Friday, June 30, 2006

Eating In Manila

Dear Me,

Let me share this article by the author himself. It's food-tripping from the eyes of a foreigner. =)

January 16, 2004

As the sun set over Manila Bay, I extracted a snail from its shell
with a plastic toothpick and popped the slug-like morsel into my
mouth. At first it didn't seem so bad, but then a strange and bitter
aftertaste kicked in. I lunged for my bottle of San Miguel beer,
that great soother of injured and tortured palates, and took a long
restorative swallow. I'd gone out for drinks with three Filipino
friends, who'd insisted we order some bar snacks as well. Hence the

We ate while sitting on the pier of the Harborview Restaurant, which
pokes out into the bay like an exclamation mark. From my seat I
could see ranks of container ships anchored offshore, and towering
clouds on the horizon turning pink with the setting sun. Celso, one
of my Filipino friends, skewered a snail and examined it carefully.
Like me, he'd never tried one before. He chewed slowly with a grave
__expression similar to some medieval king's food taster. Will I keel
over? he seemed to be asking himself. In the end Celso didn't keel,
but he didn't eat another snail either.

As for me, I ate a few more snails, confirmed I wasn't a snail-
eating kind of guy, and then let Joma and Oka polish off the plate.
Meanwhile, Celso and I ordered more beer. Behind me I could hear the
muted roar of Manila, a city of unlimited culinary opportunities.
The roar called me like a dinner bell, for if I'd come to Manila for
anything, I'd come to Manila to eat.

Hands-on Eating Experience

Dining in Manila offered me a hands-on experience in Filipino
cuisine. Literally. At the Kamayan Restaurant, which translates
roughly as the "Using Your Hands Restaurant," I dispensed with
cutlery and ate the traditional way. This meant a plate of bamboo
leaf, my hands, and nothing else except mass quantities of food.

After a round of San Miguel beer, Joma, Oka, Celso and I scrubbed up
like surgeons before a lengthy operation. Conveniently, an entire
wall of the restaurant had been devoted to hand-washing. A long row
of clay water jugs with spigots stood mounted above a tiled water
trough, with soap-dispensers spaced strategically between each jug.
When we'd washed our hands as clean as silverware run through an
industrial-strength dishwasher, we returned to our table to eat.
First came papaya slices, which we dipped into bagoong, a sort of
fermented salty shrimp sauce. Steamed white rice and seafood chowder
followed-the waiter issued us spoons for the latter like a
quartermaster issuing special weapons to his troops before a
particularly tough mission. Next came curry soup and a plate of
impressively large crabs.

At this point a troupe of blind musicians appeared and began to
serenade us with a rendition of "Hotel California," and I busted
open crab legs so ineptly that bits of white meat and shell exploded
across the table. Next came an entire grilled pampano that looked
as if it had been caught just minutes earlier. We squeezed kalamansi
lime juice on the fish, whose tender flesh flaked gently from the
bone. Glutted on seafood, we turned to meat in the form of lechon-
roast suckling pig with crisp skin and tender meat that literally
melted in my mouth. "Cholesterol," said Joma blissfully through a
mouthful of pork. I'd made an unholy mess with my hands, but nobody
seemed to notice. The blind musicians couldn't tell, of course, and
my friends were too absorbed in their eating. My friends, in fact,
ate like an army on the march. This, I soon came to learn, could be
said of the entire country.

Patron Saint of Manila

I hadn't come to Manila just to sample the food, of course. I'd come
to sample the beer as well, particularly San Miguel. Like a Guinness
aficionado who heads to Ireland to sample his favorite suds, I
wanted to sip San Miguel at the source. I'd drank San Miguel in
Hong Kong and Indonesia and various points in between; now I wanted
to drink it in Manila, where it dominates the local market. San
Miguel dominates the national market as well, and has become the
Budweiser of the Philippines. Fortunately San Mig tastes better than
Bud, an assessment shared by its fans across Asia. San Miguel, in
fact, is probably the only Philippine brand name widely recognized
throughout the region, where it is brewed under license in a number
of countries.

