Much has been said about street food in various parts of the world. The dishes and snacks hawked by sidewalk hucksters, peddlers on the road, or dinky roadside stalls have become a way by which city-slickers can grab a quick breakfast on the run, viands to stick in the pantry fridge for lunch, a variety of snacks to tide them through the course of the day, perhaps even a bite to sup on whilst traveling home in the evening. (And something to keep one from snarling viciously because of the dreadful traffic.) For tourists, it is a way of literally tasting the wilder, woollier aspects of foreign culture; for locals, it is simply a way of life – and a tasty one at that.
In the more urbanized parts of the Philippines, street food culture begins as early as the wee, small hours of the morning. Many Filipinos troop down to their friendly neighborhood panaderia for their bread fix: crumb-dusted pan de sal, sugary and buttery Spanish bread, the rather cheekily-named pan de regla with its sweet, scarlet filling.
Others will wait or seek out their local magtataho – the silken bean curd vendor – with his massive aluminum cans slung over one shoulder like Libran scales. One can holds the soft, wobbly mass of silken tofu; the other holds a dark caramel syrup in one chamber; tiny, translucent tapioca pearls in the other. A five-peso coin scores you a small, clear plastic cup; ten pesos scores you a small bowl. In the past, the magtataho only sold bean curd in syrup. Nowadays, those plying their trade in the business districts of Makati, Ortigas, Quezon City, and the bustling Bonifacio Global City in Taguig offer soy milk to their patrons. Customers are spoiled for choice as the soy milk is available plain or flavored with either chocolate or coffee.
If a more substantial morning nosh is what you’re hankering for, there are sidewalk vendors hawking rice cakes and the variety can come as a shock to the indecisive. There is the basic putong puti (steamed white rice cakes), subtly sweet and tasting slightly of pandan [screwpine leaf] or aniseed. For a different spin, there may be the fluffy beige-colored puto Binan from Laguna; more like a sponge cake with its airy texture, it gets its characteristic color from the muscovado sugar used to sweeten it. Those wanting something chewy will probably go for the sticky delights of cuchinta, varicolored sapin-sapin, and biko topped with latik (caramelized coconut milk curds).
Lunch in the city may also feature street food of a different stripe. Both blue-collar and white-collar workers often eschew the pricey offerings of restaurants and fast-food joints to buy something cheap off the streets. Some sidewalk vendors do sell plastic-wrapped packets of cooked rice and viands that are not immediately perishable: fried fish, for instance; pinakbet (Ilocano-style stewed vegetables seasoned with bagoong [fermented shrimp/anchovy paste]), pork or chicken adobo, sometimes fried chicken or pork chops.
And there are the carinderias and the turo-turos; the terms are interchangeable for small storefronts with a display of cooked viands served with rice. Some may have a few tables and chairs for customers who are dining in; others are just a few rickety tables topped with pots or chafing dishes to display the food. The concept of turo-turo refers to the way customers can simply point [Fil.: turo] to a dish and the proprietor will measure out a helping thereof into a serving bowl, a plate, or a clear plastic bag for takeaway.
The carinderia is something of a taste of home for many Filipinos who no longer have the time to either cook at home or enjoy a home-cooked meal with their families. That said, many of these establishments offer traditional comfort foods: kare-kare with its rich peanut sauce (pork for the most part, but if you find one that serves a proper beef kare-kare made with tripe, oxtail, tongue, and beef cheek, get it. It’s worth the extra ten or fifteen pesos; trust me.), afritada (pork and/or chicken in tomato sauce), mechado (beef larded through with pork fat and cooked in a rich gravy), the local spin on menudo (lean pork and pork liver sauteed with potatoes and carrots), and paksiw na isda (usually milkfish cooked in vinegar with peppercorns and ginger).
Some of these establishments may also feature regional specialties such as the sisig of Pampanga or laing (taro leaves cooked in coconut milk with plenty of red chilies) and gulay na lada (also known as Bicol Express: green chilies and fatty pork cooked in coconut milk) from the Bicol Region.
Tesman’s, a convenience store in the Upper Western zone of the BGC, features dishes from the Ilocos Region in Northern Luzon: bagnet – the deep-fried pork belly and crackling that is a specialty of that part of the country – is chopped up into crunchy, meaty, fatty bites to become dinakdakan (sauteed with green chilies, red onions, and fresh cucumber in a light, sweet, soy-based sauce), bignet (tossed with chunks of fresh tomato, unripe mango, white onion, and bagoong), and a unique spin on tokwa’t baboy (a dish usually made with pig’s ears and deep-fried tofu in a mixture of soy and vinegar; here, it’s pork belly, tofu, and fresh green chilies) that goes down a treat with rice.
In the afternoons, the typical carinderia may also serve snacks such as lugaw (savory rice porridge/congee), banana-cue or camote-cue (plantains or sweet potatoes on wooden skewers and cooked in caramelized sugar), or one form of pancit or another.
