Eating Exotic Filipino Food
Everyone was right about Manila’s traffic. It doesn’t so much crawl as cease to move altogether. There’s absolutely no sense of menace, though. Physically, Manila is a mess of concrete, wire, garish hoardings and corrugated iron. Little trace remains of the old city, the place they called the Pearl of the Orient, with its wide, treelined boulevards and breezy arcades, grand colonial churches and smartest of houses. Little remains of that era, save the American Cemetery and Memorial, all pristine white crosses and immaculate, impossibly verdant lawn. It’s a fitting and moving tribute to the U.S. personnel killed in the Pacific region during World War II. In order to remove the occupying Japanese army, the Americans were forced to raze the city to the ground. Manila was liberated but paid a high price. “Four hundred years to build, a few days to flatten,” said Ivan Henares. I’d found his blog, IvanHenares.com, when researching my trip, and he turned out to be every bit the expert I had hoped.
Later that morning, Manila is but a distant smudge in the rearview mirror. We’re driving northwest, toward Pampanga, a province noted for the excellence of its food and cooks, and pass endless billboards exhorting us to smoke Marlboros, drink Coors and devour Big Macs. At times, one could almost be in Kansas or Nebraska, except with paddy fields, palm trees and Jollibees, the immensely popular Filipino chain of burger joints. Some say this is America’s real legacy: fast food. There’s some truth in this, but it’s harsh. Education for all, alongside new roads, bridges and sewer systems, can hardly be dismissed. Still, there’s no doubting that Filipinos adore their fast food. Not that you see it at the home of Claude Tayag in Angeles City. This is a place once infamous for its girly bars and strip clubs, thanks to its proximity to the U.S. Air Force’s former station, Clark Air Base. The population is less than half a million, and with the departure of the American troops, the sex industry has notably diminished. Tayag is a Renaissance man in the truest sense of the word: cook, artist, sculptor, furniture maker. I’d heard glowing reports of his meals, as well as his deep knowledge of the country’s food, since I’d arrived. “This is a cuisine that gobbles up foreign influences,” he says as we taste his kare-kare, properly made with crushed peanuts rather than peanut butter. “These dishes take time to prepare. That one you had yesterday—yuck,” says Tayag, wrinkling his nose in distaste. “Filipinos are great adapters, assimilating the local food across the world. Upscale Filipino restaurants have never worked. Filipinos will say they’re not authentic, are geared for foreigners and we can cook better at home, so why bother.”
And so starts the most proper of feasts. Sinigang, a tart, guava-spiked broth (“One distinct characteristic of Filipino food is the sourness,” says Tayag), served with local crayfish and chunks of milkfish. And more sisig, this version somehow crisper and more crunchy than yesterday’s. “It started off as a sour dish for pregnant women and evolved, by the 1960s, into the dish we know today,” Tayag says. “It’s booze food. The very best.” I’ll drink to that. Lunch stretches languorously into the afternoon, washed down by a steady stream of local San Miguel beer. This is a Filipino scene miles removed from popular cliché. Elegant, relaxed and deeply civilized. The journey home is spent in joyous, sated slumber.
A cockfight for breakfast at the Makati Coliseum, minutes from my hotel. It sure beats muesli. The betting is frantic, the atmosphere charged. The blades, attached to the cocks’ legs, gleam evilly, sharp enough to hew breast from bone. Once the fight begins, blink and you’ll miss it. The loser is dragged off, ready for the winning owner’s pot.
Lunch in one of Chinatown’s panciterias, among the old men and their cards and their beer; fresh noodles, plump prawns and good cheer. Dinner is best of all, put together by Margarita Fores, chef, writer, restaurateur and, like Tayag, a true hero of real Filipino cuisine. I sit next to her and Joel Binamira, the man behind the excellent blog MarketManila.com. He’s an expert in lechon, the glorious, whole-roast pig. Here, the beast is cooked until its skin turns to golden brittle. It shines in the evening light and shatters in the mouth into a dozen shards of porcine perfection. “It’s a celebratory dish but also a traditional one, eaten way before the Spaniards arrived,” he says. Fore’s sinigang, a trifle more smoky and charred than Tayag’s, is exceptionally clean and fresh, a dish that could grace any table in the world. Then there’s chicken adobo (the national dish, but actually a technique of cooking with vinegar), beautifully seasoned. “We must fight to protect our heritage,” says Binamira as we eventually finish, me unbuckling my belt for extra room. I can only nod. The naysayers, smug know-alls and hackneyed fools…what do they know? Maybe it’s the beer talking, but beneath Manila’s tattered, scarred exterior lies a beguiling soul.
This was food as good as I’ve eaten anywhere. In a city more sinned against than sinning, Manila demands patience, perseverance and the ability to forgive the odd false start. You just have to work a little harder, dig a little deeper, to discover her charms. But like anywhere else, it’s just a question of looking in the right place. I’ll be back.