Manila's prime attraction is people. The sheer volume of people is like nowhere else we've seen (we are yet to visit India). And Filipino folks may be the friendliest folks in the world. Even the taxi drivers are friendly. English is widely spoken so we could have a good chinwag with folks in a way we have only dreamed of in other parts of Asia. And Filipinos have the most endearing of English accents, beaten only by the smooth charm of African English, in our books anyway.
But we're not here to make friends. We're here to eat. Its the traditional Filipino\Pinoy food we are most eager to explore. If we had the time we'd also delve into Manila's higher end international restaurants, apparently you can fine dine on a backpacker budget. We'd also like to further explore the wonderful world of junk food. Manila is a dream for the junk food connoisseur, with all the big usual chains and more from the USA, Japan, Europe and Hong Kong.
We were pleased to find traditional Filipino food available at all levels: street, chain stores, family restaurants, as well as upmarket and fine dining. We try to sample it on all levels but we can only cover so much in a week.
Filipino food is hard to find in Sydney, despite having a large Filipino population. It's a cuisine that could hit the bigtime, it just needs a bit of tinkering with the menu and image. While some dishes are an acquired taste, to put in mildly, there are many dishes that would appeal to mainstream tastes, especially the crispy skin roast pork and rich sweet coconut sauces. We're sure the likes of Dan Hong and Justin Hemmes could make Filipino food mainstream and sexy, if only there was some money in it. Or at least someone could make a ripper of a Filipino food court stall in the city somewhere. Anybody?
We knew we were going to fall in love with Manila before the plane had even left the tarmac. We're buckled in and waiting for the pilot to chuck the plane in reverse and let the handbrake off, when we hear a gaggle of hosties yell "Selfie!". They walk the aisle following an iPhone on a selfie stick, laughing and doing V signs. Passengers are loving it, waving and making V signs and getting themselves in the photo. Later, halfway through the flight, the hosties put on a little game show to entertain passengers, singing Christmas carols and giving prizes to the first passenger to guess the tune. It's done with 100% enthusiasm and 200% charm. Yay Cebu Pacific Air. We planned a return trip to Manila before we even got off the plane. The clincher was the passengers clapping when the planed touched down for landing. We love any culture that does this, even Tasmania.
Alison booked a hotel fairly much at random when she discovered cheap flights over the December / New Year break. We ended up in this ultra-new and wealthy area called Rockwell, it's all high rises and clean streets with cheerful shotgun toting security guards everywhere, a small patch of somebody's idea of heaven, as absurd as the town of Celebration in Florida, Disney's white picket fence utopia. There's a tunnel under our hotel that connects to the schmick Power Plant shopping mall, via two security doors, a car park and three security guards.
In some parts of Asia you would never know it's Christmas, not so Manila. Christmas is done with gusto. It's nuts. A Filipino colleague told us Christmas decorations go up in October. Just like snowless Australia, there's a preference for northern hemisphere winter themes.
As per tradition we christen the holiday by drinking a beer at a 7-Eleven, or a happy club as we call it. We're all class. After aperitifs we get even classier with a fine meal at Jollibee, Manila's finest fast food chain.
Jollibee's burger steak meal deal is every bit as good as it looks, and it looks like plane food. It's a little like the Japanese 'cutlet' or hamburger, served with a rounded dollop of mash potato and mushroom gravy. Beautifully bad. Wonderfully weird.
The beefburger with cheese is disappointingly good. Shawn developed a strange obsession with Jollibee during this trip which almost threatened to eclipse his love for Kenny Rogers Roasters (also in the same mall). It was going to be a tough battle.
Our hotel gives us breakfast vouchers for a poolside restaurant in a snooty resort complex nearby. We face the dilemma of having a free but average hotel breakfast, or just having coffee and holding out for something better. We take the latter option and man, it pays off. We get a quick 20 peso breakfast snack of warm soy with sugar syrup mystery balls by a jeepney stand, leaving plenty of stomach room for markets.
We grab a taxi and head down to Legazpi Sunday Market. It's an organic market in the fancy-pants Makati area. Not the grunge fest Asian market we were hoping for, but still a beauty. It's a very clean and relaxed market, attracting a mix of locals, expats and the odd drongo tourist like us. The stalls are mix of fresh produce, organic, cooked food and new age hocum. The cooked food ranges from traditional Pinoy dishes to gourmet hamburgers, there was a great looking Spanish stall, a French baker called Gerard, a promising Indonesian stall, Pinoy-Mexican food, grilled and roast meat stalls. We walked past one stall with a whole crispy skin suckling pig, the boss was slicing it up into small portions. Half an hour later they had pretty much sold out, Mr Pig was just bones.
