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Exotic foods from the Philippines

by Ellon Labana

EXOTIC FOODS FROM THE PHILIPPINES

Text and Photo by Henrylito D. Tacio

“Food is more than simple nutrition for Filipinos; they love to eat, whether it’s a sit-down meal with family or friends or a quick snack.  Sharing food is one of the great social pleasures for all classes, and not having food for your guests is considered a source of ‘hiya,’ so mountains of it are served at parties and fiestas.” 

That is what Lindsay Bennett wrote in globetrotter island guide, Philippines.

Bennett considered Filipino food as “a melting pot” as it has “many differing cultural antecedents, with dishes and methods from Malaysia and Indonesia mixing with later Spanish, Chinese and American touches.”

Some years back, the Cable News Network (CNN) came up with a list of 50 Filipino foods that define the Philippines.  “Filipino food may not be as famous as that of its Thai and Vietnamese neighbors. But with more than 7,000 islands and colorful history, this archipelago has some delicious dishes of its own,” wrote authors Maida Pineda and Candice Lopez-Quimpo. 

The Philippines is renowned for its “adobo,” “sinigang,” “kare-kare,” “bulalo,” “sisig,” and “halo-halo.”  But some of the foods that made it to the list are what others called exotic foods.  Ingredients may be distasteful to some but are delicious to the people who eat them. 

In Pampanga, for instance, people cook mole crickets into a delicious appetizer called “kamaro.” The two CNN authors wrote: “If catching these bugs is tough, so is cooking them. Legs and wings must be removed, and then the body is boiled in vinegar and garlic. It’s then sautéed in oil, onion, and chopped tomatoes until chocolate brown. These bite-size appetizers are crunchy on the outside and moist on the inside.”

Ever heard of “betute tugak”?  The two authors shared this information: “The French may have turned frogs’ legs into a delicacy, but Filipinos take it to the next level. They get a frog, stuff it with minced pork and deep-fry it.” 

“Kapampangans are actually proud that their ‘betute’ is very unique to them,” wrote Alexander Villafania in an article that appeared in the website of Food and Beverage.  “This can be attributed to the fact that the frogs they use as the main ingredient for this delicacy are rice field frogs, which eat small insects. These are actually larger than the normal frogs that are sold for food in most wet markets. However, smaller sized frogs are still good enough to make ‘betute.’”

To Westerners, “dinuguan at puto” may not look appetizing.  But this black dish of pork and pig innards stewed in fresh pig blood seasoned with garlic, onion, and oregano and eaten with a white “puto” (rice cake) or steamed rice, is a comforting dish for many Filipinos.

“Balut” has been the “shocking” topic of some television shows because of its taboo nature in some Western cultures.  “Balut” is best eaten with rock salt or spicy vinegar; oftentimes, it is consumed with beer.  Named after the Filipino term which means “wrapped,” balut (a fertilized egg with a nearly developed embryo inside that is boiled and eaten in the shell) has been touted as an aphrodisiac as it boosts libido. 

You probably read “Dogeaters,” a novel written by Jessica Hagedorn and published in 1990. The title is a common derogatory term referring to Filipino natives who supposedly eat dogs instead of pork or chicken.

Dog-eating is common in many homes in the Philippines. Here’s one experience from a foreigner: “In Batangas, I once ate a Philippine stew dish, caldereta, which is made of chevon (goat meat).  It was delicious. However, one time I ate it, I was told this one was made from a dog. That was after I ate it. It tasted okay, like chevon really. I totally didn’t believe it was a dog; but I was convinced when driving through a back-street and saw a dead animal strung up by the neck, having the hide pulled off it, from head to tail. I thought of it as goat but the head was still with its hide and it was definitely a dog.”

If the dog is not your taste, then you may try “ginataang daga.”  It is not prepared from rats living in homes or in the cities.  These are rats “harvested” from rice fields in the provinces.

“I actually had an experience catching these rats and I find it more enjoying than actually eating it,” one blogger wrote.  “The best time to catch them is during the rainy season because the rat holes are filled with water.  Once they get out of their holes, we strike them with a bat or a stick.  Cooking it is just like cooking a “ginataang manok.”  However, it takes a longer time to cook it as you need to remove the skin, cut the heads and boil them several times to remove the smell.  The taste is similar to chicken.”

Then, there’s the “tamilok,” which has become one of the tourism identities of places like Agusan del Norte, Bohol, and most especially Palawan. If you’re still at a loss what a “tamilok” is, it’s actually a woodworm that tastes like your familiar oyster.  Although it looks like a worm, bigger than a twelve-inch ruler, it is actually a mollusk found inside rotting mangroves.

In her blog, Faith Salazar wrote: “Finding these woodworms among throngs of mangrove trees is not an easy feat. First, those scouting for ‘tamilok’ need to locate a dead mangrove. When they find one, they need to be careful when trudging muddy parts of the mangrove – it can get very sticky and slippery so their steps have to be calculated. Plus, they have to evade sharp shells and tree branches. When they get to the prized rotting mangrove, they hack it open. They are lucky if they find a ‘tamilok’ inside.”

Jodelen O. Ortiz, who has eaten “tamilok” when he visited Palawan, reports “They are served raw after their insides are removed and cleaned. You may choose between vinegar or calamansi juice for perfect dips. If I were you, however, I will ask for native coconut vinegar (the one from ‘tuba’) as ‘tamilok’ tastes better than the commercial vinegars.”

Those who have eaten “tamilok” said that it tastes better than oyster (“talaba”) and any other pulutan while some even answer that it could taste like cheese when served fresh.  But one this is sure: drinking becomes more engaging with tamilok as “pulutan.”

Meanwhile, there are many types of foods sold in the street, and here are certain favorites found in almost every place in the Philippines: “kwek-kwek” (made of quail eggs covered in orange dough and deep fried), “isaw” (chicken intestine put on a stick and grilled), fish balls (minced fish rolled into balls), betamax (a cubed, curdled blood of a chicken), adidas (the marinated grilled chicken’s feet), “atay” (marinated and barbequed liver of chicken), and helmet (the grilled head of a chicken).

Let’s cap this food trip with a drink – the civet coffee, which actually comes from the droppings of the nocturnal, cat-like animal called then palm civet.  These carnivorous mammals do eat the red coffee cherries that contain the beans. The consumed coffee cherries pass through the civet whole after fermenting in the stomach and that’s what gives the coffee its exquisite taste and aroma.

The Philippines indeed serves up some of the world’s interesting and adventurous traditional cuisine – mouthwatering for some, stomach-churning for others. 

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