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02 July 2013

I Ate My Way Around Manila, Philippines

If there is a cuisine that I know very well, it is the Philippine cuisine.  I was nourished with it the first 20-something years of my life.  It is a peculiar Asian kitchen because it has different cultural influences. The Spanish have left a deep imprint on the food and of course the Chinese side will never be lost in the Philippine plates.  Then there are also the Malay influences and most recent among these cuisines, the American influence.  

Because of these kitchens, there is a diversity in Filipino food.  There are Spanish-like food with Spanish names but totally different from the original ones in Spain because they have already been adapted to the Philippine tastes.  The same thing goes for the Chinese dishes. I am often asked how Philippine cuisine is and I often stall at the question because I am confused myself. I usually embark on the explanation of influences but I think the genuine dishes are plainly grilled food (and sometimes fried) with dipping sauces.  Vegetables are either cooked in shrimp paste, fish sauce, coconut milk or sometimes just plain and simply sautèed.  

Talangka or shore crabs

All the dishes have intense flavors of sourness, saltiness and sweetness using the local vegetables & fruits, meat like pork, beef and chicken and a whole range of seafood.  My personal favorite method of cooking the seafood & meat is grilling over the coals. That's one way of making me sit down in the midst of a big cloud of smoke and not complain.  Grilled food will NEVER be eaten without any dipping sauces of sour & salty mixtures and sometimes sweet & salty too.  Let me give you some examples. With grilled and fried food, a dipping sauce of vinegar, soy sauce, garlic and onions is particularly the perfect fit.  Sometimes, others prefer calamansi lemons and soy sauce together or another combination would be fish sauce and calamansi with tomatoes & onions. 

Chopsticks are NOT used in the Philippines unless you are in other Asian restaurants.  Instead, spoon and fork are used to eat.  Sometimes a knife is also provided if you ask, to slice some meat.  Since the meals are always served with rice (steamed white rice or fried rice), you will understand why spoon and fork are used.  The spoon is the best utensil to catch the rice with the help of the fork.  It's ok to use the fork and knife in eating but it's a struggle to keep the rice on your fork.  One of the things that my husband mastered in eating the Filipino way is to use his spoon and fork properly.  My kids are trying and getting there.  I believe that using the proper utensils is a part of enjoying the cuisine. 

Mangoes play a big part in the cuisine.  Have I mentioned too many times already that the best mangoes for me are the ones from the Philippines?  Both green (unripe) and yellow (ripe) mangoes are used.  The green ones are very sour and are used in salads mixed with shrimp paste as appetizer or side dish.  The yellow and ripe ones are very sweet and used in a lot of desserts and drinks.  My favorite and my husband's is the fresh yellow mango shake.  It's a fruit shake with 100% mangoes, water, ice and sugar.  Believe it or not, the whole week we were there, we refused to drink anything else except the mango shakes.  Ok, a bit of coffee, wine and beer sometimes but we completely stocked up on mango shakes. 

Local desserts are mainly made with coconut and rice. They're very typical Asian and you would love them if you are into chewy rice and coconut desserts.  

After dinner, it is normal to move to a bar to have a few drinks (like beer, wine or liquor) and more food to swap stories.  So don't get really stuffed with dinner because as soon as you stand up from that table, the group can still be up for more food and drinks in a more relaxed atmosphere. My week had been a whirlwind of invitations from friends starting from lunch to afternoon tea to dinner and finally to the after-dinner drinks which end until the wee hours of the morning.  It's also very normal to go out to a colored sky opening up for sunrise and to STILL continue staying together and have breakfast of rice with meat or fish and eggs.  A lot of restaurants stay open 24 hours a day to cater to these Filipino whims of eating whatever time of the night and day.

The Philippine food culture is quite intense in the variety of food and there is an openness in accepting new flavors, cuisines and cooking techniques. No one beats around the bush when there's something new.  They try it.  Period. Manila is a melting pot of so many different cuisines.  Restaurants are often packed and people eat at whatever time of the day and night.  Food plays an integral part in everyone's life. Let me mention to you some of the restaurants that are worth mentioning and going to.  There are still others but with just a week in the city and so many priorities, my restaurant trips with friends were not as much as I would have wanted to. 

Conti's Bakeshop & Restaurant has good local & international food.  They also have this popular Mango Mambo cake which everyone is raving about.  They used to have just one restaurant and they are my Mom's number one choice for food catering in our house.  Now it has grown into a number of branches around Manila. 

B Hotel Pastry Corner. We stayed in this hotel during our trip so we were able to try some of the cakes in their coffeeshop.  They are quite good and beautifully presented too.  We stayed at the southern part of Manila which is Alabang because this is the area I know and where my home used to be.  Tourists usually stay more north like Makati City or Manila where the main commercial hub is.

The Little Corner Bakeshop.  This bakeshop is all the way in the south in the area called Laguna.  If you happen to find your way going towards Tagaytay City, a popular destination for weekend trips, then it's on the way.  It's owned by a friend from my kindergarten and elementary years and he sells different kinds of typical local bread like the ones above.  

Pancake House has always been around ever since I can remember.  I grew up with it and I was a frequent client during my teenage years.  The food was good and the price was friendly to the budget too.  After revisiting it after more than a decade, the quality of the food even became better and the menu changed too.  It still remains as one of my dependable and favorite places to have a bite.  The restaurant branches are scattered all over the capital. 

