The Philippines is not a place I have known anyone to travel to for its cuisine. As I prepared to go I could not help but remember the way a fellow traveler in Iran paused and scrunched up her face when she singled it out as the one country she had been where the food was “not so good.” Yes, I had some of those “not so good” moments in the Philippines, myself—“sausages” I ordered for breakfast that came straight from a can, sugary white bread and some meat that was mostly gristle.
I had some tasty meals, though, too. I enjoyed chicken adobo, made with soy sauce, garlic, potatoes and carrots; homemade longganisa sausage; pork menudo, which came in a base of soy sauce, lemon, onions, carrots and potatoes; fish in coconut milk sauce; and a soup called sinigang that one man called the “favorite soup of Luzon,” the largest and most populated island in the Philippines. It featured pork, tomatoes, onions, eggplant, green beans and ginger in a sour broth. As a side to the main dishes, I ate garlic rice at every opportunity and often slurped down a combination of fresh mango and banana juices.
Some of my top food experiences, though, came from unexpected invitations to join people for meals. One afternoon, I rode a packed jeepney from Tagbilaran, Bohol, to Dumaluan Beach on the island of Panglao. Dumaluan is popular with locals since it is a public beach. It has a long, narrow stretch of powdery sand and clear aqua-colored waters in which to cool off from the high heat and humidity. As I arrived, I heard laughter and music coming from one of the permanent wooden shelters set up for people to use for picnics. Instinctively, I walked over to see what was happening.
A group of people stood around a table with plates breaking off pieces of the crisp, honey-colored skin of a roasted pig (lechon), a dish that is often the star of the meal at family gatherings or special events in the Philippines. Within seconds, a man handed me a plate, urging me to take some before it was all gone. “It is the best part,” he said. A woman cracked off some of the skin that had a thin layer of fat on its underside and put it on the plate for me. She offered me the meat, too, pulling chunks from the torso to pile on my plate. One woman looked at me in all seriousness and asked, “Are you a botanist, ma’am?” speaking in the standard Filipino way of showing respect. “No,” I laughed. “You look like one,” she said. In my usual outfit of trekking pants, T-shirt and olive green bag across my body, I could see where she got the idea.
I talked with a young woman who was pregnant with her first child. She was in her 20s and had been in a relationship with a French man for four years. They lived in Siquijor, a nearby island, and ran a pizza shop. Another woman joked repeatedly about she and I both being jobless and whether I could find her an American man. As always in the Philippines, everyone wanted to know if I had a “companion” and whether I had kids.
They offered me more of the dishes on the table—plain white rice; red rice; brown sticky rice; pig liver with carrots and onions; pig intestines that were surprisingly good; and the thick and fairly flavorless skin of a carabao—a type of water buffalo found in the Philippines. We finished the meal with mango and another fruit about the size of a small walnut that had a tart taste reminiscent of a green apple. “Sweet and sour,” one woman said. It was a family gathering for no particular reason, paid for by a family member who worked in the seafood industry in Alaska.
A week or so earlier, I had been on my way back from swimming under the small but powerful Busay Falls on the Loboc River on Bohol, part of the Central Visayas region of the Philippines. As I got closer to where I would exit the water, I saw a group entering the river. They were all male and–I found out later–all related in one way or another. I guessed them to range in age from seven or eight to their twenties or thirties. A few carried an axe in one hand. Others carried plastic containers. Many held lit cigarettes above the emerald green river.
I asked one of the young men, who later told me his name was Joel, what they were doing. He was thin, with a light goatee, and looked to be in his late teens or early twenties. He told me they were collecting tamilok, a worm-like mollusk that Joel said burrowed in tunnels within logs that had been submerged in the water for six to eight months. (Joel actually called it “tatad,” but I only found it referenced online and elsewhere in the Philippines as “tamilok,” so I am using “tamilok” for ease of reference/understanding.)
Joel said he and the others sometimes spent an afternoon at the river breaking open the logs for a snack. He invited me to have a closer look. I watched as one man split open a log with one of the homemade axes, revealing multiple holes in the log with a slippery tamilok inside most of the holes. Another person would then delicately grasp the end of any tamilok peeking out of a hole and slide it out of the log, being careful not to break it by pulling too hard or fast. When there was no end to grab, one of the boys might smack the log against another to bring the tamilok closer to the surface. Some of the tamilok were long; some were short. Some were thin, and some were thick. The color varied, too, with some being clear and others having a gray or slightly pinkish hue. The best tasting, Joel said, were the white ones.
As they pulled the tamilok out of the logs, they rinsed them off in the river and piled them in a ceramic bowl. Joel invited me to try one and fended off many polite refusals, insisting I try a white one. “It’s delicious,” he kept saying. “Okay,” I said, “I’ll try a small one.” I picked up a small white one, dangling it in my mouth to bite it just below the head and then let the rest slide down my throat. There was no noticeable flavor. Joel handed me a section of a log to let me try pulling some out. “Get as much as you want,” he said. Meanwhile, he and another man prepared a marinade with a strongly scented brown vinegar that Joel said came from coconuts, a small chopped red onion, ginger, salt and a packet of Japanese seasoning. Joel invited me to eat one with the marinade. He was right—it was delicious.
We worked in an easy silence by the shore of the river, occasionally hearing the distant screams of people flying on a zip line 120 meters overhead (side note: the next day I was one of them–fun!). Some used saws to open logs, others of us pulled out the tamilok, rinsing them off in the river and plopping them in the bowl or one of the plastic containers. Eventually, we each squatted around the ceramic bowl, eating the tamilok with our hands along with the plain rice the men had brought with them (rice is a given at every meal in the Philippines). Some of the men wore red and blue Rodrigo Duterte bracelets. Though the presidential election had not yet taken place, Duterte was the clear favorite—and eventual winner—and I would later see even a puppy wearing a Duterte bracelet as his collar.
I soon made my way back to where I was staying, walking the packed dirt path that ran beside the river. I passed tall, thin coconut trees bending over the water, puppies grr’ing in a tug-of-war over a piece of cloth and boys playing basketball on a dirt court. As I walked, I felt something hard between my front teeth. I picked it out with my fingers and looked at it. Was it a tiny wood chip?