Glutton Onboard: Gaining 100 lbs in the Philippines
There are two things that Thais like to lord over other Southeast Asians: 1. the fact that they were never officially colonized and 2. their food. I can’t tell you how many times I have listened to Thai people pontificate on the inferiority of the surrounding cuisines (Myanmar: “too salty”, Vietnam: “too bland”, Malaysia: “too greasy”, Singapore: “they took everything from Malaysia”, Cambodia: “what?”). In the case of the Philippines, Thais are especially derisive: “Their food is so bad, all they have is pig,” they say, without going into specifics.
Well, I’m here to say that Filipino food is absolutely delicious. Which is lucky for me, since I spent nearly my entire stay in the Philippines shoving my feelings down my throat and deep into my gut — with the help of many, many pieces of deliciously cooked pork, seafood and beef, of course.
Our first stop in the Philippines, Puerto Princesa, was actually food-free. Instead, we were slated to go to St. Paul’s underground river, a UNESCO World Heritage site that can only be explored via rowboat. Unfortunately, these boats can only be reached by motor boats, which then must be reached by van. Why not bus, you may ask? After all, every trip has used them before.
It’s because the road from port to pier is a relatively narrow, deeply winding road through thick forests and along mountain ridges, next to which vertiginous drops loom. Now, I have experienced harrowing car rides before. I have been on the highways in Northern India, where cows are indeed sacred and unpredictable, appearing at will on roads just as cars are starting to accelerate. I have been on the road to Hana. I have even been on the dreaded minibus ride from central Bangkok to Hua Hin. I know scary drives. And I have never been as terrified as I was on this ride to the pier, haring along hairpin bends, passing oncoming traffic by barely an inch, all the while fighting some fairly serious motion sickness. The payoff: we befriended a family of macaques, who walked us to the rowboat pier and walked us back to the beach after our tour. I suspect they mistook my son for one of their own.
As the whole day was spent in some form of transportation, we had only the cruise ship food to look forward to at the end of the day. But the next day, in Boracay, we expected to have enough time during our “Beach Escape” tour to flit away in search of some honest-to-god Filipino food.
The problem is, the bus that was available at the time was not big enough to fit us all, so my in-laws went before us, with my sister-in-law in tow. We took the next bus, about 15 minutes later, for the 30-minute ride to Puka Beach, where my daughter and I spent an engrossing hour searching for interesting rocks on the beach as my in-laws sat on a towel, waiting for lunchtime, when the buses would drive us to the nearby (and possibly only) mall.
The thing was, the buses were set, with each passenger meant to go to the mall in the bus they came in on, the transportation version of Frank Sinatra’s “Luck Be a Lady” (IYKYK). While my in-laws’ bus driver and guide were okay with letting them go, our bus guide felt differently, insisting that we stay with him. However, no one wanted to wait another hour for a bus to the mall, and everyone wanted to go together, on our own.
Where I thought that meant hiring one of the many electric “tricycles” nearby, I discovered it actually meant going on an entirely different bus, where our guide followed us. “This is not your bus,” he said he said to me, which set off my sister-in-law, who firmly told him, in raised enough tones to make me look at the floor, to leave us alone. It would only be a few more minutes before I realized we were, of course, displacing other people who had come to the beach on that bus, and that our “new” guide would have to find new spaces on other buses for them.
I wanted to sink into a hole into the ground, but the other passengers were mostly cordial during the excruciating half-hour ride to the mall. “How interesting,” said Cheryl from Charleston to no one in particular, as the Belgian man next to her averted his eyes.
It was no surprise, then, that once we got off the bus, I was eager to walk down the street, possibly forever. But we did not end up walking forever; instead we ended up at a place that my husband had found on Google called Kolai Mangyan (288-9616/288-2267), an open-air spot reminiscent of a Thai shophouse, selling the simple types of dishes that I imagine would be the Thai shophouse’s counterparts.
Eager to stop talking or thinking, I ordered greedily. There was “sisig barkada”, a dish of chopped pig belly, ears and trotters flavored with chicken livers and served on a hot plate. Although the pork is traditionally sauced with pig brains, mayonnaise is now the more common condiment.
