Local Cuisine

sisig at a restaurant in Angeles City, Pampanga

An undeviating element of our local travels is the cuisine associated with the places we have visited. Local food is something that we always look forward to in our travels and there have been quite a few instances when a particular trip is almost exclusively focused on sampling local fare. It helps that we are a bit adventurous not only in visiting off-the-beaten-track destinations but also in trying the unfamiliar when it comes to dining. We've sampled a wide range from local turo-turo fare or street food in some remote towns to gourmet food in fancy restaurants. The same applies to our culinary adventures in several other countries but there is nothing like returning to our Filipino roots.

What is Filipino food really? This was a question posed by a Filipino-American who grew up in New York as he traveled to his native Philippines with Anthony Bourdain in the latter's food and travel show No Reservations. Growing up in America, the guy knew for sure what Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Korean cuisine is; but Filipino? As we expected their travel to the Philippines did not yield any satisfactory answers but, as Anthony Bourdain implied, who cares? Just enjoy the food and enjoy they both did.

steamed dumplings at a Chinese restaurant in the Philippines
Chinese influence on local cuisine.

With over 7,000 islands and multiple ethnicities Philippine cuisine is diverse. Add the influence of the Malays, Spanish, Chinese, American and contemporary fusion trends and you will be as confused as that guy on No Reservations was. Perhaps this kind of influence has made many Filipino tourists and overseas workers adapt to foreign dishes with ease. (Perhaps, too, it is the reason why Filipino cuisine is not so well-known; Filipinos living overseas adapt to foreign food quite easily that they do not have to eat Filipino food where they live.)

fish at a seafood market, Real, Quezon
Seafood is a staple of Filipino dining.

Like any other cultural component, food is influenced by the geography of a place. Because the Philippines is a tropical archipelago lying in the apex of the Coral Triangle, seafood is a staple of local cuisine. Most of the seafood we have enjoyed at our beach and island-hopping trips are simply grilled, broiled or steamed without any fuss but often very fresh (taken straight from or very close to the source). At other times they might be included in a soup dish (tinola or sinigang) or cooked in creamy coconut milk.

laing dish
Laing, originally from the Bicol region, is a spicy dish in coconut milk.

Each region is known for specific specialties and in many cases these are also the result of the geography and consequently the farm produce (or lack thereof) in the place. From the Ilocos region comes bagnet and pinakbet. Some towns like Batac and Vigan have their own specialty empanada. (we should also mention the dried espada or largehead hairtail or beltfish from La Union that is so crispy good when fried that a Malaysian-American friend calls it "Philippine bacon"). We've also come to enjoy the fresh vegetables and coffee beans from the mountain provinces of Northern Luzon and still try to get a supply when we can even if we no longer live there. The abundance of coconuts in Bicol and the Bicolanos' love of chili have resulted in spicy dishes in coconut milk - highlighted of course by the famous Bicol Express.

sisig from Pampanga
Sisig is a 1970's creation from Pampanga.

Pampanga, home of great Filipino chefs, is known as the food capital of the country. There is a dizzying array of Kapampangan food available but the ones that have been adopted by the rest of the country include sisig, tocino, kare-kare, morcon and bringhe (kind of similar to biryani from South Asia and adapted by Southeast Asians). There are exotic Kapampangan dishes too such as betute tugak (stuffed frog), camaru (deep fried, adobo-style mole crickets) and balo-balo or buro (mudfish fermented in rice) most of which may not always be appealing to the fainthearted but which we did try and enjoyed.

stuffed frog from Pampanga
Stomach for the exotic: betute tugak or stuffed frog from Pampanga.

Talking about exotic dishes who can avoid mention of the world-famous balut, originally from Leo's hometown of Pateros. A not-so-well known fact is that this dish has its beginnings from China – Leo's Chinese ancestors were said to have brought it with them to the country; their descendants and Pateros townsfolk later made it famous. There are similar eggs in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia which we encountered during our visits to these countries. And there's the not-so-famous but just as notorious tamilok or shipworm found in rotting mangrove trees. In Palawan it is eaten raw and marinated in vinegar or calamansi extract. It is actually a mollusk – a saltwater clam – and not a worm technically. Eating it therefore is just like eating oysters. Andrew Zimmern featured this delicacy in his Bizarre Foods episode on the Philippines and actually liked it.

humba pork dish
Humba is a popular dish from the Visayas that has been adopted elsewhere in the country.

The Visayas are known for fish dishes, no doubt because of the abundance of water in the region. But they have also developed their own specialties besides: the La Paz batchoy, chicken inasal, KBL (kadyos, baboy, langka) and pansit molo of the Ilonggos. Cebu is famous for its lechon (Anthony Bourdain once said it's the best pork he's ever had). A favorite of Leo's is the Winaray version of kinilaw or ceviche: fresh fish marinated in coconut milk and spices from Samar and Leyte.

Mindanao, because it is closest to Indonesia and Malaysia, shares a lot in common with the culture and cuisine of these countries. The rich, pungent-smelling, fleshy durian from Davao and nearby provinces is a favorite of ours; we encountered that fruit in Davao first before discovering that it proliferates in much of mainland Southeast Asia. And then of course, the inihaw na panga ng tuna in these parts is something that will always be etched in our memories. In the past Visayan settlers have migrated here bringing with them their cuisine which has evolved over time to fuse with local fare. The food of our Muslim countrymen in Mindanao though is something we still have to try.

shrimp dish

As with most other cultures the world over, fusion between Filipino and international cuisine has happened throughout the country's history. It continues today and with even more adventurous experimentation. A few years back we were delighted to find out that enterprising Ilocanos have come up with a pinakbet pizza – and followed that up with bagnet, poqui-poqui (a smoky, grilled eggplant dish) and even crispy dinuguan versions (something to anticipate for our next Ilocandia road trip). Naturally, the Bicolanos also have their own take: the Bicol Express or laing pizza.

Our travels are not just about enjoying the beauty of the places we visit. We have learned to also enjoy the people, their culture and their cuisine – all of which contribute to the richness of our travel experiences.

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shoestring travelers Leo and Nina
fiddlehead fern salad
coffee and blueberry cheesecake at Bag of Beans
crispy biya at Chef Mau Restaurant
curried fish and shrimp at Kiss the Cook
sisig at Binulo Restaurant
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