Philippines: Babingka and Netongs Batchoy

I’ve been lax in updating lately, but it’s not due to a lack of want. Ever since I’ve had my gallbladder removed in early October, food has not been kind to me. I’ve been limited to roughly 1 meal a day at breakfast time, and snacking on food throughout the day that I know won’t cause me any distress.

This weekend, however, breakfast didn’t upset my stomach, so I decided to take a tour of the city of Iloilo, where I’m living through the end of December.

Despite having been here for about 3 months, I hadn’t taken any time to stop and really look at my surroundings. Thankfully, the hotel staff were more than happy to provide a list of “must-see” areas throughout the city, and provide an inexpensive driver.

The Philippines is very religious, and Iloilo in particular has very strong Roman Catholic roots. Most of the big tourist spots are old churches – and given I was doing my tour on Sunday morning, all were in action.

I’m not a religious person, but I certainly respect those that are. I did my best not to disturb anyone or anything (although, as a giant white man, my presence was definitely noted). At one of the parishes, our group was approached by the local priest; an Irish immigrant who’d lived in Iloilo for the last 53 years. He gave us the history of not only his church, but a passionate overview of all the churches from the city, and what each of them meant to the community. It was an inspired discussion, one I’m happy I got to hear.

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Of course, I’m always on the lookout for new food, and fragrant smoke took me just outside the church gates. At several locations, locals were working over wood burning ovens – and I had to know what was inside.

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It turns out, they were making individual rice cakes known as babingka. These cakes were cooked inside small tins, with a banana leaf on the bottom to prevent sticking – and were loaded with sweet coconut. The ones that were closest to the fire got a nice char, which toasted the coconut, further enhancing its sweet flavor.

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The babingka are sold in paper bags to retain their heat and moisture, and getting 6 for 20 pesos (~55 cents) was a total bargain. I liked them so much, I bought a second bag later on the tour.

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When lunch time rolled around, we made our way to the La Paz market, and I knew right away where we were going to go. Once we parked, we weaved through the throngs of stalls, where baskets of fresh fruit, vegetables, rice, and noodles were offered at bargain basement prices. IĀ felt bad being in a rush and having to ignore the vendors, but our time with the driver was coming to an end and we needed to eat.

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Netong’s is legendary in Iloilo, largely considered to the #1 spot you have to hit if you visit the city. The fact it has eluded me to this point is embarassing really. They’re considered the masters of Batchoy – a local noodle soup served with bits of pork and chicken, drowned in a flavorful broth. I had it once before at Ted’s, so now it was time to compare as I sat down with the masters.

The soup is prepared in the front of the restaurant by the members of the family who own the restaurant. The lady who made my bowl was more than happy to pose for pictures when asked – encouraging me to take as many as I wanted to.

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The menu is short, and to the point. There was the Special, the Super Special, and the Extra Special. I had believed the difference in types was just the size, but I was mistaken. The waiter explained to me that the Special was just beef; the Super Special was beef and chicken; and finally, the Extra Special was all of the above, with bone marrow. Of course, I had to go for the Extra Special.

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The soup was incredible. They use a slimmer noodle than Ted’s; this one is more like a slightly thicker ramen noodle than the more spaghetti like one I’d had before. The crunchy bits of various innards were a wonderful textural contrast to the soup, and despite it was already a ridiculously awesome blend of spices and long-simmering, they added a fresh twist of ground black pepper on top. The bar has been set: this was the best soup I’ve ever had.

Zero complaints; I got to see some of the cool local sights, I found an awesome new street food, and I drowned myself in phenomenal soup – not a bad way to go through an otherwise grey-skied morning.

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