MANILA: A THRILLA WITH THE FILLA IN THE PHILIPPINES
“It’s not safe and the food’s crap”
That was the reaction I got from just about everybody I spoke to when I said I was adding Manila onto the EAT MY GLOBE itinerary.
Of course, none of the people who said that had ever been here, but I don’t blame them. My own thoughts about Manila had been coloured by western press reports and horror stories of corruption, crime and the poorest food in the region. Relatively, it is also more expensive than the rest of SE Asia, so has fallen off the map of most travellers. A shame, because with 7,107 islands to choose from, it would make for a great adventure
I only added it to my own particular adventure when my Filipino aunt, Evelyn said that she would also be there in February and that she would make sure that I was well taken care of.
Well, one week later as I prepare to head to India, I can tell you that, while The Philippines and Manila in particular have all of the problems associated with developing nations (poverty, drugs, prostitution, chaotic traffic etc) there is a great deal to recommend the place to potential visitors.
Primarily, it is the people who almost swamp you with their hospitality and goodwill. The cheery greetings of the staff of my hotel in the business district of Makati were genuine and followed up with hand drawn notes showing me where to find the best food. The drivers of Manila’s plentiful and cheap taxis were, after a gentle bout of haggling, trustworthy and another useful source of information and stall-holders, restaurant staff and shop workers could not do enough to help.
Most of all, it is about the food. The majority of people I spoke to in the UK could come up with Lechon (whole roast suckling pig) and, at a push, maybe Adobo (pork and chicken cooked in cane vinegar) and Lumpia (local spring rolls) but to them, as indeed to me, the rest remained a blurry mystery.
A food writer friend in KL, Robyn Eckhardt, told me that Filipino food was one of the undiscovered gems of SE Asia. She was right. There is a genuine passion for eating here that I have not seen since I was in Mexico. In fact there are a lot of similarities with Mexico, given that the Spanish ruled The Philippines via that country and its first governors were Mexican.
There are also a lot of similarities with America. No surprise given the fact they were under the “benign” supervision of our US chums for decades until 1946, and Manila, in particular, would feel very familiar to any visitor from the West with its love of chain restaurants housed in extraordinarily lavish malls.
The interest in food goes beyond obsession. There is no such thing as a small meal or a short meal. Even at lunchtime the Filipinos like to sit down and indulge in their two favourite pastimes, eating and talking. Lord, how they talk. The Filipinos seem to have an opinion on everything from Lewis Hamilton’s poor defensive tactics to Barack Obama’s haircut. Strangely, I fitted right in.
However, above all, they like to talk about food. What’s right with it, what’s wrong with it. Where to get the good stuff and the dread shame of providing bad stuff to friends or, even worse, relatives.
Much of the conversation focuses around pork , the main meaty staple, and around the many and varied ways of serving it most of which seem to involve deep-frying to the point where they meet another Filipino prerequisite, crunchiness.
Like the other, Bengali, side of my family, the Filipinos think food is as much about texture as taste and demand a crunch with every meal. Be it crispy fried Hito (mudfish) slabs of Bagnet (deep fried belly pork) or Cicerones (fried crispy chitterlings)
Alongside the crunch is the love of things sharp and sour. The local soup, Sinigang comes with a broth soured with tamarind which takes a lot of getting used to but provides the perfect combatant to the stifling humidity.
They also like the bitter with bitter gourd considered a universal panacea to all ills and even the hot chocolate at People Watch Central, Café Adriatico, being dense, smoky and sharp.
Alongside the discoveries of food, I also discovered a whole new branch to the family with aunts, uncles and cousins popping up at regular intervals during my stay and it was they who made my trip such a success with visits to favourite local restaurants, day trips out of town and family meals where the noise was deafening and there was no circumstance in which you were going to leave the table unless you had to be rolled away.
They were fiercely and quite rightly proud of their food and introduced me to a bewildering variety of dishes all of which were strongly savoury and all of which were deeply delicious.
My cousin Carlo, editor of a local style magazine, decided to do an article about the EAT MY GLOBE trip and drove me up to the city of Angeles in the Pampanga province to meet with famous Filipino artist and foodie, Claude Tayag. Claude prepared a memorable meal and, as we ate on the open terrace of his lavish home, he expounded the virtues of Filipino food and particularly the dishes he had prepared.
Boulanglang, a soup filled with pork and local river shrimp whose heads gave up dribbles of fat to thicken the stew as you chomp them.
Kare Kare Dangat, a seafood stew made with the belly of the bangus fish
Fried Hito wrapped in crispy, fresh mustard leaves smeared with Balo Balo (rice fermented with shrimp)
Paco fern salad, where young shoots like fiddleheads were tossed in a sour dressing and topped with sweet tomatoes and pickled quails eggs.
After our meal, he drove us to Angeles itself to try Sisig, a combination of bits of animals minced up with lime and chilli before being served on a sizzling plate, which creates a crunchy base. This dish is like crack cocaine to the Filipinos and no glug of beer should ever pass your lips without a forkful of Sisig.
Another cousin, Ethan, and his wife Francis took me to Salcedo Market on Saturday where we ate Lechon from the Cebu region which comes without sauce (like Texas BBQ the people of Cebu argue, if your Lechon needs sauce, there must be something wrong with it) and skewers of BBQ pork so addictive that both Ethan and I had to be dragged away kicking and screaming. He really is a man after my own heart attack.
Finally, on my last night, Carlo and my “new” family, cooked a meal for me at their home in Quezon City. Wine and beer flowed and the star course was an Adobo made in the proper style so that large chunks of pork and chicken had been marinated in cane vinegar and then cooked until dark and golden before being served with red mountain rice.
As demanded, I ate and ate until I was almost blind and had to be led to the car by the hand by a five-year old niece who kindly informed me that my face was “a funny colour”
The next morning, As I sat in the business lounge in Manila’s appallingly chaotic airport, one of the staff, who I was asking to help me put names to photographs of dishes, placed a large bowl of crispy pork belly in front of me “to keep you going”
I think that says it all.
I will be back.