I actually jumped the gun by having a San Mig with lunch during my
flight from Hong Kong to the Philippines. Upon landing I continued
my research and quickly discovered that Manila ranks among the best
cities in Asia for beer drinking. I reserve the top honors for
Hanoi, with its fifteen-cent draft beer joints that sprawl out on
the sidewalks of the city's historic old quarter. Manila, however,
comes in a close second. To put it simply, Manila offers good beer

Though Carlsberg and other brands can be found in Manila, most
drinkers stick to San Miguel. I preferred the traditional pilsner
myself, though Joma, Oka and Celso opted for the slightly blander
but much more trendy San Miguel Light. A refreshing beer reminiscent
of European pilsners, San Miguel comes in sturdy old-fashioned brown
bottles with labels enameled in white paint. Corner shops sell
bottles for about fifteen pesos (thirty US cents); prices vary at
restaurants but are in general quite cheap when compared to other
Asian countries. As Joma proclaimed at the Harborview, a glass of
San Mig in one hand and a toothpick-skewered snail in the other,
beer drinking is a national pastime integral to eating, another
national pastime. San Miguel, goes the joke, is Manila's patron

Manila Munchies

My Filipino friends viewed eating as a more or less continual
occupation. Like a herd of cows grazing its way across a pasture on
the way to the feeding trough, we moved through Manila purchasing
various snacks en route to various restaurants. We ate ice creams
and drank Cokes; we munched on roasted cashews and watermelon seeds.
We stopped in at the ubiquitous 7-11 convenience stores, whose motto
is "The neighbor you can count on." From these ever-reliable
neighbors I bought Kit-Kat chocolate bars, cheese balls, Keebler
chocolate-chip cookies, Ritz cheese-sandwich crackers, Snyder's
pretzels, and all manner of American junk-food.

I discovered my favorite Philippine snack at the Baclaran flea
market, however, which despite its name doesn't specialize in
secondhand goods. Instead vendors offer a variety of clothing and
other items, including a wide array of edibles. In a neat
juxtaposition of traditional and modern food, a man stood in front
of a Dunkin' Donuts delivery truck selling bite-sized spotted quails
eggs. I'd never tried quail's eggs before, so we bought a bag to
sustain us on the ride to lunch. I mangled the first egg I tried to
peel and wound up with a mushy pulp of egg-white mixed with crushed
shell. Embarrassed, I chucked the whole mess and started in on a new
egg. Under Joma's tutelage, fortunately, I soon got the hang of
things and began peeling like a local. The quail's eggs tasted like
miniature hard-boiled chicken eggs; with salt they became nothing
short of delicious. Give me a couple quail's eggs and a can of Coke
and I've found the perfect snack.

Dampa Wet Market

My Filipino friends loved seafood, and the fresher the better, so
one morning we headed out to the Dampa Wet Market near the airport.
Advertisements for Colt .45 malt liquor adorned the outside of the
market building; inside the market dozens of stalls offered a
variety of seafood, from fish-heads to squid tentacles. Standing
beneath the bare bulbs that dangled from the crossbeams, the women
minding the stalls clamored for our business with the gusto of
sports fans at a playoff game. After extended bargaining we left
the market with bulging bags of raw seafood-but no Colt .45-and then
strolled over to one of the adjacent restaurants that maintain a
symbiotic relationship with the market.

We told the waitress how we wanted our seafood prepared, and she
whisked the bags outside to a cook standing before a large charcoal
grill. We watched as he went to work with an off-handed expertise.
Or rather, I watched. Everyone else in the restaurant watched a
local TV program called "Feeling Sexy." As near as I could work out,
only moderately heavy women were allowed to compete for prizes in
this beauty contest/game show complete with a cheering studio
audience. As a prelude to the hot food, we started with two
whopping platters of tuna sashimi, dipping the pink squares into a
soy-sauce and wasabi mix as airliners roared low overhead. By the
time we'd polished off this unusually good platter of raw fish, our
waitress had arrived with a bowl of sinigang.

A common dish, sinigang is a sour soup that never quite contains the
same thing twice. In our case, we got radishes, onions, tomatoes,
greens, and entire jumbo prawns. By this point I'd begun to lose my
momentum like an overloaded truck laboring up a steep grade, but
we'd barely started. I still had a long gastronomic road ahead,
including steamed rice and an entire fish prepared in the inihaw
(grilled) style. Since I'd selected the fish in the market, my
friends insisted I eat the largest portion of it. After the first
bite I knew this wouldn't be a problem, though I also knew I'd have
absolutely no room left for the late-arriving bowl of oysters. I
leaned back in my chair and gave up long before my companions, who
managed to consume just about everything on the table. The total
price of this feast? Roughly $24, or six dollars each. I thought
surely we couldn't beat this price, and then we went to Chinatown.

Chinatown Cheap

The next day the four of us walked down Ongpin Street, which runs
through Manila's thriving Chinatown like a main artery. As is true
of streets in Chinatowns everywhere, much of Ongpin remained devoted
to food. Chinese groceries, bakeries and restaurants abounded. The
street flowed with a swirl of Tsinoys-as Filipinos of Chinese
descent are known-laden with bags of fresh fruit and vegetables,
packages of noodles and boxes of tea.

