Snails, San Miguel, and Shakey's Pizza: Eating Out in Manila
As the sun set over Manila Bay, I extracted a snail from its shell with a plastic toothpick and popped the slug-like morsel into my mouth. At first it didn't seem so bad, but then a strange and bitter aftertaste kicked in. I lunged for my bottle of San Miguel beer, that great soother of injured and tortured palates, and took a long restorative swallow.
I'd gone out for drinks with three Filipino friends, who'd insisted we order some bar snacks as well. Hence the snails. We ate while sitting on the pier of the Harborview Restaurant, which pokes out into the bay like an exclamation mark. From my seat I could see ranks of container ships anchored offshore, and towering clouds on the horizon turning pink with the setting sun.
Celso, one of my Filipino friends, skewered a snail and examined it carefully. Like me, he'd never tried one before. He chewed slowly with a grave expression similar to some medieval king's food taster. Will I keel over? he seemed to be asking himself. In the end Celso didn't keel, but he didn't eat another snail either.
As for me, I ate a few more snails, confirmed I wasn't a snail-eating kind of guy, and then let Joma and Oka polish off the plate. Meanwhile, Celso and I ordered more beer. Behind me I could hear the muted roar of Manila, a city of unlimited culinary opportunities. The roar called me like a dinner bell, for if I'd come to Manila for anything, I'd come to Manila to eat.
Hands-on Eating Experience
Dining in Manila offered me a hands-on experience in Filipino cuisine. Literally. At the Kamayan Restaurant, which translates roughly as the "Using Your Hands Restaurant," I dispensed with cutlery and ate the traditional way. This meant a plate of bamboo leaf, my hands, and nothing else except mass quantities of food.
After a round of San Miguel beer, Joma, Oka, Celso and I scrubbed up like surgeons before a lengthy operation. Conveniently, an entire wall of the restaurant had been devoted to hand-washing. A long row of clay water jugs with spigots stood mounted above a tiled water trough, with soap-dispensers spaced strategically between each jug. When we'd washed our hands as clean as silverware run through an industrial-strength dishwasher, we returned to our table to eat.
First came papaya slices, which we dipped into bagoong, a sort of fermented salty shrimp sauce. Steamed white rice and seafood chowder followed-the waiter issued us spoons for the latter like a quartermaster issuing special weapons to his troops before a particularly tough mission. Next came curry soup and a plate of impressively large crabs.
At this point a troupe of blind musicians appeared and began to serenade us with a rendition of "Hotel California," and I busted open crab legs so ineptly that bits of white meat and shell exploded across the table.
Next came an entire grilled pampano that looked as if it had been caught just minutes earlier. We squeezed kalamansi lime juice on the fish, whose tender flesh flaked gently from the bone. Glutted on seafood, we turned to meat in the form of lechon-roast suckling pig with crisp skin and tender meat that literally melted in my mouth.
"Cholesterol," said Joma blissfully through a mouthful of pork.
I'd made an unholy mess with my hands, but nobody seemed to notice. The blind musicians couldn't tell, of course, and my friends were too absorbed in their eating. My friends, in fact, ate like an army on the march. This, I soon came to learn, could be said of the entire country.
Patron Saint of Manila
I hadn't come to Manila just to sample the food, of course. I'd come to sample the beer as well, particularly San Miguel. Like a Guinness aficionado who heads to Ireland to sample his favorite suds, I wanted to sip San Miguel at the source.
I'd drank San Miguel in Hong Kong and Indonesia and various points in between; now I wanted to drink it in Manila, where it dominates the local market. San Miguel dominates the national market as well, and has become the Budweiser of the Philippines. Fortunately San Mig tastes better than Bud, an assessment shared by its fans across Asia. San Miguel, in fact, is probably the only Philippine brand name widely recognized throughout the region, where it is brewed under license in a number of countries.
I actually jumped the gun by having a San Mig with lunch during my flight from Hong Kong to the Philippines. Upon landing I continued my research and quickly discovered that Manila ranks among the best cities in Asia for beer drinking. I reserve the top honors for Hanoi, with its fifteen-cent draft beer joints that sprawl out on the sidewalks of the city's historic old quarter. Manila, however, comes in a close second. To put it simply, Manila offers good beer cheap.
