The Unique Pleasures of Filipino Street Food, And Its Future

When I saw “Street Food” on Netflix, it conjured a lot of unexpected emotions: nostalgia, pride, appreciation, empathy and deep respect for people who have chosen a strenuous life of service in the street food industry. It illustrated the hidden power of food to keep us company, in good times and in bad, and to preserve the authenticity of our country.

What this documentary has shined a light on is an elevated form of service and sacrifice, one that was borne out of necessity and devastating personal ordeals. The stars of this series are the unsung heroes of every day — the street food vendors whose names we do not usually know but hits the spot every time we do decide to pay them some attention. They are the simple folk who use native ingredients, who lovingly undergo painstaking cooking processes steeped in tradition, in their refusal to break free from what they already know in order to safeguard what we remember fondly from our childhood. They are the purveyors of the original fast food, whose humble earnings, blood, sweat, and tears have enabled their children to go off to college. They are ordinary men and women doing extraordinary things, simply driven by a genuine desire to provide joy to humanity and make ends meet.

But the backbreaking behind-the-scenes stuff was not part of my thinking at all while growing up loving street food in my hometown of Quezon City, Philippines.

Like any normal child, I didn’t really concern myself with the pain and suffering that went into the food I was about to devour. I just relished it. One of my favorites is taho — a warm snack made of soft tofu, arnibal (caramelized brown sugar syrup) and tapioca pearls we call sago. Some folks are content with a pitiful small plastic cup serving. Not I. Back in the day, I would have a bigger mug reserved for this peculiar indulgence. I would eagerly wait for the magtataho (taho vendor) who would pass by our house at around 10 AM. You cannot miss his summons “Tahoooo! Tahooo!” in a distinct cadence. I live in the suburbs so taho vendors are rather scarce, but in the summer, they did make themselves felt (oddly selling a hot dessert in the scorching summer heat). There was a giddy delight in watching the magtataho take out the excess fluids from the white silky tofu, tap down the steel flap, then unleash a skinny wand with a tiny scoop at the end that dives into thick arnibal, mix that stuff into the soy and top all of that off with mini sago pearls. Yummm.

Another favorite is turon (banana fritter), which has had some amazing iterations and has made a surprising comeback recently. For only $0.50 or less, one can enjoy banana (the saba variety abundant in the Philippines, which resembles plantains) and sometimes jack fruit in a crunchy carapace made of lumpia wrapper and caramelized brown sugar. The sugar caramelizes while the banana and jackfruit soften during the frying process. I learned to love this in UP, where I went for college, at the shabby but super reliable Shopping Center (sadly crushed by a recent fire) where everything is affordable to the typical national scholar on a shoestring budget. There were turon vendors strategically guarding all the exits, competing for hungry students on their way out.

Much as I would like to wax-poetic about other epicurean delights one can find just in the UP campus alone, and there are many, that is not my mission. My goal here is to reflect more on the value of street food now and in the future, given a more sophisticated palate, an insatiable passion for food, an ever-changing philosophy about life, a desire to preserve our national identity, all while confronting the reality that the times really are a-changing.

Let’s take it one E at a time:

So I earlier mentioned the unique quality of street food, how most recipes are actually chronicles of struggle and temporary defeat before they became sacrosanct family heirlooms. Street food vendors had to sell out of need, but those who stayed on had to EXPERIMENT. Only memorable nonpareil creations can withstand the test of time, and up-and-coming street food competitors. I noticed this when my beloved turon was once paired majestically with mango ice cream. Never thought that would work. Malls also have stalls that now offer cold taho — it seems to be working. Fidelity to one may be the harbinger of death in this case, so street food vendors may have to want to fail more.

Street food is an EQUALIZER, much like basic education or direct selling enterprises that attract customers from various economic strata. This informal sector caters to the “bottom of the pyramid” market, a burgeoning source of wealth from around 5 billion people on planet Earth with purchasing power. Now add technology as the secret sauce. Can you imagine the 100 yr old vendor from Yogyakarta selling her popular gudeg on Facebook? Maybe not, but maybe a next of kin would adopt the technology on her behalf, and even make deliveries via Go-Jek. Food apps are already gaining traction in some food truck communities, so perhaps once cold storage and logistics issues are resolved, it could succeed here too. With technology, rich/poor, young/old, powerful/powerless, can sample hawker food whenever they want, 10x faster.

Street food vendors are first-class all-around ENTREPRENEURS. They are skilled in product development, procurement, logistics, accounting, marketing, and sales. In short, they are the epitome of possibility. Master Toyo of Osaka said it best: “Better be the head of a chicken, than the tail of a bull.” As an entrepreneur myself, I approve of this message.

Street food is foremost an EASTERN innovation. I find this culinary tribute to my Asian heritage an important reminder of why living in Asia is so damn awesome, especially if you do not mind when flies decide to stopover your perfectly grilled isaw. It also cultivates an appreciation for the blessings of poverty, for what being in dire straits has pushed many people to become, and for the most extreme examples of hard work which many of the kids today can draw inspiration from. Perhaps this is partly why vagabonding in Asia is such a hit for Westerners — they save dollars, get good cheap eats, dive deep into the culture with every bite and discover far more than they have budgeted for.

But as with all outstanding achievements, there will always be imperfections, such as the hazards of street food packaging to the ENVIRONMENT. This is obviously not exclusive to the hawker industry, but several Southeast Asian countries are notorious for dumping the most number of single-use plastics into its waters. The numerous downsides of low-cost sachet culture have caught up with us. We must begin to rethink how we package our meals, in a way that is still economically and logistically logical. Food vendors and foodies alike bear some responsibility.

I tried very hard not to spoil the documentary for you, as that would do no one any good. The real value of “Street Food” is in loving our own heritage, and admiring the value it contributes to the world. Here’s to your upcoming trip to Asia, and the new tastes, histories, and cultures you are about to learn.

Former presidential speechwriter, still a musician; writes about urban gridlocks. Will work full time for the planet. Harvard Kennedy School ‘14 🇵🇭

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