Monthly Archives: January 2010

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.

Angeles City Showgirls

Part of the changing face of the Angeles bar scene is the prominence of more and more show girls. In this article I will examine the concept of show girls, both the good and bad aspects, citing specific examples along the way.

The concept of show girls acting as an individual specialized dance group separate from the bigger body of normal go-go dancers has been around for a long time however the first bar to actually make their dance troupe prominent and try to attract customers utilizing a dance group, was Jools in Makati.

With their emphasis on show girls and specialized dance troupes, Jools was singlehandedly responsible for the emergence of showgirls and professional dance troupes into the mainstream girlie bar industry. The shows came about primarily because they saw the opportunity to cater for a sizeable niche market, that of local business men and their international clients.

Secondly the shows were perceived purely as entertainment. Rather than selling sex, the bar was seen as selling entertainment.The issue of bar fines has always been contentious in Makati and the shows basically took the emphasis away from bar-fines and placed it on entertainment. Lastly the shows were professionally choreographed and offered something different from the norm. At this time the majority of bars simply offered rows of bikini clad girls standing on stage hardly moving or the old fashioned Filipino style where a solo dancer would perform one or two numbers either removing articles of clothing or at the very least gyrating her body in a sexually provocative way. When Jools came along with their emphasis on professional dance troupes they raised the level of the bar so to speak and developed a whole new facet of the girlie bar industry.

The second stage in the evolution of dance troupes particularly those composed exclusively of female members was the emergence of the “sex bomb dancers” on mainstream television. In approximately 2003 -2004 the “sex bomb dancers”, who performed on a local afternoon show “eat bulaga”, suddenly became famous and a role model for every female from age 5 to 45. The sex bombs represented a celebration and the public aggrandizement of female sexuality. This was a sort of girl power movement taking the form of a dance troupe and complimented by a hit single. The Sex Bombs represented the slightly naughty and sexually provocative aspects of femininity as such it was only a matter of time until they became role models for females across the country. With their constant exposure through a national television station and airplay of the sex bomb song, it was in some ways inevitable that they should come to define certain aspects of femininity in the Philippines. Indeed, it was not uncommon to see female kids in the slums of Manila and in the remotest provincial areas gyrating their hips to the sex bomb song and directly mimicking the sex bomb dancers. Their popularity was to some extent ground breaking and it wasn’t long until rival groups such as the Viva hot babes came into existence and between them they paved the way for the emergence of all female professional dance troupes within the girlie bar industry and even within everyday Filipino culture including in the provincial fiestas.

Over my years of working in the bars I have seen numerous dance shows and so called professional dance troupes. I have made my own observations and talked to numerous customers and as such have formed definite opinions regarding dance groups. Basically I see more disadvantages than advantages but for the purpose of this article I will simply highlight both and let the readers form their own opinion.

(Picture of Blue Nile showgirls)
Angeles City bar show girls

The Blue Nile show girls during their seventh anniversary show.

In AC bars the Blue Nile Group was the first to introduce an individual group of dancers and they were called the Blue Nile Executive Cultural Dancers. Initially this group performed cultural type dances which reflected aspects of Filipino provincial culture. In the beginning the cultural style dancing was somewhat unique and was seen as different from the show girl groups that were later to dominate the scene. This however is no longer the case and now the only difference between the cultural dancers and any other group of show girls is the name.

One major advantage of a separate group of show girls, or cultural dancers, is that they break up the monotony of just more bikini clad girls standing on stage looking bored. When they first started in AC they were something different from the norm and helped distinguish the Blue Nile Executive from its competitors.

A second advantage was how the Cultural Dancers were perceived. As in the case of its Makati predecessor Jools, local business men would take their friends and business clients up to the Exec and watch what was perceived as a politically correct show. There could be no innuendo or allegations of sexual impropriety bought against cultural dancers whose dance reflected the cultural values of Filipino society. The cultural dancers helped the owners position the Executive so as to appeal to an affluent niche market and a more up-market clientele in general.