Though Carlsberg and other brands can be found in Manila, most drinkers stick to San Miguel. I preferred the traditional pilsner myself, though Joma, Oka and Celso opted for the slightly blander but much more trendy San Miguel Light. A refreshing beer reminiscent of European pilsners, San Miguel comes in sturdy old-fashioned brown bottles with labels enameled in white paint. Corner shops sell bottles for about fifteen pesos (thirty US cents); prices vary at restaurants but are in general quite cheap when compared to other Asian countries.
As Joma proclaimed at the Harborview, a glass of San Mig in one hand and a toothpick-skewered snail in the other, beer drinking is a national pastime integral to eating, another national pastime. San Miguel, goes the joke, is Manila's patron saint.
My Filipino friends viewed eating as a more or less continual occupation. Like a herd of cows grazing its way across a pasture on the way to the feeding trough, we moved through Manila purchasing various snacks en route to various restaurants. We ate ice creams and drank Cokes; we munched on roasted cashews and watermelon seeds. We stopped in at the ubiquitous 7-11 convenience stores, whose motto is "The neighbor you can count on." From these ever-reliable neighbors I bought Kit-Kat chocolate bars, cheese balls, Keebler chocolate-chip cookies, Ritz cheese-sandwich crackers, Snyder's pretzels, and all manner of American junk-food.
I discovered my favorite Philippine snack at the Baclaran flea market, however, which despite its name doesn't specialize in secondhand goods. Instead vendors offer a variety of clothing and other items, including a wide array of edibles. In a neat juxtaposition of traditional and modern food, a man stood in front of a Dunkin' Donuts delivery truck selling bite-sized spotted quails eggs. I'd never tried quail's eggs before, so we bought a bag to sustain us on the ride to lunch.
I mangled the first egg I tried to peel and wound up with a mushy pulp of egg-white mixed with crushed shell. Embarrassed, I chucked the whole mess and started in on a new egg. Under Joma's tutelage, fortunately, I soon got the hang of things and began peeling like a local. The quail's eggs tasted like miniature hard-boiled chicken eggs; with salt they became nothing short of delicious. Give me a couple quail's eggs and a can of Coke and I've found the perfect snack.
Dampa Wet Market
My Filipino friends loved seafood, and the fresher the better, so one morning we headed out to the Dampa Wet Market near the airport. Advertisements for Colt .45 malt liquor adorned the outside of the market building; inside the market dozens of stalls offered a variety of seafood, from fish-heads to squid tentacles. Standing beneath the bare bulbs that dangled from the crossbeams, the women minding the stalls clamored for our business with the gusto of sports fans at a playoff game.
After extended bargaining we left the market with bulging bags of raw seafood-but no Colt .45-and then strolled over to one of the adjacent restaurants that maintain a symbiotic relationship with the market. We told the waitress how we wanted our seafood prepared, and she whisked the bags outside to a cook standing before a large charcoal grill. We watched as he went to work with an off-handed expertise. Or rather, I watched. Everyone else in the restaurant watched a local TV program called "Feeling Sexy." As near as I could work out, only moderately heavy women were allowed to compete for prizes in this beauty contest/game show complete with a cheering studio audience.
As a prelude to the hot food, we started with two whopping platters of tuna sashimi, dipping the pink squares into a soy-sauce and wasabi mix as airliners roared low overhead. By the time we'd polished off this unusually good platter of raw fish, our waitress had arrived with a bowl of sinigang. A common dish, sinigang is a sour soup that never quite contains the same thing twice. In our case, we got radishes, onions, tomatoes, greens, and entire jumbo prawns.
By this point I'd begun to lose my momentum like an overloaded truck laboring up a steep grade, but we'd barely started. I still had a long gastronomic road ahead, including steamed rice and an entire fish prepared in the inihaw (grilled) style. Since I'd selected the fish in the market, my friends insisted I eat the largest portion of it. After the first bite I knew this wouldn't be a problem, though I also knew I'd have absolutely no room left for the late-arriving bowl of oysters.
I leaned back in my chair and gave up long before my companions, who managed to consume just about everything on the table.
The total price of this feast? Roughly $24, or six dollars each. I thought surely we couldn't beat this price, and then we went to Chinatown.
