Philippines is a country that loves food that’s bad for you. We’re talking fatty meat, tons of sugar, lots of carbs, BBQ, fast food, bakeries, and cheap, brilliant booze like the nation’s favourite Tanduay rum that’s cheaper than coca-cola, and beer that’s so strong it probably shouldn’t come in litre bottles, but it does anyway. You can see influences from the various eras of colonisation – most claerly a love of barbequed meat and fast food from America, with hints of Asia coming through.
It’s food that’s great for a treat or a hangover, but we found ourselves indulging in their classic comfort foods all the time, and fruit and vegetables became a rarity. We didn’t take much convincing to just go with the Filipino way, but after 6 weeks we definitely came out missing spice, fresh flavours, crunch and fragrance (so it was pretty perfect we ended up in ‘Nam next!). Here’s a rundown of the Filipino classic eats:
1. Pancit Canton
Essentially a massive pile of fried vermicelli/thin noodles, with lumps of fatty pork and cubed veggies mixed in. It’s crazily cheap (we once got a huge pancit canton for 2 people for 75p), it’s filling, it’s comforting, and it’s everywhere.
2. Homegrown fast food e.g. Jollibee / Chow King
Jollibee is the Philippines’ fastest growing business, and you can see why. It’s a real family-brand fast food place that caters to feeding many mouths, with huge value meals containing a mix of all their classics – burgers oozing with cheese and mushrooms; hot dogs piled high with tangy cheddar; fried chicken; spaghetti bolognese (?!); not to mention hot pies, ice cream and soda. I’m actually salivating right now. Really great, really cheap, really moreish. A true guilty pleasure.
Chow King is more of a grown-up Cantonese style fast food place, selling delicious fried rice/dim sum/noodle combos, also with ‘Chinese style’ fried chicken that beats Jollibees as it’s super crispy and succulent. Their chocolate ‘paos’ (steam buns) and crispy siomai-topped fried rice became a genuine addiction.
Tiny chunks of meat (usually pork) marinated in sweet soy/meaty sauce, and tossed together with minced up meat and small diced veggies, served on buffets with rice for lunch. It can vary depending on the meat/sauce but it’s pretty much a staple. I found it far too fatty but Sam was a fan!
4. Sweet bakery stuff!
If you think you can go into a bakery in the Philippines and order something savory, think again. Filipino bakeries are where your insulin receptors go to die. There you will find such addictive delights as ‘cringles’ (melt in the mouth chocolate/cinnamon soft cookies doused in icing sugar); ‘sweethearts’ (purple uba cake with a layer of icing); cinnamon buns; ‘cheese rolls’ that are actually just sugar; chocolate-filled buns; pineapple jelly triangles with pastry sides… I could go on, but that might result in me boarding a plane back to the Philippines.
Delicious hearty noodle soup, mami is another comfort food classic. Usually with thick veiny yellow wheat noodles, a soft boiled egg, pieces of succulent chicken, and a few token veggies. It’s the tasty salty stock that makes mami a winner, and even in its pared back form, it’s a pretty reliable food. Sometimes it’s served with a side plate of meat that you can cut up and add to liven it up a little. I’m pretty sure we once ate it with dog meat in a shanty town in Manilla. I don’t regret it at all.
6. Pao, spring rolls and other dimsum
Philippines’ Asian influence really comes through in their snack foods, and you find pao / dim sum sold everywhere, from streetside stalls to convenience stores. The standard is generally pretty high, with bubbling hot vats of oil turning out spring rolls and dim sum galore bursting with sweet and sticky fresh pork and veggie combinations. They’re sold cheap in great quantities, so this fulfilled a lot of snacking/drunken grazing occasions! Sold with little tubes of soy and chilli vinegar for dipping.
7. Pork – lechon, fatty fried pork, scratchings
This nation is CRAZY about pork. It comes in all forms, the most famous being ‘lechon’ or whole-roasted pig, inherited from the Spanish colonial era. You also see this a lot in certain regions of South America like Peru, so we have the Spanish to thank for this delicious piggy snack, usually served on a tray with the crispy skin or scratchings. Pork also pops up on menus as the dominant meat in various dishes.
Filipinos are big fans of informal roadside eateries, and grazing throughout the day as a way to stop and catch up. As such you’d often see a shack selling spitroast chicken or barbequed fish (on smaller islands or near the coast), with locals buying up small plates or packages to take home and eat with their family. We had some truly delicious spicy spitroast chicken and squid in spicy coconut sauce became one of my favourite staple meals.
9. Small plates platter and rice
If you step into a local restaurant in the Philippines you’re likely to see an array of small plates like grilled fish in sauce, minced pork stew, satay skewers, chicken curry, fish or squid in soy sauce. Most people will just buy a few plates and share them with a big pile of white rice and lots of soy sauce and chili. As a tourist this means a bit of a ‘hit and miss’ approach to dining, but after a while you learn which dishes are your favourites, and it’s usually a cheap way to dine (about £1 each for a few dishes to share and some spring rolls)
10. Halo halo
If you’ve got a sweet tooth, this is essentially tastebud heaven. It’s sold everywhere, from local restaurants to chains – and it’s Philippines’ most famous dessert dish. A combination of ube flavoured icecream, vanilla and coconut icecream, puffed rice, jelly, and all manner of additions – from further fruit, to kidney beans, to nuts – it’s a real joy. The key is to order it with your main, let it melt a little, then dive into the big mess with aplomb. An indulgent and excellent way to battle the oppressive heat (or that was our excuse anyway!)
11. Hotsilog / sausage silog / other silogs!
A silog is a basically a meal with rice and fried egg! The most popular ones are hotsilog and sausagesilog which is just rice + egg + sausage or hot dog. Pretty plain and no-nonsense, but inevitably on every lunch menu.
12. Tanduay rum
DELICIOUS. National drink of the Philippines, costs only £1 for litre (approx $1.50 US) – dark rum that goes down far too easily, and is available anywhere. You’ll even find it being sold in shacks on tiny islands, in ice buckets in kareoke bars, or on the side of the road. It’s cheaper to buy than Coca-cola, so you’ll find it cheaper to buy a triple rum and mixed than a double! Although in reality you’ll probably be drinking it premixed in a massive jug in a bar (or on a beach), and you won’t remember much after the first bottle. Indulge!
13. Red Horse
Extra strong 7% ABV beer that’s sold by the ice cold litre bottle, it’s the nation’s favourite tipple, and at about 50p a bottle it’s easy to drink far too many of these smooth little bastards and wonder why you’re still up at 4am having an impassioned discussion about the housing crisis / right-wing politics / whether you should just move to the Philippines because life’s so much better there. In my opinion, a much heartier and tastier beer than the watery brews found elsewhere in Asia, but comes with a hangover to match.
Coconuts, in all their forms. Juice, icecream, woven into desserts. Coconuts are plentiful and cheap on many islands and its common to drink straight from the fruit. Now it’s all the rage in bottled, pricey ‘health drink’ formats but when in Indonesia it’s fresher and costs nothing. Indulge!