Filipino Street Food

Every country has its own culture and quite often the local food is both a reflection of that culture and a reflection of the physical environment that surrounds and influences the people. Such is the case with the street food available in the Philippines.

Throughout the Philippines, from the biggest cities to the smallest most remote provincial areas, there are street vendors and stall operators plying their trade. These vendors and the produce they sell invariably reflect ready availability of commodities from the local environment – specifically, anything that has a low initial purchasing price and the opportunity for a significantly marked-up end sale price. These vendors and their produce will to some extent reflect as well as create certain cultural aspects of Philippine society.

Perhaps the most famous or should I say infamous of all the products sold by street vendors is Balot. Balot is basically a duck or chicken egg with a semi formed fetus inside. For the uninitiated taste buds this tastes vile, and even the Filipinos whom I know that eat this do not claim it tastes nice.

The balut is normally sold by a vendor on his bicycle. The vendor will pedal the streets squeezing a little air horn and crying out Balut. Vendors such as this are a common site in most communities throughout the Philippines.

The vendor will have a basket with anywhere up to two dozen balot inside and there are two types of balot. Firstly there is ballot sa puti which is the egg with the line on it. In this balut the fetus is less developed. The ballot without the line is a larger ballot where the fetus is more developed to the extent where the nails feathers and hair are present.The basket serves to stop the balot from moving thus preventing breakage and also keeps the balot warm.

It is a commonly held belief amongst the Filipinos that eating balut is good for you and it will enhance your strength as well your virility. They believe that there are numerous vitamins and minerals inside the egg which are good for a person’s health. Whether this is true or not is hard to say without actually analyzing the egg but it is interesting that in nearly all cultures there is some sort of natural product that is believed to increase the male sex drive and general strength.

Male virility is an important aspect of Filipino culture and it represents an intriguing mixture of Spanish and Chinese influences. The ‘machismo’ and extroverted masculinity aspects come from the Spanish influence whereas the belief that a man’s potency can be increased by what he eats, is more of a Chinese concept. In fact I would hypothesize that the practice of eating of balut has Chinese origins and is a classic example of Chinese influence on Filipino culture.

Another food sold by vendors which clearly demonstrates the Chinese influence on Philippine culture, is chicken feet. I can distinctly remember the first time I saw these being served in a Chinese restaurant in Sydney and my reaction was much the same then as it is today, YUCK. However my reaction is far from common place in the Philippines as many Filipinos seem to consider barbecue chicken feet, barbecue chicken intestines along with barbecue pork as part of their staple diet.

Prior to arriving in the Philippines I always associated chicken feet with Chinese cuisine and upon first arriving in Manila in 1991 it was quite a shock for me to see them being sold on a street side barbecue stand. Over time I have gotten used to seeing them on a daily basis and upon reflection I realize chicken feet are another example of the Chinese influence on Filipino culture.

Paa ng manok. Chicken feet and example of Chinese influence on Filipino culture.

Apart from deep fried and boiled foods much street food is cooked by utilizing a barbecue grill. This is a very effective and cheap way of cooking but does not have the advantage of portability.

Pork along with chicken is very much the staple meat source in the Philippines. Again most parts of the slaughtered pig will be used for consumption including what is referred to as Tainga or pigs ear.

Where I come from it is common practice to pigs and chickens but only certain parts of the animal. Here in the Philippines nothing is left to waste as was clearly demonstrated by a visit to my local barbecue stand in New York Street Vila Sol.

Balat ng manok – chicken skin and puwet ng manok – chicken anus, just two of the many parts of the chicken that are sold at the barbecue stands. Other parts include the chicken intestines, chicken bowels, and the chickens neck.

Chicken neck and intestines. Virtually every part of the chicken is used in the barbeque stalls.

When it comes to street cooking the grill or barbecue is the qucik, portable and an inexpensive means of cooking. Best of all the raw produce can be readily purchased from the local market at very low prices and resold incorporating a significant mark up. These are high profitability items. The barbecue produce can vary in price anywhere from 5 piso through to 15 piso and it is often consumed in a social situation along with alcohol. When the food is served in this way it is referred to as Pulutan.

