Eating the Philippines

17 Apr

Dish of kilawin na lato -- Filipino ceviche-style tuna with sea grapes

Kilawin na lato: ceviche-style tuna with sea-grapes

Much to both of our surprise, Z and I last night enjoyed a healthy Filipino meal. And discovered the most amazing seaweed: lato.

A type of Caulerpa which sprouts succulent, grapey, bubbles in long tendrils like fresh green peppercorns, lato has all the translucent gorgeousness of fresh salmon roe. And it’s probably the closest a vegetarian will ever get to caviar. Even better than the Mekong riverweed, served nori-style, that we ate in Luang Prabang.

Even before you get onto the fast food trail, so many iconic Filipino dishes are just plain wrong. Take halo halo. This is a “fruit” salad, made with chunks of jelly and tapioca pearls, mixed with shaved ice, ice-cream, puffed rice, soy beans and oodles of condensed milk.

Or knockout knuckle (pata), Pampanga style. An entire pig’s leg, slow-cooked until the crackling is crispy and the meat below is succulent, fatty, deep red and falling off the bone, topped with crispy, deep-fried garlic. We ate this — along with soft-shell crabs tempura style — at Bistro Remedios in Manila, and my arteries are hardening just thinking about it.

Even the local take on the ubiquitous noodle soup is fattier than other South-East Asian versions. While beef bulalo, the silky, succulent broth made with the fat, gelatine and marrow of ox knuckle and precious little else, speaks for itself.

Anywise. Here we are on Palawan, the most westerly island of the Philippines, so close to Malaysian Borneo that James Brooke, the hyperactive Victorian adventurer who became the first “white rajah” of Sarawak after containing the head-hunting pirates who plagued the place a century and a half ago, set up a town and a watchtower, called Brooke’s Point, down South.

Last night we went to Ka Lui, in the provincial capital, Puerto Princesa, a gorgeous, half-open, bamboo and palm structure, equipped with floor cushions, and one of the island’s few destination restaurants.

It’s a simple menu. In essence, you eat one of four catches of the day with vegetables of the day, sweet potato mash or rice, preceded by soup and completed with a fruit salad. Side dishes run from stingray or eel in coconut sauce through to kilawin, the Filipino answer to Peruvian ceviche.

Z had the giant shrimps. I had the tuna steak. (Then he decided he wanted the tuna steak, so we swapped.) For greed, we ate kilawin na lato on the side: chunks of raw tuna, marinated in calamansi, vinegar, ginger, chilli, garlic and a hint of palm sugar, accompanied by washed, raw lato.

To die for. And, for once in the Philippines, not literally.

As you’d expect from an archipelago of this size, with some of the world’s finest reef, the seafood in the Philippines is pretty amazing. And freshwater fish, too. Bangus, or milk fish, a sweet, dark, toothsome freshwater fish, farmed across the nation, is the national fish, and a popular breakfast dish.

Tanigue, a member of the mackerel family with a flavour close to that of marlin, is gorgeous, whether fried, grilled, or served in kilawin or as sashimi. Tuna, blue marlin and swordfish are wonderful, too.

Chuck catch of the day together with veggies in a sour soup, and you have sinigang, which is right up there with Vietnamese canh chua in the galaxy of regional sour soups.

Still on the healthy tip, chicken tinola is not to be missed. This is a gorgeous soup-stew of chicken, green papaya, peppercorns, garlic and gallons of ginger.

Filipino cuisine is not generally big on vegetables. But there’s some standouts. Green papaya works wonders when slow-cooked: all the sweet flavour of baby courgettes but with a firm, unfibrous texture that holds well in stews.

A type of bell-pepper leaf, with a look and texture similar to young vine leaves and a flavour like a meatier, less bitter spinach, is gorgeous in sinigang, alongside chunks of young taro. Chinese mustard greens have a great tang, while bitter gourd served with shrimps and oodles of garlic is a classic side dish.

We had a salad of red eggs (brined, fermented duck eggs), tomato, onion and young rainforest ferns — the local answer to fiddleheads — in Bistro Remedios. Deep viridian green, they have a dark, chlorophyll freshness and crunchy texture that is outstanding.

And then, of course, at least in the northern islands, there is the inescapable pork. Chicharon, or pork scratchings, are sold from stalls. Pork adobo, slow-cooked in a tangy palm vinegar sauce, is a gorgeous, stand-by staple. Lechon, or thickly basted suckling pig, is a special occasion feast. Barbeque pork, caramel-sweet, succulent and crispy, served with a chilli vinegar to cut the fat and the sugar is to die for. And mechado, a tangy, scarlet stew with peppers, potatoes, pork and beef, appears in every local point-point eatery.

