Hello from the 7,107 islands of the Philippines! (I’m back to writing my own blog posts.) Actually, hello from just one island – I’m still in Manila, spending lots of time with my family, catching up with old friends, basking in the warm Philippine weather, and of course savoring all the Filipino food. Filipino food is so often overlooked in South East Asian cuisine, which is a shame because it is magnificent.
Food and culture are so intertwined and for me, Filipino cuisine represent the people and the culture: warm, hearty, different in each region, and influenced by centuries of Spanish, Chinese, and American colonization. I admit that I only developed a deep appreciation of Filipino food when I moved to the US nearly eight years ago. Now, every time I go home, I enjoy each and every Pinoy bite.
I wanted to share some of the best things I’ve eaten in the last twelve days that I’ve been here (yes, I’ve been here for almost two weeks. Yes, I’ve been eating a lot.). Have you ever heard of or tried any of these dishes before?
Aligue is crab roe. It is also called taba ng talangka which translates to “crab fat” but it is really the roe from the talangka, which are small shore crabs. The aligue is insanely rich – it’s like buttered uni (Japanese sea urchin), but more shellfish-tasting, salty from the sea, with a velvety mouth-feel. Here it shines in a a simple, garlicky pasta dish.
Look at that crackling pork skin! With the tender, juicy meat peeking out from underneath! Crispy pata is usually reserved for special occasions (but isn’t my coming home a special occasion?). Pata means pork leg – and this is a whole leg, complete with hock and trotters. This fried, artery-clogging, heart-stopping beauty is a staple during Filipino celebrations, served with steaming white rice, and a dipping sauce made of vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, onions, and chilies.
I’ve mentioned before that escargot is a common food in the Philippines (the snails are locally called kuhol), and paired with really fresh prawns, mesclun greens, arugula, asparagus, mushrooms, and shards of salty Parmesan cheese, it made for one glorious salad. While salads are not really traditionally part of Filipino cuisine (most of the vegetables are served warm or pickled), the prawns and escargot taste very local.
Remember when I wrote about kesong puti, the cheese I’ve loved my whole life? I was still on my lay-over in Japan and I was already thinking about kesong puti and my first taste of it at home (oh who am I kidding, I’ve been thinking about it for weeks). This soft, creamy, buffalo-milk mozzarella is my very favorite breakfast item in the whole entire world. I love eating it with warm pan de sal and homemade tsokolate or hot chocolate.
I wrote about Filipino tsokolate before, a drink made from tablea (cocoa disks with ground peanuts) dissolved in hot milk and frothed with a batidor (a wooden whisk, also called a molinillo in Mexico) in a small aluminum pot. I have never had hot chocolate that’s better than our homemade tsokolate: it is thick, frothy, and creamy, with the perfect balance of sweetness and bitterness from the tablea. Paired with the pillowy white cheese and warm buttered bread, it makes for the most perfect breakfast for me.
These little baby crabs are fried and eaten whole. I used to be really squeamish about eating these little crabs… until I actually ate one. These are fried to perfection and just mildly briny, and are so, so, so good served warm and fresh from the pan.
I’ve been eating a lot of local fruits, but this is exotic even for me. I’ve never had yellow watermelon before – it tastes just like regular red watermelon, just a little bit less sweet.
This is just plain old spaghetti aglio olio (my favorite way to eat spaghetti) but it did come sprinkled with a healthy dose of siling labuyo flakes. Siling labuyo is bird’s eye chili (don’t know how hot and spicy that is? Check out the chili scale) so this makes my regular sprinkling of red chili pepper flakes taste downright bland. The wait staff at the restaurant warned Lora and I multiple times about the spiciness of the dish, but we are both spice-lovers so we were able to take the heat!
I know, this is very American without the least bit hint of Filipino, but it is one of the best steaks I’ve ever eaten (and I’ve eaten a lot). Lora and I shared a 14-oz slab and sadly did not get to finish it. Probably because we also ate a giant salad. And that spicy plate of pasta. For lunch. (What? That’s not how you fuel for uh, a long afternoon of shopping?)
And now we’re on to desserts! Puto bumbong is a dessert that is enjoyed during the Christmas season. It is traditionally served after misa de gallo or “dawn mass” (Filipinos go to Church at dawn for nine days before Christmas) and is actually considered street food. It is made from an heirloom variety of sticky rice, poured in bamboo tubes and steamed, then served with butter, sugar, and sweet grated coconut. The beautiful purple color reminds me of ube jam but it is not the same flavor as ube jam is made with purple yam, and puto bumbong is made with purple rice.
Halo-halo literally means “mixed.” It is basically a combination of sweets, topped with shaved ice, milk, and flan. The sweets can range from sweetened kidney beans, garbanzos (chickpeas), cubes of jelly, tapioca, sweet potatoes, jackfruit, caramelized plantains, macapuno (coconut) strips, and other local delicacies. However this version that I like the most is simple: just caramelized plantains, macapuno, shaved ice, milk, topped with a little sliver of leche flan.
I could not contain my joy upon seeing this ice cream cart! This was at my dad’s office for his 60th birthday (yeah, he’s awesome) and it definitely brought back wonderful memories of my childhood. Dirty ice cream refers to “street food ice cream” – peddled by ice cream men pushing bright, rickety carts along the streets (and it it is called “dirty” as opposed to regular ice cream sold in supermarkets, restaurants, stores, etc). Sorbetes is the more PC-way to call it, but I prefer dirty ice cream. Sorbetes is NOT like a sorbet – in fact, it is creamier and richer because it is made with coconut milk or carabao (water buffalo) milk.
As you can see, I’ve been very fortunate to savor all these wonderful things, but I feel even luckier that I’m spending the holidays with my family. It’s been a whirlwind vacation so far, but I’m enjoying every minute. I hope you’re all having a wonderful holiday season as well!