I hold the peeled, hard boiled egg with my finger tips for a good minute contemplating whether or not to actually go through with this. I’ve tried eggs in a variety of ways over the years; fried, poached, deviled, but never fertilized.
Staring down at the blue veins on the yellow of my 16-day-old chicken embryo, sprinkled with salt, of course, I wrinkle my forehead out of concern. At least this one hasn’t started developing wings or a beak yet. Finally, I take a bite and get it over with.
Surprisingly, it tastes like chicken-flavored hard boiled egg.
I’ve just tried my first taste of balut, a common street food available in the Philippines, which is essentially a hard boiled duck or chicken embryo.
The protein snack can be purchased from vendors on bikes who keep plenty of eggs sold at PHP20 (50 cents US) each in a basket attached to the back. I’ve even seen balut deliveries while traveling the country. People can buy balut at various stages of growth, from 12 days old and up. After about 17 days the embryo starts developing wings and bone structure.
Though this is a pretty extreme taste of the culture, I’m not sure why I was so nervous to try this famous Filipino food; inevitably it’s just chicken and egg, something I’ve tried plenty of times in the past. Maybe my fear was due to my lack of knowledge when it comes to Filipino foods.
While the foods of other southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Malaysia are readily available and well known in most parts of the world, Filipino food is a lot harder to find outside the country. With all of its cultural influences over the years, from Chinese to Spanish, and its range in dishes from region to region, the Philippines is actually a foodie’s dream, if you know what to order and where to find it.
It may have a Spanish name (adobo is Spanish for marinade), but the cooking method is strictly Filipino for what might be the country’s most popular dish, chicken or pork adobo. Spain learned this method from indigenous people of the Philippines during their colonization of the country in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The dish is made usually using chicken or pork, marinated in garlic and soy sauce for hours. Marinated meat is then stewed in water with vinegar, bay leaves, salt and pepper and cooked off. Served with rice, this dish should be tender and flavorful. Due to its popularity, it is available just about everywhere in the country.
Whether on a small secluded island like Malapascua or in a busy city like Manila, two things are certain, barbecue food and fiestas are never too far away. Lechon, or roasted pig, is usually reserved for celebrations and holidays in the Philippines. The national dish of the Philippines is made using an entire suckling pig (30-80lbs), which is slow roasted on a bamboo stick over a charcoal pit.
Due to the cooking time and amount of food a pig gives off, it’s obvious why this dish is reserved for special occasions.
But there are other barbecue favorites in the country that are cheap and easy to find, including pinoy pork (marinated pork kebab) and inihaw na manok (chicken barbecue). If you try barbecue in Cebu, make sure to order a side of puso or “hanging rice”, which is rice packed and cooked in woven palm leaves.
Often referred to as comfort food in the Philippines, this dish is most known for its peanut-based sauce. Other ingredients include oxtail (or other variations of meat) and vegetables like eggplant and pechay (bok choy). The dish should be served with bagoong, salty fermented shrimp.
While kare kare is now served across the country using a number of different recipes, its origins can be debatably traced back to either Pampanga, an area of the country’s Luzon region, or as a dish of the Moro elite, the Philippines indigenous Muslims.
This soup is another popular comfort food in the Philippines. Known most for its sour taste, which is a common thread in some Filipino dishes, sinigang traditionally gets its sour taste from tamarind pulp. Other ingredients include a meat or fish (usually pork), okra, and spinach. The dish is available around the country but can be very different from region to region as cooks use what is available in their area to make it.
Balut and street food
This article has already touched upon a few common street foods in the Philippines, like balut and barbecue, but it really deserves its own section due to its popularity and the unique eats available.
Whether you find your street food at a barbecue stand at a market in Manila or a hidden restaurant down a dark alley in Cebu City, it’s almost always affordable and usually not the best for your diet. Some common street foods include chicharon bulaklak (crispy pork intestine), adidas (chicken feet) and betamax (grilled chicken or pork blood). Yes, that is the actual name for the last two.
As with most countries around the world, food in the Philippines is made using the resources available in each region. The Bicol region in southeast Luzon makes full use of an abundance of coconut trees available there to create their cuisine. In most dishes that come out of this region of the Philippines, coconut milk is a staple ingredient.
Bicol Express is one of the more popular examples of this. The stew is made using finger chillies and coconut milk, giving it a sweet flavor to counter a spicy dish. It’s usually served with pork and vegetables. This dish was named after the train that runs from Manila to the Bicol region, as the dish was actually invented in Manila, but influenced by Bicol cuisine.
As you can imagine in a country made up of 7,000 islands, fish is extremely important to Filipino cuisine and is used in a lot of dishes. Another popular dish served out of the Bicol region which makes use of its accessibility to the sea is Kinunot.
The main ingredient in this is some sort of white flake fish, whether it be sting ray or tuna. This is cooked with coconut milk (obviously) and malunggay leaves. Like all Bicol dishes, this one can be quite spicy.
While Filipinos sure do love their savory, salty and meaty dishes, the country serves up its fair share of traditional desserts as well. Some desserts to try include kakanin (rice cakes), turon (a sort of banana spring roll) and halo halo.
Halo halo translates to “mix mix” in English, directing people as to what they have to do with this sweet treat. The Filipino ice cream sundae is packed with toppings and flavors. Besides an ice cream base, some important ingredients include ube (purple sweet yam common in the country), sweetened preserved beans like red beans and chick peas, coconut gel, jackfruit, flan and more if you can believe it.
This assortment of flavors and textures comes in a big bowl. After mixing everything together, each bite really is a surprise, which is what’s nicest about visiting and trying Filipino food for the first time.
Thanks to Amer R. Amor, Ivan S. Beltran and Michaelangelo Ilagan for contributing their thoughts and knowledge of Filipino food in interviews for the research of this article.
Photos courtesy of Bobbi Lee Hitchon.
Read more about Food and Travel
- Bobbi Lee Hitchon