I always struggle with Asian desserts. The sweet, mild, subtly aromatic flavours don’t really do it for me, and so the ubiquitous ube (purple yam) goes right over my head, though the Spanish-Asian fusion leche flan, a heavier, grainier take on crème caramel, works well.

But Filipino peanut brittle, hawked on every form of public transport, in rich, dark, circular caramelised cakes, crammed with fresh-toasted dark peanuts and sprinkled with sesame seeds, is outstanding. And the tamarinds which grow like wildfire in every possible permutation of flavours are gorgeous.

Anywise. It is time for breakfast. Which will not include the lurid, tooth-hurtingly sweet breakfast sausages, longganisa, that are so mystifyingly popular here.

We are here for another month or so, so if you have recommendations of foods we should try, send them over, and we’ll do our best to eat them. Z, god bless him, tells me I have lost weight. I find this very, very hard to believe.

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10 Responses to “Eating the Philippines”

  1. butalidnl at 3:39 pm #

    My favourites in the Philippines would be lumpia na sariwa, which is made of chopped vegetables in a wrap (the wrap and the sauce that goes with it are delicious); and laing, which is made of gabe (a kind of yam) leaves cooked in coconut milk. Maybe you can try them.

    • MummyT at 8:22 am #

      I will look out for these bigtime…

  2. Toni at 12:18 am #

    You should try the “pinikpikan” which is a delicacy up North. Its taste is very similar to tinola but with a twist. It’s descriptively called “Killing Me Softly” not for the flavor or the nutritional content (though some would like to think so), but for something else. I suggest you ask around first, especially if you are against animal cruelty… but if you can keep a cultural context in mind, it is worth experiencing.

    • MummyT at 8:19 am #

      Lordy! I’ve just looked this up… Now, how different is the taste to Tinola? Is it much, much better? Z wasn’t very keen when he saw a pig being taken away from the market tied to the back of a tricycle by its legs, and squealing in protest, so I think he’d probably object to eating this…

  3. Marc at 2:18 am #

    Not to miss are some of the best Spanish restaurants in Asia – for obvious reasons. Try La Tienda, on Polaris Street in Makati near the red-light district. Or El Cirkulo, near Greenbelt for their beef belly. Even Casa Armas and Barcino are safe bets when it comes to tapas.

    More Filipino food? Try Abe at The Fort. Or Mesa and Sentro 1771 in Greenbelt.

    And yes, tso-ko-la-teh eh. A rich, thick and earthy chocolate you drink or dip your churros or ensaymada in(local brioche topped with shaved Edam Cheese). Cafe Adriatico or Dulcinea.

    And of course, San Rival. A hyperbole of a dessert cake similar to Napoleon. Layers of buttercream, merengue and nuts. Le Souffle Restaurant has the best one in Manila.

    Last but not least, go to the Salcedo Village Farmer’s Market on Saturday. Savor regional Filipino cuisine without leaving Manila.

    • MummyT at 8:17 am #

      Wow! Thank you for all of these suggestions. Will check out some of these once we are back in Manila in 2-3 weeks…

  4. Stacey at 11:34 pm #

    I just found your blog and am loving it.
    I, too, don’t understand Asian desserts, not bad enough for you to taste good I suppose. The pinikpikan is not really worth it.. like tinolang, yes, but less spices and some ordinary vegetables like potatoes and beans. The chicken is rather chewy because of the way it is prepared 😉

    • MummyT at 12:23 am #

      Ahhhh… so glad you like the site. And pleased that someone’s had the guts to try pinikpikan, and that I haven’t missed much by not doing so. Currently in Hanoi, and contemplating trying dog meat for curiosity… Have you tried???

      • stacey at 2:23 am #

        No, never dog meat! Though my boyfriend tells me it’s common in the Philippines. Ferile dog problem + hungry poor people = common sense. Unfortunately though he sometimes must keep watch over his own pet! 😉
        I linked to my Pinikpikan pics in my link above.. it took forever to find!

      • MummyT at 2:39 am #

        Wow! Thanks for the link. And great pics. I’m pretty blase about what I eat — though Z won’t let me eat shark or stingray as they are endangered — but pinikpikan did sort of pull me up. I do think — despite the “eat anything that moves” syndrome that’s common to poor countries (there are no animals left in the Cambodian national parks because they’ve all been eaten) — edible animals in the Philippines seem to have (until they die, and when they’re not being transported) a much better quality of life and much more freedom than they do in the West. Have seen a lot of very, very happy-looking pigs, chickens, etc, all over SE Asia. Also heard some not so happy ones being killed…

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