Saturday, May 10, 2008

Let's Talk Pinoy Streetfood

I lived in a paradox of sorts when I spent my formative years (seven years of grade school, three of high school) in San Beda College from 7AM-3PM and Sta. Cruz, Manila the other odd hours. The weird thing, which I will most probably expound on in a different piece, was that I went to school that charged 20,000 pesos a year while my friends took five pesos to school with them for their daily sustenance. That meant that after school, around the sons of lawyers, businessmen and other affluent families, I went home to a street where my friends and I brought out any leftover lunch; read: Black, burnt rice at the bottom of the pan and half a piece of salted fish, for a communal dinner capped by an eight-peso 800ml bottle of local cola.

So, in San Beda, I learned just how the good life tasted -- though those rich kids NEVER acted like the snotty air-headed morphlings of today's pricey schools -- and in Vision Street, Sta. Cruz a couple of blocks away from the then San Lazaro horse racetrack (yes, I knew that place before it had air-conditioned department stores and Starbucks) showed me how the good life... is over-rated.

Okay, okay...

I know you like your hors d' oeuvres and your bite-sized pieces of pastries and cured meats, hell, I know what you're talking about when you say amous bouche and pancetta, but do you know the's-damn-good delight of monosodium glutamate showered dirty oil deep-fried cow fat? Sebo, my dear cabron. Street food, for the average, subdivision-bred insolent means rubbery calamares or the classic 50 centavo fishball now relegated to second-stringer status due to rise of pretentious chicken balls. Some people recall banana-que and kamote-que. I even hear stories of "south" (ParaƱaque ain't no St. Luis or ATL mah boys... the real south is Cebu) grown girls in elitist schools who have not tasted balut. Seriouly, I understand the paranoia surrounding the gloriously germ infested fishball, but an egg is a perfectly clean life-support system designed by nature to protect the continuance of a species-- the point is, it won't make you sick and it's such a sin to carry a Filipino passport and not know how it tastes like. Dang.

Living in a street filled with horse-racing fanatics, a dash of addicts, a sprinkling of street ballers and computer addicts, my life at home was classically urban Pinoy. Fishball vendors were friends I even drank with one after they sold out the day's wares, always saving a fourth of a pack of fishballs and three one-day-old ducks for our pulutan. When I was a kid the most famous lady in the community was the Yakult vendor followed closely by the Magnolia Chocolait-in-a-bottle milkmaid.

I know street food. My circle of friends are street food connoisseurs.

Though some lament that our street food scene is not as eclectic and streamlined as, say, Hong Kong or Singapore, two Asian foodie havens whose cuisine is pushed forward and made famous by hawker stalls, I still think our street food scene deserves a more detailed look. And no, we are not going to talk about fads like buko shake or those crappy fried siomai, let's talk about the staples, the foodstuff of recently old, progressing from the suman, belekoy and panutsa - sugar, coconut and glutinous rice dominated delicacies, moving toward quick, filling and easy on the wallet fare purpose built for the hardworking Filipino. Many of these items can have different names, depending on the location, which is just another little quirk I love about Filipino street food.

1. Fishballs

Image grabbed from Google images.
Not the flat discs dipped in grossly sweet soy-based sauce. I'm talking about those that were scattered along Mendiola, more specifically, La Consolacion College: those were slightly more puffy, with a dense almost-real fish taste to them. These fishballs had body, more like miniature fishcakes in their slightly more yellow tinge, but the crowning glory of fishballs is the master saucer: there was this one, balding beer-bellied manong I ran to after every school day who made the best sauce. It was golden, not blackish-brown, with a sweetness countered by the rich folding of what I now realize was margarine, with a few sauteed then boiled chunks of garlic. That was the fishball that cost me 40 pesos per afternoon. I drank that sauce like it was Jollibee gravy, man. The we also have squidballs. Before the prodigious rise of the chicken ball, the squidball was the more expensive,tastier and more filling option. Squidballs are large, well, balls - back then with a real kick of squid. Today's versions are watered down clones. They were perfect when they reached their maximum size, then one skewers them with a bamboo stick to dip in vinegar first then the sweet-spicy sauce. Now, the best squidballs I know are those that really taste like squid and with a vinegar dip red with onions, chillies and kalamansi (Philippine lime).

2. One-day-old
Image grabbed from Google images.
These are called such because that's what they are. Orange, almost dry day-old chickens. I know they're chickens because at times, one-day-olds are actually two or three days more mature with the palong (crown) starting to grow out. There are two variations, one with the bitter gall bladder (?) left on for that weird and inviting bitter bomb or the one where the bladder is removed. Both are a study in contrast: the head,neck and legs are crunchy bites, while the abdomen offers soft innards with a rubbery thing I do not even know anatomically. But, the best thing about one-day olds is to crisp them, leaving it intact, dip them in the community vinegar dip and gobble them up whole. You might not hear this very common food phrase for this food item much but, it is a symphony of textures and tastes. Life.Is.Good.

