Metro.Style's Definitive Guide To Filipino Street Food: Grilled, Hot, Cold And Regional
Everything from fishballs and balut, sorbetes and iskrambol, to isaw and inasal
Before food found its way to fancy restaurants, it was out there in the streets, available to thousands of ordinary people on a daily basis, sold as ready to eat or cooked right before you. It’s food borne of hardship, as most vendors did not have sufficient kitchen space at home and those buying did not have the means to cook for themselves or were simply too hungry after a grueling day. Street food is a global phenomenon that answered a basic need for sustenance coupled with convenience and affordability. Even Anthony Bourdain was in love with Filipino street food.
You can imagine the explosion of flavors and variety of ingredients that come to the fore in street food. Dishes that for generations were cooked by mothers and grandmothers while their husbands worked far away, were now being prepared by their children whose source of income was to cook and sell their heirloom recipes. And their children's offsprings now bring with them the familial taste of home when they relocate to another community and start selling.
This passing on of culinary traditions from generation to generation is not lost on UNESCO, which has established a list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, showcasing the sharing of knowledge and skills that shape a country’s culture. In 2020, Singapore’s iconic hawker food centers were added to the list, cementing the importance of street food as the great preserver of culinary traditions. In our own shores, Madrid Fusion Manila helped place our heritage street food in the spotlight.
Street food has come a long way, more so now that it has crossed the great class divide and made a leap to the digital world, with so many sellers now using different social media platforms to bring their food across to a wider market. If you've been craving your favorite street food, we put together a handy guide in the gallery below.
Street Food Guide
Street Food Guide
Balut at penoy
If you're wondering at my deep interest in street food, it's like this. I grew up in a conservative family where my childhood adventures were limited to controlled environments and sanitized eating areas. But little did my parents know, they introduced me to the world of street food the moment they enrolled me in an all-girls Catholic school. As a scrawny six-year old prep student, I used to spend all of my one peso baon buying ten little cones of Manong’s sorbetes. At ten centavos each, I gobbled all in quick succession. It was always a tiny scoop of cheese-studded queso ice cream sitting atop a crunchy wafer cone. And it was never dirty, as far as I and my grubby hands could tell.
In elementary school, I also moved on to another authorized vendor inside my school’s old open-air gymnasium where students loitered during recess and dismissal. Manang sat imposingly on her stool behind her kariton as she expertly peeled Indian mangoes and santol with deft hands and a sharp knife. She was the queen of her turf as she ordered her young son to manage the crowd of sweaty girls vying for her attention, arms stretched out, hands clutching twenty-five centavo coins, all wanting to be the first to pay for sticks of banana cue and carioca thickly coated in hardened caramelized sugar, wedges of singkamas and balls of santol sprinkled with coarse salt, and green mangoes with a generous dollop of bagoong. I practically lived for recess and dismissal.
My late father, a kind and very prim Pangasinense who was known to insist on using utensils over an Ilocano feast of crabs, shrimp, and grilled fish while his family happily used their hands to eat, could never understand my fascination and craving for street food. Despite his warnings about acquiring foodborne illnesses, I would sneakily flag down a passing fishball cart in front of our house and ask that he hurry and fill up my bowl with newly fried fish balls, and two smaller bowls with his dipping sauces. One with his vinegar that was tinted pink from the copious amount of minced red onions, and the other, of course, was his sweet-spicy brown sauce that was the lifeblood of his fishballs. My father would eventually catch me in the act of almost drinking the bowl of sauce dry and he would grimace and shake his head, then launch into his dangers of street food spiel. I would just smile at him dreamily, feeling immense satiety and satisfaction after having my fill of this simple merienda.
Despite my father’s protestations, I continued to be hooked on street food. Name it, I’ve probably eaten it. With gusto. Pork Isaw? Divine. Kwek-kwek? Tokneneng? Give me more, please. Helmet? Creamy. But it wasn’t until a few years ago while covering the World Street Food Congress that was held for the first time in Manila in 2016, that I realized how big of an impact street food has on a country’s culinary history and culture.
My father would have approved the leap to technological savviness by vendors as it meant a greater consciousness for clean street food. And I would have loved to tell him of my discovery that my stubbornness to eat street food was not in vain, after all. I know now that my early foray in school was in itself a microcosm, a reflection of the world outside that lived on street food.
My Manong sorbetero was his generation's lifeline of preserving the art of sorbetes-making and Manang with her food-laden kariton was teaching his son how to be wise and make use of all that can be peeled, cooked, and eaten to earn a decent living.
How exhilarating to know that even a kid as young as six years old can be a vital cog that helps the wheel of street food life to roll, evolve, and remain to be a constant source of convenient, ready-to-eat food, accessible to anyone, wherever hunger strikes.
Check out my list of some of our bustling local street food in the gallery above. I've included where to order them so you can satisfy your cravings. I may or may not have eaten them all in my lifetime.
Lead photo: @bulilitkitchen, @manongsfishballsauce, @kalyesorbetes