Friday, July 18, 2014

Kamagong Journals Part Five: Foraging For Food

Most houses that I have been inside in the Philippines have refrigerators but they aren't utilized like their American counterparts. In America, a typical refrigerator would have staples like milk, butter and eggs along with meats, vegetable, cheeses and leftovers from previous meals. Filipino refrigerators have the staples but none of the rest. They are much smaller and are not the central part of a kitchen like they tend to be in America. I write all of this to say that most Filipinos tend to shop at markets on a daily basis or several times a week. Their food is fresher than the freshest of American food found in the supermarket often picked, caught or killed that day. 

If they aren't buying fresh food to prepare, they are buying prepared food from food vendors like the one in the photo above who make it fresh every day. This particular stand is owned by my wife's uncle and is in Manila. As I sat inside eating breakfast and talking with my wife's uncle one morning, a constant stream of people stopped by picking up 'sack' lunches to eat later at work. They would inspect the contents of the pots and select the ones they wanted which were scooped up and ladled into plastic bags that were then knotted and put into a larger plastic bag with other selections. The other common method of dining there was to bring your own rice, though rice was also served, and to pay for a ladle full of a dish to be put on top and then eaten right there at the counter.

When dining in America especially at quick eating or fast food places, the food is often made in advance of your arrival and kept warm on hot plates until served. While this is also the case in similar restaurants of the Philippines, all you have to do is ask and almost all of them will make you some fresh food. At the above stand in a block of the town of Vigan that served every kind of empanada imaginable, I ordered some fresh empanadas for lunch. The empanada dough was made from rice flour and the filling consisted of papaya, longanisa (similar to a sausage) and an egg and then fried. They were outstanding and worth the wait.

I would say that the hardest aspect of food for someone used to living in a first world country like the United States to adjust too is how meat is sold in the Philippines. There aren't any refrigerated cases full of styrofoam and shrinkwrapped trays of meat, or at least that I have seen. If there are, I'm sure it is way beyond the price of the average Filipino. They instead by their meats or seafood in 'wet' markets which are usually nearby to their produce markets. They are open air stalls and nothing is wrapped. In fact, the pig, cow, or chickens were probably slaughtered overnight or early that morning and by the time we get their near dawn to buy it, they are still processing it into the cuts you see above. All these stands have a bloody wooden stump in them where they can cut up your purchase to your desire and the meat is put into a plastic bag and knotted at the top.

The most common question or concern I get is about food born bacteria being present in this situation. While I'm sure there are bacteria present, there are several factors that prevent them from getting you sick. First, the meat is super fresh so any contaminant is probably only on the outside of the meat and easily rinsed off before cooking when you return home. Second, rare or medium rare aren't terms used in the Philippines. Everything is well cooked thus killing any bacteria present. Third, most of their meats are cooked with preservatives like vinegar or soy sauce that are acidic and salty and adding another level of safety. In all my time in the Philippines, I have never gotten sick from the food. I have had my run ins with bad water but that's another story.

Being a poor country, no part of an animal is wasted, including the tails of cows which can be seen in the blue plastic tote above. The man in the picture just finished up scraping the hair off the tails in the big container of water right next to it and they will be chopped up and put in plastic bags when purchased where they will most likely be made into a Filipino dish called kare-kare. He was right in front of the meat store in the preceding picture and when he was finished, he took a few cans of water from the taller container near the street to wash the hair and blood on down the sidewalk... right where we walk. Like I said, it makes my mind squirm thinking about these things but I've never gotten sick from the food.

More appealing to me are the seafood sections of the wet markets because the fish and seafood are all freshly caught. In fact, if one travels the roads leading up the mountain to Baguio in the wee morning hours, they are full of trucks of fish, veggies and other perishable items that are creeping up the mountain in low gear heading for the markets where the fish will be sold and consumed later that day. These fish are nothing like the ones you find in an American store which are frozen and then thawed and days if not weeks old. Just one whiff of your nose will tell you that these things are super fresh. Again note the presence of the bloody wooden stump and plastic bag seen on the right side of the photo.

For other perishable goods and some non-parishable stuff, you can go to the rest of the market area in town. In Baguio, the market area comprised about four or five blocks of alleyways covered with tarps like what is seen above or roofed open air areas. Merchants set up their stands  to hawk their wares to passersby and like the wet market, everything is very fresh. For the most part, you only see what is in season at that moment. Although technically illegal, you also find many private individuals who will set up shop along the side of the street every morning selling the produce they picked from the night before or early that morning that was ripe. Nothing is priced and there are dozens of people selling the same thing so much time is spent shopping for the best foods and haggling for the cheapest price.

For non-perishable goods, there are a few stores that are similar in nature to American grocery stores. They are full of rows of shelves of boxed, bagged and canned goods that you can select, put in your cart and pay for in the checkout lanes. However there is one noticeable exception. I am taking this picture from the far back corner of the store. If you were to walk all the way to the far wall seen in the distance, hang a left and walk another length of distance, you would reach the checkout area. Where I am standing when I took this picture was the end of the line of people waiting to pay for their items. Seriously! The line wound left and right through the aisles between here and there and probably had at least 300 people ahead of me. No more will I get impatient when I get to a checkout line in America and there are more than a couple people ahead of me.

The best strategy to minimize the wait to pay was for at least one other person to shop with you. One person would get a cart and immediately go to the back of the store and get in line to pay. The other person would grab a hand basket and make forays into the aisles that we passed getting the necessary food items and occasionally come back to dump it in the shopping cart as it slowly advanced in line. After about 40 minutes in line, I finally turned the last corner to the checkout lines seen below. It looks chaotic but was actually fairly organized. All along the way in line, there were store employees stationed to help people find the end of the line and prevent people from cutting in line. During the 40 minutes I pushed the cart slowly forward in line, three other people tried to cut in line in front of me and were quickly collared and shown to the back of the line. Once you got to the end of the line, another store employee would usher you to the first empty checkout line available. Once again, all your groceries were put in plastic bags for you to carry out by hand. The carts were not to leave the store.

One thing that I found funny is that we bought some eggs at this particular store and when we got up to the counter, they asked which price I wanted. One price was for the eggs and another price was for the eggs if you kept the carton they were in. I'm not sure what would happen if you selected the cheaper price sans carton but I'm guessing it involved a plastic bag. We paid the higher price and got to keep our eggs in the carton so I never found out the answer.


edifice rex said...

I've often thought we need more fresh food markets like these; except for maybe the meat stuff. lol! I guess our farmer's markets are close and they are becoming much more popular with huge selections sometimes. I think that's great. Supermarket produce leaves a lot to be desired.

Rich said...

It would bother me much more to wait in a never-ending checkout line than it would bother me to buy meat that wasn't shrink wrapped.