(Picture of Blue Nile showgirls)
Angeles City bar show girls

A third advantage is that it appeals to the guys who are already committed to a relationship with a girl and are looking for someplace acceptable to take her. Basically Filipina wives and long term girlfriends do not appreciate the girlie bars where bikini clad dancers make eye contact and flirt with their husband, however a show bar where the emphasis is on entertainment via a professional dance group, is a lot more acceptable and less threatening to them.

A further advantage is that when done properly a dance group can create an energetic atmosphere in the bar. In Neros it was not uncommon for the majority of girls to gather round and cheer on the show girls especially when they had a new dance routine. The newness of the routine was not necessarily appreciated by the customers but the atmosphere created by the girls cheering on the dancers, certainly was.

For every girl there is always a limit to her bar life longevity. All girls go through what I call the “barizing” process and after a while they are either too old or jaded to be dancing in a bikini however these same girls will often make excellent show girls because the emphasis, in their mind, is on dancing and providing entertainment, as opposed to dancing so as to attract a man for sex.

One major advantage is in terms of the image the showgirls portray. The professional show girls take away the emphasis on bar fines and sex for money replacing it with an emphasis on professional entertainment. This is a particularly relevant point considering the political environment at the current time.

The saying states, competition is a wonderful thing, and when it comes to show girls this is certainly true. Now that there are several different groups of bars providing show girls and competing for the same market, the standard of the dance routines has risen considerably and a new level of professionalism has come into being.

(Picture of Neros showgirls)
Angeles City bar show girls

The Neros cultural dancers in one of their constantly changing formations

Another distinct advantage is that show girls attract the better looking girls. Generally speaking the better looking girls, or the class A girls as they are often referred to, will work in the bar as a show girl as they see this position as being above the normal dancer. These same girls will not work in the bar as a normal dancer as they see this as being beneath them.

A final advantage is that when the show girls are on stage this gives the normal dancers a chance to mingle and communicate with the customers. It allows them time to approach the customers on the ground level and talk to him rather than having to make eye contact from the stage. When communication occurs between the girls and the customers everyone wins.

Perhaps the major disadvantage of having show girls is that it creates a division between the girls who work in the bar. As already discussed it is often the show girls who see themselves as being better or more important than the normal dancer when in fact the opposite is true.

The Filipinas who work in the bar often have what I call a clannish mentality where they like to form their own little gangs and in my experience having a separate group of so called show girls very much panders to the gang mentality.

(Picture of Bad Influence Dancers)
Angeles City bar show girls

Traditionally the showgirls see themselves as being better than the normal dancers and this falsehood is reinforced by the bars that try to charge more for the show girls to go bar fine with the customer or for her ladies drink. Indeed many times I have seen customers ask the showgirls to go out with them only to be told the bar fine is significantly higher because the girl is a show girl not a normal dancer. A perfect example of this is the Dollhouse spotlight dancers. In short I think the concept of show girls is often misused by the bar owners as an excuse to charge higher prices especially in terms of the bar fine and ladies drinks.

In many cases there is an over emphasis on the showgirls and a classic example of this is the Bad Influence Dancers. They are now being promoted as a major attraction supposed to entice the customer into the soon to open Golden Nile. The Golden Nile is a rather large building which will incorporate two floors of poker machines and other gambling activities with a large show bar on the third floor. In this bar there will no doubt be numerous dancers and yet the promotional banners outside the club only feature the Bad Influence dancers. Personally I think an advertisement stating that they have over 100 beautiful dancers would be a much more powerful enticement for me to visit the bar than an advertisement for the Bad Influence dancers.

Angeles City bar show girls

The Bad Influence dance group. They are performing in Cambodia but being advertised outside the Golden Nile.

In economic terms the show girls do not make sense. Basically they cost the bar more because they draw a higher salary and yet they do less wok than anybody in the club. Take for example the Neros show girls who get paid more than the normal dancers and yet they only dance for five to seven minutes out of every hour. The normal dancers in Neros get paid less and have to do a solid 25 minutes of dancing every hour for a nine hour shift. The showgirls on the other hand only have a 6 hour shift and are on stage for a maximum of 7 minutes every hour.