Chicken and pork are by far the most common sorts of meat consumed by Filipinos not including fish. The problem is pork and especially chicken are mostly fried which is not exactly the healthiest means of cooking. Upon walking the streets of Angeles you will often see street vendors with their portable stalls selling fried chicken. Normally this will be a piece of chicken wrapped in flour and a wok with cooking oil heated by a gas flame very much like an enlarged portable bunson burner. Each piece of fried chicken costs 20 piso and as you can see by the amount pf chicken he has pre prepared this is quite a popular snack and probably quite profitable.

The eggs of various birds and other animals seem to be considered a viable food source throughout the Philippines. For example you will see many vendors selling Pugo- quail eggs. These eggs are sold either hard boiled in a plastic bag of 4 or 24 together with rock salt or as quek quek where they are deep fried and covered in flour which has been dyed a light orange color. The Pugo are considered a light snack and sell for approximately 12 piso for a bag of four or fifty piso for a bag of 24. These are a very much sought after item by the Filipinos when traveling, as such, you will often see vendors plying their trade on the many buses that crisscross this country.

One part of the pig that is considered a delicacy is the pig skin or crackling as foreigners would call it. The pig skin is basically cut into thin strips then deep fried in oil. This is called Chicharon and served in a plastic bag with a vinegar and chili sauce applied liberally. The Pampanga area is renowned for its quality Chicharon and it sells for 20 piso per bag.

As you get into the poorer more provincial areas you will find both portable stores and stationary stores. For example on a recent bike ride we found this store which was almost like the Philippine equivalent of a local soup kitchen.

Again the primary meats were chicken and pork but utilized in a sort of soup concoction. Chicken joy would normally be a piece of fried chicken but when I asked the stores owner they replied with the by now standard phrase so common amongst the Filipinos, “aye sorry sir out of stock”. What they did have was a pork soup and a chicken broth soup with noodles. Both being composed of mainly the animal fat rather than any actual meat.

Pork fat soup

A chicken broth soup with noodles and pieces of chicken

Moving away from the meats and on a slightly healthier level, many tropical fruits and nuts can be found in abundance throughout the Philippines and often these will make the perfect produce for vendors as they are easy to find and cheap to purchase with a good end sale profit margin.

For some reason Filipinos seem to like a lot of their food stuff either raw or unripened. A classic example of this is the Green Mango. Vendors will mostly utilize a push bike with covered side car attached.

Some of the green mango are cut in half, skewered on a stick and placed in a jar of water. Accompanying the fruit there will be a jar of Bagoong (Shrimp paste) and or plain salt. A portion of Bagoong is served separately or applied to the top of the mango slice by the vendor.

I have often pondered why Filipinos like to eat their fruit raw and the only reason I can come up with is that in this country food can be a scarce commodity so if hungry enough you do not wait unti a fruit is ripe to eat it, on the contrary, you consume it as soon as possible. Secondly competition is fierce in this country and if you don’t consume the fruit when you have the chance, someone else will.

From eating raw fruit out of necessity I hypothesize that what started out as a necessity has slowly crossed over into mainstream culture to the extent where eating raw fruit is now considered totally normal. A second factor is that when eaten with the shrimp paste your taste buds are assaulted by totally opposite flavors which makes for an interesting eating experience.

Very often the Mango vendors will also have other types of fruit to sell including a local orange called dalandan which is picked and consumed whilst still unripe. Depending on the time of season there may also be oranges, mandarins and even apples.

One very popular and versatile fruit amongst the Filipinos is the banana and once again it is often served fried. When it comes to the vendors many will sell the raw product simply by having a bunch of bananas hanging of their cart or they will sell it as a type of banana fritter.

To make the banana fritter the banana is fried in a wok with raw sugar and cooking oil. The banana is very sweet and naturally filling which at ten piso a pop makes it a cheap way of taking the edge of your hunger.

The humble peanut is grown and sold just about everywhere in the world but here in the Philippines it takes on a special significance as it provides a food source and an income for a large number of people.
Depending on the season you will see street vendors with a variety of fruits ranging from Bananas and Mangos through to pineapples, oranges, mandarins and apples.

