Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Investigating the Filipino food rep

So here it is, my post on my experiences of Filipino food. The long awaited, bound-to-suck blog post.

Many of you warned me before we arrived that the food in the Philippines was pretty poor, leaving me to wonder what the focus of my post would be. And I have to say, although Filipino food leaves little lasting impression and lacks, in my opinion, a strong identity, it isn't unpleasant. Well perhaps balĂșt maybe, but I'm sorry I wasn't prepared to eat a duck egg with a partially formed embryo, so I'm unable to report back on that one...

We had a month to explore as many of the 7,000 plus islands as humanly possible, albeit at a slightly slower pace than the previous countries we visited - I'll use being on "Filipino time" as the excuse! Even after all that time, I found myself struggling to decide what Filipino cuisine is. On one hand it consists of a lot of meat - lechon (roasted suckling pig), inasal chicken (BBQ chicken), skewered BBQ pork belly - and then on the other, as you would expect from a nation made up of many islands, there is all the fish you could want and more.

And rice, a whole shit tonne of the stuff, thanks to the thousand of years old rice terraces that fill the countryside. Impressive and absolutely stunning.

I'll start with breakfast. You can almost without a doubt expect to be served rice (boiled or fried), a fried egg and a meat of some sort. And to make it super easy, most of the time they name them after the meat - hamsilog (ham), cornsilog (corned beef) and sausilog (sausage) - you get the gist. Two of the most typical however are tapa (salty beef strips) and the lovely tocino (honey cured pork) that we were served on Christmas morning - sweet and a right proper treat!

Christmas lunch didn't disappoint either. Whilst of course I missed those little pigs in blankets, it was a small price to pay for what we were treated to following a couple of hours snorkelling around the islands of El Nido, Palawan. A complete contrast, our festive feast consisted of chicken wings, whole crab, prawns, whole sea fish, mussels and squid - all cooked on the barbie at the back of our boat, surrounded by luscious blue lagoons. I needn't say much more, it was absolute bliss. Rice of course made an appearance.

So it would seem that so far, despite lacking my 5-a-day (which we made up for by consuming fresh mango shakes on a daily basis in Borocay), the Filipinos seem to be getting most things right. But BBQ meat and fish is no stranger to other countries and even a guy tanked on several beers in England would have a hard job making a pigs ear out of it. And I think this is where the poor rep comes in. Sure the Filipinos can BBQ, but when they start adding sauces, things become a little shakey.

Take their national dish Kare Kare. Recommended by our first taxi driver in the Philippines as a must try, we were bound to order it at some point. However the fact that he had also recommended balĂșt should have been a red flag. Kare kare is a peanut based sauce, often served with succulent oxtail, and so on paper would seem quite nice for anyone who's a fan of a bit of satay. But the flavour doesn't come from the peanut sauce, it comes from the accompanying fish paste that you add to it. Imagine a bland soup, with no flavour whatsoever, which the only way to remedy is to add heaps of salt. That's kare kare.

Like Myanmar, the Philippines love a dish drowned in oil. Similarly to the Burmese, I suspect the oil is used to preserve the dishes that lay beneath, rather than to add any sort of flavour. On many long journeys we'd stumble off a bus to a roadside cafe, point at a few dishes for about 120 pesos (just under £2) and mop these up with a healthy portion of rice. You can have chicken, beef, pork, all served in a vinegary, garlicy sauce, alongside a portion of veg - usually we went for bitter gourd or "sour veg" as they called it, providing us with an array of salty and sour dishes leaving us dehydrated for the long journey ahead. 

Before travelling to the Philippines I read that the Filipinos can't see how their food falls short compared to its Asian neighbours. That their home cooked food is proper comfort food which they love to return home to. It's the same for most Brits I guess. Whilst I've been away I've thought about what I might cook when I get home - spag bol, jacket potato and chilli - along with of course what I've learnt along the way. And perhaps people may look at British food and think it awful that we smother our potatoes, meat and veg with gravy and dollop on the mint sauce. But we love the home comforts, and I think Filipinos are similar.

One thing the Filipinos have got right is their hospitality. By luck we managed to stumble upon a guesthouse in Bohol whose turn it was to host Christmas - on 4th January (this continues until the end of January) - and no sooner had we dropped pur bags in our room were we invited into their home to feast all the Filipino food we could ask for.

There were the usual mix of vinegary dishes, pork, beef, chicken, whole crab and a huge suckling pig at the centre of it all, with an impressive semi-professional carol singing performance thrown in. As I token of our gratitude it was only fair that we then blessed them with our best brandy fuelled karaoke. The Filipinos love a good power ballad.

So that was it, my report back on what Filipino food is really like. Can't say I will be trying to recreate any of the dishes I had back home, and since leaving the Philippines I have to say that my diet is so much healthier. Shame. Great beaches though!

Yelly-fi-felly-food-belly x

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