A Philippine Food Guide for the Curious Traveler

Planning for a trip to the Philippines? You may have watched many vlogs on the local food, culture and travel destinations to prepare you. But have you covered everything you need to know? For instance, you should be relieved to know that not every Filipino is a balut eater. In fact, many have lived and died without even trying the infamous duck fetus. However, it’s customary for locals to challenge their foreign guest, especially those from the western hemisphere, to try it out. Just for fun.

The Filipino cuisine is like an abstract art. There’s no single prominent taste, no defined rules in preparations. It’s as varied as the dozens of languages spoken in various parts of the country. The influences can be traced from the pre-colonial rule to the influx of Korean students to key cities.

This is a food guide for the curious foreign traveler.

The legend of the unli rice

Filipinos love to eat. The kitchen is usually the busiest place in the household. People eat heavy breakfast, light morning snacks (merienda), lunch, afternoon merienda, dinner and late night merienda. The main meals typically involve rice and at least one dish. You may have heard of adobo or pork/chicken cooked in vinegar and soy sauce, or kare-kare, an ox tail dish in rich peanut sauce. These dishes are enjoyed with a serving of white rice. There’s a saying that a meal without rice is just a merienda.

Filipinos’ devotion to white rice brought forth the “unlimited rice” or unli rice craze. It started with one fast food chain years back. Today, there’s a long line of restaurants offering unli rice with another treat: bottomless iced tea. So, you pay for a dish such as a large grilled chicken thigh and you can order as many servings of rice as you can. The price is around Php100 to Php120 (around US$ 2).

The land of coffee lovers

Even before fancy coffee came to the Philippine shores, coffee companies have been raking in serious profits in the islands. Filipinos drink coffee regardless of the hour, wherever they may be. Breakfast is incomplete with a hot cup of this beverage. Merienda delights, which can be bread or rice cake, are enjoyed with another serving of coffee. Many Filipinos even get their caffeine fix before bedtime. Who cares if it’s sweltering on a May noon? Coffee is simply non-negotiable.

So, what’s with the coffee? Filipinos are a friendly lot. They relish conversations with family, friends and acquaintances about different topics — from the mundane to the politically charged. How else can you savor a good discussion but over a cup of steaming coffee? (This is probably why the country is also home to the heaviest gin drinkers in the world.) Moreover, the country has massive tracts of coffee farms. It produces the most expensive beans on the planet, Coffee Alamid, and some of the richest brews. Try out the acclaimed Cordilleran coffee — Sagada Arabica, Kalinga Brew, Benguet Brew, among others. You can buy a kilo of these beans for Php220 to Php300 (around US$ 4-5).

To use cutlery or not to use cutlery

Boodle fight is a traditional way of dining among military comrades. Large banana leaves are laid on a long table, then covered with cooked white rice topped with grilled meat and seafood, deviled eggs, tomato slices, green mango cubes and other vegetables. Troop members and their officers feast on this entree together, eating with their bare hands. It is said that this tradition stirs camaraderie between militarymen regardless of rank. The “boodle fight” serving is offered in many restaurants especially those near beach spots. This is probably the only type of dining where it’s okay to eat with your bare hands in public.

Regardless of what you’ve seen in reality shows or vlogs, Filipinos use spoon, fork and sometimes chopsticks when eating. Using bare hands is only acceptable in the abovementioned occasion and in one’s home. If your guests invite you to dinner and you see them eat cutlery-free, take note of these tips:

  1. Wash and dry your hands well before eating
  2. Don’t dip your hands on the food, use a serving spoon or fork to transfer food on your plate
  3. Eating with bare hands is only for fried or grilled dishes, use cutlery for everything else
  4. Licking your fingers is alright, just don’t overdo it
  5. Wash and dry your hands well after the meal

The wonderful world of condiments

Before a regular Filipino starts with his typical lunch of rice and local dishes, he performs a ritual:

  1. Gets 2-3 saucers
  2. Places 2 pieces of red chilis on each saucer
  3. Crushes the chilis, and pours soy sauce or fish sauce in one and vinegar in another
  4. Sprinkles the soy/fish sauce with calamansi (native lime) juice, and black pepper on the vinegar sauce
  5. Dips food into either mix as needed

Condiments add flavor to an already flavorful food. You will notice that Filipinos have quite vibrant taste buds. Their dishes is like a rollercoaster of sweetness, spiciness, saltiness, etc. You’ll get a sugar rush from the sweetened desserts and a real kick from the sour tamarind stew.

The seasoning mixes are paired with certain dishes. The soy sauce-calamansi mix is a staple for sinigang (tamarind stew), nilaga and bulalo, and the vinegar mix is typically prepared for salted dried fish and squid, and sauteed prawns. Any sauce suits unmarinated fried or grilled meat and seafood. The other condiments you may encounter are the banana ketchup, lechon sauce (made of pork liver), atchara (fermented vegetables in vinegar), bagoong (shrimp paste) and chicken oil.

The Philippines offers a gastronomic adventure like no other. You may try out beef stews you’ve tasted in Spain, rice cakes you’ve feasted on in Thailand or noodles that remind you of Taiwan. Dining with people is one of the best ways to gain travel buddies. Each dish has an interesting history and it’s most likely that your travel mate has his own version of such story. So savor the flavor, surprise your taste buds, and make sure you cap off your meal with a cold San Miguel beer!