Eating Out Filipino Style
Not too long ago, dining in a restaurant was not a common thing among Filipinos. Families dined out only when there was a special occasion like a birthday, an anniversary or a graduation. Today, they do so for any number of reasons or none at all. But now, as then, the restaurant is an extension of the home, the eating generally family-style, each member ordering his own dish but sharing it with the others. It is not extraordinary for a waiter to get a request like, please divide the spaghetti into two and cut the hamburger steak in half for Rica and Jojo. Most middle income restaurant eaters have no inclination to stick to a meal from soup to dessert, often choosing one a la carte dish and then delving into his friend’s order.
The restaurant is an extension of the home even for business people one brings the guests there for cocktails only because most Filipino homes do not have a well-stocked bar. Of course for a certain level of business people the business lunch and the cocktail hour have long come into their own.
For the majority, eating out is still considered a special treat. If one wants to friend, one invites the friend to a restaurant, even if only middle rate, and not into one’s home. It is always a surprise to a Filipino when in other countries the reverse is true. But as eating out becomes more accepted, inviting to one’s home is becoming more upsetting to the housewife who has to plan a special menu. The usual solution she buys some of the food or all of it, from a restaurant. Not a catered dinner, just a few star dishes to mix in with the ones she cooked herself. If it is a bought fried chicken, she throws away the rolls, warms some fresh pan de sal, makes a better cole slaw and some nice bean soup Restaurant-bought Chinese food she supplements with home-fried rice, or a special empanada from the freezer, and ice cream and cake for dessert. With some personal touch, store-bought food can be served without great of waves housewifely guilt.
Architecturally, even the dining rooms have shrunk. Gone is the separate dining area with elbow room for entertaining, when one’s cook grown old with the family was used to lunch being for anywhere from two to 12 persons. Quite the contrary, the modern housewife now feels no insult at all if the husband, taking with him an unexpected guest, also takes home a secret package of cooked food acquired along the way.
What does the average Filipino like to eat when dining out? Chinese food, of course! For one, it can be eaten family style, the dishes common to all. He likes greasy food that fills his stomach to tautness and this he invariably washes down with some soft drink like Coke or TruOrange. And he must have rice. (No matter how many sandwiches you feed the average Filipino, he will say he is not satisfied because he ate no rice.)
The most popular Chinese food orders among the middle income Filipino are: fried rice with bits of ham, pork and boiled egg, hototay soup, sweet-sour pork, chop suey, lumpiang Shanghai, camaron rebosado and pancit Canton. The higher income Filipino will veer away from the more common Cantonese cooking and go Szechuan or Fookien. He will likely get a dish of cold cuts that includes a century egg to start, some tenderloin with kropec, broccoli with beef. lapu-lapu or crab with black beans, and the inevitable pancit. Noodles stand for long life and no Filipino will skip it. Dessert is lychees or almond jelly. The meal, of course, is liberally attended with glasses of Coke, 7-Up and Tru-Orange.
Filipino food is a late eating-out favorite. Filipino food was originally obtainable only in cheap carinderias in public markets. It was cooked in great bulk adobo, lumpia, dinuguan, menudo, sarciadong isda, even stuffed frogs placed in enamel washbasins and displayed in glass counters, to be ordered turo-turo style. (Turo-turo literally means “point-point” as one indicates the preference with a finger.) Turo-turo have since graduated to middle and upper middle restaurants, with a battery of 20 or 30 dishes behind streamlined aluminum counters, or buffet style, warmed by candles underneath. In fact, the large Fast Foods complex that features everything from stewed rabbit to Korean pickles is nothing but a very hip turo-turo patronized by sweeter smelling folk.
The favorite Filipino food orders are kari-kari (beef and vegetables stewed in a peanut sauce), lechon kawali (pork pan-fried crisp), sinigang na bangus (milkfish in sour soup) and sinampalokang manok (chicken cooked in sampalok leaves). But the runaway favorite is Crispy Pata, a tantalizingly crisp, if ungrammatical Filipino invention which consists of a pig’s leg fried in deep fat. fact, the dish has had such deep impact on the land that the word “crisp” has forever become crispy” to the Filipino such as, advertisements say, crispy banana, crackers, crispy dilis, crispy chicharon“.) Just as popular is fried chicken, the tender and juicy Max style having become a Filipino institution. Likewise pancit Malabon, a regional noodle specialty, has spawned a string of pancit Malabon houses.
Filipino food is also served in seafood restaurants along the highway to Cavite. Crude eating places with nipa roofs and oilcloth-covered tables, they feature plump oysters, shrimps and milkfish for a pittance. Other localities specialize on nothing but fried catfish sinigang na kanduli and broiled mudfish and it is no surprise to find rows of cars parked in front of their tiny restaurants. Business has been so good that the oyster places of Cavite have since put up concrete branches in the city. No one much goes to Cavite for oysters anymore but their city customers miss the view of the fishponds and the chickens pecking under the tables.
Steakhouses, of which the suburbs have a number, are usually dark pinewood-y ranch-types. Relatively expensive, they feature charcoal-broiled prime cuts accompanied by soup, mashed potatoes, salad, dessert and coffee Coke is extra. Steak occupies the place that chicken had before it lost ground Chicken used to be the sole specialty of many restaurants as Southern Fried Sizzling Chicken, Chicken Honey Chicken-on-a-Stick, Chicken-in-Mud and Flaming Chicken.
Coffee shops are the accepted business lunch and merienda places. They may range from the small neighborhood hamburger and spaghetti hole-in-the-wall to the cute pastry shop with pink cafe curtains to the chandeliered coffee shops of first class hotels. Coffee shops usually feature American food ham and hamburger steak, beef stew, meat roll, and chicken salad for lunch, and an indeterminate number of sandwiches for merienda. A variant of the coffee shop is the ice cream parlor typified by the extensive Magnolia chain. It caters to the teenage crowd and serves every calorie-laden soda fountain creation.
Specialty restaurants like Japanese Korean, Indian, Indonesian with their adventurous raw fish, kimchi, goat meat and hot sates – are patronized by a small loyal clientele. Pizza stands are on every corner and Italian restaurants are having a boom. Spanish cooking is liked by almost everyone.
The more sophisticated American and European foods are available in a few expensive restaurants and international hotels whose chefs are imported. The snob orders are prime roast beef sliced tableside (sizzling steak is declasse), duck in orange sauce, crown roast of lamb with mint sauce, imported fresh rainbow trout and for dessert, anything that flames. Of course, as everywhere else in the world, there are Filipinos who go to a restaurant not for its food but for its decor or its music.
Lastly, there is the Filipino custom of “balot” which is practiced or not depending on which restaurant is patronized. Leftovers do not belong to the management. In the middle-class restaurants, it is taken as a matter of course that all uneaten food will be wrapped for bringing home. Originally only the Chinese restaurants took this service for granted. But today, as a public relations gesture, even a snooty place like the Intercontinental Hotel’s Prince Albert has bowed to this Filipino custom of lot” and packs one’s leftover chateaubriand in a smart paper bag printed with the face of a pooch. It goes without saying that the pet dog hardly ever gets the steak.