Prices are also incredibly cheap, so one shouldn’t be surprised if crowds come flocking in. One caveat, however: if your carinderia/turo-turo is famous for a particular dish, go early as you might not be able to get any of it when folks come storming in.
It is when evening falls over the city that the more interesting carts and stalls open up for business. Nighttime is the domain of the ihawan – the purveyors of grilled meats on skewers that suddenly appear in the streets almost as soon as the sun sets. The night is also when ambulant carts trundle up and down the streets, particularly in places where there are wet markets and transportation junctions, to offer an interesting selection of deep-fried foods. For many urban homemakers, the purveyors of grilled and fried meats offer an easy way out with regard to what the family is having for dinner.
It is actually possible to get a bag of fried chicken for a family of six on the streets; while some fussy folks may balk at the possibility of food poisoning and the probable use of double-dead fowl (God forbid!), the chicken is pretty much safe to eat, tastes pretty damned good, and is considerably cheaper than the fowl flogged by the fast-food crowd. Fried chicken carts also offer a tasty selection of tidbits to nibble on while one is commuting home.
Chicken skin chicharon – (P 10.00 – 20.00 depending on where you get your fix) deep-fried chicken skin cooked till absolutely crispy and seasoned lavishly – is one such snack. Some vendors will just fill up a small plastic cup with these savory cracklings and will either ladle over sinamak [chili and garlic-infused vinegar] or sprinkle on black pepper on purchase; others will tuck a measured amount of chicharon into small plastic bags, turn these over to ambulant vendors, and sell them to bus passengers languishing in traffic.
Chicken necks, on the other hand, are dunked in batter, deep-fried, and skewered. P 10.00 gets you five battered necks on a stick. They taste good; unfortunately, these aren’t exactly date-friendly for all you hopeless romantics out there. There’s the issue of spitting out the little bones, after all. I’ve been told that, in other parts of the country, chicken necks are deboned till all you have is a tube of chicken skin that gets stuffed with minced and seasoned chicken gizzards and livers into a sort of sausage; these are either grilled or fried depending on how the customer wants them cooked. I’ve yet to encounter this in the Greater Manila Area; methinks a road trip to Central and Northern Luzon may be in the offing…
And there is what is known as chicken proven, so called because it makes use of the proventriculus, or the part of the bird’s digestive system between its esophagus and gizzard. These gamy-tasting tidbits are well-seasoned, tossed into seasoned cornstarch, and fried in boiling oil till the outside is crackling-crunchy and the insides are all tender. These, like many fried street snacks, are served with an onion and garlic-infused vinegar. (You have to wonder at the guy who created this particular street snack; I’m thinking he was probably a veterinary medicine major who sold deep-fried chicken offal to pay for his education!)
This, of course, brings us to the ihawan. Much has already been written about the grilled provender sold on these makeshift and sometimes ambulant grills and the variety of things you can chuck into that red-hued marinade is staggering.
It’s really an offal fan’s dream (or an offal-hater’s nightmare) come true: squares of the skin off a pork belly, fatty and rich-tasting; cartilaginous pig ears; those cubes of coagulated pork or chicken blood known as betamax because their appearance calls to mind the videotapes of yore; red, allegedly carcinogenic (if you believe those things the fitness hacks post on social media) hotdogs; greasy and wild-tasting cubes of beef suet [fat], even parboiled and marinated chicken feet that go by the name of a popular brand of Germanic athletic footwear. There may also be more conventional skewers featuring alternating layers of lean and fatty pork, chicken thigh quarters, maybe even whole milkfish or fresh squid. And then, there is isaw.
Isaw is a catch-all term for intestines, more specifically the small intestines. The smaller, narrower chicken intestines are sometimes referred to as IUDs owing to the similarity of their appearance to certain old-school prophylactics. Larger tubes cut into curvy semi-circles are actually pork intestines and there are actually two schools of thought with regard to the preparation of isaw baboy. One side adheres to parboiling the offal in one’s marinade of choice till tender before snipping and skewering; the other claims that the innards ought to be rinsed out in vinegar to clean them out and tossing them directly onto the gridiron. Most of the vendors from whom I’ve bought pork intestines over the years go for the first method, but, either way, you get a charred, meaty-tasting skewer of meat that’s crisp in parts and chewy in spots. A beer never comes amiss.
There are also fruit carts or stalls that peel unripe mangoes to order, serving up these tart, jade-hued slices with a side of rock salt or bagoong in a tiny bag. For those who aren’t into anything so sour, there may be fresh singkamas (jicama) in season, sweet and crisp. In the summer, there will be slices of fresh melon – watermelon, cantaloupe, even honeydew in more affluent neighborhoods; ripe mangoes, siniguelas (native plums) – all of which are suitable for noshing on the go. And there are the vendors trundling about wooden carts loaded with green coconuts for refreshing drinks on the fly.
Whatever catches your fancy, chances are, it just might be sold right down your street.