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DOWN SOUTH | I’d Rather Eat and Try to Understand

This was written five years ago. There was Agness. Now there is Erik Matti. There were angry Filipinos. Now there are angry Cebuanos.

Last week, I was on a boat of mixed races: Filipino, Chinese, Korean, French, Belgian, and perhaps other races that I overlooked or forgot to ask. It was a happy, odd mix, I would say—a boat of strangers that sometimes ended up as Facebook friends or more often than not, started and ended as strangers. 

MT APO. Our guide in our Mt. Apo climb cooked this sinfully delicious ginataang halwan (cat fish with coconut milk). 

Our boat crew was admirable: they took our pictures, provided a rough course on swimming for those who could not swim, complimented us when needed, taught us Coron’s history, and fed us.  

Aside from maneuvering the boat, our captain eyed the fish he grilled at the makeshift abuhan (fireplace for cooking) behind him. And while we the tourists snorkeled or frolicked at the lakes, he and the crew peeled the onions, sliced the tomatoes, and prepared our lunch, which was part of the tour package. 

ISLAND STAPLE. A traveling cook and beach bum from Manila prepares this lato (a kind of seaweed) salad for us at Busuanga, Palawan. 

By noon, they served the grilled fish, lato salad, spicy crab, and eggplant salad.   

A French woman was allergic to anything seafood, but she understood that she was in Coron—a cluster of around 50 islands—and seafood was the staple food here. She did not complain and was rather pleased, or pretended to be, that the boatmen distributed soy sauce with chopped onions and tomatoes. 

OLANGO ISLAND, CEBU. Every May, Olango Island in Lapu-lapu City, Cebu celebrates Baliw-Baliw Festival, the perfect time to house-hop and pig out. 

“That would do. Soy sauce would be a perfect match with rice,” she said, perhaps with a hint of sarcasm I failed to notice. The boatmen were worried, of course. There was also a vegetarian in the group, a fellow wandering spirit and Cebuana I met in this place of beautiful ironies. She rounded the tables and asked for the vegetables that others ignored. All of us, regardless of races and circumstances that brought us to Coron, shared a long table of seafood bounty.   

KALINGA. Fhang Od—the 93-year-old tattoo artist at Buscalan, Kalinga offered us boiled beans and rice upon our arrival. 

The night I came back to Cebu from Coron and met fellow travelers and travel bloggers at Larsian—a barbecue landmark in Cebu, one of the topics was this foreign blogger that food-bitched the Filipino cuisine. I had not read the blog, so I could not offer my two cents.  It did not take long for this blog to flood my Facebook feed, knowing my contacts’ list has a fair cut of patriots, pseudo-patriots, travelers, and travel bloggers.

“You will love Filipino food for sure!”, “There is nothing better than seafood in the Philippines,” “Filipinos are proud of their very own local dishes” was the opening of Agness’ blog entry. 

[bctt tweet=”Our street food is meant to be eaten and enjoyed unapologetically, while our neighbors’ are meant to be photographed, eaten, and enjoyed.”]

Lost in Translation

Agness (yes, with ss) asked for a traditional Filipino breakfast and was given “a bunch of fruits, coffee with milk and some cakes filled with jam. Is this what locals eat in the morning?” I wonder if she asked the locals themselves if those were what they had for breakfast. It only needed an asking for everything to be clarified. Perhaps it was a matter of a language gap blew out of proportion. Perhaps the locals did not completely understand her and tried to impress her instead and served an inferior version of a Western breakfast: coffee with milk, bread, and fruits. 

MALAPASCUA.   Pork adobo at Malapascua Island, a favorite destination of Europeans, is one of the islands’ bestseller. Presentation is good, but meat wasn’t tender.

Traditional breakfasts in the Philippines are as varied as our languages, as diverse as our islands. In Kalinga, I had boiled sayote tops, boiled beans, rice, and coffee that Fhang Od—the 93-year-old Buscalan tattooist, pounded herself; I had balbacua for breakfast in General Santos; grilled saang (spider conch) in Surigao; sawaki in Camiguin, pinikpikan in Sagada. I could not even vouch that they are traditional “breakfasts.” They could be as good for lunch or dinner. 

PAMPANGA. Visiting Pampanga is never complete without tasting its famous camaru—sauted cricket. 