We crossed a bridge over a fetid canal, passed under a Chinese arch,
turned right and entered a narrow covered terrace that ran like an
alleyway alongside the muck-clogged canal. This alleyway housed a
half-dozen outdoor kitchens, each competing against the rest for a
share of the lunch crowd. Women shoved competing menus at us with a
flurry of "please sirs" as they tried to get us to sit at their
tables. Eventually we settled for a private room equipped with a
wheezing air-conditioner, where we ordered somewhat haphazardly and
then cooled down from the blazing heat outside. The waitress brought
our food with a relentless efficiency. Black bamboo clams. Viscous
soup laced with bits and pieces of various seafoods. Sweet and sour
pork. Lumpia-fried spring rolls that are a national dish. White
rice. Greens with oyster sauce.

So much food arrived that we needed a second table just to hold the
various bowls and platters. I surrendered first, as usual, and
pushed my plate away. We'd barely cracked twelve noon, and I'd
already eaten enough for the entire day. My friends soldiered on
until the table resembled an after-action battlefield, with broken-
open clam shells, orange spatters of sweet and sour sauce, bits of
rice, and crumpled napkins littering the table. For a while we just
sat, stunned, until Joma finally mustered the energy to summon the
bill. "Do you know what all this cost?" he asked as he examined the
bill. "Just eight dollars."

The American Legacy

Though I never would have thought it possible, I'd actually begun to
tire of seafood. The sheer mass of fish, crab and shellfish had
simply worn me out. I needed a break; I needed something with bread
and cheese. And so one night I walked over to the shopping mall near
my hotel, where I encountered a man with a very large pump-action
shotgun. "Table for one, sir?" he asked cheerfully as he opened the
door to Pizza Hut. After being seated by this dual host/security
guard, a waitress named Chona immediately appeared and asked in
perfect American-accented English if I was ready to order. I perused
the English-Tagalog menu, then ordered a small pepperoni and onion
with the obligatory San Miguel. I almost felt like I'd teleported
back to America somehow, since this Pizza Hut mirrored those in the
States so exactly.

America has profoundly influenced the Philippines in many ways, most
obviously in the proliferation of fast-food. Manilenos have taken to
fast-food with a vengeance. Aside from Pizza Hut, I could have
ordered a pizza at Shakey's, Dominoes, or California Pizza Kitchen.
If I'd wanted burgers, I could have opted for McDonald's, Burger
King, or Wendy's. Other possibilities included Subway, Sizzler, Mr.
Donut, Dunkin' Donuts, Kentucky Fried Chicken, TGIF, Sbarro, and
Orange Julius. Jollibee, a local chain serving Filipino fast-food,
bravely does battle with this American invasion. Pressing its home-
court advantage, Jollibee more than holds its own. With 384
restaurants, Jollibee's red and white bumblebee gives Ronald
McDonald, that multinational heavyweight of fast-food, some very
painful stings. The two dueling restaurants often occupy the same
block, and along with 7-11 convenience stores, comprise an integral
part of Manila's urban landscape.

Though not all fast-food restaurants boast armed security guards,
they all do offer extremely affordable prices. My bill at Pizza Hut
came to two dollars, for example. Another hallmark of fast-food
restaurants is attentive service by an English-speaking staff. In
yet another example of American influence in this former US colony,
English is spoken widely, fluently and enthusiastically by
Manilenos. In fact, I know of no other city in Asia where you can
reliably find English, fast-food and shotguns on just about every
street corner.

Bulalo and the LA Lakers

Only one thing can distract a Filipino from his food, and that thing
is NBA basketball. I discovered this when the four of us drove up
to Tagaytay, a city close to Manila known for its volcanic mountain
lake. We made our first stop at the People's Park in the Sky, site
of a half-finished mountain-top mansion for Ferdinand and Imelda
Marcos. On a ridge running below the park the tradition of private
retreats for the elite continued in the form of a planned community
called Tagaytay Highlands, complete with golf course and perimeter
fence. No one gets in without an invitation, said my friends, and
not many invitations are given.

