[OPINION] The ‘nilarang’ chever, and other Cebuano delicacies

Chai Fonacier

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[OPINION] The ‘nilarang’ chever, and other Cebuano delicacies
'Street food is almost always a highly localized experience. If you’re not from there – especially if you’re not from there – the least one can do is to show some respect.'

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the most Filipino of all?

Watching the Netflix series Street Food, I excitedly skipped to the Cebu episode right after I saw the first feature on the engaging Jay Fai of Bangkok. I’m homesick for Cebu and I identify with it. Having lived there over half my life so far, I was eager to see which of our street fare made the spotlight.

I was pleased, but wasn’t surprised, to find nilarang (or linarang) in their line-up. It’s a dish familiar to many a drunk Cebuano (only in so far as my own experience goes). The stew uses a variety of seafood depending on what is available, or the cook’s preference. Using bakasi (eel) is common around the Lapu-Lapu and Mactan areas.

My first taste of larang was one night in college when, after drinking with friends, we headed down to the street side of Jones Avenue. A steaming pot of nilarang was simmering on the side. The long table sat many others – the equally drunk, the night shift workers and the insomniacs, many of whom were apparent regulars of the spot, all looking for comfort in a bowl of soup. It wasn’t bakasi, but it was good.

But that’s my personal experience. The show, offers a more insightful perspective on what one chef, Manong Entoy, has achieved not just for the stomachs of his patrons, but for his community too, earning him a reputation among larang lovers and neighbors alike by cooking bakasi, nilarang style. Which was not so different from Jay Fai putting a spin on tom yum. I began to understand the connecting threads of the series.

Tuslob-buwa, also featured, is another food that I find fascinating. The version of the origin story I heard was that tuslob-buwa uses pig brains because it’s cheap and practical. Paired with puso, this quick meal provided fishermen the needed energy to go out and fish.

To my mind, experiencing Filipino street food is not limited to what pleases one’s palate. It is far from fancy, mainly because it is functional and practical – either its preparation is quick and easy, or its consumption is. It is the food prepared, sold, and consumed by people on a tight budget, the “pantawid gutom” for both cook and customer. It is a locale’s collective experience of that food – how it is consumed, when, where, with whom and who your suki is if you have one.

More than the flavours that attract customers, its connection to community runs deep. The needs that street food satisfies can tell us what ordinary local life is like.

So it was to my utter disappointment when certain individuals – storytellers at that – and their friends goofed on social media, belittling the province’s dishes as not being Filipino enough, less diverse in comparison to others, and therefore less deserving of the feature.

Woah, Brenda.

“More Filipino” supposes that identity is quantifiable. It glosses over the subjective nature of the standards upon which they base their statements. By what plastic ruler, and on whose authority is “Filipino-ness” measured, if it were at all measurable? If there is one, hell, then let’s all apply for the license. Does being “less diverse” take away from one’s Filipino-ness?

By their logic, if I were hypothetically unfamiliar with, and do not identify with Ilonggo food, does that also give me license to demean it? Do I now have the right to curate which stories the nation should tell, as if global stories could only allow for the most Filipino of us all?

I don’t need to mention names. At some point, other Manilenos have said a similar thing and it’s just as overbearing. Let’s stick to that: what has been said.

As if internalized Metro Manila-centrism weren’t bad enough, even sadder is that this counterproductive brand of regionalism isn’t the point to begin with. The episode was an introduction of our humble food stories and its people because, as episode host and food writer Jude Bacalso said during the show’s press launch, the production team was searching for food ingrained in the area’s culture but is not always in the fore of food stories.

So now instead of us being able to celebrate and share our stories of home, blame’s on us for being divisive, and now the entire discussion has been waylaid. Congratulations, I hope you’re happy now.

This Twitter thread sums it up. Nobody bats an eyelash when Binondo is featured over Colon. Nor do we complain when Manila is featured countless times internationally. But a little story from some hometown suddenly calls forth the self-proclaimed gate keepers. Has it not occurred to them that for decades, their current feelings of being excluded has been our suffering?


 Poverty porn

There were several complaints. The episode was accused of taking to poverty porn as a poor excuse to elicit emotional response. Another patronizing comment goes so far as to assume that – que horror! – “Cebuanos are above using food to fight poverty.” This, despite Bacalso narrating how much of the population live below the poverty line. 

