SPOILER ALERT: Filipino food is anything but boring, especially in Manila.
‘Lacklustre’, ‘bland’, ‘uninspiring’. For someone whose travel plans revolve wholly around where she’s going to eat, it was a little disheartening to be told that the food in the Philippines would be nothing to write home about.
I’d also heard that pork was kind of a big deal, which did little more than inspire visions of plate after plate of ‘the other white meat’. How ignorant of me (and those naysayers).
My first outing in Metro Manila proved my prospects of being faced with nothing but tasteless dishes and pork-induced meat sweats for a week were wrong. Filipino cuisine is heavy on Malaysian and Chinese influences, with a hit of Spanish/Mexican flair.
My travelling cohorts and I were Binondo bound – Manila’s exuberant Chinatown district and food haunt. Anson Yu, food oracle and guide of the Big Binondo Food Walk, is a gifted storyteller who weaves the history of Tsinoy (Chinese-Filipino) culture and Binondo throughout the three-hour culinary quest.
From the very first bite of lumpia (the Philippines’ answer to the spring roll), to the sweet, sticky mouthfuls of rich roasted pork asado dunked in a citrus and soy dip, I was promptly won over.
In the Philippines, flavours are amplified. Sweet treats are worthy of a sugar rush, while savoury is all about the seasoning. As for sour and spicy, well, you get the idea. Think bold, not boring.
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Beyond Binondo, Metro Manila is one big share plate of streetside temptations and gastronomic fusions where everyone is eager to dig in. After all, eating is practically the national pastime here.
Philippines’ fast food chain Jollibee has legendary status – its spaghetti Bolognese is loved for its odd hint of sweetness. For lovers of seafood, the wet markets at Macapagal Boulevard are where you can take your pick from the dazzling displays and deliver your ‘catch’ to the adjacent restaurant to be whipped up to your liking.
Manila’s culinary landscape also includes food courts, a roaring latenight bar scene and myriad restaurants putting a spin on traditional flavours with modern methods. Purple Yam serves an ever-changing menu of pan-Asian tasting plates, while La Cocina de Tita Moning exudes old-world Manila in a stunning 19th-century mansion.
Foodie trends are also permeating traditional tastes with a fleet of food trucks roaming the city as part of Food Truck Park. Yet, Filipino food really doesn’t need to be modernised. On its own, this heady cuisine easily stacks up to the spicy flavours of Thailand or the herbaceous hallmarks of Vietnamese food.
Manila may not receive star billing against its other ‘big Asian city’ counterparts, but its flavour-packed fare is finally getting a spot on the culinary stage. And for those keen eaters always looking for the next new thing, Filipino food isn’t becoming ‘cool’ because of a new way of creatives driving innovation; it’s been that way all along.
4 Must-Eat Dishes In The Philippines
The national dish is a whole suckling pig cooked over charcoal. There are few that can resist the glass-like crackling and succulent pork!
Kinilaw is a refreshing change from the usual heady Filipino flavours. Bite-size pieces of fish are ‘cooked’ in a tangy citrus or vinegar dressing.
A thin crepe roll stuffed with julienned vegetables and pork. The best part are the condiments – sugary peanuts and sticky soy sauce.
Halo-halo is a colourful icy dessert served in a tall glass. Think shaved ice, condensed milk, jellies, ube (yam) ice cream and dulce de leche.