The next day the four of us walked down Ongpin Street, which runs through Manila's thriving Chinatown like a main artery. As is true of streets in Chinatowns everywhere, much of Ongpin remained devoted to food. Chinese groceries, bakeries and restaurants abounded. The street flowed with a swirl of Tsinoys-as Filipinos of Chinese descent are known-laden with bags of fresh fruit and vegetables, packages of noodles and boxes of tea. We crossed a bridge over a fetid canal, passed under a Chinese arch, turned right and entered a narrow covered terrace that ran like an alleyway alongside the muck-clogged canal. This alleyway housed a half-dozen outdoor kitchens, each competing against the rest for a share of the lunch crowd. Women shoved competing menus at us with a flurry of "please sirs" as they tried to get us to sit at their tables.
Eventually we settled for a private room equipped with a wheezing air-conditioner, where we ordered somewhat haphazardly and then cooled down from the blazing heat outside. The waitress brought our food with a relentless efficiency. Black bamboo clams. Viscous soup laced with bits and pieces of various seafoods. Sweet and sour pork. Lumpia-fried spring rolls that are a national dish. White rice. Greens with oyster sauce. So much food arrived that we needed a second table just to hold the various bowls and platters.
I surrendered first, as usual, and pushed my plate away. We'd barely cracked twelve noon, and I'd already eaten enough for the entire day. My friends soldiered on until the table resembled an after-action battlefield, with broken-open clam shells, orange spatters of sweet and sour sauce, bits of rice, and crumpled napkins littering the table.
For a while we just sat, stunned, until Joma finally mustered the energy to summon the bill.
"Do you know what all this cost?" he asked as he examined the bill. "Just eight dollars."
The American Legacy
Though I never would have thought it possible, I'd actually begun to tire of seafood. The sheer mass of fish, crab and shellfish had simply worn me out. I needed a break; I needed something with bread and cheese. And so one night I walked over to the shopping mall near my hotel, where I encountered a man with a very large pump-action shotgun.
"Table for one, sir?" he asked cheerfully as he opened the door to Pizza Hut.
After being seated by this dual host/security guard, a waitress named Chona immediately appeared and asked in perfect American-accented English if I was ready to order. I perused the English-Tagalog menu, then ordered a small pepperoni and onion with the obligatory San Miguel. I almost felt like I'd teleported back to America somehow, since this Pizza Hut mirrored those in the States so exactly.
America has profoundly influenced the Philippines in many ways, most obviously in the proliferation of fast-food. Manilenos have taken to fast-food with a vengeance. Aside from Pizza Hut, I could have ordered a pizza at Shakey's, Dominoes, or California Pizza Kitchen. If I'd wanted burgers, I could have opted for McDonald's, Burger King, or Wendy's. Other possibilities included Subway, Sizzler, Mr. Donut, Dunkin' Donuts, Kentucky Fried Chicken, TGIF, Sbarro, and Orange Julius.
Jollibee, a local chain serving Filipino fast-food, bravely does battle with this American invasion. Pressing its home-court advantage, Jollibee more than holds its own. With 384 restaurants, Jollibee's red and white bumblebee gives Ronald McDonald, that multinational heavyweight of fast-food, some very painful stings. The two dueling restaurants often occupy the same block, and along with 7-11 convenience stores, comprise an integral part of Manila's urban landscape.
Though not all fast-food restaurants boast armed security guards, they all do offer extremely affordable prices. My bill at Pizza Hut came to two dollars, for example. Another hallmark of fast-food restaurants is attentive service by an English-speaking staff. In yet another example of American influence in this former US colony, English is spoken widely, fluently and enthusiastically by Manilenos. In fact, I know of no other city in Asia where you can reliably find English, fast-food and shotguns on just about every street corner.
Bulalo and the LA Lakers
Only one thing can distract a Filipino from his food, and that thing is NBA basketball.
I discovered this when the four of us drove up to Tagaytay, a city close to Manila known for its volcanic mountain lake.
We made our first stop at the People's Park in the Sky, site of a half-finished mountain-top mansion for Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. On a ridge running below the park the tradition of private retreats for the elite continued in the form of a planned community called Tagaytay Highlands, complete with golf course and perimeter fence. No one gets in without an invitation, said my friends, and not many invitations are given.