3. Quekiam or Kikiam

Image grabbed from Google images.
Normally swimming in hot oil together with the first three, I'd rather not talk about that elongated blob of excrement-looking tube because I really don't understand it. Let's just talk about this quekiam I really am looking for these days but can't get a hold of. When I was in grade four ages ago, I had this P.E teacher who sold us a stick of Chinese quekiam, those thin, long, greasy and is-this-cooked? things for 10 pesos a pop. Every purchase gained three merits for that day's activity or a plus .5 to the final examination.Yes, Juans and Marias, smile as you remember your version of my teacher. So we bought them, because it was a way to get a free pass through boring P.E. The surprising thing was, they were so effin' delicious. Now, I forgot most of elementary days because I was a library book-club primero nerd, but I clearly remember how that red and brown stick looked and tasted like. It was speckled with dehydrated pork fat, those pearly globules just melted when you bit into them. It had this chorizo-like texture of dried sausage but with a hint of sweetness. It came with a peanut sauce that just crowned the whole thing king. I tried looking for it in Ongpin, I got some sauges that resembled it, but nothing that tasted like it.

4. Dirty Mami
The original Mami-Rider version
A bike connected to two stainless steel drums with a makeshift stainless counter top. Stopping at intersections and waiting for very eager customers. Now, when that manong grabs a red plastic bowl and proceeds to take a handful of noodles, put it in a small cup-like sieve and bobs it in beef broth, please,please, hold your claps as he ain't done. He'll put the noodles in the bowl, sprinkle toasted garlic, spring onions and boiled odd beef cuts to them. This is the time you interrupt - ask him to put boiled beef fat when he drowns the whole thing in broth. When he's done, grab the bottle of soy and hot sauce, flavor to your liking. Puto (rice cakes) optional, claps and admiration compulsory. And no, I am really not talking about those abhorrent Beef Asado (pares)-cum-beef mami mutations that are peppering the metro's streets these days, serving up bland, fake and woefully disappointing bowls dogs would be offended by.

5. The Pinoy barbecue de rigeur edition
Normal stuff you see on any street barbecue stall. Pork barbecue, pork ears, chicken and pork intestines or isaw, the occasional hotdog, chicken gizzard and pork liver. Not much to say, just this - ever wondered why most pork barbecues taste the same? I bought some in a wet market once and bought another in an entirely different city market. Both had the same cuts with skewered pork meat with fat at the bottom and both tasted the same: sweet and salty. the marinade was caramel black and wow was it good. Is there like, a factory of this marinade or a congregation of meat dealers who came up with this? Hmmm.

6. The Pinoy barbecue Indiana Jones edition
Image grabbed from Google images.
For the more adventurous set, there are the more acquired-taste line of barbecues. Betamax is coagulated pig blood blocks with salt and vinegar, very tart and the right preparation makes its texture texture like firm thick gelatin. Isol (visayan term), are chicken bottoms, the part where the tail feathers are stuck to, usually discarded in the First World. It an explosion of fat encased in crispy chicken skin. Pork skin and fat are also often offered, pushing the "nothing is wasted" mantra to artery clogging extremes. Chicharon bulaklak - I don't know the exact name of the part, but it's definitely pork intestine. When it's grilled, it becomes crisp with a very oily, heavy and musky taste. Adobo chicken feet which require some level of skill to eat. It's mostly tendons and the fingers are bony so the way to eat this right is to bite of the fingers one at a time, just take the skin and cartilege 'til you're left with the palm. Put the whole thing into your mouth and bite at the ankle and work your way up. you're left with a bone and a smile on your face. My favorite is helmet: chicken heads that appear in two ways - either as three whole chicken heads without the beak or just one head with the neck attached. I prefer the one with the neck. Eating the head is tricky, but I've mastered it to the point I do it without even touching it. Bite off the jaw, spit out the bones. Nit pick the eye with your teeth as these are inedible and leave the socket alone, do it with both eyes. Take the top skin off, the one covering the cranium and take the two big skull bones first. you'll see the brain, but don't chomp on it just yet. Bite the front of the head almost 'til the brain, it's gonna be juicy. Take the two smaller skull bones on the base of the neck off and suck the brains out. Chomp on the base of the neck to get the entire skull off. Wipe your oily lips.

