Philippine cuisine cops a bashing when conversation turns to foods of the world.
And understandably so.
The Japanese have their sushi. The Thais their curry. The Vietnamese their street food. The Filipinos, well, their Jollibee. Right?
A major reason for travelling is to experience the food of other countries. Behind each dish there’s usually an interesting story to tell as well.
Unfortunately, the stories behind Filipino dishes often told by travellers bemoan the lack of healthy choices at airports, street vendors and malls.
Even the most ardent of meat lovers like me find it hard to take after three or four days.
The Philippines has been heavily influenced – both good and bad – throughout its history by its immigrants and colonisers. That should make it the perfect melting pot for a delectable culinary landscape.
Nevertheless, visit any suburban mall food court (a popular thing to do here) and you’ll be confronted with a vast number of fast food outlets serving up burgers, fried chicken, chop suey and lechon alongside mountains of steamed white rice – all with the option to wash it down with litres of “Cokes”.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise then, that this is the country where a mascot that kind of looks like a bee with a freaky-looking human face does hip-hop moves to promote a sickly sweet tasting spaghetti, is revered as much as it is.
Kill me now?
It’s not all that bad.
The Philippines has a dynamic culinary culture that sadly too often gets lost on its visitors.
Yes, street food in Manila, for example, is less accessible than it is in Saigon’s hems and Bangkok’s sois, but it’s there and it’s tasty.
You just need to make a little more effort to find the good stuff.
I’ve visited the Philippines at least five times now and I’m still discovering things.
On my most recent visit to the islands of Cebu, Bohol, Negros and Luzon, I discovered some great food and was blown away by an emerging craft beer scene that has some of the best beers I’ve tasted.
This is part one of a four-part series. First up is Cebu.
On the small island of Mactan just a short walk from a statue of legendary local chieftain Lapu Lapu that commemorates his victorious 1521 Battle of Mactan over Magellan who, I was surprised to learn, was killed and is buried here, you’ll find long-running and well-known seafood restaurant, Salo Salo.
Here they do sutokil, which is fish done three ways – sugba (grilled), tuwa (soup) and kiliwan (ceviche).
At Salo Salo, like at other similar restaurants across the Philippines, you select your fish on the way in and then they prepare and cook it.
Ask for the Lapu Lapu fish, a grouper named after the man himself. It only seems fitting.
Where: Salo Salo is a short walk from Mactan Shrine
The epitome of a Filipino street food snack, chicharon bulaklak is the deep-fried peritoneum of pigs. I could get scientific but essentially it’s the membrane that lines the abdominal cavity.
Anyway, those bits are boiled in water to soften them up a bit, then fried in oil until golden brown, seasoned with some salt and eaten with a very tasty vinegar dipping sauce.
Grab a bag and down them with some beer.
Where: Keep your eyes peeled on the streets. We found ours not far from Larsian BBQ
Pinaypay Na Saging
Plenty of cultures have worked out that frying up bananas tastes damn good, but I reckon the Filipinos have nailed it, even by using plantains.
Pinaypay in Tagalog means fan, which is how the slices of plantain are arranged before they are dipped in a batter made from egg, flour and water and then fried in hot oil.
Once cooked, they are dropped into a bag of white sugar for a light dusting and then eaten with your hands on the go.
Imagine them with some honey, cinnamon and a double-dollop of cream. Amazing.
Where: Try it just outside Larsian BBQ on Don Mariano Cui St., Cebu City
Any post about Filipino cuisine can’t ignore this porky staple.
Lechon is roasted suckling pig and is arguably the best gift the Spanish gave the Philippines, along with pandesal and adobong pusit.
Cebu is the original home of lechon and is considered the best, so expect to find it easily. It’s served just about anywhere and on any occasion.
On this trip, I was taken to Ayer Lechon in Cebu City by The Bureau’s Cebu contributor, Jigs Arquiza. He’s lived here for years and knows where all the best spots are, so hit him up for a tour.
And how does it taste?
Where: Ayer Lechon has multiple locations but we visited 6000 General Maxilom Ave., Cebu City
Turning Wheels Craft Brewery was founded in 2014 by American Michael Nikkel as Cebu’s first ever craft brewery.
Located down a residential laneway and on a large block of land with parking, Turning Wheels is made out of converted shipping containers and is fitted out with wood giving it what our Cebu contributor Jigs Arquiza described “as a sort of old shed in the backyard ambiance.”
And he’s right.
This is where Michael and his small crew brew up onsite what is widely regarded by industry insiders as the island’s best craft beer, including their bestseller the Mountain King IPA (7% ABV), the Bust Up Brown coffee stout clocking in at 8.7% ABV, and my favourite of our session when I visited, the fruity and hazy hop-forward Juice Drops IPA (pictured above) with an ABV of 6.2%.
If you’re in town, get on down and enjoy a few frosties over a game of cornhole with mates.
Where: Turning Wheels Craft Brewery is at P. Almendras St., Cebu City
Words & photos by Matthew Cowan. Follow Matt on Instagram at @mattcowansaigon