Zoo on a platter

Zoo on a platter

Philippines: It’s the nation island where animals and birds find their way to food menus, and where the names of dishes are emphasised

Balut, the 17-day boiled embryo.

Ever found a zoo on the menu? In the Philippines, a nation of 7,000 islands, you sure will find all-animals-you-can-name on your dinner table. Monitor lizard in a bowl. Hen embryo with a dash of vinegar. Pig blood stewed into a pudding. Snake as a snack. Monkeys for a feast. Red ant eggs to munch. Crocodile served with rice. Do not dismiss the croc. Not yet. For the locals, the croc is an antidote for a bad heart. It lowers cholesterol. It raises the libido. Crocodile meat is an aphrodisiac and the best way to eat the meat of the aquatic reptile is to turn it into a sisig. In the Philippines, the croc is a doc and a dish. 

Repetition rule: In the country named after King Philip II of Spain, first is the rule of repetition. Learn that. Say the dish name twice. Everything twice. Halo-halo (icy dessert). Kare-kare (beef in peanut sauce). Sapin-sapin (sticky rice). Lapu-lapu (a fish variety). Bilo-bilo (sago dessert). Try this. For a bait-bait halo-halo, step into a turo-turo (Read: For a very good icy dessert, go to a local eatery). It is tongue-twisting, but say everything twice. 

Deep-fried pork belly. Photos by author

Soup no 5: If repetition is not intriguing enough, there’s the helmet. Not the one for the head. This is for the stomach — grilled marinated chicken heads (minus the beak). Do not forget the number 5. Soup no 5, the name of a soup made — hold your heart — with bull’s penis and testicles. The soup got its name from being fifth in the list of soups that were listed on the menu of the restaurant that was the first to offer it in the country. Men love this. No 5 is counted as a very strong aphrodisiac. 

Chocolate meat & fried belly: In Manila, you will find meat the colour of chocolate. Chocolate and meat is not an evil pairing. Not in the Philippines. There’s a dish called chocolate meat. Get a litre of pig blood for 25 pesos (roughly Rs 37). Saute, onion, garlic and chilli. Simmer pig’s blood for 20 minutes, add vinegar. Have it with rice. Or, add pork offal in the blood and turn it into dinuguan. There is no chocolate in dinuguan. The name comes from the colour of the cooked blood. 

In the capital, if there’s a crowd milling around a hawker, know it is a bagnet station. Bagnet is pig belly boiled with garlic, salt/pepper, cooked in the oven for two hours and then deep-fried. It is tantalisingly crispy from the outside and succulent inside. Bagnet is a northern-island speciality, but there are countless bagnet stations in Manila.

Boiled embryo: In the Puerto Princesa Public Market, do not be surprised if you find pink duck eggs and a pail of red blood. Or, a hen embryo doled as a snack.

An embryo? Yes, it is balut, the 17-day boiled embryo. When you crack the egg open, the head and feathers of the chick are visible. The locals daub the embryo with vinegar, throw a dash of salt and then gobble the balut at one go.

I cringed at the thought; for the Filippinos, balut is their fave street food. In the Philippines, there is no ‘one menu fits all’. Different islands/regions have their own specialty cuisine. In the southern region of Mindanao, raw seafood is preferred, rice is cooked with turmeric, and cassava cakes are the end-of-the-day dessert. In Bicol, gata (coconut cream) is the kitchen monarch. In the Visayas, opt for scrumptious lumpiang ubod (the heart of palm in soft crepes), while the Bulacan chefs puff about what they claim the best relleno and galantina (stuffed chicken rolls), estofado (pork leg) and asado (pot roast), and kare-kare (oxtail stewed in peanut sauce).

Balut eggs

The Ilocos make the best bagnet (deep-fried pork belly) and love their pinakbet — a combination of tomatoes, aubergine, bittermelon, lima beans, okra and squash, all bound together with bagoong (salty sauce made from fermented fish or shrimp).

What is ladled on to the plate is melded from three cultures — Spanish (bay leaf, coriander, tomatoes), Chinese (soy sauce and noodles), and Malaysian (peanut sauce and salted fish paste).

Crocs. Lizards. Ants. Balut. While the people around me fed on the zoo, I, the vegetarian, scooped a spoon of rice, topped it with coconut slices and called it a meal. Better than the croc, I swear.