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The Philippines at Last

Growing up, as many Hong Kongers do, in a home with a live-in nanny from the Philippines, I was exposed to Filipino food and culture from a very young age. Lynn Che Che (literally “Elder Sister Lynn” in Cantonese) arrived on the scene when my parents and sister lived in Singapore; my brother and I were still in our mother’s womb at the time. With twins on the way, a mischievous toddler to take care of, and my father working long hours at the office, mom needed all the help she could get.

Lynn Che Che came armed a degree in midwifery and a motherly instinct that kicked in even before she married and had a daughter of her own. She was strict when our behavior required it but always loving. After learning the ropes from my mother, she grew to be a talented cook in her own right, executing both Chinese and Western cuisine with aplomb while introducing us to quintessential Filipino dishes like chicken adobo and torta – the latter a localized riff on Spanish potato omelets that we happily wolfed down with ketchup and white rice.

In time, her younger sister Ate Ria joined our family. Tomboyish and cheeky with short hair, a ready grin, and a penchant for wearing jeans, she’d drive my siblings and I to school and back, often while we listened to The Eagles or some pirated pop music. On summer afternoons when there was nothing to do, we would sometimes sit down with her to watch Filipino action movies starring big-name actors like Robin Padilla and Troy Montero. Once, not long after we downsized to a walk-up apartment in my late teens, Ate Ria took down the ripened fruit from a jackfruit tree in the car park so Lynn Che Che could whip up an indulgent Filipino shaved ice dessert called halo-halo.

Their generosity extended to occasional trips back to the Philippines. Without being prompted, they often brought us jars of bacon- and ham-flavored mayonnaise (I am a sucker for mayo and will even mix it with rice); a box of treats from Dunkin’ Donuts or brazo de Mercedes, a roll of soft meringue with a custard filling; and a tub of ice cream made from purple yam or ube, which to this day remains my favorite flavor for its rich earthiness and eye-catching violet hue.

In those 18-odd years, Lynn Che Che became a second mother to us, celebrating our birthdays and other milestones, enlivening the home with her laughter and perfuming the air with the wonderful smells of whatever she was cooking. But then it came time for my siblings and I to attend college overseas. Lynn Che Che cried; Ate Ria was sad too but more stoic. With a now-empty nest, mom and dad reluctantly dispatched both sisters to care for our grandparents.

I knew the name of Lynn Che Che and Ate Ria’s hometown, their home province (Iloilo), and where it was in the Philippines. I was aware of the dramatic rice terraces of Banaue and Batad in northern Luzon, the UNESCO-inscribed city of Vigan, and the tarsiers of Bohol. I’d read a tantalizing account of a kayaking trip between the karst islands of Palawan’s Bacuit Bay, marveled at photos of Mt. Mayon’s perfectly shaped volcanic cone, and heard reports of the dazzling white-sand beaches and coral reefs found in abundance across the Visayas – the Philippines’ central belt of islands. I had every intention of going, until I got sidetracked by a deepening love affair with Indonesia.

So when I was asked to go on assignment to Cebu earlier this year, I wasn’t about to say no. I’d known that this city and island in the heart of the Visayas was the place to go beach-hopping, snorkeling and diving, and that the cuisine was a boon for pork aficionados like me. Cebu-style lechon, or spit-roasted pig, is famous up and down the country, and Anthony Bourdain proclaimed it the best kind of roast pig in the world. Serendipitously, the popular House of Lechon restaurant was just a two-minute walk from the barebones hotel I stayed at the first two nights in town.

For lunch on my first full day, I couldn’t help ordering a plate of lechon with garlic rice and kinilaw, a Filipino seafood dish akin to ceviche that uses vinegar and calamansi lime juice to cure tasty cubes of raw fish. Then there was sisig, the ultimate “drunk food” from the northern Philippine island of Luzon: it comprises pork jowls, liver, and ears that are boiled, grilled, and then diced before being seasoned with calamansi and served on a sizzling hotplate, often with a freshly cracked egg on top. Bourdain was especially fond of sisig, and I had the great fortune of being treated to some by a new friend before heading to the airport. In the end the Philippines blew me away – not because of the beaches or underwater wonders (I had no time to seek them out), but largely because of the warm, hospitable people I met and the incredible stories they told. 

