10 unique food habits in the Philippines
For many non-Filipinos who aren’t familiar with the Philippines, the look and taste of Pinoy food is difficult to pinpoint. Philippine cuisine is unlike other Asian cuisines like Chinese and Japanese where foodies can associate specific tastes with the culture. But even among us Filipinos, we find it difficult to describe our food unless we are talking about popular dishes like adobo, pinakbet, sinigang and halo-halo.
However, we can say that the Filipino food culture is quite unique in the world because we have very specific taste, indiosyncracies , behaviours and rituals that surround the dining experience — necessities that our non-Filipino friends may have to be introduced to know what to expect.
So for the benefit of family, friends and for foodies from around the world, here are the 10 rituals and idiosyncrasies of Filipino eating and dining:
Rice everywhere, every time
The Philippines, like other Asian countries, is a nation of rice eaters. Filipinos love rice very much that we have 7 different words for rice: palay (unmilled rice), bigas (milled rice), kanin (cooked rice), lugaw (rice porridge), tutong (burned rice), bahaw (left over rice) and sinangag (fried rice). Rice is also used heavily in desserts and wines.
Rice is a staple in every meal. Those who are used to bread or potatoes for their daily dose of carbohydrates will have to specifically ask some from their hosts because they are often only available in specialised restaurants, during breakfast, merienda or snack time or as an ingredient in a dish.
While we also eat burgers and pizza, a meal eaten without rice is not considered a full meal and is only counted as merienda no matter how large the helping. Many Filipinos also do not feel full nor satisfied when their meal is without rice.
Fork and spoon, not knives
When it comes to utensils, it’s either Filipinos eat with spoon and fork or with the hands. Spoons are used instead of knives to better scoop soup and the grains of rice from the plate. However, knives can always be requested in restaurants.
In some occasions or areas, eating with the hands is common. It’s even logical to use the hands for certain meals like fried chicken. But there is no limit to what can be eaten with just the hand as long as the occasion and venue is proper. For example, boodle fight, a military-style of eating where the food is placed on top of banana leaves that cover the whole table, is often done with hands.
Love affair with street food
Street food can be found in all busy sidewalks in Manila. People going home from work could not resist stopping by their usual food street vendor as the smell of the spicy sauces wafts the air.
Eating street food isn’t bad, but the manner of cooking and the sauce used could spell tummy aches for those not used to eating them.
The Pinoy street food world is a whole different experience in itself and should not be missed because of the number of exotic but tasteful ingredients used. Chicken barbecues often make use of the parts that are often not eaten like head and feet. Other unique street food include the balut (boiled duck egg), kwek-kwek (quail egg wrapped in an orange batter) and turon (fried fruit roll).
It is not very advisable for first time visitors to the country or for Filipinos who have lived outside the Philippines for a long time to try street food. But fret no more, these can already be found in malls. Just check out the sections near the supermarkets and there are normally a row of different food carts selling these delicacies.
Pass the sawsawan
While French foodies will decry the use of condiments or sauce to enhance the flavour of food and dishes, tables in the Philippines are never complete without these bottles of flavouring. Aside from the basic salt and pepper, the popular ketchup, oyster sauce and hot sauce, there’s the suka (vinegar), toyo (soybean sauce), patis (fish sauce) and bagoong (fish or shrimp paste).
These are mixed according to ones preference in a small plate in what is called the sawsawan, which literally means ‘a place to dip [food in].’ Calamansi, a small lemon variety, is also used to enhance the dish or the sawsawan to give it a sour taste. Other ingredients that are also used to enhance the sawsawan are onions and garlic.
Breakfast, lunch, dinner and more
Filipinos love to eat. Unlike in Europe, a day isn’t complete without three full, warm meals and meriendas or snacks in between. It is not unusual to eat five times a day: breakfast, mid-morning snack, lunch (noontime meal), afternoon snack and dinner (evening meal). Some may even fit in a sixth snack after dinner and before turning in for the night.