Far beyond and below Tagaytay Highlands we could see Lake Taal, a
huge crater lake with an island in the center. This island featured
its own smaller crater lake with an active volcano in the
middle. "An island within a lake within an island in a lake on an
island in an ocean," said Celso as he described the scene below.
Then he pushed back his black "Do the Dew" baseball hat and handed
me an ice-cream cone. We all stood eating our ice creams and
enjoying the view, an experience marred somewhat by a booming
karaoke machine-the bane of modern Asia-and the boyish croon of a
man singing Eric Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight." Not long after
finishing our ice creams my friends began rubbing their stomachs and
talking about lunch, though we'd barely cracked eleven o'clock. We
drove down into Tagaytay City to a diner-the many American terms
used in the Philippines never failed to surprise me-serving the
local specialties of bulalo and tawilis.

A live game involving the LA Lakers played on the diner's TV. Nobody
sat at the tables far from the action; instead everyone crowded
around the tables close to the TV. Every pair of eyes in the place
focused intently on the TV screen, while mouths, teeth and hands
worked on autopilot. I'm not much of a basketball fan, so I focused
on my meal. I had to choose carefully what to eat, since I'd not yet
digested breakfast and like an already full ship, could only take on
so much more cargo before I headed for the bottom. I feasted on
tawilis, small fried fish from Lake Taal about twice the size of
smelt. I doused them in vinegar and salt and ate them whole. Head,
tails, fins, bones-the whole package. In between crunchy mouthfuls
of tawilis, I worked on a plate of spring rolls. My companions left
me to the tawilis and split their attention between the Lakers,
lechon kawali-fried pork fat-and the bulalo. A carnivore's delight,
bulalo is a beef broth served up in a huge bowl. It has many
interpretations, but in our case the entire socket-bone of a cow's
leg joint sat dead center of our bowl. Joma went into overdrive,
lifted the softball-sized joint from the bowl and started gnawing
like a starved caveman. "The ligaments are the best," he opined
between mouthfuls.

Once he'd gnawed the socket to a clean white knob, he began scooping
marrow from the bone with his finger. His __expression matched that
of a kid stealing batter from the cake bowl. By meal's end my
stomach had begun to protest all the fried food that I'd consumed,
so I self-medicated with another bottle of San Miguel pilsner. San
Miguel cuts grease like a sharp knife cuts lechon. In fact, I
discovered that San Miguel works like a curative tonic for just
about any kind of stomach complaint, from indigestion to gas. Their
stomachs undisturbed but certainly distended, my companions rounded
out the meal with Sprites and Marlboro Lights, attention still
locked on the basketball game. In the Philippines, it seems, only
the NBA takes precedence over eating.

Coffee Trumps Tea

My last meal in Manila wasn't really a meal at all. It was a
beverage. A coffee in the Ninoy Aquino International Airport
departure lounge, to be exact. I thought this an appropriate ending
to my culinary exploration of Manila, where java reigns supreme.
Unlike most Asians, the Filipinos prefer coffee over tea. This can
be ascribed to the colonial influence of Spain and America, two
nations that love their coffee. As an American I certainly regret my
country's colonial experiment in the Philippines, which suppressed
Filipino independence for some fifty years at great cost in life,
but if any good came of the colonial era, it was this legacy of
coffee. I wholeheartedly approve of the Filipino love of the black
stuff, for though I've drank gallons of tea in my Asian travels,
I've never come to love the leaf the way I love the bean.

Foreign colonization continues in Manila in the form of Starbucks
and Seattle's Best, not to mention Japan's UCC, but local
competitors like Figaro and Brew's Buddies more than hold their own.
Perhaps some day a Filipino coffee-house chain will be as well known
across Asia as San Miguel beer. As for my coffee at the airport, it
came from a no-name lunch counter. As I stood at this counter
dumping sugar into my styrofoam cup, I got to thinking about the new
culinary habits I'd acquired during my gastronomic tour of Manila.

Most obviously, though I'd always drank my coffee black back in the
States, I'd started loading my coffee up with high-octane sugar
loads while in the Philippines. This reflected local taste. I'd also
acquired a peculiar lust for quail's eggs and Kit-Kat chocolate
bars, neither of which I eat back home. My dining habits had
changed, too, for I'd begun eating early and eating constantly.
With that last thought in mind, I finished my sugary coffee, then
glanced at my watch. It read 10:30, and I thought, just about time
for lunch.


  1. hi Ivan
    I felt soooo hungry after reading this article. It's a very good one- i copied it in a word doc and print it out then read it again one day. have a good weekend.

  2. ma'am vicks! ola! =)

    i know how much you miss RP. Hehehe. Sow, how's everything there at Down Under? =)

    Well, I sort of had a productive weekend.

    hope you had a good weekend, too.


It is always refreshing to know what is in your mind. Thanks!