Skewers of meat (like chorizo de Cebu) at the Marco Polo Plaza Cebu hotel; denim cushions at Nest

Nest Home and Fabrique Shop is the place to pick up souvenirs by local designers and artisans

Kinilaw – a Filipino specialty of raw seafood mixed with vinegar and calamansi lime juice

This kinilaw came with fish, squid, prawns, pickled onions, and Cebu’s famous mangoes

Succulent lechon, or Filipino spit-roasted pig, with crispy skin at the House of Lechon

Sisig on a hotplate, pork skewers, and Cebuano “danggit” dried fish for breakfast

A bird’s-eye view of the city from the rooftop terrace at the Marco Polo Plaza Cebu

34 Comments Post a comment
  1. I like philippines..
    Hope sometime i ll b there

    September 30, 2018
    • It is very similar to Indonesia in a number of ways. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it!

      September 30, 2018
  2. You must have been so happy having all those pork dishes every day in Cebu — especially after moving to Jakarta where pork is not as widely available as in Hong Kong. Despite having visited the Philippines much earlier than you, my experience with Filipino food is rather limited. Back then trying local cuisine wasn’t really the focus of my travel, a fact that I regret today. Anyway, with two airlines from the Philippines flying to Jakarta (and Garuda Indonesia’s plan to reopen the CGK-MNL route soon), sisig and lechon are not that far away! 🙂

    September 30, 2018
    • I didn’t realize just how important pork was to my diet in Hong Kong until I moved to a mostly non-pork eating country! That is always something I look forward to eating whenever I travel to other parts of Southeast Asia. It would be so good if there were nonstop flights between Jakarta and Cebu – I’d love to go back with you to explore more historical sites and tour some of the surrounding islands. 🙂

      September 30, 2018
  3. I remember on a visit to Singapore, seeing hundreds of Filipino workers gathering together to eat on their Sunday off.

    September 30, 2018
    • It’s also a regular sight in Hong Kong. But I’ve often wished the authorities would build indoor venues for the domestic workers to use when conditions get too hot or cold and when it rains.

      October 1, 2018
  4. Oh I so want to go to the Philippines, and now you’ve whetted my appetite even further, though I daresay I’ll do without the sisig. Liver is fine, jowls and ears not so much. The kinilaw sounds good!
    Alison

    October 1, 2018
    • The funny thing about sisig is that it’s all chopped up so finely that you might think it was just normal minced pork. That kinilaw I tried was wonderfully tart and a perfect accompaniment for the fatty lechon!
      James

      October 1, 2018
  5. What, you have twins?

    I’ve been curious to the Philippines, especially Manila, more specifically its legendary MRT/LRT systems. And from some Filipino movies I watched, it seems that Filipino is gifted with many beautiful women and handsome men.
    Those cuisine you showed on the post are very tempting! I love pork, too 🙂

    October 1, 2018
    • More accurately, I do have a twin brother. He doesn’t blog though.

      My friends in Manila tell me their MRT/LRT is not really in the best shape – Bangkok is apparently better. But I’m sure they will love what you say about the local men and women. 😉

      October 1, 2018
  6. What a lovely childhood memory, James. I bet that made your visit to the Philippines even more interesting, as you were familiar with some of the foods and stories from the country since your childhood. I love the Philippines, I was in Palawan last year, and it ended up becoming my favorite travel destination so far. I love blue seas and all the water activities, so it’s hard to beat Philippines in that aspect. I absolutely loved the friendly people too. I am not really a foodie, but I like to taste local cuisine here and there, when I am traveling. The adobo chicken was good over there, but I remember finding other dishes (like squid) too sweet for my taste. I didn’t give enough chance or priority to finding out more about the local cuisine, so I don’t really know that much about Filipino cuisine. The foods that you tried and have shown here do look delicious!

    October 1, 2018
    • Wow Pooja, lucky you! Palawan has been on my wish list for the longest time, and everyone I know who has been there came back raving about it. One thing I especially loved about the local cuisine was the prevalence of pork – that was something I grew up eating in Hong Kong, and now that I live in Indonesia, where more than 80% of people don’t eat it for religious reasons, it’s become quite a rare treat.

      October 2, 2018
  7. Do you still keep in touch with the two ladies? I imagine that is really hard on everyone to live with them for so long and then to go away. They are indeed part of your family.

    I have worked with many Filipino people over the years and they are always very friendly and nice. Many travelers rate the Philippines as a favorite country since English is so widely spoken and the people are so nice it is easy to have great connections with the locals.

    We are actually headed to Cebu in about 10 days. Kristi has to go for work then luckily has a week off right after, so we plan to do Malapascua and Camiquin Islands. I am very much looking forward to a visit.

    October 1, 2018
    • I make sure to see them both whenever I return to Hong Kong on a work trip or for the holidays, which tends to be twice if not three times a year.

