The day started out innocently enough. Alone in a strange country over 10,000 miles from home, I decided to follow what has become part of a Sunday routine and get a haircut.
Haircuts in the Philippines are nothing like the haircuts we get at home. You’re probably left quizzically asking how on earth it’s possible to culturally differentiate the act of shortening your mop; to which I say, you’ve never been to the Philippines. I go to the Baron Barber Shop at SM City, a Filipino chain where all the barbers are required to look like a functional bowling team. There’s always someone ready to take me on, and they take great pride in their work. Once the initial layering is done, they carefully sculpt the sideburns using a straight razor, before liberally dousing your face and scalp with alcohol. Finally, they throw in a random 2 minute massage – which really caught me off guard the first time they did it, but now, I’m going to be upset when I return to North America and my barber doesn’t give me a back and shoulder massage. The cost of this service is a whopping 140P, or $4.29, tip included.
Of course, having been teased with a massage, I decided to go get the real deal. My history with massages is incredibly short; I’ve only ever had two, and it’s been years since I last indulged. However, with nothing but time on my side, and the incredibly affordable cost at 350P for an hour at Spa Riviera ($10.73), I was down.
The masseuse was a tiny woman, maybe 5’2″ and 100 pounds, and asked if I wanted the relaxation or “stretchy” massage. Given her tiny frame, I figured there was no harm in going for the stretchy massage. I spent years at or above 300 pounds, and despite having shed a lot of my excess weight in the last year, my knees and back are in constant pain from the pounding they took for so long. The stretchy massage sounded ideal.
Of course, I had no idea that this woman was secretly a ninja; because the minute I gave her the word go, stretchy she did. She worked me over like she was Ric Flair in the mid 80’s, grinding her elbows into my spine, twisting and contorting my body in positions that even a yoga teacher would find inhuman. She put me in the Sharpshooter, a cross arm breaker, and when I started to tense up, she applied a hammerlock and worked over my rib cage. I allegedly had “knots” that she was trying to break up – but one in particular wouldn’t “break”, to the point I was fairly sure she was mistakenly trying to bust up some sort of critical organ. Granted, death seemed like a viable option at this point, so I didn’t stop her.
Just when the worst seemed to be over, she lept up on the table and started walking around on my back. I thought stuff like this only happened in movies; but the movies clearly drew their inspiration from somewhere, and I suspect that somewhere was inside of this room. I glanced at my watch. The show was only half over.
Flipping me on my back, she started trying to pull my arms directly out of their sockets. My rotator cuffs held on for deal life, and when she wasn’t making any more traction, she sat me up and did things to my spine that made the kind of cracking noises you hear in children’s cartoons. Finally, the big finish – she put me in the Figure Four, and I tapped out.
Positively discombobulated, I stumbled back into the mall, and found myself in front of Ted’s. Given all that had transpired, it seemed like a perfectly appropriate time to drown myself in my first bowl of steaming hot batchoy.
Batchoy is the signature dish of Iloilo. Originally created in the Lapaz market district in the 1940’s, batchoy has been the staple of many Ilongo diets ever since. It starts with a generous helping of pork organs, such as the liver, spleen, heart, and kidney, all sauteed in oil. Beef loin is also added to the dish to add a contrasting flavor. Once cooked, the meat is drowned in a shrimp broth, and miki is added; an egg noodle that is similar in shape and feel to spaghetti. Finally, the dish is topped off with soy sauce, green onions, and pork cracklin to give it a little bit of crunch.
Ted’s is one of the three big name batchoy purveyors in Iloilo, and it’s not uncommon for regulars to order several bowls. They have expanded the menu over the years, but I was here for the original. The sizes are determined by asking for the Special, Super Special, or Extra Super Special – and I settled on the Super Special, surprising the cashier by asking for just 1 bowl.
My order arrived piping hot in about a minute, and I sat down with a bottle of water to try my first bite at authentic Lapaz batchoy. The entire concoction is super flavorful, with a well seasoned, salty broth base. The noodles are unlike any other Asian soup I’ve ever had, because you’re not expecting the al-dente style spaghetti-like noodles, which was actually a welcome surprise. I found it more filling because it wasn’t the lighter rice noodles I’ve become accustomed to. The meat was tender, and even though we don’t traditionally eat the cuts that go into batchoy back in North America, it’s easy to look past because they’re cooked so well. Finally, getting the crunchy bits of chicharon added to every spoonful just took it to another level – easily making it the best food I’ve eaten in my two weeks in the country.
Batchoy is as authentic as Filipino cuisine gets; a truly one of a kind dish you aren’t going to find anywhere else. If you’re visiting the islands, it’s not whether you’re going to have a bowl … it’s how many.