One big negative for me is the fact that the so called show girls often exist at a cost to the normal line up. A classic example of this is Tropix Bar. Here the mamasans have created a showgirl group by taking the best girls out of the normal dance lineup. As a result the normal dance line up is severely depleted of good looking girls.

The lack of variety in the shows is a big problem. Most often they will have a bakla dance instructor and the dance moves are just so obviously choreographed by a male trying to look feminine. When the real females copy these moves it tends to look ridiculous. What’s more most of the baklas have very similar dance moves so it looks like the different groups in different bars have all been choreographed by the same dance instructor. Here I must give credit to the Bad Influence at least their show is original and different from the show routines that exist in other bars.

The lack of variety is also a problem for the all female professional dance groups such as the Bad Influence. The Bad Influence originally came from Makati the spawning ground of professional showgirls and even though they have been working in the Blue Nile Group for over one year, I am yet to see a new dance incorporated into their routine. They are doing exactly the same dance numbers as when they first started.

Angeles City bar show girls

Far from dying the Bad Influence group is in fact expanding.

One very negative aspect for me regarding the showgirls is their lack of friendliness and interaction with the customers. Too often show girls develop an attitude that they are better than the normal dancers and this attitude is passed on to the customer in the form of aloofness. It is almost like they adopt a different perspective and see themselves as above going bar fine. In their minds they are now professional entertainers as opposed to normal dancers that have to go bar fine to make enough money. Indeed this attitude is reinforced by the bars who pay the show girls substantially more than their normal dancers. To often I have found the show girls attitude is one of aloofness and superiority. They think they are better than their fellow dancers and it is rare for them to smile at customers make eye contact with customers let alone interact with them in a friendly way. Lastly and perhaps most importantly these shows often become almost A sexual as the emphasis is placed on so called professional dance moves rather than flaunting female sexuality.

(Picture of Atlantis showgirls)
Angeles City bar show girls

From the bar operators perspective shows are not actually profitable because it is a well established fact that whilst the show is on the customers do not spend as much. Rather than drinking themselves or buying ladies drinks the customers tend to simply watch the show and not spend any money. Having said this Cambodia bar is persisting with the Bad Influence dancers and by all accounts they are the top money earners within the bar. So much so that management have now started a second Bad Influence group composed of local Angeles girls.

Personally I cannot see how groups such as the Bad Influence make money but obviously there must be an angle here that eludes me because if they were not a profitable option they would no longer be in existance. At the end of the day they like everyone else working in the bar are part of a business and as such are there to create money for that business.

For the customer who wishes to date a lady from the bar the show girls represent a major inconvenience. In most cases their bar fines are more expensive and even then the girl cannot leave until after a certain time as she is part of the show group. For example the Neros show girls are encouraged to wait until after midnight before they can leave with a customer. To me this is clearly a case of placing an emphasis on entertainment at the cost of customer satisfaction.

Because the show girl position is seen as being a better position than a normal dancer it is valued and a much sought after position amongst the girls. Because it is valued, so too is everything that goes with the position, including the dance moves. These girls literally see their position as a source of pride and whenever they get the chance they will revert to the dance moves they have learnt. In the local disco Skytrax it is not uncommon to see groups of show girls actually dancing to a particular song utilizing their dance moves incorporated in their show. The same scenario can be seen when a customer takes a show girl bar hopping, many times the girl will be in another bar and when she hears a song which is incorporated in her show she will start doing the exact same dance moves as she would when performing a show. Personally I find this slightly annoying and inconsiderate.

(Picture of Atlantis showgirls)Angeles City bar show girls

The Atlantis showgirls.

Overall it has been my experience that people like to see a large volume of girls on stage and that a large quantity of girls generates a much more positive, festive and fun atmosphere. The point here is that the show groups by definition are composed of fewer girls which will in turn influence the atmosphere in the bar.

There are some advantages to having showgirls and professional dance troupes however there are also many disadvantages. As the Angeles bar scene evolves I can see a much greater emphasis on show girls and professional dance group type of entertainment. Could this be the future direction of Angeles bars, are we looking at a future scenario where the bars are strictly entertainment like in Vegas? I guess only time will tell but I certainly hope this is not the case.