Let’s Get Critical: The Food

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As you may have surmised by my joyous posts from the Philippines, I’ve been enjoying the hell out of this place. The islands are beautiful, the water clear and full of amazing life, the prices are cheap and the people are just great. I totally endorse this place as an exciting and really fun travel destination, with one caveat:

The food. My Kiwi friends took some umbrage when I made fun of their stodgy hobbit fare, so now let me piss off any Filipino readers.

As you may have surmised by my joyous posts from the Philippines, I’ve been enjoying the hell out of this place. The islands are beautiful, the water clear and full of amazing life, the prices are cheap and the people are just great. I totally endorse this place as an exciting and really fun travel destination, with one caveat:

The food. My Kiwi friends took some umbrage when I made fun of their stodgy hobbit fare, so now let me piss off any Filipino readers.

It’s not that the food is awful here – it isn’t. It can be quite good. Adobo and calderetta are probably my favorite common local dishes. They vary greatly in quality and are pretty simple, but when done well they’re nice. They also do some good noodles – notably pancit bihon and pancit canton. These are fried noodles that can be a bit oily, but sometimes that’s just what I’m in the mood for. The best food here has undoubtably been the variety of fresh seafood available. I’ve eaten alot of big slabs of fish, including tuna, blue marlin, and lapu-lapu (grouper). The locals have generally cooked ’em up straight ahead, without any bells and whistles (no silly yupped-out sauces). Perhaps the best fish dish is “kilawan,” which is raw fish mixed with chilis, onions, vinegar and kalamansi (a kind of local lime). I had it several times in La Union and was well impressed – perfect hot weather eats.

Like I said, the food can be good, but it’s almost never GREAT. I did have two home-cooked dinners in La Union that were great, but those have been the exception. The rest of the time I have been eating in restaurants and the quality has been a culinary yo-yo ranging from tasty to nasty. What I can say is that the local food – the purely Filipino food – just lacks the flair of the cuisine that you find in other parts of the region – I’m talking mainly Vietnam and Thailand, whose street stalls alone can knock your socks off. These places are poor countries as well, where many people can’t afford to eat in the type of restaurants the cater to travelers. Even so, there are many local options available where the food is cheap and fresh. Here in the Philippines the food tends to be salty or tangy, but there’s no real complexity to the spices; stuff is served up really bland. They don’t appreciate much heat in their food, and I would advise anyone who comes here to never order a curry. They’ve been universally awful, so far.

The Philippines has its cheap local places as well, but the food is hardly fresh. These are often called “canteens,” and they consist of trays containing a variety of meat and fish dishes set on tables, with no heat sources to keep them warm other than the tropical sun. The stuff just sits there ALL DAY, sometimes feasted on by flies. The owner lazily hangs out in the corner while watching a blaring TV. When a customer comes, the said owner dishes out a plate of coldish rice and puts whatever pre-cooked congealed schlock is requested over it and hands the plate away. It’s all very half-assed, with no passion or pride taken in the food. One gets the impression that the country operates with such a mindset on many levels. I’ve found ALMOST NO little local places that prepare food fresh to order, other than a couple of pho’ places run by Vietnamese immigrants. And you can’t blame this on poverty, because other countries of similiar means have no problem sorting it out.

The result of this is that I’ve been forced to mainly eat in the tourist restaurants attached to guesthouses on near the beach. While they always serve up a few “local dishes,” the menu is dominated by generic international fair – pasta, burgers, pizza, fish, and chicken cordon bleu, which has been featured in just about every fucking restaurant I’ve visited over the last three weeks. I ordered it once and was sick for a day. I felt as if I had eaten a three pound ball of pig fat. After five years of Korean food, my system just can’t process such a grease-filled gut bomb.

Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe I’m a dumb tourist who has yet to be shown the way, but in the context of the region and what is available here (Freshness, Spices, Peppers!), Filipino food has a long way to go.



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