The three full meals are never complete without rice. It is also common to have more than one dish per meal, often a meat dish partnered with a vegetable dish. Desserts are not often served after dinner, so the phrase ‘save room for dessert’ is not commonly used in the country. But desserts can be eaten as meriendas all throughout the day.
Leftovers are common – in some households, what was served in the morning is often served during lunch or at dinner with a new dish for its partner.
A lot of foreigners may be taken aback at the number of dishes that most Filipinos will serve or will order in a restaurant during a typical breakfast or lunch. But serving or ordering just one dish may often be seen as too thrifty among Filipinos. Pairing dishes is also often done to counteract flavours, for example, the salty tapa or cured beef is often paired with fried egg or pickled fruit.
Say yes to food
Asking if the person has eaten or inviting people to eat (kumain ka na ba? or kain tayo) is a common greeting in the Philippines. Often, this is done even without the intention of serving or giving food. The polite answer is to say you have or that you are already full. But when asked twice or when the person insists, then it is polite to give in. Some would even invite you to the next meal even while you’re already eating on the table.
It is never polite to refuse food in the Filipino setting — even if you are already very full. Filipinos would rather starve than not prepare a small merienda for a guest. Refusing food can also mean that you don’t like or trust the person giving food or that you are above eating from that person’s table. A nibble or a bite is enough to show appreciation.
While some would say that it is polite to leave a bit of food on the plate to indicate satisfaction, not all Filipinos believe this. Some would rather eat every bit of food on their plate to show appreciation for everyone responsible for bringing the food to the table, from the farmer in his field to the cook in charge of the dishes.
Hospitality demands that the host also be in charge of setting and cleaning up after meals, but it’s always polite to offer a helping hand with preparation and clean up.
Don’t let food wait
Coming late to the dinner table is one of the taboos of dining with a Filipino family. When a person is called to eat, he or she must immediately respond to the call and join the table.
Food on the table is counted as a blessing in households, and being on time is a way we show respect to the food and the family. While foreign guests are often excused, it is better to be ready as meal time (which is often fixed) nears.
However, before touching the rice, everyone must wait until after the head of the household finishes the…
Prayer before meals
Filipinos are taught this habit at a very early age, so that it has become a common but obligatory practice on Christian dinner tables. Praying before meals is another way we show our respect for the food and is a way of saying thank you to the blessings received.
There is no set occasion or gathering where prayers or given. Some households practice this, others do not. In a public setting, some Filipinos are content by making a sign of the cross and bowing their heads before taking up the spoon and fork. No offense is meant when Filipinos do this in the presence of people who practice other religions. Those who follow their own faiths will not be forced to join in the prayer, but it is polite to bow the head and keep quiet during the short thanksgiving.
A communal experience
Like in Italy, food is always a social occasion among Filipinos. It is always polite to show up at the table, even if you don’t plan to eat. Chatting is also welcome at the table — the sound of laughter and overlapping voices is a common sound over the clatter of utensils on the plates. A quiet breakfast, lunch or dinner is often an awkward situation among Filipinos.
Anything can be talked about during meals, except morbid stories. Politics and family are favourite topics. It’s also okay to be on the sidelines during these chats; sometimes two or three topics would run at the same time, especially with bigger gatherings. Guests are not expected to contribute in the general discussion, but they will be talked and listened to.
Special occasions are also usually marked by food. Having a non-Filipino guest over is considered a special occasion, so when house-hopping from relative to relative, the foreign guest should expect a feast or a big handaan in every house.
A handaan can have dishes ordered from restaurants, potluck or home-cooked. Having just one or two dishes for a handaan is not enough; three or more separate dishes, rice, drinks and sawsawan are often served. A handaan typically doesn’t end even if the table has been cleared, chatting and sharing stories are common and they usually end late at night.
Pinoy eating and dining habits have their own life, one that will be quite an experience for non-Filipinos especially those who come from Western countries and who are not familiar with Asian cuisine. More than just food, eating is a cultural and social experience of the Philippines.
What is your favourite Filipino food? If you had a chance to share just one Pinoy food to a European friend, what would it be and why? What other peculiar habits do Filipinos have with food? Share your thoughts and experiences by commenting below!