Slowly but surely as the Filipino taste buds become exposed to outside influences a number of different fruits are finding their way onto the streets of Angeles. For example on my way home after work I stopped at my favorite fruit stall on Fields Avenue only to be confronted with a variety of fruit including Kiwi fruit. Coming from New Zealand originally this was somewhat of a pleasant surprise for me and I asked SWMBO to ask the vendor if they were grown here and she received a definite yes. Somewhere around Angeles there is a kiwi fruit farm or maybe it’s in Bagiou, either way the point remains it is now finally possible to get a greater range of fruits in the Philippines.

The peanut is cheap, in abundance, easy to cook and an easy to transport food source which can generate a healthy profit margin when sold. The Filipinos have a number of ways of cooking the peanuts but the most common are steaming and deep frying in oil.
The vendors who steam the nuts normally have a bicycle with a large iron pot in which they place water. A wicker tray with holes in it is then placed on top of this and the nuts are placed on top of the basket to cook by steaming.

The nuts are sold in small paper bags and will cost 20 piso per bag.They also come sprinkled with fresh rock salt.

Steamed peanuts are also sold by the plastic bag full for 20 piso and these are also mostly sold by vendors using a bicycle with attached side cart.

Another way of selling peanuts very common in most of the bars is to sell a plate full of deep fried peanuts for 20 piso. For this the vendor will go the market buy the peanuts and other merchandise in bulk then resell them as smaller portions.

Being composed of numerous islands it is only natural that a major component of the Filipino diet is seafood and fresh water fish. In terms of the vendors this will normally take the most abundant and therefore easily accessible and cheapest product to sell. For seafood this will normally be a small fresh water fish called Tinapa. These fish are about the size of a sardine and are smoked by the vendor who then sells them raw and smoked. The cost is 25 piso for 3 pieces. Once the smoked fish is purchased it is then stir fried in cooking oil and eaten with rice.

In most cultures there is the stable starch based type of food group. Here in the Philippines the dominant form of starch type food is white rice, however, there are also a number of bread based products which are popular especially among the vendors. Of these the most popular is siopao

The closest equivalent I can think of to Siopao would be a dumpling. The siopao was originally a Chinese delicacy but is now very popular in the Philippines. It is composed of cooked meat wrapped in a sort of white bread bun and the meat is flavored by a special source.

It took me a long while to try siopao because the Filipinos used to joke that it was cat meat inside. I have since cottoned onto the fact that this was a joke and now quite enjoy it on an the occasional basis. I am still not quite sure what the meat is inside but I am leaning towards pork.

As you get into some of the more provincial areas the food types and the means of selling them become more basic. In many cases for the older and more traditional Filipinos you will not even use the bicycle but instead they will balance the food on their head and sell it like a door to door sales person.

Often these foods will take the form of a delicacy but always the emphasis will be on ease of preparation and low production cost with a decent sales profit margin.

There are many other products sold by the street vendors so many in fact that it would be impossible to mention them all in this article. What I have tried to do here is present the most commonly sold products and examined their link to Philippine culture and explain why these particular items are selected by the both the vendors and the customers.

A lot of street food are products which come from the immediate surrounding environment. Generally speaking these products are cheap to grow and can be sold for a handsome markup. One example of this is corn or maize as the Filipinos call it. The corn is sold on roadside stalls and also by mobile vendors who trail it around in a hot tub. Normally the corn ears are precooked and sold to purchasers with butter and a sprinkling of salt. The corn ears cost twenty piso each.

Some other items commonly seen being sold by the vendors are pusit barbecue squid, fried squid balls, taho which is soybean curd with caramelized sugar, buko, green coconuts which are supposedly very good for a persons kidneys and ice cream served in a bread bun.

The Philippine street food is both basic and diverse as well as being a direct contributor to, and reflection of, Philippine culture. It is nearly always plentiful, cheap, and ready to be consumed with minimal preparation. For us foreigners there is literally a whole new world to be explored complete with some very nice and some not so nice, taste experiences.

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