Some exotic vacations engender envy. Mine often bring concerned expressions from friends and neighbors. (“Um, Uzbekistan?”) One I took last month fell into the latter category, with an added helping of rude comments about pole dancers and the like.
But The Philippines is lovely. It’s nice enough that I pounced on a ridiculously cheap fare from a Chinese airline and took my two younger sons with me (my wife had to work). Yes, it’s poor, crowded, and is getting headlines for extrajudicial killings at the moment, but there are many great things about it: pristine beaches, simmering volcanoes and World War II history. The people are number one, though.
I read some years ago in The Economist that Filipinos are some of the happiest people on earth despite widespread poverty. I believe it now. Friendly, even-keeled and almost universally conversant in English, they made The Philippines a most pleasant place to visit.
One thing that I noticed before traveling there was that, while it is surrounded by countries that have exported their dishes and chefs, you almost never see a Filipino restaurant. This is despite the fact that millions of Filipinos live abroad, mostly working as maids, ships’ crew, or manual laborers.
Part of the reason is that 400 years of being colonized by Spain and then being a U.S. territory before independence, the various Austronesian ethnic groups spread over well over 1,000 islands don’t really have much of a coherent, unique cuisine. Another is that many of their famous dishes feature on lists of gross-out foods.
Despite that reputation, I’m here to tell you that it isn’t bad and that some of it is really very good. My favorite few specialties include the ubiquitous milkfish, lechon (roast suckling pig) and buco (young coconut) — sold seemingly everywhere. Moving to the more extreme ones, I really liked the brain sisig (pig cheek and brain, pictured below), inisal (intestine skewers, both chicken and beef) and little fried whole fishes.
But the pièce de résistance of Filipino cuisine is surely balut. Starring on many lists of extreme foods, the fertilized duck eggs are prized as a cheap source of protein (mine cost 40 cents) and even as an aphrodisiac. After teasing my friend and host about not having eaten it after a year-and-a-half spent in the country, I sort of backed myself into a corner and had to try it when I actually paid him a visit.
Balut, as you may imagine, has a little duckling embryo inside, complete with beak, legs, and (shudder) feathers. The most surprising thing about eating it wasn’t the taste, though (it was okay) or consistency (a bit rubbery), but who else tried it. No, not my squeamish buddy. On the way to buy the balut, my 11-year-old son said he wanted one too. Having tasted the brains, intestines and even rabbit head (on a food tour during our stopover in Shanghai) in the preceding days, I guess I shouldn’t have been shocked that he cranked his adventurousness knob to eleven. He ate the whole thing, hamming it up for the camera as my friend’s wife took pictures and his kids chuckled.
After starting out the trip anxious about exploring a chaotic, not-super-hygienic developing country, he not only had a great time but went native, eating a food that some Filipinos told me they wouldn’t touch. I’m really proud of him.