In true Filipino time, I’m sharing some of my favorite eats from our last trip to the Philippines. Many of you know that Matt and I spent the holidays in Manila with my family. We had such a wonderful time and I was so happy for my husband to experience Christmas in the Philippines. Instead of cramming our vacation with an itinerary of plans to do and see and eat, we stayed and relaxed at home on most days, and on other days met up with dear friends and relatives. It was the best time with the best people and the best foods!
Breakfast at Home
Let’s start with my favorite meal and my most favorite thing to eat in the world: kesong puti, the Filipino version of buffallo mozzarella. Kesong puti (“white cheese”) is unlike any other cheese I’ve ever eaten – soft and creamy with the subtlest tang – and I have a life-long craving for it. I ate it pretty much every single day in the Philippines, with pan de sal (breakfast rolls) and tsokolate (hot chocolate) as seen in the top photo.
Another cheese and breakfast item I love is queso de bola (“round cheese”) which is a dutch edam cheese that became a Christmas tradition in the Philippines. It’s salty and crumbly and covered in red wax that makes it hard to cut and slice, but it’s such an iconic holiday food that no one ever minds. For breakfast, my family like eating it with ham and pan de sal. I also like grating it and using as a substitute for parmesan cheese, and for topping my homemade mini ensaymada.
If I wasn’t eating cheese with bread for breakast, I was eating sinangag (garlic fried rice) with fried eggs and a protein. I usually go for meats like longganisa (Filipino breakfast sausage) or Spam (no shame), but whenever it’s available, I can’t resist sardinas (sardines). I’ve written about how much I love sardines, particularly Spanish or Portuguese sardines in olive oil.
Drinks Out and About
Let’s look at this glorious breakfast spread again and focus on the tsokolate this time. Fiilipino hot chocolate is thick, frothy, with the bittersweet taste of dark chocolate and a slight graininess that sets it apart from other versions. Made with tablea (chocolate tablets), and tempered with milk and sugar, it is simple and luxurious at the same time. Whisked manually with a batidor (a wooden hot chocolate stirrer), it is a labor of love. It is absolutely one of my favorite treats back home.
There is a bubble tea/milk tea craze in the Philippines and we embraced it whole-heartedly. Bubble tea is a cold drink with tapioca pearls. It originated from Taiwan but has spread in popularity all over Asia. Here’s a handy primer from Eater (also: we are going to Taipei next month and I am super excited!) Matt and I tried several types and stores but our favorite was the milk tea from Coco.
We also went to Cyma, one of my favorite restaurants in the Philippines (more on Cyma later), and had this super refreshing watermelon lemonade. Just thinking about it is making me thirsty.
Last but not least, I absolutely loved this strawberry white chocolate matcha latte from Tsujiri Cafe at the S Maison mall. Definitely more of a dessert than a drink, it was the perfect blend of sweetness from the white chocolate and strawberry syrup, creaminess from the strawberry whipped cream, and the distinctive, vegetal taste of a strong matcha tea.
I love that my family lives so close to so many incredible dining places, including Cyma, a popular Greek restaurant with several outposts in the city. Matt, my youngest sister Patty, and I had a mouth-watering meal there of lamb chops, sea bass, Greek fries, and the most incredible spaghetti dish with king crab. The pasta was drenched in this garlicky, buttery, oil, and the crab legs were bursting with sweet crab meat. I will dream of this king crab dish for ages.
We also went to Locavore with my relatives for some local cuisine of classic Filipino dishes with a twist. We were a small group of six, but I think we ordered enough for ten? We had the street food platter, fried chicken, bacon barbecue, sizzling sinigang, sisig, plenty of white rice. All were delicious but the entire table’s favorite was hands down the sugpo con mayonesa – jumbo black tiger prawns, aligue (crab fat), garlic, butter, and Japanese mayonnaise. It was mindblowingly luxurious and tasty.
Another favorite is our go-to Chinese restaurant, Luk Foo. Yes, it’s a chain but I don’t care. It’s minutes away from our house, and they serve classic Cantonese cuisine. The biggest hits for me are the Peking duck, which is a whole roast duck with the crispiest skin, sliced in front of us, and served with hoisin sauce, pancakes, green onions, and cucumbers. I also really like their birthday noodles (in Asian culture, we celebrate milestones with “longetivity noodles” for long life) with veggies and seafood.
