I will eat just about anything. Grilled pig intestines, haggis bon bons, and crispy duck heads have all graced my plate on this around-the-world adventure, along with all manner of stinky cheeses, blood sausages, and liver patés.
But I finally found a food I wouldn’t—couldn’t—eat in the Philippines.
However, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Two of Mike’s good friends back home are Filipino, and they often regale him with tales of delicious dishes from their home province of Cebu. We were so excited to try the local cuisine that we booked a street food tour with Backstreet Academy.
We battled our way through Cebu City traffic and crept toward the designated meeting place. “How will we recognize our guide in the crowd?” I messaged the tour coordinator. “Don’t worry,” she replied. “He’ll find you.”
Vincent was his name, and he did indeed find us as soon as we arrived at the meeting point. He and Ben hit it off immediately.
We were in downtown Cebu the day before the Sinulog festival, which celebrates Señor Santo Niño de Cebu (Sir Baby Jesus of Cebu). Also known as Fiesta Señor, it begins with a solemn religious ceremony, then transforms into a giant Mardi Gras-style parade.
We wound our way through streets lined with colorful flags, banners, and umbrellas hung for the festival as we made our way toward the food.
You can get all kinds of delicious fruits in the Philippines. We sampled lanzones, which look like small potatoes but taste like very sweet grapes; aratiles, which resemble large, sweet cranberries; and guyabano, which is called soursop in other countries. Its pear-like flesh tastes a bit like a strawberry-coconut-banana fruit salad.
Think of the fruit as an amuse bouche for our first real stop — the national dish of the Philippines.
Lechón is roasted suckling pig that’s traditionally cooked whole for family gatherings and celebrations. But your everyday lechón cravings can be sated with generously-loaded skewers of juicy, grilled pork that’s seasoned with a marinade of scallions, bay leaves, peppercorn, garlic, salt, and lemongrass. Street food chefs baste the meat as it roasts over coconut husk charcoal, giving it a perfectly crispy, caramelized skin.
You’ll find chicken prepared in the same way, but the pork really steals the show.
Our next “discovery” was simply water, but imbibed the Filipino way.
Instead of a cup or a bottle, you’re given a plastic baggie that you fill from a coin-operated dispenser and twist closed. To drink, you bite the corner of the filled bag and guzzle it all in one go.
We each had a bag before moving onto our next dish: crispy fried seafood.
Vincent guided us through the row of stalls, each named after the chef who owned it. We selected octopus and calamari with a spicy chili oil and dug in.
We also tasted sinigang na isda, a spicy and sour fish soup that was cooked in a giant pan over a propane burner.
Next up was the highlight of Ben’s food day: tiny, flash-fried pork siomai dumplings that melt in your mouth. They’re inspired by traditional Chinese shaomai dim sum, and after stuffing himself with incredible street food all day, Ben said he could “still eat 18,000 of them.”
Little woven coconut leaf pyramids are filled with steamed rice, and they’re known to Filipinos as puso or “hanging rice.” You split them open and use bite-sized bits to scoop up the hot adobo chili sauce that’s brightened with fresh lime juice.
We quenched our thirst with fresh coconut water and said hello to the neighbors before continuing on.
In the Philippines, food is a communal affair. Families eat together, and they will share their meals with friends and strangers alike.
Vincent introduced us to a family cooking their supper on a street corner and selling portions to strangers as the parents and children also ate from the same large pan.
“What is it?” Mike inquired.
“Try it first, then I’ll tell you,” Vincent replied.
“I’m not falling for that,” Mike laughed. “What is it?”
Vincent explained that it was chopped pig brains cooked in a gravy made of “brain juice.”
While Mike and Ben visibly blanched, I said I’d be happy to try it.
I was handed another little bundle of hanging rice, and I used the sticky grains to soak up the gravy and scoop up bits of pork straight out of the pan. After the first bite, I learned to let it cool a bit before eating it. The flavor was very similar to the Southern-style sausage gravy you find in America. In other words, delicious.
The little children surrounding the pan were very excited to see that I liked their dinner, and they grinned and giggled as they enjoyed their own portions. Except for the boy on the left, who didn’t seem very happy to share.
After thanking the family, our food tour took a quick detour through a fresh flower market, where we spotted these neon cockscomb celosias with their velvety swirls of color.
Returning to the street, we found all kinds of familiar foods, too. Steamed corn on the cob, bright lemons and oranges, juicy grapes and watermelons, and plenty more were piled high on carts and tables shaded by brightly-colored umbrellas.
And the one Filipino food I wouldn’t eat? Bolut.
Bolut is a developing duck or chicken embryo that is boiled and eaten from the shell. You pick off the upper edge, add a dash of vinegar hot sauce, and drink the broth before consuming the yolk and bird.
Vincent explained that it’s a popular midnight snack after an evening of drinking, although many people eat them throughout the day. As he demonstrated the process for us, we saw a young couple who appeared to be on a first date enjoying bolut together.
I suppose that’s one test for a potential mate, eh?
We just couldn’t bring ourselves to try it.
After all of the savory offerings, it was time for dessert. Ben grabbed a caramelized banana on a stick to enjoy while we walked toward the grand finale, halo-halo.
Halo-halo means “mix-mix” in English, and this classic Filipino dessert features a little bit of everything.
Shaved ice is combined with condensed milk, mung beans, and sago, which comes from palms and is similar to tapioca. It’s topped with fruit such as banana and coconut along with nata de coco, a chewy, translucent, jelly-like food made by fermenting coconut water. The whole thing is sprinkled with corn flakes and garnished with a pirouline.
The dessert was as colorful as the festival gearing up in the streets of Cebu.
Food is such an important part of every culture, and we learned so much about the Philippines and its people by experiencing the dishes they love most.
Thank you, Vincent, for an incredible — and incredibly delicious — day in Cebu!