Generally speaking, easily available, reasonably priced food in the Philippines is atrocious. But there are exceptions. The trick is not to eat out. Home cooking is so much better, it’s hard to see how on earth most non-tourist oriented restaurants survive. Everything is either dried or fried. In vast quantities of oil and salt. Or it’s rice. Donsol City specialises in burgers. No idea if this is because visiting foreigners and domestic tourists won’t eat anything else there – I met two Mormon lads who go to the same place for a burger every single day. Given they were staying for 2 years, that’s quite something. They said it wasn’t so much that they like the burgers, it’s just that there really isn’t anything else not involving sun dried fish – which wasn’t their cup of tea. If you’ve witnessed the volume of flies involved in your average sun drying of fish process, it’s probably not yours either. The burgers themselves are interesting. Usually with a burger, the patty constitutes a significant portion of the whole. Not so here. Some of these burgers are in fact notable for having patties barely discernible with the naked eye, so thin and diameter of a dime-like are they. Goodness only knows what they consist of.
Bicol does boast one extremely worthwhile dish though – if you can find a place serving it for a reasonable price (by which I mean not a tourist resort where they’ll charge you the equivalent of a several day’s local wages for a starter). And that is the Bicol Express. Which is delicious. So delicious that we met one chap, who had hitherto given up on finding anything decent to eat in The Philippines, who was living on three Bicol Expresses per day and little else. I think it’s pork fried with chilli and coconut cream and salted shrimp and probably other things. Again though, the best Bicol Express I’ve experienced was home cooked.
Another thing you’ll be glad you ate (if you aren’t vegetarian, in which case you may well have starved by now – there are tons of lovely looking veggies in the markets, but goodness knows where they all go to) is Chicken Adobo and/or Pork Adobo. Not from Graceland. In fact do not eat there at all. They excel in rendering perfectly decent dishes inedible. And I don’t mean that in a guilty pleasure Hungry Jacks/Burger King type way. Once again, home cooked is definitely the best I’ve had.
Perhaps less gladdening is the insistence on eating fish for breakfast. While not unusual, I mean look at kippers and kedgeree, I just can’t get to liking it. In extreme circumstances it can take the form of a sort of fish head crisp/chip type thing – literally a bowl of fish heads deep fried to a state of extreme crunchiness.
Most Philippine breakfast fish is usually dried, or dried and fried, or fried and dried, or, well, you get the idea. And it’s rather strong on the fishiness front. Also rather full of bones, that I suspect one is meant to eat, but they’re often just that little bit too large for comfort. And mostly still full of guts. And, just not really what I like to start the day with. But there are many people here who clearly think otherwise – or perhaps it’s like that eating a frog thing (where you have a list of stuff you have to do and you deliberately “eat the frog” – the thing on the list you are least looking forward to, to get it out of the way, then the only way is up). Though if that were the case, I can think of at least one other thing that would qualify even better as the frog. And that is Balot.
The Philippines is completely obsessed with Balot. What is Balot? Balot is a half developed duck foetus, purchased still in the egg. Widely known for its knee restoring properties (and goodness for joints generally). You make a little hole in the egg shell – it needs to be large enough to suck the juice out through, but not so big that you stand any chance of accidentally catching a glimpse of the rest of what’s inside.
Once the juice is drained, you very carefully enlarge the hole until you can get some sort of purchase on the foetus and yolk with your teeth. It’s probably best to peel your Balot while distracting yourself with something else, then stick it in your mouth in one go. Whatever you do, avert your eyes throughout. DO NOT LOOK AT BALOT. Or so I am told by multiple helpful locals, full of concern for my knees and a more than wicked glint in their eye.
The boyfriend underwent a sort of Balot hazing ritual, in honour of his birthday. He’d protested quite vehemently against the slightest idea that he might actually eat Balot for weeks prior. And was finally forced to succumb via the medium of a bottle of Emperador (Philippino brandy) and a crowd of friends yelling, “It’s ya Birthday! Gonna eat Balot, HEY!” repeatedly until he did.
His verdict? Well, it’s not all that nice. Mushy and chewy at once and he’d generally much prefer a nice normal boiled egg.
Other street food can be extremely tasty – pork skewers, with their obligatory cube of fat at the end are sooo good. Intestines (pork or chicken) are also tasty, but more likely to mess with your own. And if you can find fried chicken skins with a vinegar and garlic dipping bowl, definitely try them – super nice. Then there’s sticky rice, either plain or coconut (coconut gets my vote). And, while not strictly speaking street food, they have Chicharron snacks. Pork free chicharron. Silicon is listed in the ingredients, but I have decided to ignore that. My only advice while eating Chicharron is don’t inhale more than the bare minimum – they release some sort of vinegar fumes that result in coughing and spluttering getting in the way of the eating. Chicharron are really horrible. But I am totally addicted.
One of my favourite dishes was bracken shoot salad, with green mango and chilli – seriously seriously delicious.
I don’t think it’s something on restaurant menus though, again you’ll need to get some home-cooking on the go. And heart of palm! Raw or cooked, very very tasty. Yet more evidence for the awesomeness of coconut palms – every single part of which is useful, in either an eating or a building sense.
So if you’re starting to despair, have hope – there is good food to be had, it’s just a bit harder to find.