Abè Restaurant.  Definitely a must when you are in Manila. They have 4 branches strategically placed around the key malls of Manila. They serve genuine regional food from all over the Philippines that are cooked so well (really well!).  Reservations are a must because it can get very crowded. 

After a full meal, my husband and I are used to having a cup of espresso and just across the restaurant in their Serendra branch is Larry's Cafè and Bar, also belonging to the same group of restaurants.  With all the years and places we have visited, we never get the same good simple espresso we get in Italy and for that I have the habit of taking my own moka (espresso maker).  In Larry's Bar, we found the very first good one outside Italy.  They use Caffè Mauro, a good Italian brand.

Dampa Restaurant has a peculiar style of eating.  You get to have more contact with what you want to eat and how you want it cooked because you do the food shopping yourself at the attached seafood market.  The concept is, choose a restaurant in the complex then you choose and buy the seafood at the market yourself. This done, you can instruct the restaurant to cook the food in any manner you want.  Sit down in the restaurant while you wait for them to cook and order the drinks from there.  The setting of the area is more typical Filipino casual style, a bit noisy, very rustic and popular for big groups and families. 

Cafè Juanita Restaurant.  Genuinely Filipino cooking and absolutely good.  This is one of my 3 favorite restaurants, the other two being Abè Restaurant and Kanin Club (scroll down).  I went to their branch in Alabang which was just across the road from our hotel.  Click on this link to take you to a site where there are more pictures of the food they serve.

Whistlestop Restaurant & Bar. Open 24 hours a day, serving both Filipino and international food.  It is also a popular place to hang out for after-dinner drinks.  There is one in Makati City and another one in Alabang where I went to.  To see the menu and Makati address, click on this link.

Kanin Club.  Kanin means rice in the Filipino language.  This is an all-Filipino restaurant with innovative dishes based on traditional ones.  A friend whom I went all the way back from kindergarten and elementary school took me and my husband here and surprisingly, the menu was also written by another schoolmate of ours.  One of the salads that I ordered, the Camote Tops With Anchovy Sauce drove me back to my childhood days when I used to gather them from the wild across our house.  I was around 7 or 8 when I was always volunteering to gather them because I was also  playing with the ladybugs in the plants while I munch on a fresh sugarcane compliments of a neighbor who was maintaining a small vegetable garden.  This is one of the best restaurants to try the genuine cuisine.  There are two branches.  One in Makati City and one in Alabang where I went to.  Click on this link for the menu and the address in Alabang.

Samwon Garden Restaurant.  I became a Korean food convert after a splendid dinner experience in this simple restaurant.  It is located inside a village in the south of Manila next to Alabang, BF Paranaque, before a residential area, now a long strip of restaurants and bars.  It is also the road where my Mom used to live and my last house in Manila before I moved to Italy.  After 5 years of being gone, I could barely recognize the area but I heard that this is one of the first Korean restaurants that opened in the village and is still going strong because of the its genuineness and really good food. One of the biggest and fast-growing Korean communities is located in the area.

Ramen Yushoken RestaurantI love Japanese food. Period. But I have never really dwelled on their ramen at all.  I don't know so much about the Japanese cuisine except their usual sashimi and sushi and some other popular cooked food and my knowledge ends there.  Again, this ramen place is close to our hotel, just across the road, and it was proclaimed as one of the best places to get good ramen. 

La Creperie.  A French menu with both savory and sweet crepes. There are also some pasta and burgers available if you like the more conventional meal.  I enjoy eating French food whenever I am in France and the last time I had coq au vin was in my friend's house that she cooked so well. It jumped right out at me when I opened the menu and I had to have it.  I am also fond of galettes which my husband ordered.  Both were delectable. Dessert was Salidou, a crepe with salted butter caramel and whipped cream that the owner herself suggested.  It's simple but it makes a big statement in your tastebuds.  You cannot walk out from that place without trying it!  To see pictures of some of their dishes, click on this link. They also have 4 branches in the key malls in Manila and on their way to opening a 5th branch.

Nathaniel's Bakeshop.  I heard that their frozen buko pandan salad is a bestseller and I can also attest to that.  It is one of the favorite desserts in the Philippines.  This company, which had a very simple beginning became big because of the owners' passion about good quality food.  What started out in their own backyard grew into a number of branches in Manila.

Cafè Breton. I still remember this place the last time I went to Manila.  This place specializes in savory and sweet crepes.  Still good and a place to go to.

Manila is a melting pot of different flavors and different scenes.  The picture scenes of richness and poorness are side-by-side as you drive through the capital.  The malls and residential buildings are immense and are now dotting the capital.  There has been a great change since I have last visited the place and with so many new ongoing projects, I won't be surprised if there will be big changes again the next time I visit. My stay had been concentrated on the southern part of Manila which is Alabang.  It is a fast-developing city with big malls and office and residential buildings. 

I hope you learned something about the Philippine cuisine from this post.  If you find yourself in Manila, this list of restaurants can be handy especially if you want to get to know the local food more.  Send me a message if you have any questions.  I will be glad to help.  After all, it's my second home.  

I hope you enjoyed this post.  This is probably the longest one I ever did among the 535 located in this blog and I hope all my effort will be useful.  My next travel post will be about Alto Adige, the northern alps region of Italy where I will be spending my week starting this weekend.  Have a great week!