Food for the brave: Eat prey, luv

Carla Montemayor
One dish does not define a cuisine. The food in a couple of turo-turos is not an accurate picture of the Philippine culinary landscape.

ABSURDIA by Carla Montemayor

So some backpacker complained about Filipino food. And we’re supposed to take it as an insult to the national honor? Please. I’ve made adobo out of locusts ordered from an online pet food shop, my stomach is stronger than that. 

I’m annoyed, yes. Baffled, as well. Mostly by the ignorance and general sloppiness evident in that “review.”

The apples were tiny? Uh, that’s because they don’t grow in the tropics, they are most probably from China. Bananas turning black? Well, that is the natural color they turn into when they ripen. 

Then there are the weird pseudo-scientific bits. They felt dizzy and tired after four days of eating local food. She had mood swings and migraines. Gutom lang ‘yan, day.

Most unforgivable for travelers claiming to be “food lovers and flavor hunters”: they were not able to try traditional dishes because they could not find them. Seriously? Were they wandering blindfolded up and down NLEX? Did some prankster let them loose in Banaue and tell them to look for a Michelin-starred carinderia among the rice terraces?

Make an effort

It’s not easy to eat well “randomly” in the Philippines, that is true. Manila is not Bangkok or Paris where it’s pretty difficult to eat badly anywhere, even in holes in the wall. But that’s not a serious  obstacle to someone who’s determined to seek decent grub. I’ve done it successfully for more than two decades across two dozen countries. If you’re going to be a glutton, you can’t be a half-assed one.

Do your research and I do not mean just googling the Top 100 Dishes to Try Before You Die. Look for names and addresses of restaurants and their specialities. Interrogate people who have gone before you. Upon reaching your destination, make a stab at chatting with locals who, in virtually every country I’ve been to, always try to keep the best food places to themselves. 

No success? Follow your nose. And eyes and ears. Suss out where the natives congregate, patrol markets, examine menus. Then you can make considered choices. There will be some hits and some misses but that’s the risk you take when you have limited time and funds to explore food in a foreign setting. 

I was in Hong Kong with my husband recently, strolling around Central wondering where to have lunch. While he used the toilet at a mall, I heard the faint clatter of crockery and spotted a small crowd by a nondescript doorway. I joined the queue immediately.

Thus did we snag our first tasty and cheap dim sum on lunar new year when everywhere was else shut. 

Caveat: Spontaneity is great but planning is essential. We combed through a pile of restaurant reviews and booked tables for other meals weeks before we arrived. 

Only for the brave

Now a few points about “street food.” One, it is not for the fussy. Whether it’s Manila or New York, you’ve got to relax certain standards you may hold regarding hygiene, presentation and quality of ingredients. If you can’t, skip it. Eat at fine dining establishments if you can afford it or at fast food chains where you know exactly what you’re getting (junk food that you can be reasonably sure is clean). 

On this note, I agree with some points raised by the blogger. Hep, hep – hold your fire, cyber-patriots. Many roadside eateries and food stalls in the Philippines DO serve food in unheated containers, use ingredients of dubious quality and probably do not store and cook meat/seafood at the right temperatures. Pinoys can be very cavalier about this owing to our make-do, cowboy spirit. We know, however, that these things can make us very ill (though not with mood swings). 

For this reason, I do not eat isaw. It’s chicken guts on a flickering grill, no thanks. Lukewarm dinuguan of uncertain provenance? Nope. I’m a proud Pinoy but I’m not martyring myself via typhoid and dysentery.

It’s got nothing to do with snobbery, I apply this to all food, humble or haute. I will not touch steak tartare, for example. Eat raw beef in Britain? Are you (a) mad (cow)?

I want my food cooked and served hot. I’ve done a food hygiene course, run a supper club for paying guests out of my home, make my own longganisa and volunteer at a charity kitchen that feeds over 70 people at a time. I am well aware of health hazards in food preparation that can be eliminated using proper equipment and simple precautions.

That these are unknown or unavailable to street food vendors in the Philippines and many other developing countries is not a huge mystery. Yes, Sherlock, street food in Manila is poor food. It’s not the gastronomic trend that it is in a city like London, where hipsters swan around food vans sampling lobster sandwiches.

Almost anywhere in the world, the poor get the worst foodstuff. Battered fruits and vegetables, cheap slabs of fatty meat swimming in re-used frying oil, sugary and starchy stuff to keep up energy levels, various offal because that’s the only protein they can afford. In Manila, they even get pagpag – food waste from fast food chains re-purposed into new meals. That’s what makes me want to retch: the fact that there are Filipinos who have no choice but to eat their countrymen’s rubbish. 

Keep that in mind before you diss or eat street food. And think of cucina povera, Italy’s “poor food” now celebrated for turning humble ingredients into delicious dishes. Food practices can improve but only if we acknowledge that there are gaps worth addressing. 

Point two: You cannot generalize about an entire cuisine from a very limited sample.  

“I’d rather go hungry than eat Filipino (street) food”– is a sweeping and unfair statement to make after having had a few shabby meals. One dish does not define a cuisine. The food in a couple of turo-turos is not an accurate picture of the Philippine culinary landscape. In the same way, I cannot judge Polish food on the strength of a few greasy kielbasas made of mystery meat.

Eat and learn

Which brings us to my final point about street food and eating in general: The best way to a happy stomach is through an open, inquiring mind.

Our tastes and our notions of “good” food are so bound up with our memories, our histories and social circumstances, our expectations and aspirations, what we think of as “exotic,” our ethical parameters and thus, even our politics. We approach food with all these yet we can still push the boundaries.

My father’s cooking inspired us to reverse-engineer meals that remind us of home. Had I been deterred by the tongue-numbing kimchi I ate on my first trip to Seoul, I would never have discovered chap chae, bulogogi and bibimbap – luxuries I now crave. 

The initial poor impression of “British food” I had has long been shattered by an English husband whose idea of home-cooked meals includes preparing meat in a temperature-controlled water bath (sous-vide) for two days. That adobong locust I made? That challenged my own deeply-held hypocrisies: I don’t have a problem eating bugs because I’m of a tribe that kills and dismembers animals for food. Unless you’re a vegan, spare me the ewwws. 

My goal: to seek out unfamiliar flavors and textures, test limits, improvize, study context and try suspending certain biases. In the process I am discovering how wonderfully varied, strange and interesting all food can be, and how complex and resourceful the humans are who make it.  –

The author works and lives in London.