be a bit of a national hobby in the Philippines and “kain na tayo” sums up their attitude nicely, often used as it is to express that food should happen before anything else, however important, can be done.
Another indicator is the strictly enforced “merienda” – a meal that translates as “afternoon snack” but usually happens at least twice a day and sometimes more in between the three main meals which all almost religiously feature rice and an accompaniment.
Food is not only a matter of taste – its a big part of the culture, and it’s usual for friends and colleagues to share their food with each other. By doing this, my friends have explained, you feel closer to the people you share with and the lunchtime ritual of asking “what is your viande?” (viande is Spanish for meat – it’s fairly rare to be having vegetables although it does happen) is part of the ethos of eating together. Here there are no sandwiches hastily consumed in front of the desk – lunchtime is time out to socialise. Food is also a big aspect of the famous Filipino hospitality and I have been presented with all sorts of local delicacies to try over the last few weeks.
Unusually for a country so dedicated to cuisine, it doesn’t have much of a reputation for fine dining, despite the often unique and flavoursome dishes that form the staples of food here. This may be related to the Philippines’ relative obscurity as a holiday destination (outside of Korea), and like most Asian countries there is also the usual range of dishes demonised somewhat by anxious Europeans and Americans because they fall outside of what are considered to be normal or acceptable constructions of “food” in their cultures. In the Philippines it is the local delicacy balut – a boiled, fertilised, nearly developed, duck embryo – that is most often presented to scare squeamish tourists1, and both dog meat and bulls balls are apparently available in some parts of the country.
Equally it could be the overly sweet nature of foods that might otherwise be familiar (spaghetti bolognaise is made with banana sauce for example) or even the Filipino adamance that the heads or skin of fish and animals are the best bit. However in spite of any misconceptions, Filipino cuisine is a rich mix of spicy, sweet and salty flavours, and without wanting to sound too much like a cliched advert for WOWPhilippines, lifting the lids on the pots at my local turo turo eatery is a daily delight. With traditional dishes that range from jackfruit or fish stewed in coconut milk, to sizzling sisig (a bar snack made from chicken or pork) to the magnificent spectacle of lechon – a whole roasted pig, there’s no wonder the nation’s food obsessed. The pig pictured was part of the feast that made up the sixth meal on the day in question. The skin was definitely the best bit.
1Yes, I have tried it. My verdict? Pretty tasty actually – just like a meaty egg.