If she were in my mother’s kitchen, Mama would say no, we don’t eat that in the morning. In the countryside Tuburan, breakfast is as heavy as lunch and dinner. It means a plate of rice or corn grits, a bowl of hot “utan bisaya,” and a piece or two of fried or grilled dried fish. If she were in Cebu City, I would only serve her a cup of instant black coffee. That’s all I have in the morning. But perhaps confronted by the culture of hospitability, I would go out of my way, buy hot pandesal, and prepare scrambled egg or sunny side up—her choice. Or I would grab puto and sikwate—the combo that some Cebuanos (I cannot say most) prefer for painit (pre-breakfast snacks).  This is how Cebu City prepares her breakfast—the closest to “traditional.” 

Because the Filipinoness of our food depends on where you are rooted. The more I traveled around the Philippines, the more I realized how vague and how limiting we define our cuisine.
DAHICAN, DAVAO ORIENTAL. Eating with Amihan Boys at Dahican, Mati means fresh catch.

Street Food as a Tourist Attraction  

Looking at Agnes’ food photos, I could say that the food was not meant for tourists, especially Western tourists like her. What she had was intended for majority of the Filipinos who earned P50–P200 a day.  

In Coron, the boatmen served a similar fish she had in Manila, but Coron whose main occupation depends on tourism understands that styling and presentation can do a trick on simple island cuisine like grilled fish. Our muscular boat captain twirled a ripe tomato into a flower and placed it between the heads of grilled fish. Red—thinly sliced tomato—danced on lato. Yes, our muscular boat captain did those.   

CORON, PALAWAN. The boatmen at Coron know how to beautify a simple grilled fish. 

Perhaps Agness momentarily forgot she was in an archipelago with more than 7 000 islands to choose from. Too many islands for tourist attractions that even we Filipinos missed, overlooked, forgot the prospect of street food as tourist consumption. We marketed our smiles, hospitability, culture, and yes, traditional cuisine, but no, not street food.  Agness was lucky to find binignit sold in small franchises in Cebu (Fooda was the only place in Cebu City then). Fortunately, she enjoyed it despite the absence of food presentation. 

Traveler friends and Agness shared stories on the richness of street food in our neighboring countries. An American friend living in Hanoi kept on encouraging me to visit him and his Vietnamese wife and marveled at their street cafes and street food, among others. Looking at the street food pictures of our sister countries (wrote this before traveling outside the Philippines), I could say that the bochi (fried dough filled with bukayo), the skewered saang, the ginabot  (deep-fried pork viscera) and its pungko-pungko siblings, the puto-balanghoy (steamed cassava cake) I have in monthly basis at Carbon market or Colon Street would pale in comparison when it comes to food presentation.

Our street food is meant to be eaten and enjoyed unapologetically, while our neighbors’ are meant to be photographed, eaten, and enjoyed. 

CAMIGUIN. Suwaki (sea urchin) at White Island, Camiguin were priced P50 for three pieces circa 2013. 

Our street food would discourage not only some foreign tourists but also some of our fellow Filipinos. I have friends who gave me that “eww” look everytime I eat balot along Mango Avenue at night.  Some of us distrust, despise our very street food. 

[bctt tweet=”Too many islands for tourist attractions that even we Filipinos missed, overlooked, forgot the prospect of street food as tourist consumption. We marketed our smiles, hospitability, culture, and yes, traditional cuisine, but no, not street food.”]

There is virtue in admission. 

But what I failed to grasp was Agness’ indignation towards these foreign food. She has been traveling since 2011 and has been exposed to varied culture, extravagance, and poverty alike. 

SAMBAWAN ISLAND, BILIRAN. Having lunch with the stewards at Sambawan Island, Biliran is equivalent to hearing island adventures. 

Perhaps I am still a novice in the ways of traveling. But for me, a real traveler looks beyond the superficiality of things, looks harder and more intently, never looks away, never falls for bigotry, tries to understand, is weary of generalization, eats what is “local.” Like the French woman who made do with rice and soy sauce. Like an Australian cook eating bland boiled beans and an overload of rice. Like the hesitant Chinese fingering the lato. Like the vegetarian salvaging vegetables. Like eating ginabot the way locals do: by hand wrapped in plastic.  

And the act of eating anything local itself is already an unspoken permission, consent of the possibility of traveler’s diarrhea. 

Aren’t they some of the tasks we burdened ourselves once we start wearing the label “traveler?”

Jona of Backpacking with a Book

Hi there, I’m Jona, originally from Cebu, Philippines, had live in Hanoi, Vietnam, and now currently based in Munich, Germany. This blog used to house thoughts on life and books, but eventually it morphed into a travel blog. For collaborations, projects, and other things, please email me at backpackingwithabook@gmail.com. For essays, creative nonfiction, and others, find me elsewhere.

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