      The Philippines might just remind you of Indonesia in some ways. They have so many things in common (great beaches and coral reefs, volcanoes, friendly people for a start!) although the Spanish legacy is one major difference. You’ll most likely pick out some Spanish words and phrases in the local languages, as I did in Cebu. Not sure if it’s mango season there right now but if it is, make sure you and Kristi try them. Enjoy your trip!

      October 2, 2018
  8. The food looks amazing!

    October 1, 2018
    • It really was, Debra. Especially if you’re a pork-lover like me!

      October 2, 2018
  9. I’ll take warm hospitable people over beaches any day:) I have a few Filipino friends on Instagram whose photos make me dream of visiting someday. But I haven’t had Philippine cuisine described quite as eloquently as you have done here. The Kinilaw looks particularly interesting to me. We cook prawns with raw mangoes (in Mangalore) but I never considered pairing them with ripe fruit. Great post James.

    October 2, 2018
    • Thank you so much, Madhu. 🙂 I’m the same – although I do appreciate a beautiful, uncrowded beach, I can’t see myself spending more than two hours on one doing absolutely nothing! Like Indonesian food, Filipino cuisine remains deeply underrated, but it is beginning to catch on in the US thanks to the large diaspora there. I think the kinilaw I had was a special one… it seems that most variations of the dish don’t come with fresh mangoes.

      October 3, 2018
  10. The connection of your sweet family memories to the place of the sisters’ origin is particularly nice. Pork dishes might be about the last thing I’d ever eat, but many other cultural aspects of the Philippines have always tempted me to visit!

    October 2, 2018
    • I wonder if you’ll find striking similarities between the Philippines and the Latin American countries you’ve visited so far – there is a quite a deep-rooted cultural connection to Mexico as they were once ruled together under the Viceroyalty of New Spain.

      October 3, 2018
  11. Love it

    October 3, 2018
    • Thanks for reading. 🙂

      October 3, 2018
  12. Was in the Philippines on a working holiday in 2013 – paradise! Had never been outside of Europe (and package holidays) until then. Worked in a call centre where a girl I spoke to told me her Mother and Aunt were nurses in my home city in Ireland. Small world indeed. She has since moved to Ireland herself and is also nursing, in a relationship with an Irish guy and part of a large Filipino community here.

    October 3, 2018
    • That’s a lovely anecdote right there – I guess it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that you’ll find Filipinos working just about everywhere in the world.

      October 3, 2018
  13. I am a Filipino and I like to thank you for appreciating our country so much and for treating my fellow Filipinos, Ms. Lynn and Ms. Ria, as your family members.

    October 4, 2018
    • Maraming salamat Malinconico! What a kind thing to say. 🙂

      October 4, 2018
  14. Really vivid. You make it seem so effortless. Some writers seem to be somewhat constipated, but you just let it flow. Looking forward to read more of your blogs.

    October 6, 2018
    • Thank you so much! I sometimes struggle to write (especially after a long day) but it becomes much easier when inspiration strikes.

      October 15, 2018
      • I agree about inspiration. I can write realms when the ideas come. Then I am in the middle of one thing and another idea comes and I am off. So I end up with lots of unfinished work. I also tend to write in metaphors so reading your blog is helpful in giving a literal view. Here I am blogging, newly, at https://uniquevision599639687.wordpress.com/author/ivyrose388/. Your feed back would be really welcome.

        October 18, 2018
  15. Mmmmmm….
    Philippines seems very tempting. I guess I must put it in my list of ‘going places’. The food looks delicious and what a mesmerizing view of the city…. Beautiful.

    October 6, 2018
    • The food was a real highlight; I could see why people rave about the roast pig in Cebu and the trove of other dishes. Hope you make it there soon!

      October 15, 2018
  16. I loved our travels in the Philippines and hope I’ll get to explore more of this beautiful country. I have to agree with you James about the wonderful Filipino people, both the ones I met there and those here in Canada. My mother is in a care home and 90% of the staff is Filipino. Their kindness, warmth and positive attitude is extraordinary.

    October 14, 2018
    • Filipinos have such a knack for taking care of others as though they were their own family. And their optimism sure is infectious. Judging from your reports on Coron and Bohol, I reckon you’ve seen a lot more of the Philippines than I have! The entire trip was spent in Cebu City so there were no coral reefs and natural wonders in sight. But then again I really enjoyed visiting some of the attractions downtown and getting a feel for Cebu’s Spanish colonial heritage.

      October 15, 2018
  17. Travis James #

    What an awesome story! I’m American but living in the Philippines for 8 years now. It’s definitely a crazy/awesome place to go to! 😍

    October 17, 2018

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