FOOD: What to Eat in The Philippines

What’s next on the food scene may be here to stay.  Recently, Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmern stated: “I predict, two years from now, Filipino food will be what we will have been talking about for six months…I think that’s going to be the next big thing.”  He continues by saying “I want to go on record — this is not something that’s hot now somewhere and will get hot everywhere else.  It’s just starting.”

The cuisine of the Philippines is made up of a mashup of Spanish and other Asian country flavors – this combined with the amazing fresh native ingredients makes for dishes that are really different, delicious, and many layered in flavor and background.  Lucky for you guys, I just got home from a two week stint in the Philippines and ate my way through the country to bring you a peek of the very best in Filipino cuisine.  Here we go!

So, starting off with a couple of fruits, these things are crazy.  Rambutan is this awesome lychee-like fruit (the spiky red balls) that’s probably the coolest fruit I’ve ever seen in my life.  My little cousin used to be afraid of these guys because she thought they were alive!  Atis is the other guy on the plate, the outside resembles a grenade…or a turtle even, and the inside is super juicy but packed with seeds you have to watch out for.

Santol (top, also known as sour apple or cotton fruit) is another interesting fruit – I wasn’t really into it because I only had sour ones, but its concept was really cool – you peel it, then you kind of chop the knife into the sides to loosen up the fruit, and then the middle is soft and basically like cotton, and it’s super chewy and supposed to be sweet.  Lanzones (bottom photo) are kind of like grapes except you have to peel off off the skin before you can eat them.

Mangosteen is probably my new favorite fruit – it’s hard to open but once you get it, the middle is this white garlic looking shape and you can peel off the “cloves” and it’s this super sweet and tangy delicious soft and chewy thing.  It’s incredibly addicting and I’m pretty sure that when we visited the market in Divisoria, we bought about 8 kilos or so within two days?

Coconuts are everywhere.  For real.  Known as buko, you can eat these in every way imaginable but my favorite way is to halve it and eat the meat inside with a spoon, and then drink the coconut juice out of a glass.  This is no Vita Coco, this is the real thing, and it’s extremely fresh and delicious, and you can get the whole coconut for less than 50 cents each.  Or you can climb a tree and pick one.  I also picked up some fresh buko juice in a bag from a vendor outside the gas station, which is way better than anything I could ever pick up around any gas station here in America.

In other vendor news – the orange things are my absolute favorite and I asked my tita to pick them up every day for breakfast from the market.  Called pilipit, they are basically like doughnut sticks and also come in a version rolled in caramelized sugar.  The beige stuff on the top right of the plate is pinipig, glutinous rice mixed with coconut.

Panutsa is Philippine peanut brittle, whole peanuts in caramelized sugar poured in disks – these I found in a market in Taal but people sell these on the street all the time.  Hopia is a popular Indonesian and Philippine pastry filled with sweetened beans that comes in a wide variety of flavors – it’s a really popular snack and the grocery stores here have an aisle devoted to these guys.

Of all the places I ate in the Philippines, Casa Rap in San Jose, Batangas was my favorite.  Set in a greenhouse, you basically felt like you were dining in a rainforest with all the flowers and greenery surrounding you – fresh rambutan grew on the trees and chicken and roosters were right outside!  The best halo-halo I’ve ever had came from here too – halo-halo is a popular dessert composed of evaporated milk and shaved ice, layered with various fillings such as sweet beans and different kinds of fruits.  What made this one extra special was the shaved ice made from coconut water.

Let’s talk about pancit.  Pancit is a noodle dish introduced into Filipino cuisine by the Chinese – they are usually served at big celebrations, particularly birthdays.  There are many different ways to prepare this, but my favorite is pancit bihon – again, the exact recipe varies from person to person but it consists of super thin rice noodles, sometimes soy sauce and some citrus (I like it with calamansi) and maybe fish sauce, and often times some kind of meat and/or chopped vegetables.  The soup is called lomi and it has a mixture of chicken and noodles.

Filipinos love their pork and here we’ve got some crispy pata (top photo), which is fried pig legs, usually accompanied by a soy-vinegar sauce.  Kaldereta (bottom photo) is composed of goat shoulders, tomato paste, and liver spread.

Sinigang na hipon, shrimp in broth – you can have sinigang with chicken, beef, whatever, with vegetables.

The shakes here.  I can’t even tell you.  And it’s not because they are prepared in some amazing crazy way or whatever, it’s all because of the deliciousness of these fruits – this would give any fruit shake place in America a run for their money.  Here we’ve got, from left to right (top photo), shakes made from guayabera (my favorite as a kid), green mango, and ripe mango.  The second photo is of the best ripe mango shake (and possibly best drink in general) I’ve ever had in my entire life, from the Taal Vista Lodge in Tagaytay.

Not a traditional Filipino dish but this Filipino style pizza, also from Taal Vista Lodge, has usual Philippine trimmings such as salted egg and longanisa (sausage).

Tawilis is a freshwater sardine found exclusively in the Philippines… actually, they are only found in the Taal Lake in Batangas, the province where my mom is from, and where we went to visit.  I have to admit I get kind of queasy looking at fish heads but my mom swears up and down by tawilis – she’s ordered it at every possible chance and she might as well, since she can’t get it fresh anywhere else!  Below, a photo of Taal Lake and how they fish for tawilis (and the Taal Volcano to the left!)

…And I have barely even begun to scratch the surface of Philippine cuisine for you.  Lumpia (egg rolls), lechon (the famous pig roast), leche flan (dessert flan), and even the strange eats such as isaw (chicken intestines) or balut (fertilized duck embryo, it’s supposed to be an aphrodisiac?!) are among the neverending list of interesting tastes you can get in The Philippines.

Since we can’t all just hop on a plane to the other side of the world, try Tito Rad’s in Queens or Maharlika in the East Village if you want some Philippine dishes – I personally have not been to either, but I’ve heard great things.  Go ahead and order some of the dishes you’ve seen here, or just dive in headfirst and try something new… you might like it!