7. Cherryball 
If you're over 25 and you don't know this, you probably had cable and aircondioning when you were a kid. Even a generator, at most, in the Cory Aquino era. They're small, screaming red gum balls for 10cents a piece. Normally stored inside a large glass jar in fornt of the store where you buy Wonderboy, Sweetcorn, Snacku, Nachos, Chiz Curls, Butterball, Litson Baka, Tira Tira, Kiamoy, The salty spicy dried dilis and squid, Pog and Teks (uy, ngumiti, matanda na. Hahaha).

8. The kariton Cheese curls
A kariton or wood cart is pushed by an old man. The cart contains a large plastic bag of cheese curls, the source of which remains a mystery to this day, which you buy for 25 cents per serving. He makes a large cone out of a page of an old phone directory and scoops the cheese curls with a tabo or water dipper and fills the cone with it. Enjoy.

9. Sorbetes or Dirty Ice Cream
Image grabbed from Google images.
Still exists today as a Pinoy trademark as iconic as the jeepney. Sold out of colorful pushcarts which open up to three tubs of ice cream kept cold by ice and salt. The flavors range from the classical ube (taro), mango, cheese chocolate to the updated langka (jack fruit), buko (coconut), peanut butter and cookies and cream. Served in either tasteless or sweet cones, small plastic cups or, my fave, monay or soft, round bread. Not as creamy as commercial ice cream, but suited to the tastes, and pockets, of the Juan.

10. Mani and Cornick
Image grabbed from Google images.
Peanuts and Cornick are exported these days, the peanuts are either skin on or off cooked adobo-style and fried. The cornick are crunchy pieces or corn. The one thing I love about street mani is that you can add chilli-salt to it. Plus the extra crisp garlic wedges.

11. Grilled dried squid and Japanese/White Corn
Image grabbed from Google images.
The man carries a small makeshift grill and plants his store anywhere the customers are. He only has one product : dried and salted squid which he proceeds to grill in front of you. This gives it the smoky flavor that makes the crisp squid that one hella of a crack. This process is also applied to (traditionally) white corn and yellow Japanese corn. You can see these blackened corn snacks in Mexico too.

12.Popcorn, cotton candy, scramble and taho

Scramble. Image grabbed from Google images.
All served in bike and cart contraptions except taho, these are the kids' favorites.Popped corn kernels in different flavors like cheese, barbecue and cotton candy. Seriously. Seen in glass and aluminum partitions with an incandescent bulb to light the whole thing up. Cotton Candy made in front of you with various colored sugar put in the middle of a cyclotron looking device, it's topped with a healthy sprinkling of powdered milk. Scramble is shaved ice with milk and flavoring served in a plastic cup topped with powdered milk and Hershey's Chocolate syrup (kuno). Taho is a soy-based semi-solid snack. Soft and jelly like, it's served in plastic cups with sago (tapioca pearls) at the bottom and arnibal or dark simple syrup on top. The choice? To mix or not to mix.

13. Dirty Salad
Another bike and cart contraption features about six bowls of different salads on a bed of ice and salt. Macaroni, Buko, Fruit...etc. Haven't really tried these as I'm not a big sweet salad person.

14. The Qs
Image grabbed from Google images.
Saba (plantains) and kamote (sweet potato) are fried in a bath of oil and brown sugar and skewered. Also features the tasty turon - banana halves embraced by white sugar, optional langka, then rolled in lumpia (rice paper) wrappers to be fried. The sweetness of the banana is heightened by the sugar and the wrapper crisps to texture defining glory.

15. Pinoy burger
A bastardization of an American import, featuring a very thin and flour-y patty, the Pinoy burger is quintessentially Pinoy - a bastardization of a foreign food item given color and variety. The cool thing about this street burger is the add-ons you can pile on top of it. Though bacon and mushroom aren't on the choices, the variations are still very worthwhile. Tomatoes, coleslaw (mayonnaise and cabbage), ham, egg and cheese make for a pretty filling burger. Though now rare, there was a time when the street burger ruled the street food scene, especially near schools. The more commercial version can be seen in buy one take one for free stalls that look much more dubious.

16. Pinagtabasan
This just takes the cake in terms of weird factor. Literally. There was this one lady that always appears early evening along my childhood street screaming "Pinagtabasan, pinagtabasan ng cake!" She sold sponge cake shavings. For real. I don;t know how she got them, I am baffled up to now, but when one was early and lucky, one got the parts with icing on it. Dang. Pondering this further (I first wrote this post in 2007), I now realize she probably had contacts in custom cake shops who shave off cakes to fit a design. So now, I know where the term "pinagtabasan" comes from.

