Last week, I was on a boat of mixed races: Filipino, Chinese, Korean, French, Belgian, and perhaps other races that I overlooked or forgot to ask. It was a happy and odd mix, I would say—a boat of strangers that would end up either as Facebook friends or continue to be strangers after all.
Our boat crew was admirable: they took our pictures, provided a rough course on swimming for those who could not swim, complimented us when needed, taught us Coron’s history, and fed us.
Aside from the maneuvering the boat, our captain eyed the fish he grilled at the makeshift abuhan (fireplace for cooking) behind him. And while we, the tourists, snorkeled in the lakes or frolicked on its shore, he and the crew peeled the onions, sliced tomatoes, and prepared our lunch, which was part of the tour package.
By noon, they served the grilled fish, lato (a kind of seaweed) salad, spicy crab, and eggplant salad.
A French woman was allergic to anything seafood, but she understood that she was in Coron—a cluster of around 50 islands—and seafood was the staple food here. She did not complain and was rather pleased that the boatmen distributed soy sauce with chopped onions and tomatoes.
“That would do. Soy sauce would be a perfect match with rice,” she said. The boatmen were worried, of course. There was also a vegetarian in the group, a fellow wandering spirit and a fellow Cebuana I met in this place of beautiful ironies. She rounded the tables and asked for the vegetables that others ignored. All of us, regardless of races and circumstances that brought us to Coron, shared a long table of seafood bounty.
The night I came back to Cebu from Coron and met fellow travelers and travel bloggers at Larsian—a barbecue landmark in Cebu, one of the topics was this foreign blogger who “food-bitched” Filipino cuisine. I had not read the blog, so I could not offer my two cents. It did not take long for this blog to flood my Facebook feeds, knowing patriots, pseudo-patriots, travelers, and travel bloggers had a fair cut on my contacts.
“You will love Filipino food for sure!”, “There is nothing better than seafood in the Philippines,” “Filipinos are proud of their very own local dishes” was the opening of Agness Walewinder’s blog entry.
Lost in Translation
Agness (yes, with ss) asked for a traditional Filipino breakfast and was given “a bunch of fruits, coffee with milk and some cakes filled with jam. Is this what locals eat in the morning?” I wonder if she asked the locals themselves if those were what they had for breakfast. It only needed an inquiry for everything to be clarified. Perhaps it was a matter of a language gap that blew out of proportion. Perhaps the locals did not completely understand her and tried to impress her instead, and served an inferior version of a Western breakfast: coffee with milk, bread, and fruits.
Traditional breakfasts in the Philippines are as varied as our languages, as diverse as our islands. In Kalinga, I had boiled sayote tops, boiled beans, rice, and coffee that Fhang Od—the 93-year-old Buscalan tattooist, pounded herself.
I had balbacua for breakfast in General Santos; grilled saang (spider conch) in Surigao; sawaki in Camiguin, pinikpikan in Sagada. I could not even vouch that they are traditional breakfast fares. They could also be as good for lunch or dinner.
If she were in my mother’s abuhan, Mama would say no, we don’t eat that in the morning. In the countryside Cebu, breakfast is as heavy as lunch and dinner. It means a plate of rice or corn grits, a bowl of hot “utan bisaya” (literally, Visayan vegetables) and a piece or two of fried or grilled dried fish. If she were in Cebu City, I would only serve her a cup of instant black coffee. That’s all I have in the morning. But perhaps confronted by the culture of hospitability, I would go out of my way, buy hot pandesal, and prepare scrambled egg or sunny side up—her choice. Or I would grab puto and sikwate (steamed rice cake and native hot chocolate)—the combo that some Cebuanos (I cannot say most) prefer for painit (pre-breakfast snacks). This is how Cebu City prepares its breakfast—the closest to “traditional.”
Street Food as a Tourist Attraction
Looking at Agnes’ food photos, I could say that the food was not meant for tourists, especially Western tourists like her. What she had was intended for majority of the Filipinos who earned Php50–Php200 a day.
In Coron, the boatmen served a similar fish she had in Manila, but Coron whose main occupation depends on tourism understands that decorating can do a trick on simple island cuisine like grilled fish. Our macho boat captain twirled a ripe tomato into a flower and placed it between the heads of grilled fish. Red—thinly sliced tomato—danced on lato. Yes, our macho boat captain did those.
Perhaps Agness momentarily forgot she was in an archipelago with more than 7 000 islands to choose from. Too many islands for tourist attractions that even we Filipinos missed, overlooked, forgot the prospect of street food as tourist consumption. We’ve successfully marketed our smiles, hospitability, culture, and yes, traditional cuisine, but no, not street food. Agness was lucky to find binignit sold in small franchises in Cebu. Luckily, she enjoyed it despite the absence of food presentation.
Traveler friends and Agness shared stories on the richness of street food in our neighboring countries. An American friend living in Hanoi kept on encouraging me to visit him and his Vietnamese wife and marveled at their street cafes and street food, among others. Looking at the street food pictures of our sister countries, I could say that the bochi (fried dough filled with bukayo), the skewered saang, the ginabot (deep-fried pork viscera) and its pungko-pungko siblings, the puto-balanghoy (steamed cassava cake) I enjoy on a monthly basis in Carbon market or Colon Street in Cebu would fail to comparison when it comes to food presentation. Our street food is meant to be eaten and enjoyed unapologetically, while our neighbors’ are meant to be photographed, eaten, and enjoyed.
Our street food would discourage not only some foreign tourists but also some of our fellow Filipinos. I have friends who gave me that “eww” look everytime I eat balut along Mango Avenue at night. Some of us distrust, despise our very street food. There is virtue in admission.
But what I failed to grasp was Agness’ indignation towards these foreign food. She has been traveling since 2011 and has been exposed to various cultures, extravagance, and poverty alike.
Perhaps I am still a novice in the ways of traveling. But for me, a real traveler looks beyond the superficiality of things, looks harder and more intently, never looks away, never falls for bigotry, tries to understand, is weary of generalization, eats what is “local.” Like the French woman who made do with rice and soy sauce. Like the Australian cook eating bland boiled beans and an overload of rice. Like the hesitant Chinese fingering the lato. Like the vegetarian salvaging vegetables from the other travelers’ plates. Like eating ginabot (deep-fried pork intestines) the way locals do: with the hands wrapped in plastic.
And the act of eating anything local itself is already an unspoken permission, a consent of the possibility of getting traveler’s diarrhea.
Aren’t these some of the things we burdened ourselves once we start wearing the label “traveler?”
• Jona Branzuela Bering is a writer and photographer in Cebu, Philippines. She travels solo most of the time. When in Cebu, she gardens and becomes a slave of four cats. She is a plant thief and reader by midnight. She blogs at http://backpackingwithabook.com. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.