The State of Street Food in The Philippines

My street food indoctrination started in the place where I grew up in: Quezon City.  I distinctly remember that after playing a long, grueling basketball game in one of our village summer leagues, my teammates all said “O tara! Pares tayo!

Pares. I was lost. Pares? I asked. Ano yun? Pares, as in “Mga pare? Mga dabarkads? Mga repapips?” Apparently, embarrassingly, it was not. You have to bear in mind this was years before any sort of foray from me into anything even remotely related to the culinary world. Beef Pares, apparently, as was vividly explained to me by my friends – is a meat stew from the gods. Pares was literally a translation of what it meant: a pair. This pair includes a close approximation to Vietnamese broken rice, lightly fried sinangag style, topped with fried garlic bits; and the star of the show – the beef pares itself. Beef Pares is a sticky, gooey, unctuous stew of melt in your mouth fatty beef parts, cooked low and slow for close to half a day or even more. It was heaven and I was hooked!

It became my mission to try every single beef pares place in QC -- from Commonwealth to Teacher’s Village, from Visayas Avenue all the way to Kamuning. If it had Beef Pares on the menu, I was ordering it. I have my favorites for sure and I still make sure I eat a serving every year on my birthday (usually on my way home from a night of drunken celebration), but this dish really to me was more the start of my immersion into the wonderful world of our local street food scene.

I would travel to several cities in and outside our country and meet new friends here and there. One thing that took them by surprise was I would always request to try their local street food. It became a mission of mine even before the whole movement was glamourized. I just felt a certain kinship to it because I always love a good story; and what is street food at its very core? Its origins could always be traced to a well-woven story, usually that of love and family. These stories that were passed through generations in the form of oral recipes and secret cooking techniques never seen in a professional kitchen.

I traveled to India on a tour once with my PINO business partners and hated the fact that we were eating sanitized hotel buffet food everyday. It was good, but I felt I wasn’t eating real Indian cuisine just yet. One of the latter days of the tour while everyone else was shopping, I spirited myself away to a dark alleyway that had several vendors side by side. I was so glad I did because this is where I first discovered the wonders of Indian Pani Puri, a rice flour snack shaped like a hollowed-out egg filled with different curries and chutneys; and the Gulab Jamun, a tiny fried donut soaked in a harmonious rose flavored syrup. I was in heaven.

After meeting up with the group, my partners called me crazy for even attempting to eat this “dirty” street food. But hey, my tummy was fine the next couple of days and I found out that all street food vendors in India had to have government sanitary licenses to operate, so I call my mini risk-taking a win!

A couple of years ago, my good buddy and erstwhile son of Zamboanga Marco Lobregat invited me over to his hometown for a mini culinary trade mission where we could introduce pro kitchen techniques to culinary institutions like schools and hotels to make the F&B scene a bit more mainstream and at par with the rest of the more progressive markets in the country. I came along fully expecting to be teaching a lot, but little did I know that I was the one who would be learning.

I learned the joys of how to cook alamang in coconut milk to produce an earthy, sweet bagoong that had a strong nutty aroma. I learned how to eat diwal and curacha – local shellfish and crustaceans that could rival any sweet lobster you can find. I was brought to a restaurant called Alavar and tasted the sauce of the place’s namesake, the sauce that I would add to my bag of tricks whenever I would go on competitions or do demos that had a seafood theme. The Alavar sauce – a mix of coconut, crab fat, spices, and aromatics – was pure ecstasy. We were pouring it on everything. Heck, I could have eaten it just by itself on a steaming bowl of white rice.

Photo by Jam Melchor
Photo by Jam Melchor

The Zamboangan breakfast wasn’t an afterthought, by the way. Marco took us to the Muslim part of town and proudly ushered us to a place that serves “Sati”. Sati was a traditional meal of small meat skewers, usually of beef or chicken, served on a generous plate of local sweet curry sauce. The clincher was the small nuggets of aromatic, sticky “puso” rice that they would slice up and dot the sauce with. We had more than 2 plates each.

