As my time winds down in Iloilo, known to the locals as the City of Love, I’ve made it a point to get a little more immersed in the local culture; which means spending more time getting to know the people, their stories, and their food.
Hitting up the street vendors is often the best place to start. Whenever I see and smell charcoal burning, I ask whomever I’m with to tell me what’s being made. Is it lechon? Bibingka? Who is it for, and what’s the story?
A couple of weeks ago, our group traveled to Damires Hills for the day. One of the local girls we have befriended joined us, and we invited the driver to come along as well. This turned out to be a wise decision, because on the way home, they were able to guide me to some of the best street BBQ I’ve ever had.
Meat on a stick … now there’s something with international appeal. Back home in Ottawa, the “pogo” is our most popular version; a hot dog dipped in a corn-meal batter, and deep fried to a golden, crunchy brown. Here in the Philippines, however, the options are a little more humble. While passers by with a little extra pocket change might be able to splurge on a hot dog or chorizo sausage, many locals venture towards the other less traditionally popular cuts, like chicken liver, intestines, and gizzards.
My Canadian blog readers might be grossed out by the notion, but understand – the Philippines is not a rich country, and they are not in a position to discard large parts of the animal because it’s less appetizing. Instead, hundreds of years of culinary expertise has gone into the right preparation for these organs, leaving a charred, tasty option on the other side.
Selecting your meat is part of the fun of the experience. You eyeball whatever looks good, hand it to the ladies working the grill, and patiently wait while the unparalleled mouth-watering aroma of smokey sizzling animal guts permeates the night air.
Once the meat is done, it’s handed off to the moppin’ lady, who generously applies a sweet BBQ sauce finish, and collects the bill, which is dirt cheap. My collection of chicken and pork contents cost me 32 pesos, or roughly $0.90 Canadian.
While I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, so I started with the chicken intestines. I’d been forewarned that at some of the less savory locations, the intestines weren’t always completely “cleaned”, and my telltale sign was an unpleasant bitter flavor. Thankfully, nothing of the sort occurred, and … it tasted like chicken! Imagine that.
Next up, the livers. I had initially believed them to be a beef skewer, as I hadn’t proactively asked what it was – but despite getting a flavor I was completely unprepared for, I immediately recognized the iron-y goodness. Despite having only eaten liver a half dozen times in my life, I really enjoy it – it’s just hard to come by because it’s got a really unfair stigma about it. When I was a kid, children’s cartoons would often depict liver as the most foul substance on earth, and I believe a lot of children grow up believing that to be a fact.
Truth be told, there wasn’t a single item I disliked in the bunch. The chicken skin was decadent, melting like butter, and the chorizo sausage was good, if not an entirely accurate representation of the Spanish original. I even returned two nights later, getting to sample some of the chewy gizzards, and chicken hearts.
However, if keeping an open mind is too difficult for you, dear traveler, you’re in luck. Not all street food is created equal, and one dessert combines some incredibly familiar flavors into a new treat unknown to us in North America: the deep fried saba, or Banana Cue.
That is a work of art. The concept is so simple, it’s mind-boggling it hasn’t traversed the ocean. Local bananas (much smaller than the ones we’re used to at home) are coated in brown sugar or molasses, and barbecued. Sometimes sesame seeds are sprinkled on the finished product, but that’s literally the entire preparation. And it’s GOOD – a sweet, delightful dessert that doesn’t need anything else. It’s got a beautiful crusty caramelized exterior, working in perfect contrast with the soft, mushy banana. If you liked banana boats at summer camp, then this is absolutely worth your time. I’ve got fantasies about grilling one of these up at home, and then slicing it up and serving it on top of a big scoop of vanilla ice cream.
It’s amazing the kind of flavors you can find if you keep your eyes, and mind open to new ideas. What seems odd to one culture may be perfectly normal to another, and by trying some of their local specialties, you learn a lot about who they are. I’m happy I did, and I know I won’t be so quick to turn up my nose at the people who shop inside the “Assorted Guts” department at T&T when I get home. After all, they’re probably eating better than I am.