The high esteem in which Filipinos hold their food is encapsulated by the common greeting “Let’s eat!” Though Filipino food has a reputation for being one of Asia’s less adventurous cuisines, there is a lot more to it than adobo (the richly marinated pork or chicken national dish), and young, entrepreneurial restaurateurs and chefs have started to give native dishes an increasingly sophisticated touch.
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In the Philippines snacks – merienda – are eaten in between the three main meals, and not to partake when offered can be considered rude. It’s not unusual for breakfast to be eaten early, followed by merienda at 10am, lunch as early as 11am (especially in the provinces where many people are up at sunrise), more merienda at 2pm and 4pm, and dinner at 7pm. Meals are substantial, and even busy office workers prefer to sit down at a table and make the meal last. Never be afraid to ask for a doggy bag – everyone does.
Don’t be confused by the absence of a knife from most table settings. It’s normal to use just a fork and spoon, cutting any meat with the edge of the fork and using the spoon to put it in your mouth. This isn’t as eccentric as it first seems. Most meat is served in small chunks, not steak-like slabs, so you usually don’t have to cut it at all. Fish can be skewered with your fork and cut with the side of your spoon. And a spoon is so much easier for the local staple, steamed rice, than a knife and fork. That said, in some “native-style” restaurants food is served on banana leaves and you’re expected to eat with your hands, combining the rice and food into mouthful-sized balls with your fingers – if you don’t feel up to this it’s fine to ask for cutlery.
Filipino food is an intriguing mixture of the familiar, such as pork and rice, and the exotic – tamarind, screwpine and purple yam, for instance. The two main “national” dishes adobo and lechon are based around chicken and pork respectively. Pork is also the basis of Bicol Express (the best known of very few spicy local dishes), consisting of pork ribs cooked in coconut milk, soy and vinegar, with chillies (a vegetable version also exists).
In the world’s second largest archipelago, there’s obviously a lot of seafood to enjoy, much of it fresher and tastier in the provinces than Manila. The king of Filipino fish is the lapu-lapu, a grouper that is cooked in dozens of different ways, but is best grilled over a fire and flavoured with calamansi (native limes). Bangus (milkfish, which is about the size of a trout and has soft brown flesh) is one of the staples of the diet and can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner. It’s usually slit down the middle, de-boned and fried, then served with a tangy dipping sauce of vinegar and garlic. While swordfish, tuna, blue marlin, crab and lobster are all on seafood-restaurant menus, Filipinos also love smaller, humbler fish such as galunggong (round scad), which is part of the everyday diet in the provinces.
Vegetables are not considered an integral part of the meal, but may well be mixed in with the meat or offered as a side dish. In restaurants serving Filipino food, some of the most common vegetable dishes include pinakbet, an Ilocano dish, and a version of Bicol Express with leafy vegetables such as pechay (aka pak choy) and camote tops (sweet potato leaves) in place of pork. Also popping up on many menus is a version of chop suey, here a vegetable stir-fry, often containing shrimp or small bits of pork.
Noodles (pancit) are frequently used in Filipino cooking and come in various forms. Pancit canton is ribbon-like, stir-fried rice noodles, while sotanghon refers to thin, vermicelli-like rice noodles.
At many hotels and resorts you’ll be offered a Filipino breakfast, which typically consists of longganisa (garlic sausage), tocino (cured pork), fried bangus fish, corned beef or beef tapa (beef marinated in vinegar), with a fried egg and garlic rice. If this sounds too much for you, there’s usually fresh fruit and toast, though note that local bread, either of the sliced variety or in rolls known as pan de sal, is often slightly sweet (wholegrain or rye breads are unusual in all but a few big hotels). Another option is to ask for a couple of hot pan de sal with corned-beef filling, the beef taking away some of the bread’s sweetness. Coffee is usually instant, served in “three-in-one” packets, and dominated by Nescafé, though local, Malaysian and Indonesian brands are also available. Where brewed coffee is served, it’s often local and very good.
Desserts and snacks
The only difference between lunch and dinner is that the latter is more likely to be followed by a dessert. Traditionally this would be a sweet cake containing coconut, though these days dessert could mean fresh fruit, caramel custard, halo-halo, buko pie or brazos, a cream-filled meringue log cake. Filipinos also eat a huge amount of ice cream in a unorthodox range of flavours, including ube (purple yam), jackfruit, corn, avocado and even cheese.
