The rise of Filipino dishes in the Middle East

That amazing star of classical music, Luciano Pavarotti, was once heard to say, “One of the nicest things about life is that we must regularly stop what we are doing, and devote our attention to eating.” Eating is something most of us do well, though it’s fair to say it’s also seen as a ‘guilty pleasure.’ Filipino food though, is a love affair, just waiting to happen.

Eating occupies a significant amount of our day, doesn’t it? After all, we eat 3 times a day, and we discuss, debate and think about what we are going to eat next. Oh the decisions we make, racking our brains for something we would like to eat, but is healthy, or ‘not unhealthy.’ That’s a bit of a default position isn’t it? It offers little genuine satisfaction, but lets us have the feel good factor of eating, whilst maintaining the illusion that we care what we eat. No, we don’t really care, but it’s important to appear that we do.
The next big food fad, in the USA, apparently is Pinoy, or Filipino food, which is unlikely to offend anyone’s taste buds, but more likely to offend your sensitivities. After all, if you venture into a Filipino food outlet, among the first things you are likely to see are chicken helmets (heads), chicken adidas (feet), or chicken balun-balunan (gizzards). Such delicacies (?) are probably less an acquired taste than requiring an acquired ability to eat them without thinking about them.

So, if your first impression is less than favourable, why do people flock to the Filipino eateries in the Middle East? Apparently, it’s got everything to do with the seductive and addictive nature of three of the cornerstones of taste, sweet, sour and salty!
Pungent and bitter are available on demand, but sweet, sour and salty are all universally acceptable. In any case, Mark Twain said, “Eat what you like, and let the food fight it out on the inside!” Taking a leaf out of his book, step into something like the Little Manila Restaurant in downtown Deira, Dubai, or when in Oman, try out the menu of Palayok and have some fun with your food.
If you’re early in the day, try one of their options for breakfast including Tapsilog, or Chicksilog, both meats cooked in a Tamarind sauce, the cured beef option of Tapa, or the Chicken Liver alternative, all served with rice, salted egg and tomato. Then again, you could go for a Pancit Noodle dish, and that, in any such eatery, would only be a fraction of the alternatives.
Lunches tend to be a more finger-food type of arrangements generally preferred. The Lumpia, or spring rolls, are usually larger than their Oriental cousins, and as a result more about the vegetables and the flavours than just a quick food fix. The Longanisa, or Filipino sausage is said to be more sweet than sour, while the Siopao a meat filled steamed bun, or Siomai a steamed dumpling featuring minced or shredded meats appears both healthy and appealing. These are soft, and full of tenderness, with the casings almost sweet, like a pancake batter. A few Kropek (fish crackers), some Chickaron, or Chicharon (fried strips of meat or chicken skin) will just top your lunch break off nicely.
Evening meals, throughout the Pinoy world, are something else altogether! Paellas which traditionally feature many seafoods, and Cozidos (slow-cooked stewed meats) reflect the Spanish heritage and influences of the Philippines, while the Kare-Kare, an oxtail creation in a peanut sauce, Pinakbet, a vegetable stew with the heady shrimp flavour resonant throughout is very different, and Adobo, meat braised in garlic oil then simmered down till dry, is an incredibly rich dish.
Finally, the sweets and breads are designed to give you that ‘sugar rush’ you crave with an absolute necessity being the Champorado, a chocolate rice pudding that probably screams ‘calories,’ but is too addictive to stop eating. You don’t eat it, it just disappears from your plate! Bibingka, cooked rice cakes, and Puto, the same cakes but steamed, or if you want something that has the illusion of not being a pudding, try the sugar-coated cheese bread, Ensaimada.
There are hundreds of other dishes in the Filipino restaurant menu, and those mentioned are only a sample, and the great thing is that you can create your own menu specialties by adapting the dish a little, or changing the order in which you dine. There is something too, about eating seafood, my favourite, from a platter sitting on banana leaves, with your hands. It’s kind of primitive, but also kind of nice. Just like the food. Sweet, sour, salty, and superb!