Food trip for thought
I said last time that I will blog about something lighter. Here it is.
Personally, I think it helps to approach my hometown with the same sense of wonder that I adopt in my new home country. I wouldn't like to paint an all too negative picture of Quezon City or the Philippines. On the one hand, I think it's important not resign ourselves that the negative things we see in this country are the “normal way of things”. But paradoxically, living here is smoothest if you also, on the other hand, learn to accept that things happen (and are) in certain ways. This works for anything from social encounters to the social culture, from aggressive que-sera-sera driving to some extremely religiously conservative people. Not everything in this status quo is positive. For example, there is an obvious class society where members of the classes do not believe they are equal. Perhaps people do not even expect to be treated equally. But if you accept that things look like this right now, you also save possible frustration of thinking out how things “ought” to be, and enjoy the things you do have.
I often tell people that living in the Philippines isn't all that bad – as long as you have money. As long as you are not destitute (which some people are), the doors of the city will open for you. Actually, they will be opened for you by security guards! But then, the possibilities for urban exploration is enormous. If you go around, this city can offer you anything you please. And what Quezon City lacks in green outdoor space that I enjoy in Sweden, it makes up for awesome indoor mall space.
The mannequins ascend and descend from floor to ceiling.
If you have a sense of adventure, there is one thing that is definitely worth exploring in the city, in its nooks and crannies wherever you may find one. It is sensory, satisfying and an experience you can also live on for days – literally and figuratively. It is the city's offering of food. Any cuisine from Malay to Scandinavian, any food budget from almost-broke to exclusive, anywhere from a hole in the wall to a posh mall and beyond – the food landscape here is enormous. Of course, some food are better than others, but that just justifies the whole purpose of exploration. The phrase “food trip” here is probably as often said as the word “vandring” (hiking) in Sweden. For instance: “Let's go on a food trip in Cubao / Chinatown / Centris this weekend!”. That means hopping from one food stall or restaurant to the next, ordering and sharing food, and moving on to the next course or snack somewhere else, depending on where your craving takes you. It's like trying to explore a new forest path on the map, or seeing if certain forests are as full of berries as some people say they are. Your food trip map grows. You remember that crab place in Escolta, that ramen place in Alabang, that ribs place near Tomas Morato, etc.
At Lugang in SM North, Taiwanese cooks make xiao long bao,
different dumplings with soup inside
At Yabu in Robinson's Magnolia, pork loin katsu
with the best katsu crust ever (for now)!
Coming from Sweden where Chinese food means “something stir fried with oyster sauce” and Japanese food usually just means “sushi roll”, I am spoiled here just knowing that I can go to a place and have an option between kastu, sushi, ramen or Japanese curry, or Sechuan, Hainan or Cantonese specialties. I'm afraid to say that Sweden has nothing to the kind of Chinese food you can get in the Philippines. Filipinos, unlike many Swedes I know, are also used to eating many kinds of seafood and fish, which really do taste different from each other. The Swedish market prefers mostly cod and salmon, and most people my age I know can't even look at (not to mention eat) crab or oyster, nor have seen a whole fried fish on a table. In short, the Philippines is a good place to eat, and Filipinos – at least many of them – are very fond of eating a variation of things.
A word about Filipino food, which will probably be a mystery to most non-Filipino readers. It's hard to summarize what characterizes Filipino food; there are all sorts of different kinds from different regions. One thing for sure is that it is not like Thai food at all (which is a question I get a lot). The most important spice is not chili, but probably variants of bagoong, i.e. sauces or pastes made of fermented anchovies or shrimp. Many well-known dishes are Spanish- or Chinese inspired, such as paella, empanadas, or noodles and vegetable rolls. Along with dishes from the Tagalog region, these rank as “traditional Filipino” food, often served at fiestas. There are regional specialties too. A province that grows coconut will have regional dishes with coconut milk. Depending on what they grow, regions spice their sausages with garlic or sugar. And where it is dry an arid, they make dried pork that resembles German fried pork knuckles. There might be one or two well-known dishes from each region that are served virtually everywhere.
At a Christmas party: grilled fish (of which you can see half),
pieces of lechon (roasted pig), Pancit palabok (a Tagalog noodle dish)
and pinakbet, an Ilokano vegetable-and-pork stew with fermented fish sauce
Champorado (chocolate-flavored rice porridge) and tuyo (dried fish).
A strange but traditional breakfast combination. Sweet and salty.
It is likely hard to be a vegetarian in the Philippines. Most dishes all have pieces of meat or fish in them, and the most sought-after fiesta food are the meatiest, including crispy whole pig. But everyday food is simple, such as arroz caldo (a soup with rice, chicken, garlic and chives). Fish and seafood are also often eaten plain (boiled, grilled, fried, smoked or dried), with a vinegar or bagoong sauce, possibly with a tomato- or mango salad on the side – and rice, of course.
Grilled fish at the Centris Sunday Market
Fried shrimp in batter (eaten with the peel, fried to a crisp),
tomato salad with cilantro and squid cooked in squid ink
Filipino desserts and snacks are sweet. All too sweet, I sometimes think when I go back here on vacation. Examples are rice and bean cakes, but also fruit and jellies in syrup and ice. If you're in a fiesta, there is probably a flan resembling crème brulee, often paired with a soft pudding made of purple yam. The ultimate dessert, aptly named because it incorporates all of the above, is called a halo-halo (“all mixed in”). It is a tall glass of shaved ice, layered with sweet fruit jellies, roasted rolled rice, candied coconut strips, small beans, flan and yam. I know, it sounds like a mess. But I should tell you, if you order halo-halo special, then they also top this bomb with ice cream!