Far beyond and below Tagaytay Highlands we could see Lake Taal, a huge crater lake with an island in the center. This island featured its own smaller crater lake with an active volcano in the middle.
"An island within a lake within an island in a lake on an island in an ocean," said Celso as he described the scene below. Then he pushed back his black "Do the Dew" baseball hat and handed me an ice-cream cone.
We all stood eating our ice creams and enjoying the view, an experience marred somewhat by a booming karaoke machine-the bane of modern Asia-and the boyish croon of a man singing Eric Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight."
Not long after finishing our ice creams my friends began rubbing their stomachs and talking about lunch, though we'd barely cracked eleven o'clock.
We drove down into Tagaytay City to a diner-the many American terms used in the Philippines never failed to surprise me-serving the local specialties of bulalo and tawilis. A live game involving the LA Lakers played on the diner's TV. Nobody sat at the tables far from the action; instead everyone crowded around the tables close to the TV. Every pair of eyes in the place focused intently on the TV screen, while mouths, teeth and hands worked on autopilot.
I'm not much of a basketball fan, so I focused on my meal. I had to choose carefully what to eat, since I'd not yet digested breakfast and like an already full ship, could only take on so much more cargo before I headed for the bottom. I feasted on tawilis, small fried fish from Lake Taal about twice the size of smelt. I doused them in vinegar and salt and ate them whole. Head, tails, fins, bones-the whole package. In between crunchy mouthfuls of tawilis, I worked on a plate of spring rolls.
My companions left me to the tawilis and split their attention between the Lakers, lechon kawali-fried pork fat-and the bulalo. A carnivore's delight, bulalo is a beef broth served up in a huge bowl. It has many interpretations, but in our case the entire socket-bone of a cow's leg joint sat dead center of our bowl. Joma went into overdrive, lifted the softball-sized joint from the bowl and started gnawing like a starved caveman. "The ligaments are the best," he opined between mouthfuls. Once he'd gnawed the socket to a clean white knob, he began scooping marrow from the bone with his finger. His expression matched that of a kid stealing batter from the cake bowl.
By meal's end my stomach had begun to protest all the fried food that I'd consumed, so I self-medicated with another bottle of San Miguel pilsner. San Miguel cuts grease like a sharp knife cuts lechon. In fact, I discovered that San Miguel works like a curative tonic for just about any kind of stomach complaint, from indigestion to gas.
Their stomachs undisturbed but certainly distended, my companions rounded out the meal with Sprites and Marlboro Lights, attention still locked on the basketball game. In the Philippines, it seems, only the NBA takes precedence over eating.
Coffee Trumps Tea
My last meal in Manila wasn't really a meal at all. It was a beverage. A coffee in the Ninoy Aquino International Airport departure lounge, to be exact.
I thought this an appropriate ending to my culinary exploration of Manila, where java reigns supreme. Unlike most Asians, the Filipinos prefer coffee over tea. This can be ascribed to the colonial influence of Spain and America, two nations that love their coffee. As an American I certainly regret my country's colonial experiment in the Philippines, which suppressed Filipino independence for some fifty years at great cost in life, but if any good came of the colonial era, it was this legacy of coffee. I wholeheartedly approve of the Filipino love of the black stuff, for though I've drank gallons of tea in my Asian travels, I've never come to love the leaf the way I love the bean.
Foreign colonization continues in Manila in the form of Starbucks and Seattle's Best, not to mention Japan's UCC, but local competitors like Figaro and Brew's Buddies more than hold their own. Perhaps some day a Filipino coffee-house chain will be as well known across Asia as San Miguel beer.
As for my coffee at the airport, it came from a no-name lunch counter. As I stood at this counter dumping sugar into my styrofoam cup, I got to thinking about the new culinary habits I'd acquired during my gastronomic tour of Manila. Most obviously, though I'd always drank my coffee black back in the States, I'd started loading my coffee up with high-octane sugar loads while in the Philippines. This reflected local taste. I'd also acquired a peculiar lust for quail's eggs and Kit-Kat chocolate bars, neither of which I eat back home. My dining habits had changed, too, for I'd begun eating early and eating constantly.
With that last thought in mind, I finished my sugary coffee, then glanced at my watch. It read 10:30, and I thought, just about time for lunch.
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