Well, yet another Manileno telling a bunch of people he doesn’t belong to about who they are. What’s new?

Perhaps these people don’t eat street food enough these days to witness how poverty plays a huge role in it. It’s fairly easy to understand if they stopped clutching at their pearls in disgust and stepped outside of their insular worldviews. (The obliviousness over their own myopia is frustrating.)

A reason why street food was a point of interest is it allows people to fight back. No money? Let’s upscale scraps and sell them for cheap. No budget? Go to your favorite stall. Isaw, anyone? 

It isn’t to say that we now can leave marginalized people to their devices. The Filipino cannot live with diskarte and “waterproof spirit” alone. But it is irresponsible to not acknowledge the correlation between poverty and street food, or that it too is a discussion on class. It’s senseless to deny that it is about necessity, humble beginnings, creating relationships and contributing to the community’s economic survival.

Barely different from the other episodes, it seemed that what drama was involved only served as a backdrop to explain the subjects’ present circumstance, but none of them so sappy as to threaten MMK’s penchant for tear-jerking. If anything, the running theme was even that of empowerment.

Damned if we do, damned if we don’t

The critics sniped at the inclusion of the “goddamned Chinese fried vegetable lumpia! WhadaP@ck!” as too unoriginal to be featured.

In an Instagram post by Bacalso, she relates that the lumpia bit was a found story as the crew made their way towards Mang Entoy’s Bakasihan. 


Lumpia is among the array of staple fried foods that grace the stalls of the Cebuano pungko-pungko street food tradition. In the episode, host and Chef Myke Sarthou briefly explains the journey of lumpia towards Cebu centuries ago.

So, while it has foreign origins, lumpia has long been adapted into Filipino fare, as with any other foreign food that made it to our shores through our trading and colonial history. You can only imagine how much of the other cultures have visited our trading ports even way before the Spaniards came and tried to kill us off. I think that’s why people are fighting for our islands because we’re so strategically located. We have had access to others.

But the critics vehemently disagreed.

The counterproposal: Ilocano empanada, generally of Spanish origin.

The irony of it all. It is so stark, our grandmothers can feel it. News flash: both are Filipino fare, and neither is “more Filipino” than the other, get over it. 

Later, their defense was that they do like Cebuano food, just that the show’s choices weren’t “quintessentially Filipino,” and that “it wouldn’t hurt to choose a generally regarded Filipino street food to best represent our country.”

As if lumpia wasn’t already a staple in every birthday party, barrio fiesta and pungko-pungko. As if there were no special Filipino lumpia recipes shared among U.S. cooks online. 

“Us Cebuanos will be the first to admit that Cebu is not the best representation of the street food culture of the entire Philippines, but we hope through this show, the audience will understand that there’s so much more to explore, to taste and to try. We’re just scratching the surface,” Bacalso said.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to believe that in street food, there is no “best dish to showcase our country to the world.” It generally doesn’t care for world standards. Unapologetic, it only cares about its immediate environment’s necessities and tastes, which is exactly why it’s an interesting window to local life. To discourage the telling of stories like Manong Entoy’s by virtue of personal civilian opinion is utter snobbery, downright selfish and cruel.

What in God’s name is so bad about celebrating each other? Being that the Philippines still struggles over its identity, stories from home help bridge these interregional gaps that cause us conflict. The more we tell our own stories, the more intently we listen to each other, the better we understand. It would do well to do that first before we even care about the outdated concern often heard from elders: Unsa na lang ang ingnon sa mga silingan? (What would the neighbors say?)

I’d rather we encouraged more story telling about our origins than spend needless time policing other regional stories. Unless there was a memo, the Netflix feature was not a contest prize for who is “Filipinoest.” There was less focus on how to cook these dishes, but more on the people behind them.

Street food is almost always a highly localized experience. If you’re not from there – especially if you’re not from there – the least one can do is to show some respect. Many Cebuanos love nilarang. Many don’t know it, but it doesn’t make it any less of a street food than the next fish ball skewer. In existence for years, it is part of our street fare, consumed from street sides to small carenderias. Other provinces have particular dishes to their name. Nilarang is among the ones that are of Cebu. Who’s to say this isn’t Filipino enough?

Otherwise, we might as well have told yet another story on balut– Rappler.com

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