We also ordered “bulasing”, a light, tart clear soup flavored with tamarind and, in this case, crowned with an enormous hunk of boiled fatty pig leg.
Like a plate of “pad krapao”, we were intrigued by the “bud bud” options, which feature minced meat (we chose beef) with egg atop a mound of rice (sound familiar?)
And finally, we had lechon, because how could we not have lechon? A platterful of crispy chunks of roast pig, it was accompanied by a bowl of sweet-sour dark dipping sauce, studded with onions and chilies.
At last full and literally rolling out of the restaurant, we finally did manage to find a “tricycle” which took us back to our ship, where we could recover for the next day, this time in Manila.
The plan was simple enough: to take a shuttle bus from the port to a shopping mall located in the center of town. We had prepared for Manila well in advance by interviewing all the people from Manila we knew (many of the crew on the ship) who had given us the advice to focus on one section of town: Makati. We would take a Grab taxi from the mall to the restaurant we had chosen the night before: Tatatito (Ground floor, OPL Building, 100 Don Carlos Palanca, Legazpi Village).
Unfortunately, Grab taxis in Manila are stricter than Grab taxis on Bali, and all rides are limited to six people. My daughter, sister-in-law and I hopped off to take a different Grab, but my father-in-law intervened, telling me to get back in the taxi. My daughter told him to take the taxi and that we would find our own way, which is when he shouted at her, “There must be a man in every group!” She quickly turned and left to go back to her seat, and I knew she was upset.
This was bad, because it was her birthday.
When we finally got to the restaurant (a song I had never heard before, called “I’m Going Back to Manila”, was playing on a loop in front of the mall and we went through six loops before we found our next Grab) my daughter was sitting at the table, her eyes red. Now, my in-laws react to things differently than my family does, and so they assumed that my daughter was suffering from some sort of allergy. When my mother-in-law suggested that we go in search of a pharmacy, tears began streaming down my daughter’s face.
My husband quickly said he would find a place to buy antihistamines, and asked my daughter Nicha to accompany him. After their departure, my mother-in-law scolded my father for yelling at Nicha. He grew defensive and raised his voice, saying that he needed to yell at Nicha earlier because the song “Manila” was playing so loudly in front of the mall. He then lapsed into silence, perhaps realizing that “Manila” was no longer playing, as I reached for the first bite to stuff inside of my mouth, a crispy vegetable fritter with a vinegar dipping sauce.
It was against this backdrop that we embarked on our next and last meal in the Philippines (after my husband and daughter returned): another sizzling sisig on a hot plate, accompanied by a fresh, warm, fragrant finger lime; beef “kansi”, an absolutely delicious sour soup also flavored liberally with tamarind; an “inasal” of tuna belly, in which the fish is marinated in coconut vinegar, pepper, annato, and calamansi before it’s grilled over hot coals; “karekare”, a mix of vegetables (including banana blossom!) and roast pork slathered in a peanut sauce; crab “relyeno”, reminiscent of Thai “poo jah”, a version of the traditional dish in which milkfish is stuffed and fried and served with three sauces including one made with fermented mashed jackfruit (delicious).
My favorite among these, however, was the adobong baby pusit, a mass of baby squid mixed in with a cornucopia of sautéed cherry tomatoes and big roasted garlic cloves, with another head of garlic as garnish.
Now, there is a dish in Thailand called “phra ram long song”, which is, next to See Fah’s “por pia sod”, my least favorite dish in the Thai culinary lexicon. It’s similar to karekare, which is why I did not enjoy karekare. However, the anchovy sauce that accompanied it — a certified tastebud killer, I assumed — went perfectly with the peanut sauce instead, rounding out the sweetness with its intense saltiness. Go figure!
I ate like I was being paid to eat. I ate like I had been enlisted into a contest and my family’s lives were contingent on my finishing every plate (except for the karekare). I ate until I just could not eat anymore. I imagine this was what everyone was doing, as there was very little conversation. Instead of talking, we chose eating, so that the words in our throats might be overpowered with tamarind, annato, calamansi, and chilies, left to languish forever in our stomach linings. When we finished, every plate (except for the kare kare) was bare, and our guts bursting. The words we might have spoken had been successfully suffocated. We ordered ube ice cream to finish, just in case.
We had no transportation drama on the way back to the ship.