Philippines on my plate

December 19, 2010

I fell for Philippines not because of its sizzling women. I am married. The food and drinks seduced me into a state of hypnotic bliss that set me thinking whether I still longed to spend my ripe years in Maugham’s Capri.

Jumbo lobsters thrashed about in my hand on waterfront Manila before landing up on the plate. A chef sliced fatty chunks of a barbequed pig cured in honey, and sea-fresh clams that wanted just a dash of calamansi — lime in Tagalog dialect — made me reach out for a San Miguel beer.

A carnivore's delight. At a buffet in Boracay. (Pic: Dwaipayan Ghosh Dastidar)

Welcome to the archipelago of moving feasts. Just walk into a bazaar, casually point to the hapless yet scrumptious creatures stretched out on chopping blocks or in pales of water and walk into the nearest eatery. Sip on buko — coconut water — or a beer and you will soon be served a spread that will remind you of one fit for a wedding.

Talking of beer, the principal drink of Philippines is served on the rocks, literally. They pour it in tall glasses packed with ice cubes, probably because the climate’s warm round the year. A sip of beer and a bite of crispy fried chicken skin, the national fast food dish, and I felt that life on the plate is also about throwing out the culinary straightjacket into the Pacific.

Philippines is a nation of chicken lovers, by them and for them. Though the sea food set my pulse racing, the way Filipinos savour the bird reminds you of a crusader guarding his chalice. From Max to Goldilocks and from Jolibees to Kenny Rogers, it’s a big fat chicken festival any day any time.

Fried chicken skin and San Miguel beer, the national fast food of Philippines. (Pic: Dwaipayan Ghosh Dastidar)

They fry the bird, grill the bird, stuff the bird, bake the bird and chase it down to, well, it’s a bit cruel, the egg. Balut, a fertilised egg with an embryo inside, is boiled by street vendors across Philippines and eaten in the shell itself. “It make you strong,” a vendor whispered to me with a grin, though I had to give the high-protein snack a miss because I was in a tearing rush.

‘Make you strong’, a common refrain across the east and south-east part of our continent, confronted me again at a swish Taipei hotel when a chef egged me on to go for a dessert made of turtle meat. “Especially recommended for gentlemen,” he said with a straight face “because” — and here the ladies at my table stifled a laugh and glanced at me in unison — “it gives you strength!”

The dessert tasted bitter and I, the sole man at a table of nine ladies, was the only one to finish the dish, inviting such a barrage of giggles and stares that I thought for a second I was teamed up in canary yellow trousers and a shocking pink shirt.

Surf and turf, a prawn and beef steak dish. (Pic: Dwaipayan Ghosh Dastidar)

Back to Philippines. While vegetarians in our group ate uneasily at best and almost starved at worse, I had a rocking time. Clams and crackling sausages, beef chops and grilled prawns, sugar-sweet yam cakes and dry beer — I let myself lose on a epicurean trip, mixing and matching at will, smacking my lips in delight and flopping on just one occasion, when I impudently teamed up seaweed salad and yakitori. The sous chef at Mactan Shangri-La immediately rushed to my aid, gently recommending, lest I be offended, that a New World Chardonnay could cut out the dank aftertaste of the weeds.

The weirdest gastronomic team-up at the weirdest hour in the entire trip was on Day I in Manila. Staggering into the hotel in the afternoon after a sleepless night on the flight to Hong Kong, I took a quick bath, dressed up again and was catching a 10-minute pre-lunch power nap when I was served a complimentary platter of the most visually flawless mangoes and bananas.

Also sitting pretty on the tray was a bottle — a bottle of Tunduay and a bowl of nuts. “But I didn’t order rum,” I protested. “It’s complementary,” the butler said with a wizened smile.

On the beach, waiting for you. (Dwaipyan Ghosh Dastidar)

Surprised beyond words, I sat still for a minute, looking at the fruits and the sealed bottle, trying to recollect if I was ever served a bottle of rum as a welcome drink. Failing in my effort, I poured a stiff peg, cut a slice of mango and was immediately transported to the Nineties when we used to spend many a stifling night in Kolkata, clumsily sucking on ripe mangoes and glugging on cheap rum.

I was later told over lunch at a Max’s Restaurant — a Filipino fast food chain that will shame fine-dining restaurants for its attention to details — that Tunduay ‘Rhum’ is to Philippines what Old Monk is to India. I, though, found the rum not as full-bodied as our Monk and best suited for, as I made that night, a quick cocktail, such as Ron Collins.

Their beers, though, are drinker-friendly for the sheer range they offer — San Mig Pilsen is soft on your palette and comes in bottles that will remind you of King’s Pilsner, the nectar they serve only in Goa. The San Mig Super Dry has, as the name suggests, more alcohol but is silky; next in strength comes San Mig Strong Ice and the ultimate challenge, as a bartender said, is in sipping on a Red Horse (7%ABV).

My type of dessert and coconut water spiked with white rum. (Pic: Dwaipayan Ghosh Dastidar)

I tasted all, and, unlike Knock Out or Haywards 10000 — strong beers in India that need to be tweaked into shandy to make them even remotely drinkable — all beers in Philippines are so smooth that even Singha, a popular brand in Thailand, appeared too strong when tasted after a Strong Ice and ‘surf and turf’, a culinary marriage of prawns and beef steak.

My gastronomic adventure continued into Taiwan, but not before I spent a day in Boracay, which has the best stretch of beach in Philippines. After a waddle in a shocking emerald sea, I gorged, though a trifle guiltily, on baby crabs and fried baby squids, while sipping on a Tequila Sunrise. Seeing that I had polished three cocktails in a matter of minutes, Anna Mary, a Barbiesh waitress, served me a triple Jim Beam on the rocks. That evening, I would sample an exquisite pig lechon (charcoal roast) and chicken anasal (barbequed bird), both Filipino delicacies, with coconut water spiked with white rum.

Go to Philippines if you are a beach animal; but if you are a glutton, set sail for one of the islands and drop anchor for the rest of your life. Like I plan to do.

(An abridged version of this article appeared in Mail Today on 19/12/2010)

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5 Responses to “Philippines on my plate”

  1. Sharmi said

    I don’t whether I would be able to have the stuff you so relished. I think i would have gone all vegetarian. But yes, the post is marvellous 🙂

  2. netdhaba said

    Thanks, Sharmi.
    Most Indians will have been horrified by the food i ate; and believe me, it still was a sanitised version of what i had in Taiwan or what you can relish in Beijing or Bangkok.
    Thanks for reading 🙂

  3. Alcazar said

    This post is not recommended reading on an empty stomach. I was ravenous and now I’ll die if I don’t have something 🙂
    On a serious note, I feel the post gives me reason enough to maybe save up and go backpacking to the Philippines

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