For a snack in a packet, try salted dried fish like dilis, which can be bought in supermarkets and convenience stores. Dilis are a little like anchovies and are eaten whole, sometimes with a vinegar and garlic dip; they’re often served along with other savouries (under the collective name pulutan) during drinking sessions. Salted dried pusit (squid) is also common.
The Philippines is justly celebrated for its variety and quality of fresh fruit, especially its mangoes, which are ubiquitous throughout the islands and always juicy and delicious. The below list is just a selection.
Atis (custard apple or sugar-apple) Pine-cone shaped, and about 10cm long with green scaly skin, the ripe flesh of the atis is gloriously sweet and soft; it might look a bit like custard but it tastes like a combination of banana, papaya and strawberry, or more prosaically, bubble gum. With black pips scattered throughout it can be messy to eat. The main season is late summer to October.
Bananas (saging) Bananas are a staple crop in the Philippines, with a remarkable range of size and types grown in Mindanao and the western Visayas throughout the year; the country is one of the largest exporters of bananas in the world.
Calamansi Little green lime that is squeezed into juices, hot tea, over noodles, fish, kinilaw, and into numerous dipping sauces.
Coconut (buko) Another Philippine staple grown throughout the archipelago year-round, harvested casually by villagers as much as by commercial plantations for its refreshing juice and nutty white flesh. Used to make buko pie and a variety of desserts.
Durian The “king” of tropical fruit is spiky, heavy and smells like a drain blocked with garbage – but its creamy inner flesh tastes like heaven. Rich in protein, minerals and fat, the durian is one of the more expensive fruit in the Philippines, though in Davao, the centre of production, you can buy whole ones for P50.
Jackfruit (langka) The largest tree-borne fruit in the world (it can reach 40 kilos) is also one of the most delicious, with an interior of large, yellow bulbs of sweet banana and flowery-flavoured flesh.
Lanzones Small round fruit grown mostly on southern Luzon, especially in Laguna, and available October to December. It’s also grown in northern Mindanao and especially Camiguin, where there is a festival in its honour. It tastes a bit like a combination of grape and sweet grapefruit.
Mangoes (mangga) Eat as much mango as you can in the Philippines – you won’t taste any better. Most grown on the islands turn from green to yellow as they ripen and are always very sweet. The main season runs June through August.
Mangosteen Nothing like a mango, this sumptuous fruit the size of a tangerine has a thick, purplish skin and creamy white flesh; the season also runs June through August.
Marang If you travel in Mindanao look out for this special fruit (a bit like a breadfruit), a cross between jackfruit and atis, but with a taste all its own.
Papaya You’ll see papaya plants growing in gardens and along roadsides all over the Philippines and it’s one of the cheapest fruits. Some 98 percent of the annual crop is consumed locally and it’s extremely nutritious.
Pineapple (piña) The Spanish introduced the pineapple to the Philippines and thanks to the huge plantations run by Del Monte and Dole (both in Mindanao), it’s one of the nation’s biggest export earners.
Santol The santol is an apple-sized fruit, with a white juicy pulp often eaten sour with some salt. It’s also popular as a jam or a bitter marmalade.
Where to eat
The choice of places to eat ranges from bewildering in Manila to extremely limited in the provinces. In the latter it will almost always consist of straightforward Filipino dishes such as grilled fish or chicken and rice followed by mango. If you’re staying in a small resort the staff will often ask you in advance what you want for dinner and then buy it from the market or straight from a returning fisherman. As long as you don’t mind simple food, this can beat the big city for taste hands down. The final bill you get in a restaurant usually includes VAT of twelve percent and a service charge of ten percent, adding 22 percent to the price shown on the menu.
You’ll find McDonald’s in almost every big town, but the Philippines has its own successful chains fashioned after the US giant, with hundreds of branches of Jollibee, Chowking, Mang Inasal (with unlimited rice) and Max’s (for fried chicken) throughout the country – indeed, the corpulent “jolly bee” mascot is more ubiquitous than Ronald McDonald. Western-style sandwich bars are starting to appear too.
Most shopping malls also have food courts, indoor marketplaces that bring together dozens of small stalls serving Filipino, Japanese, Chinese, Thai and Korean food. Here you can get a decent lunch for under P250 including a soft drink.
In many provincial cities, look out also for ihaw-ihaw (grill) restaurants, usually native-style bamboo structures where meat and fish are cooked over charcoal and served with hot rice and soup.
