Eating Exotic Filipino Food
London-born foodie Tom Parker Bowles shares his adventures in eating Manila's most exotic cuisine.
Of all the people I asked, only a tiny minority had anything remotely pleasant to say about Manila, the capital of the Philippines. “Utterly repellent,” said one friend who’d visited many times. Others described it as a Southeast Asian Wild West, a lawless, smog-choked hellhole where AK-47s were as common as shopping bags and peril lurked around every corner. They all agreed that this was a city best treated as a stopover, a place in which one spends the minimum amount of time possible before setting off for one of the 7,000 islands that comprise the country. Once outside the capital, the Philippines is stunning, I was told. But no one could understand why I actually wanted to stay in Manila.
I’m a food writer, a man who travels the globe in total thrall to my gut. I wake up thinking about that day’s lunch and fall asleep dreaming of dinner. No cuisine is entirely without merit. There’s always one dish to delight, one snack to devour. And the food of Southeast Asia is a particular favorite: I worship Thai food, revere the regional cuisines of China, adore Vietnamese and love Laotian. The food of the Philippines, however, remained an enigma. I mean, how many times have you gone for Filipino? This seemed one of the world’s least known foods, which is ridiculous, really, as there are huge Filipino communities across the world. We all know about green curries, dim sum, pho and larb. But what of adobo, sisig, sinigang and lechon? The more people warned me against the city, the more desperate I was to get out there and start eating. After all, mix Southeast Asia with around 300 years of Spanish occupation, and a further 50 or so under American rule, and the food can’t fail to thrill.
“So,” says Ivan Man Dy, lean, lithe and smiling, “this is balut, or fertilized and fermented duck’s egg.” It’s just after dusk, and we’re in Manila’s Chinatown. A cacophony of car horns punctures the balmy night air. Man Dy is the man behind Old Manila Walks (oldmanilawalks.com), a tour company that specializes in tramping Manila by foot, and a fine guide to this misunderstood city. He hands me the cooked egg, off-white, warm and purchased from a grinning, toothless old lady who’s perched on a wobbling stool. “First, you make a hole in the bottom and suck out the juice.” With an expert pinch, his fingers penetrate both shell and membrane. “Next, you remove the top of the egg, like this, and add a good splash of chile vinegar.” The scarlet liquid is shaken in with a heavy hand. “And now, the embryo.” I look closer. There, curled up in a fetal ball, is a 15-day-old duck. It’s no bigger than a quarter, with all its features defined. For a moment, I feel the merest pang of guilt. It looks so serene, so innocent. But this is no time for anthropomorphic regret. Man Dy sucks it down. “Now you try.”
To be honest, I had been dreading this moment since I’d arrived. Like the capital city itself, balut suffers from a vicious, unwarranted reputation. My first day so far had been a disappointment. Lunch was in Market! Market!, a rather sanitized collection of regional food stalls in Taguig, a few minutes from the tourist and business district of Makati. I tend to steer well clear of “safe” food places, which tend to remove any harsh or frightening edges, the stuff that gives real food its soul. Market! Market! was no exception. Kare-kare, a much-loved national stew more often made with oxtail, saw tripe in a peanut sauce so sweet, it stripped enamel from my teeth. The offal was decent enough, wobbling and bovine, but the dish was dull and lumpen. Perhaps my friend was right about Filipino food. “Gray, sweet and greasy,” he’d warned.
But hope came in the form of a pig’s head, chopped and fried. Sisig, to be precise, a dish that eats better than it sounds. The softest slivers of cheek meat are mixed with crunchy, gelatinous chips of ear and snout. The richness is tempered by a squeeze of calamansi (a native citrus fruit halfway between lime and orange), while bird’s-eye chiles add their fiery kick. This is beer food at it greatest. As for the balut? Well, the juice had a hint of sun-baked garbage, but no more than fermented tofu. Rich, too, a taste I could easily acquire. The embryo was soft and gelatinous, with no discernible taste, and had the texture of a lukewarm clam. The egg itself was magnificent, deeply flavored and majestic. Things were starting to look up.