It was while sitting around with my new friends at Aboy’s Restaurant in Bacolod City that I realized how embarrassingly shallow my knowledge about Filipino food was. With over 7,100 islands housing a 100 million population that speaks hundreds of languages, hello – there’s much more to Filipino cuisine than chicken adobo, dried mangoes and halo-halo ok!
The following short list compiled from this Malaysian’s recent whirlwind trips to Manila and Bacolod City is by no means representative, but it’s a delicious start.
1. Fried Chicken
Judging from shop displays everywhere I turned, chicken is the most popular meat in the Philippines, and frying the most popular style of preparation. One of the best, if not the best places, to sink your teeth into some is Max’s Restaurant, the “house that fried chicken built”.
Be forewarned it ain’t cheap – a set meal of whole chicken leg, rice, a scoop of macaroni salad, a caramel bar and an iced tea will set you back some 200 pesos, but the payoff is paper-thin skin that’s roasted to a perfect crisp, blanketing succulent flesh that still retains its natural juices.
2. Banana Anything
In the Philippines, the humble banana is served in a variety of fun presentations: rolled up in a soft crepe spring roll-style, doused with vinegar and grilled into bananas, or coated with sesame seeds and brown sugar and toasted.
Either way, they’re all yums. Excuse me while I wipe the drool off my keyboard.
3. Buko Pie
People go wild over the buko pie at Wildflour Café and Bakery. At least that’s the impression I get from rave online reviews about this brunch bistro, relation to Los Angeles’ acclaimed Republique.
The combination of admittedly tender coconut flesh and mild custard in a case of buttery crust is not as cloying as it sounds, even after drenching the small jar of accompanying condensed milk over the lot, but it was just too subtle for me.
4. Sansrival Cake
On the other hand, I got much more excited about the over-the-top decadence of Bacolod City’s cakes. Where does one even start in a city where cakes are practically a religion (supposedly because of their legacy sugarcane industry)?
After visiting three bakeries, I have to say my favorite was the sansrival cake at Felicia’s Pastry Cafe. Despite appearances, this isn’t mille-crepe – well, at least not the kind we’re used to in Malaysia.
It’s built out of many layers of thin waters sandwiched together with buttercream frosting, so that when you bite into it, you feel the crunch in your mouth before the sugar and cream melts in your mouth.
5. Pala-pala Seafood
Choose from a variety of freshly caught seafood and get it prepared in the style of your liking—be it grilled, fried, baked or served on a sizzling hotplate. We went to Aboy’s and had grilled blue marlin (grilled fish with a buttery taste) and kinilaw (raw fish marinated in vinegar, onions, garlic, ginger, calamansi juice, salt and pepper).
I was surprised to prefer their rendition of curry fish, which boasts stronger, richer taste of coconut milk than the Malaysian version.
6. Chicken inasal
Chicken again? But then, chicken inasal isn’t any garden variety
chicken dish. Found throughout the Western Visayas Regions of the Philippines, chicken pieces are skewered on sticks and first marinated with sinamak (Negros vinegar), ginger, onions, garlic and spices and based with anato oil, then grilled over charcoal, making it meltingly delicious.
7. Garlic rice
… especially if it’s served with garlic rice, which is so good that
I half-suspect the chicken is just an excuse to eat the rice.
Imagine rice that tastes like Basmathi, except that the grains are stubbier, and topped with a generous sprinkle of crunchy deep-fried garlic cubes, oh my. Don’t think, just order when you spot it in a menu. Otherwise, just buy a carton … err I mean a jar of fried garlic cubes at BongBong’s to cart home.
8. Beef Tapa
Although a lot of attention is showered on the Filipinos’ virtuosity with pork, I found out they do their beef really well.
There’s tapsilog, which I discovered in a street diner, a rice meal comprising garlic rice, an egg and a beef tapa – beef jerky only much more tender and cloaked in an addictive sticky, sweet-salty bbq-like sauce.
And at the airport, a last-minute meal at Tapa King introduced me to tapa flakes, or what we Malaysians recognize as beef serunding albeit with a distinctly Filipino flavor. The beef flakes are so refined they’re almost powder-like. The sourish salad makes the perfect complement.
Having seen various versions of it throughout my trip, I had a vague notion of what ensaymada was. To my untutored eyes, it looked like an ordinary cheese bun, which got me wondering – what’s the big deal?
Then at the airport, I ordered it at home-grown bazaar-turned-café-chain Mary Grace Café, and I literally gasped when our ensaymada arrived: the bun was covered with so much fine grated cheese that when I sliced it, the cheese rained and spilled onto the sides like a snow avalanche. The bread was so soft and fluffy that when I brought my knife down, it was less of cutting and more of impaling it, as the bun yielded and sank like a pillow.
The final kicker was the subtle crunch of sugar under the blanket of salty, powder-soft cheese, the perfect sweet note to an all-round wonderful trip to the Philippines.
Polvoron should be classified as a dangerous food because they can cause an “accident” in your mouth. The element of surprise depends on how prepared the consumer is for the design of the sweet.
My first polvoron was a chocovron, which is a polvoron covered with an outer chocolate shell. Often, the unsuspecting newbie doesn’t know that when you bite into it, that shell breaks to reveal a crumbly filling that explodes into powder in your mouth. So if your mouth happens to be slightly open when you’re eating it, heaven help you as you struggle to bring your lips together to prevent the powdery stuff from flying out of your mouth.
Yet it’s so delicious that despite the ensuing, inevitable mess you’ll end up eating it up, and craving for more. That’s what happened to me. Or maybe I’m just a masochist.
At any rate, polvoron makes a great souvenir – especially if you want to have some fun with your unsuspecting friends. 🙂