I apologize for the rather dark and fuzzy way the picture looks, but this is because the street food carts here in Manila are only out and about after dark. Street food here in the Philippines has become more than just a way of satisfying one’s hunger on the road; it’s become an intrinsic part of urban culture in this part of the world.
Street food carts offer everything from quick snacks for those on the go, bar chow for the drinking crowd, pick-up meals for those too tired (or lazy) to cook dinner, to the sort of soups and savoury porridges that serve as hangover cures for the seriously smashed. Really, the carts have something for everyone.
Fish balls – the name is also spelled as ‘fishballs’, a compound word – are, arguably, the most popular treats. Back when I was a kid, mothers used to go crazy whenever their kids bought these deep-fried, odoriferous treats, seeing how the sanitary standards weren’t at all that high. But anyone who grew up in the Philippines between the 1970s and the early noughties (right up to the present day, as a matter of fact), has gobbled scads upon scads of these fishy bites with a relish. For one thing, they’re cheap; for another, they taste good. Most of all, though, eating them despite maternal prohibition was a form of acceptable rebellion; a right of passage, so to speak.
The name is something of a misnomer because these don’t fry up into puffy spheres but, instead, fry into flattish discs; think oden, only deep-fried in a wok rather than boiled up in a cauldron. To correct a number of Westerners who presumed quite erroneously that these are fish gonads, these are actually made of minced cod or pollock. Some urban legend spouters claim that fish balls are made with shark meat, but no one’s actually had any solid proof to support such a claim. These are deep-fried till either floppy and toothsome or brown and crunchy and diners get to spear these treats out of the wok with a bamboo skewer. You then dip the skewered fish balls into your choice of sauce from a set of jars sitting on a shelf on one side of the cart: sinamak vinegar (vinegar infused with onions, garlic, peppercorns, and green chilies), a cornstarch-thickened sweet sauce, and a soy-based hot sauce that gets its fire from plenty of siling labuyo (bird’s-eye chili).
At the fish ball cart that plies its trade near the market that marks the entrance to the village where I live, you can get eight fish balls for the niminy-piminy price of P 5.00 (about US$ 0.11) or, as above, a stick of sixteen pieces for P 10.00 (US$ 0.23). Also available are the bigger, more spherical squid balls made with either real squid or – more commonly – cuttlefish puree and little brown logs called orlian or kikiam (a more highly seasoned fish paste pressed like forcemeat into a soy-flour dough skin) which go for P 1.00 per piece; the former goes well with the sweet sauce while the latter tastes best with the soy-and-chili blend.
For me, though, the real pleasure remains with the fish balls – the undisputed king of street food in my book.