Friday, December 28, 2007

Eating fresh in the Philippines

As an expat or long term tourist in the Philippines, one has the opportunity to sample some of the unique and delicious foods here. Certainly visitors can opt to be the tourist who eats at expensive western style restaurants and fast food outlets. However, it would be a missed opportunity not to eat some of the outstanding local food. If you are here for an extended visit or plan to settle, learning the local food culture will be to your advantage.

My focus here will be on food available in the provinces. What can you expect to find in the local farmers markets, groceries, and small Filipino restaurants?

In general Filipinos love sweet foods and fatty meat. However, there are a broad range of seasonings used in native cooking and the flavors are quite diverse. Ginger, garlic, and cili (hot peppers) are common ingredients. The unfortunate side effect from western influence is the thousands of candies available at every Sari Sari store. The diet common 400 years ago of fish, rice, native chicken and the occasional pig is now expanded to include soft drinks, beer, candy, and cookies with sweet filling.

It is easy to eat healthy here with not as much discipline as required in the west if you shop for local produce and local meats. Fresh dairy products are not readily available in the provinces as dairy cows are few, and goats which are prevalent, are raised for meat only. So without cheese, milk, and butter, cholesterol and fat from these sources is easily avoided. The supermarkets in the larger cities offer a broad range of dairy products, so if you desire those items you may indeed buy them.

You will never see fresh milk in the grocery stores here. There is what they call “ultra pasteurized” boxed milk imported from Australia, but it is an overly sweet and watery liquid. Milk to the average Filipino is powdered milk. Basically it is formula made in various concoctions targeting infants, pre-teens, teens young adults, and the elderly.

When visiting the local weekly produce market, there are many healthy fresh vegetables to choose from, both familiar and unfamiliar. Eggplant, garlic, red onions, tomatoes, potatoes, green beans, carrots, cabbages, lettuce, cucumbers, and peppers are all available. In addition there will be coconuts, local varieties of bananas, Syote, bittergoat, pineapple, guava, papaya, lancones, mangos, and many varieties of strange root crops and squash like veggies. There are many local native fruits available. Trying to describe them all would take another article. Suffice to say, experiment and you will quickly find the ones that suit your personal tastes.

Buying fresh meat is something that has to be done while exercising caution. There is little refrigeration in the rural parts of the Philippines, and the local supermarkets sometimes turn off the freezers at night to save electricity! There is no concept of food spoilage here in the provinces. Once cooked, food is considered safe, even if left out in 90 degree heat all day. That said, after two years, I have only had bad reactions to food a few times, never serious or lasting more than a day or two. I use common sense and simply refuse politely to eat what looks unsafe to me. “busog” means I’m full.

Key to buying fresh meat is get it within hours after the animal is killed, or caught, if fish.
The Public market in Dumaguete has a meat market within its confines. Get there before eight AM and you will be assured fresh killed pork. There are local reliable supermarkets, but the same axiom holds true .There are some stores that offer frozen meats of good quality, but make sure they maintain the freezers overnight. Fresh industry raised chicken is readily available in both the public market and supermarkets.

The fish market is an experience. You simply either have to learn about the signs of fresh seafood, or send a Filipina maid or wife to do the shopping. As a rule of thumb, clear eyes, red gills and not too stiff are good indicators. When buying prawns or shrimp, check that the neck area is not too soft. Green shells, better known as Mussels in the West, are farm raised and safe. Stick to the varieties that you know. The markets are full of dubious fish varieties including aquarium fish. Some common fish to westerners are Lapu Lapu (Grouper), Maya Maya (Red Snapper), Yellow Fin Tuna, Tolingan (small tuna), and white Marlin, (Tarogho).

One of the best local seafood dishes is Kinilaw, it is a Philippine version of Sashimi. Made with fresh yellow fin tuna it is delicious and safe to eat. Often it is made with Tolingan, or marlin. Tangy and spicy it is delicious. If you are buying the fish for Kinilaw, get to the market early, make sure the yellow fin head is on display and look for clear eyes and red gills.

Eating local food can be very rewarding and healthy if you follow a few guidelines. Use your own common sense and good judgment when shopping. Remember imported foods often are tempting but less fresh than what you will find in the local markets. Join the local culture and enjoy the exciting eating adventure available in the Philippines.

1 comment:

grace said...

Fresh Milk is available in Silliman Farm by galons, straight from the farm and SU Cafeteria by glass. They are safe and pasteurized.