Manila’s Magical, Misunderstood Cuisine
By ROBYN ECKHARDT
“But there’s no good food there!” friends told me as I prepared for a food-focused trip to Manila more than two years ago.
In fact, as I was to discover, what the Philippines has is Southeast Asia’s most misunderstood cuisine. While Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia are foodie destinations, the Philippines is often stereotyped as the home of balut (unhatched duck embryos, a popular snack) and fast-food chain Jollibee. On my trip, though, guided by recommendations from a Filipino expat friend and his local contacts, I ate spectacularly well.
And those Manila contacts quickly became friends, because Filipinos love nothing more than to introduce outsiders to their overlooked cuisine. I’ve returned to the city many times, just for the food.
The cuisine varies widely region to region, showing Chinese, Malay, Spanish and American influences. Over the centuries, Filipinos have combined flavors introduced by foreign traders, colonizers and occupiers with local ingredients and cooking techniques to create something unique and exciting.
Poorly prepared, uninteresting food does exist in Manila — just as it does everywhere in Southeast Asia. But if you know what specialties to look for and where to find them, a weekend of dining in Manila can be every bit as satisfying as in any of the region’s other major cities. Here’s an insider’s guide:
Most visitors to Manila stay in the central business district of Makati, a thicket of shopping malls, apartment towers, office buildings and big-name hotels. The city’s famous traffic jams peak on Friday evenings, so set your sights close and head to Milky Way Café, an unpretentious restaurant on Arnaiz Avenue (formerly Pasay Road) that serves excellent versions of Filipino classics.
The original Milky Way was a 1950s dairy bar in the old San Miguel district. Its current incarnation opened in 2002 with a chief cook who’s been with the operation since 1964. The look is slightly retro: vintage posters, black and cream floor tiles and cane chairs.
Check the menu’s “all-time favorites” section for home-style dishes such as crispy deep-fried hito (catfish), served whole with a refreshing salad of shredded mustard leaves and tomatoes dressed with vinegar and bagoong (shrimp paste), and crispy deep-fried pata (pork leg).
Sinigang is a beloved soup, soured with acidic fruits and leaves that vary by cook and region. Milky Way’s salmon version is packed with chunks of moist fish, banana blossom, tomato, daikon radish, long bean and water spinach; the souring agent is tamarind.
Pancit luglug, thick round rice noodles doused with a rich sauce made with the juices squeezed from fatty shrimp heads (and tinted bright orange with annatto seed) presumably derives its name from the cooking method. “Pancit” are noodles and “luglug” is the Tagalog term for immersing anything in water. Milky Way’s pancit luglug are sprinkled with sliced scallion greens and crumbled chicharron (pork crackling — and a Spanish word), making every bite a delectable combination of mildly fishy prawn and savory pork flavors, the crunch of the chicharron contrasting nicely with the slippery noodles.
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