17. The two peso Lumpia 
An absolute favorite of mine I just don't see around anymore. A man carries two stainless steel boxes. These are attached to a bamboo stick that runs across his shoulders. When you buy from him, he opens the box to reveal four compartments and a small working space. He takes a small lumpia wrapper and puts it in the middle of the work space. He lathers it with a brown peanut sauce and sugar then puts in the filling of sauteed carrots, string beans and monggo sprouts. He then asks you if you want it sweet or spicy. Say sweet and he lathers it with more sugar and peanut sauce, say spicy and a white mixture of chillies and other stuff is added. Say both and you get the trio. He wraps it up with a banana leaf and you jump for joy and screm to high heavens. Then put a comment on this piece with your location as I definitely want to taste that again.

18. Sebo (sub-genre: Fried Baga and Litid)
Sebo. Please note the serving cup. Image grabbed online.
Fried baga and litid. Image grabbed from Google Images.
Freshly cooked sebo. Photo by Bojji Catama
Directly translated, sebo means fat. Solidifies in minute in room temperature, black all artery traffic bad animal fat. Here's what happens, a man has a small wok-like pan on one end of his bike-cart thing and a pot on the other. After frying chunks of beef fat in the pan, he drains and puts them into the pot. He proceeds to shower it with monosodium glutamate (banned in First World countries) and salt, then he covers the pan and shakes it with gusto. I once consumed 50 pesos worth of this stuff. At that time, it was five pesos for a small plastic sorbetes cup. He measured with the cup, dumped it into a small plastic bag as I wailed for additional pieces and put more salt into the bag. I "stalled" for more than two hours after consuming that much fat. I was dazed and unable to function or do anything but stare at nothing while sitting in front of the sari-sari (variety) store. The only entry deserving a sub-genre, there's also the fried lung and tendons. Both on little bamboo sticks and pre-fried, the lungs are black while the tendons are bright orange. You pick your sticks and throw them into the oil to reheat them. The vendor sometimes saves you of this hassle and pours hot oil over his fare. The thing about this pair is the dip. Sweet, vinegar and soy based with finely chopped chillies. I have long tried to imitate the dip but I think I'm missing the core ingredient: jeepney exhaust.

19. Lugaw, Goto, Arroz Caldo
Here's's #2 Best Lugawin Manila: North Park's Congee.
Rice porridge is a Chinese/Spanish influence that has permeated Filipino cuisine so effectively that it has become part and parcel of every Filipino's fond food memories. From the Spanish, saffron-infused Arroz Caldo that features stewed chicken to the let's-put-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-in Chinese congee that can include, among many other things: century egg, fried dumpling, crackers and beef guts, the Filipino is treated to a wide variety of rice porridge. But let's clear up one thing here, goto is goto only when it has tuwalya (ox tripe) and becomes plain lugaw when it does not. The flavor of lugaw is derived mainly from the assortment of proteins that it is cooked with. Often, tripe, beef tongue, heart, tendons, eyes (yes, EYES, and they are glorious), brain and intestines are slow boiled with lots of ginger, onions and garlic, to which rice grains are added and cooked till they split, served with chopped spring onions, fried garlic and kalamansi. Best paired with Tokwa't Baboy, fried pork ears and tofu in a soy-vinegar dip. In my experience, the best are found in the grimiest looking places, just look for those stalls where people are jostling for seats.
Mata ng Baka Lugaw. A personal favorite. Image grabbed online.

20. Balut
Image grabbed from Google images.
The effin' King of Pinoy street food is steamed unhatched duck eggs.Many foreigners and pompous socialites squeal at the site of the veined yellow yoke and almost black bird. In fact, it has been hailed as The Most Terrifying Food in the World by popular humor site But really, there is nothing to improve on with Balut, cabron. Salt, spicy vinegar and a healthy blood pressure and you'll enjoy the creamy yolk, the innard-like texture of the bird and for some, the hard, crumbly white I-don't-know-what-it's-called-in-English "bato". The greatest thing about balut is the juice. You crack open the wider part of the egg to make a small hole from where you suck the juice out. It's like stewed duck, but a bit more different as the juice is embryonic fluid that is, well, so good I can't find a western food-applicable adjective for it.

There you go amigos, The food of the streets that define the Filipino palate: eclectic, adventurous, anything but wasteful and full of flavor and unapologetic cholesterol. Street food offers the in-your-face truth of showing you how it's created but with some mysteries that are as engaging as gypsies. The Filipino is not defined by Kamayan or Cabalen, the Juan who still takes home pansit is a Juan who knows that food should not be presumptuous or rentious. Chow, kain, lafang, banat. Call it whatever you like, but eat.
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