Who would have thought that the U2 song “Where the Streets Have No Name” would make more sense to me now than it did when I first rocked to the music of U2 in my teens. While rock ‘n roll used to be my thing, my path has led me far from music, but it hasn’t changed my heart too much. No, I can’t sing to save my life, but one thing that great music taught me is to listen with my ears, mind, and heart.
Being invited to be on Netflix’s Street Food series caught me by surprise. I gasped upon reading the words Netflix and Chef’s Table on an email the producers sent last year. They just wanted to ask some questions and that was honor enough. I did not know how the episode would turn out after I did my part. After the filming, I was out of the picture and the Netflix team weaved their magic on their own.
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A few months after that first email, the episode with me featured in it came out on April 26 and of course, I was elated. But in a matter of days from its streaming debut, the episode on the Philippines got dragged down the gutter. What we thought was a great story was called an “epic failure” and “poverty porn,” and that the story lacked merit or research. Big words from big guns, and an avalanche of commentaries ensued.
I’ve learned that the best way to appreciate a story is not to write it in your head before listening. Our minds zoom in to make the world fit to our own perception of it. And before you know it, we make that perspective the filter we judge the world by. And I wanted to watch Street Food without writing the story in my head just yet. While I usually cringe when seeing myself onscreen, I detached my ego and watched the episode for the first time with my family. And so with fresh eyes, I jotted down my thoughts and ideas about the show.
Entoy and the sea
Living in Manila for close to 20 years after I had left Cebu almost made me forget about the sea. I learned to eat tilapia and hito here, but true blue Cebuanos rarely touch these. So the choice to feature Entoy and his bakasi or eels resonated strongly with me. The brackish water and ocean currents in Cordova make this an ideal breeding ground for these eels. At Entoy’s streetside eatery, they are as fresh as you can get them. I am drawn to bakasi because they remind me of my childhood when they would occasionally appear on our family table, thanks to my grandfather’s adventurous palate.
Cordova is a blessed place, providing fresh and varied seafood that feeds the community. It got me thinking: if a man can make a living the way Entoy does, he’s better off than most of us in Manila. If his family can feast, not only on bakasi, but on fresh fish, crab, clams and other mollusks, squid, octopus, and more, then they are eating much better than we do here in Manila. Ka lami sa kinabuhi (Life is good).
When we were filming at Entoy’s, and I was made to eat bakasi, I had no qualms about it at all. In fact, I was so proud to teach the Netflix crew how to eat it. This dish was such a treat and made the trip to Cordova special. I did not expect that people would be embarrassed by it, much more make something so personal seem so shameful.
Fishballs et al.
People nowadays prefer to eat doughy fishballs made without fish, meat dumplings with practically no meat, cheese products without milk, fruit juices without any fruit in it. I’ve been to places that grow some of the best coffees in the country yet locals only serve 3-in-1 sachets in their stores because they feel their coffee is not good enough. We have one of the world’s largest tuna markets, yet all that’s available to us are tuna jaw and tail. We even import our rice, salt, and garlic.
I wonder why no one pointed out the issue of food security while watching the show. In fact, Entoy shows us the way to feed our nation—use what is local and what is available. Take care of your environment and community and it will take care of you. Eat seasonal. There are many opportunities in the countryside. The deeper messages are so important and many have missed these.
Out of sight
While I am glad Street Food featured four vendors in Cebu, there were some dishes that I wished were included in the series. One is ngohiong which is a Cebuano twist on kikiam, using 5-spice powder to give its distinct flavor (ngohiong means 5-spice). Instead of taupe (tofu skin wrappers), the lumpia is coated in a light batter then fried until golden. The best ones I’ve had are deep-fried in pork fat. Domengs may be one of the more popular places serving ngohiong, however they did not want to be featured.
Another dish is balbacua, a stew made with beef tail tendons and trotters and flavored with ginger, Chinese spices, and achuete or annatto. This dish is really a mix of flavors from different parts of the world cooked in a single pot. Making this more Cebuano is to eat it with corn grits instead of rice and puso.
Puto maya is also very popular in Cebu. Unlike the puto of Luzon, puto maya resembles Thai sticky rice but is eaten with muscovado sugar, sikwate (tsokolate), and Cebu mangoes.
I also feel that puso (hanging rice) should have been given its due as it truly defines Cebuano street food. Barbecue from Larsian, siomai in Tisa, lechon of Talisay, ngohiong from Guadalupe, chicharron of Carcar, larang in Pasil, punko punko from Redemptorist, or whatever you may have is usually eaten with puso. It changes the eating dynamic, converting simple papak (bites) into a full meal. Puso on one hand and ulam on the other makes a meal handy and easy to eat.
I understand that not all Cebuano street food could make it in the episode. I was told that the producers had enough material for three episodes. But for me, that one episode was good enough as a peek into something that’s out of the ordinary, and perhaps an invitation for other shows to feature more of what Cebu and the Philippines have to offer.
Filipino food as is
When commenting about Street Food, critics argued about what is and is not Filipino, and what is not Filipino enough, but I feel that they missed the point. Behind all that was said by these critics is actually a yearning for Filipino food to be liked. They feel the need to curate the public image for Philippine cuisine, and to put our best foot forward. When they start judging which cuisine or dish is better or worse, or which region has better food than Cebu, then I know the discussion has gone to the dogs.
Philippine cuisine is so much more complex and interesting than we give it credit for. Not only is it delicious, it is a reflection of our history, culture, and society. It is a way to understand our people and to unleash our soul. We need not apologize for the episode. We need not be ashamed, whether it be Cebuano cuisine or any other regional cuisine. We don’t even need people from other countries to like our food. Instead, we should be more concerned about how well we are feeding our people.
Suddenly my mind takes me back to that poignant song of my youth where U2 frontman Bono sings:
Where the streets have no name
Where the streets have no name
We’re still building then burning down love
Burning down love
And when I go there, I go there with you
It’s all I can do
- U2, The Joshua Tree
Like us, Bono lives in a city where our address reveals so much about us. But he sings about an African village where everyone lives equally without labels. He shares, “To me, that’s the way a great rock ‘n roll concert should be: a place where everyone comes together... Maybe that’s the dream of all art: to break down the barriers and the divisions between people and touch upon the things that matter the most to us all.”
Why not sing praises for our own cuisine, no matter what region it comes from. Let’s feast together, share stories, and begin to love each other. As for Entoy, he’ll be okay. He still has his groove. In fact he’s doing well in a street whose name I can’t even remember.