Photo by Jam Melchor
Photo by Jam Melchor

If you didn’t want to trouble yourself flying out of the metro, Spanky Enriquez and his famous Pampanga Food Tours was truly a masterclass in understanding the origins and different types of arguably everyone’s favorite street food – SISIG. The trip cold opens at Mila’s Tokwa’t Baboy. The place’s namesake truly was worthy of its naming rights but all the other dishes that we ordered were also worth the trek north of the metro all by themselves. We had BBQ Tocino (yes it was as devilishly good as it sounds), huge grilled chicken tails, some pako (local ferns) salad, and of course, their sisig. It was both crunchy and chewy and the flavors just exploded and rolled all over your tongue.

Spanky then proceeded to take us on a tour de force of his native hometown on a hardcore eating tour. Highlights were a pastry shop known for their ensaymadas under the purvey of Chona Ayson. We had some of the crunchiest chicharon with laman served with atchara at Binulo inside Clark Air Base. We had the best Bahn Mi in the country at Rex Banh Mi - a streetside garage that also served as a softdrinks distribution warehouse. The coup de grace was yet another way of serving sisig, actually in the more traditional way – not sizzling. We had the Ranchero style sisig of Mely’s along Aguinaldo Highway. Their sisig was cut into bigger chunks and you could really still taste the “sinisig” part of the dish which is being soaked in vinegar, some calamansi, and soy sauce. Lipitor was invented for epic trips like the one we had.

With so much street food to choose from in our country, it’s actually worrisome why we aren’t really known for it even more. I started off my story about trying street food in India on purpose. If the street food there, in a country whose own tap water system scares even their own residents; and all the tour guides and friends who have visited the country before us vehemently telling us to make sure we know what food or drink we are putting into our bodies – can actually have their government regulate the vendors and make sure they pass all the sanitation and food safety requirements, why can’t we?

I’ve been to Bangkok in Thailand and noticed that the street food vendors wore the same colored shirts every night. Sometimes it was pink while on other days it was canary yellow. Apparently it was for the same reason as in India – they were regulated by their government to do so to assure the safety of those eating their fare. That pad thai cooked beside the highway right in front of you amidst buzzing cars and throngs of people are actually very safe to eat not because the vendor said so or because “it was cooked right in front of me” said so, but because the government said so!

In Thailand, the street food scene is thriving

You will see the same story all over the world be it in the scooter infested streets of Ho Chi Minh or the cosmopolitan chic of Osaka – street food is put in the forefront not just by keyboard warriors who have a misplaced sense of nationalistic pride, but more by their governments that see this humble cuisine genre as a massive driving force for their country and city’s tourism.

If we want Filipino food to truly be accepted all over the world, we need our street food to be at the forefront of the battle lines. We have to stop telling visiting foreigners to try balut and Betamax all the time, if even half the Filipinos I know don’t like eating them! The government must regulate street food for the safety of everyone. Don’t use it as an excuse to charge for hefty permits or fines. Use it as a chance to educate in proper food safety, sanitation, and handling techniques. Give our visitors a chance to have peace of mind that the next beef pares house they eat at or our favorite fishball cart actually serves government certified clean food.

Make “dirty” ice cream a fun name of the past and leave it to nostalgia. Let’s maybe rename it "street ice cream" or use the wonderful colloquial term – sorbetes. Take the fear of god out of these foreigners wanting to try our street food and make it a fun experience for everyone. This is our country’s culinary legacy and oral history. We cannot go on social media attacking everyone who says our food sucks. Let's make sure our friends from all over the world actually get to taste the very best of the best the streets of Manila have to offer. I truly believe that culinary tourism will be the driving force behind a new revolution of opening up our country to the stage of acceptance that we so desperately crave. Every single one of us are our very own foodie ambassadors, and this is a responsibility we must never ever take lightly. 

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