notes from the underbelly

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Just five short days ago I arrived back at the apartment after spending the holidays in the Philippines with my family. It was the first time in over six years that I’d made the 20+ hour trip to the places where my parents, and most of my relatives, were born and raised. During this brief getaway I picked up on no short amount of knowledge on the country, its customs, and (most emphatically) its cuisine. My stomach spent a majority of the month in odd extremes of pleasure and discomfort. I was hell-bent on tasting everything in front of me but after week two there’s little joy left in being constantly full. I know, my life is hard.

If there’s one thing this trip reinforced for me, it’s that Filipinos have a certain fanatical vigor for food that I have yet to experience elsewhere. It is clearly a trait that extends beyond my mother, who is an insanely talented cook and just as enthusiastic an eater (she only passed on one of those to me).  So to step in line with this blog’s grub-friendly vibe, my first contribution will be a sort of food report, personal tips and suggestions, in case you decide to up and buy a plane ticket tomorrow. (I promise to follow with a second installment tracking my other non-meal related adventures).

Coconuts are everything. Drain one for the milk, eat all the meat inside, and you’ll be satisfied for hours. Once you’re done with that, you can stick some bristles in the husk and voila — you have a new floor scrub. There is also a great amount of enthusiasm for mango, pineapple, purple yam, shrimp, and tilapia (which was served with just about every single one of my meals).

Another important lesson — merienda is no ordinary “snack.” It is just an excuse to have a fourth meal before dinner.

Chickens are excellent gifts. My great aunt Calomena (who, I should note, spends most of her time lounging about in hot pink muumuus, gossiping with the neighbors, and being awesome) gave us two of them when we went to visit her in the provinces. Caribou, meanwhile, make excellent replacements for work horses and/or public transportation. Do not be alarmed if you spot one pulling a cart on the street and slowing down all traffic behind it. But the king of all animals is the pig. Everyone loves to eat them, and breeding them can be a tremendous source of income for people living outside of the city. I soon learned there is nothing wrong with sticking a cooked head in the center of the dinner table during a special meal while you are eating the rest of it.

Filipinos believe that everything tastes better deep-fried and on a stick. This goes for their typical street food. This is especially true with pork, squid, chicken feet, sweet potatoes, and bananas. I tended to stick with the bananas (also known as Banana-Q).

Yet the real staple of every meal is clearly rice. I spent a weekend in Ifugao, a mountainous region about eight hours north of Manila that is famous for the Banaue Terraces (known as the eighth wonder of the world).  The spectacular views are the obvious draw, but what really struck me was  how the culture of native communities still remained entirely dependent on the rice harvest. Clusters of homes are built at the bottom of terrace sets, so just getting to a main road requires walking the length of over a mile up and down winding steps. One of the women living there, who was five months pregnant at the time, told us she makes the trek up and back at least five times a day without breaking a sweat.

This trip has inspired me to pursue the following food-centric tasks now that I’m back on American soil. The list is as follows —

One: Get my hands on taho, a common street food that consists of soft bean curd, tapioca pearls, and vanilla or caramel syrup. I maybe probably definitely had this every morning for at least ten straight days, even though I tend to veer away from sweets early in the morning. It was a refreshing light option since Filipino food was so heavy for me. I’ve heard rumors that it’s sold somewhere in Chinatown, so I will make a trek there sometime soon.

Two: Attempt to make some Filipino sweets. The short list definitely includes buko pie (now infamous in our apartment after Sami’s heroic effort to procure a decent amount of coconut meat for me to use). I’m also excited to try turon, which are plantains deep-fried (obviously) in a spring roll wrapper, with the optional addition of jackfruit and brown sugar.

Three: Head to Woodside, Queens, which is home to a fair amount of affordable Filipino grocery stores and restaurants.

Until then, I will leave you with some additional shots of my very aesthetically pleasing vacation.

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One Response to “notes from the underbelly”

  1. The insanely "talented" cook as per my daughter Says:

    BRAVO!! You described the trip like a real journalist-food critic combined. If you can’t find taho or buko pie in Chinatown- head to Queens or Jersey City. Better yet, why don’t we try to make one? I’m so glad you enjoyed our short family vacation. We should do it again soon…and next time we’ll bring all your roommates.

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