Though not as common as it is in Thailand or India, street food still has a special place in the hearts (and stomachs) of Filipinos as much for its plain weirdness as for its culinary virtues. Hawkers with portable stoves tend to appear towards the end of the working day from 5–8pm and at lunch in bigger cities. Much of the food is grilled over charcoal and served on sticks kebab-style, or deep fried in a wok with oil that is poured into an old jam jar and re-used day after day. Highlights include deep-fried fishballs and squidballs (mashed fish or squid blended with wheat flour), grilled pig intestines and adidas – chicken’s feet, named after the sports-shoe manufacturer. Prices start from a few pesos a stick.
Street vendors also supply the king of Filipino aphrodisiacs, balut, a half-formed duck embryo eaten with beak, feathers and all; sellers advertise their proximity with a distinctive baying cry.
Carinderias and seafood buffets
Carinderias allow you to choose from a number of dishes placed on a counter in big aluminium pots. Carinderia fare includes adobo, pancit and tapsilog, a contraction formed from tapa (fried beef), sinangag (garlic fried rice) and itlog (egg) – which is exactly what you get, a bowl of rice with tapa and a fried egg on top. Other “combo” dishes include tosilog (with tocino, which is marinated fried pork) and longsilog (with longganisa). The only problem with carinderias is that the food has usually been standing around a while and is often served lukewarm.
In urban areas you’ll also find seafood restaurants displaying a range of seafood on ice; order by pointing at what you want and telling the waiter how you would like it cooked.
European, Chinese and Japanese
There are some excellent French, Spanish and Italian restaurants in Manila and Cebu City, and dozens of European restaurants in Boracay. Prices depend on where you are. In areas of Manila, you can spend P2500 or more for a good three-course meal for two; in Boracay you could have a similar meal for half that. However, European cuisine on the coast tends to be a little less sophisticated, simply because it’s hard to guarantee supplies of the necessary ingredients.
There are Chinese restaurants in every city and in many provincial towns. Don’t expect modish Oriental cuisine though; most Chinese restaurants are inexpensive places offering straightforward, tasty food designed to be ordered in large portions and shared by a group. A good Chinese meal for two often costs no more than P500. Another of the Philippines’ favourite cuisines is Japanese – there are Japanese restaurants in every city, ranging from fast-food noodle parlours to expensive restaurants serving sushi and tempura.
Bottled water is cheap; good local brands such as Nestlé Pure Life, Viva and Hidden Spring cost P20–30 in convenience stores. Fizzy soft drinks such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi are available everywhere.
At resorts and hotels, the “juice” which usually comes with breakfast is – irritatingly in a country rich in fresh fruit – often made from powder or concentrate. Good fresh juices, usually available only in the more expensive restaurants, include watermelon, ripe mango, sour mango and papaya. Fresh buko (coconut) juice is a refreshing choice, especially on a hot day. In general, sugar is added to fresh juices and shakes unless you specify otherwise. You might well want sugar with the delightful soda made from calamansi, a small native lime.
Filipinos aren’t big tea drinkers and except in the best hotels, the only tea on offer is usually made from Lipton’s tea bags. Coffee is popular and can be ordered anywhere, but the quality varies widely. Fresh milk is rare outside the cities so you’ll often find yourself being offered tinned or powdered milk with coffee or tea. Latte-addicts may be tempted by Starbucks which has scores of branches across Manila and is popping up in provincial towns such as Bacolod.
The beer of choice in the Philippines is San Miguel, the local pilsner established in 1890 and still dominating 90 percent of the domestic market (San Miguel also produces Red Horse Extra Strong lager). The only competition comes from Asia Brewery, which produces the uninspiring Beer na Beer and Colt 45 brands. Only a few foreign beers are available in bars and supermarkets, notably Heineken, Budweiser and Japanese brands. For something stronger there are plenty of Philippine-made spirits such as Tanduay rum, San Miguel Ginebra (gin) and Fundador brandy. Wine can be found in liquor stores in the larger cities though the range is usually limited to Australian or New Zealand mass-market brands.
All restaurants, fast-food places excepted, serve alcohol, but wine is rarely drunk; a cold beer or fresh fruit juice is much preferred. European restaurants usually have a limited wine list. For an average bottle of Australian Chardonnay or Merlot expect to pay at least P750. For something authentically native, try the strong and pungent tapuy (rice wine) or a speciality called lambanog, made from almost anything that can be fermented, including fruit. In the provinces both can be difficult to find because they’re usually brewed privately for local consumption, though lambanog is now being bottled and branded, and can be found on some supermarket shelves in Manila and other cities.