We get the meat sweats just thinking about this BBQ pork.
Wow! A vegetarian Pinoy food stall, sold!
Loads of fried goodies to try here, but we were interested in more of the fresh dishes.
We thought the term “Pinoy vegetarian” was blasphemous, but here it is, on a holy Sunday. We go for laing, a classic crowd pleaser of taro leaves in coconut, a similar dish of young jackfruit in coconut, which is also lardy-licous and reminds us of Pacific Islands food we've tried. We get a dish of what the nice lady described as banana tree heart, grated into a delicate kind of dry coleslaw and some braised mustard greens. Spectacular.
From the aforementioned BBQ stall we get a fish (milk fish we think) that was completely gutted, deboned, debrained, and stuffed with tomato and capsicum plus a dash of soy and kalamansi lime juice. Clean, simple and good.
Also from the BBQ stall we try some sliced up pork chop which is moist and deeply marinated.
From a sweeties stall we try cassava in banana leaf. It is stodgey and semi-sweet with a slight fermented funk to it. Not so exciting...
...but cassava cake is a humdinger, the same as the previous cassava snack but very wisely topped with a sticky goo tasting of coconut and the wonderful toffee notes of palm sugar. Piggy Piggy.
Also from Legazpi Market we get some handmade ginger ale, which is lovely and light and crisp, complete with ginger sediment in the bottom of the bottle. This is real food with a shelf life of just a few days. We mix it up with kalamansi limes that we bought at the market, loads of ice and Wild Turkey. The kalamansi limes are amazing, Kool-Mint sized little fellas with a super lime flavour, sweet enough to eat like lollies.
There's twenty million people in Manila. Most of them can be found at the Mall of Asia on a Sunday afternoon. Everybody is scanned and bag checked on the way in, which is a shock the first time, but it happens at every mall so we get used to it real quick. There's an ice skating rink with more selfies than skating going on. The food court looked surprisingly good, traditional Pinoy and roasted meats in particular.
The rest of the twenty million residents of Manila who weren't inside Mall of Asia were outside Mall of Asia taking selfies by the sunset, or chowing down in all-you-can-eat buffets surrounding the mall.
The sunset outside Mall of Asia is worth a trip across town for.
How can we not try some Dr Kwek-Kwek?
Dr Kwek Kewk's has just a few specialities, including deep fried quail eggs in a vinegar (or sweet and sour sauce). They are crunchy little balls of eggy goodness.
Dr Kwek Kew's famous speciality (and what people were queuing for) is deep fried day old whole chicken in sweet'n'sour (or vinegar) sauce. The top part tasted the best, beak and all, like a fried chicken wing. The bottom part had all the guts and was gamier. In some ways this was more confronting than eating balut (eggs with an foetus formed inside) as it was so obviously a whole little chicken. We wonder if these are the day old male chicks that are usually gassed en-masse in the egg industry, if so, why not eat them instead?
Alas the SPAM JAM Kiosk is closed when we come by. Sadly there's no SPAM musubi for us.
Who would have thunk we'd be eating in an upmarket shopping mall? It's our only choice for Pinoy food in these fancy parts. It's not a crime because there's some great food in Manila's malls.
Milky Way in the Power Plant Mall is a deli slash resto. Point and pick your dinner and it comes out plated up quite nicely. We were surprised and impressed to get such full on street flavours in an upmarket mall. Our picks are a touch funky for Shawn but Alison loves it.
We both like the the ox tongue asado. It ain't a sliver of tongue like you would get in Korean barbecue, this is a 2cm thick slab of tongue, real soft and tender. Any offal funk flavours are masked by a strong tomato-y sauce, which like an extra salty baked bean sauce.
Shawn never likes those small whole squids and wonders why he repeatedly orders them. Isn't the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and expecting a different result? Alison loves the super fishy flavours of the squid. We both love the sweet inky sauce on rice though.
The pork in pig blood (dinuguan) is a fave at home but once again it's a bit hardcore offally for Shawn. We later figure out this dish is way less hardcore and insanely delicious, (strangely reminds us of butter chicken) when eaten cool instead of hot.
Bring on the rest of the week.
We love Manila.