In Pampanga, my dad’s hometown and often referred to as the culinary capital of the Philippines, we celebrated my sister Monica’s birthday at Downtown Cafe. I really liked the kare-kare (a beef stew in a peanut sauce with vegetable) and the lingginita (mini longganisa sausages).
I don’t eat a lot of soup dumplings, and this was the first time I tried flavored ones. The soup dumplings from Paradise Dynasty come in different flavors like black truffle, foie gras, cheese, crab roe, and garlic. I thought it was the filling that would be flavored but rather it was the dumpling dough, which I would say are just mildly flavored (but I still enjoyed it!)
Home-cooked Comfort Food
While it’s true that my family makes the best adobo in the entire world, we eat other things, too. Mostly things that I won’t even attempt to recreate in Boston, for lack of ingredients and skill. For instance, I wouldn’t know where to start if I were to make this grilled and stuffed bangus (milkfish). Milkfish, named so because of its white flesh, is mild and meaty, and it’s stufffed with onions, tomatoes, and aromatics before grilling.
My Tita Ine at home also makes a mean bistek or beef steak. It’s simply thinly sliced beef marinated in soy sauce, black pepper, and calamansi (little baby Filipino limes) and slowly simmered with rings of white onions. The beef is melt-in-my-mouth tender, and the salty-citrusy sauce goes perfectly well with heaping mounds of white rice.
We visited my friend Sabs and her family at their home, and they prepared a feast for our dinner, with the star of the show being bagnet. Bagnet is twice fried pork belly, and it’s a local specialty from the historic city of Vigan. It’s like a cross between lechon and chicharron.
I will include one adobo dish for last, but certainly not least. My family is known for making adobong pusit (squid adobo) in squid ink. People literally clamor for it during parties, and talk about it for months after. When I was younger, I wasn’t such a big fan and instead would ask for fried squid instead. But now, I appreciate how devastatingly good it is. Baby squid is cooked in vinegar, garlic, soy sauce (and some other secret ingredients that even I am not privy to) and squid ink, resulting in an inky black garlicky sauce and sweet tender squid meat. There’s also some pork belly thrown in for good measure.
Cakes and Desserts
You must know that I love me some cake, and I have not eaten this much cake in ages. The first cake is the best cake in Manila (and now Cebu): the mango creme brulee cake by the Pastry Cart. I love the soft chiffon cake layers, the sweet mangoes, and the creamy bruleed top. The best cake in Manila, bar none. We got this for my sister Monica’s birthday and it is her favorite cake as well.
I also love the Pastry Cart’s strawberry shortcake. In fact, when my parents threw a wedding/birthday party for Matt and me a couple of years ago, we ordered a giant layer cake version. It is so light and fluffy, with sweet strawberry cream. We had this for Christmas Day and yes I ate it for breakfast the next day, too.
For our big family party on Christmas Eve, we tried a different bakery, and this time got the custom strawberry cake from Bellefleur by Beatrix. I have been ordering special cakes from Bea for years now and this one was a masterpiece, topped with strawberries and jam.
I also tried this brazo de mercedes cake that my friend Sabs served during dinner. Brazo de mercedes is typically a rolled cake of soft and fluffy meringue with a custard filling, but this was a layer cake (there is no layer cake that I can resist). The filling (which is really like a cross between custard and flan because it is so rich and decadent) is thick and decadent, and I did not hesitate to ask for seconds.
I was finally able to try Wildflour, which most of my friends have been raving about. Matt and I met up with my friend Fe (my original travel buddy! Check out our trip to Spain seven years ago!) and we shared this mango and passionfruit pavlova. Or I think it was passionfruit, I barely remember and we (I) ate it so fast.
And then there were the desserts at home. My parents’ house has this magical quality where we never run out of desserts, especially during the holidays. I only have to think of flan or ube and then when I look over, it’s right there on the table. My mom put together this spread during our last lunch before we headed back to Boston. It’s leche flan, garbanzos (sweet chickpeas in syrup), macapuno (sweetened coconut strips), and ube halaya (ube jam). I almost cried with happiness.
And speaking of crying with happiness: what makes every trip worth it, what keeps my heart full, what my husband and I are so lucky to have, is family. I would give up any and all of these things for any and all of my family. But what a sweet life because I have both. My heart is forever grateful.
And here is a bonus picture of a jetlagged Matt, patiently waiting for everyone else to wake up so we can all eat breakfast together.
Hope you guys enjoyed a taste of my Manila!