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.
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.
A Taste of Manila Mild
Four not-to-miss spots to sample some exotic Filipino fare.
Bale Dutun: Lunch at Claude Tayag’s beautiful house is strictly reservation-only. He usually opens for parties of more than ten, though you can still call if there are less—I’m sure he would be happy to accommodate fewer guests. But don’t just turn up, as everything has to be organized in advance. The food is well worth the two-hour trip from Manila. Course after course of exquisite Filipino food, everything from delicate fern salads to sisig, that crunchy, chewy, spicy beauty of a piggy dish. And there’s no better guide to the national food than Tayag. At Villa Gloria Subdivision, Angeles City, Pampanga; 63-2/668-4038; claudetayag.net.
Cafe Juanita: Dr. Boy Vasquez, a famous, now retired, obstetrician, is the man behind Café Juanita. It’s a riot in every sense, with twinkling fairy lights, multicolored lanterns and billowing, gaudy drapes. The food is top-notch, home-cooked Filipino classics. The pork adobo is wonderful, as is the pasta with crab fat. At Kapitolyo, Pasig City; 63-2/632-0357.
Panciteria Lido: One of Manila’s oldest restaurants, this panciteria mixes the Chinese with the Filipino. Traditionally a place where men came to meet, drink, talk and play cards, it still has an old-world charm. Prices are cheap, and the food is excellent. The noodles are, as you’d expect from a noodle house, first-rate, but the likes of steamed prawns, dumplings and iced coffee are all top-notch, too. At 593 T. Alonso St., Binondo; 63-2/733-5260.
The Tivoli: This is a grand French restaurant, but it serves up seriously good food. Executive sous chef Remi Vercelli trained under French legend Paul Bocuse, and it shows. He has a deftness of touch and real technical skill with dishes such as foie gras and morels au torchon with dried fruit, nuts and apple marmalade with the most buttery of brioche. This is proper haute cuisine. At the Mandarin Oriental, Makati Ave., Makati; 63-2/750-8888; mandarinoriental.com.