How to Eat Like a True Filipino

Seafood Lunch
Seafood Lunch | © Shubert Ciencia / Flickr
Katrina Escalona

Anyone who’s been to the Philippines knows how much Filipinos love to eat. Food is more than just physical nourishment. It is a huge part of culture, community, and celebration that they very much enjoy sharing with anyone willing to partake. Read on and learn how to immerse yourself through this vital component of Filipino life.

Eating is treated as a social affair

Rarely will people see members of a Filipino family eating at different times of the day or eating while fixated solely on the TV screen. This is because mealtime in Filipino households is supposed to bring the family together. It is the time to talk, tell each other about their days, and really just interact with one another. Food in the Philippines brings people together. This is also the reason a feast is always at the center of any Filipino celebration.

Eat three big meals and several smaller ones in between

Many people are surprised at just how much Filipinos eat in a day. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are all typically big meals (a Filipino breakfast, for example, consists of rice, eggs, and meat). But don’t think these are enough to satisfy the Filipino appetite. Several snacks, what Filipinos call merienda, are also eaten in between these big meals. These snacks are basically anything that isn’t eaten with rice (i.e., sweets, pastries, sandwiches, noodles, etc.).

Tosilog, a typical Filipino breakfast

It isn’t a meal without rice

Filipino meals are usually served with a big bowl of rice and several viands in the middle of the dining table. Rice will always be present. This is also why viands or ulam (anything eaten with rice) in the Philippines are always very rich in flavor because the rice’s neutrality will balance it out.

Typical Filipino Meal

Eat with a fork and spoon

Eating with a spoon instead of a knife is much easier for Filipinos as there is more room for the rice to rest. Although knives are usually placed on the table at restaurants, most Filipinos have mastered how to cut meat using only the edges of their spoon, leaving little use for the sharper utensil unless bigger cuts of meat, like steak, are served.

Know proper food formation on the plate

Funnily enough, Filipinos also have a default way of how the food on their plate is arranged. The rice is centered at the bottom of the plate, close to the eater, and the viands are arranged around it. This is the most convenient way since Filipinos will normally take a bit of the viand, pushing it onto their spoon with the fork, and then portion off a a bigger amount of rice and pushing it towards their spoon. Such arrangement requires little utensil movement, mostly needing to only go across the middle area of the plate.

Know how (and when) to eat with your hands

A common Filipino joke is that food tastes better “‘pag kinakamay” (when eaten with the hands). Though this probably doesn’t alter the taste of the food (if you have clean hands, that is), what it does is that it makes the eating experience much more immersive and fun. It also makes things easier when eating seafood and meats with a lot of bone. While peeling things like shrimp normally requires both hands, the actual eating part only really calls for the use of one.

The viand and rice are first portioned off on the plate and then brought together by the four tallest fingers. The thumb further pushes the food towards these fingers to make them more compact, and supports it as the hand is brought up to the mouth. And finally, the thumb moves from supporting the food to pushing it from behind, and into the mouth.

Although nowadays, eating with your hands is usually done in the comforts of your own home, at community fiestas, or when amidst comfortable company. Rarely do people eat with their hands in restaurants unless it’s a special seafood or “boodle fight” style restaurant.

Boodle Fight

Get creative with sawsawan or condiments

Filipinos are very fond of eating their ulam with sawsawan (condiments) since they enrich the flavor of the dish. Among the most famous kinds are fermented shrimp paste, banana (yes, banana) ketchup, and combinations of soy sauce and kalamansi (lime), fish sauce and kalamansi, and vinegar and chilli. Different people have different preferences but the ulam + sawsawan pairings will depend on their tastes, based on how well one complements the other. So a sweet meat will most likely be paired with vinegar (sour), and a plain tasting kind of fish might be paired with soy sauce (salty) and kalamansi (sour).

Left to right: kalamansi, soy sauce with vinegar and chilli, bagoong

No animal part goes to waste

Filipinos don’t like wasting food and are ingenious when it comes to making sure no animal body part goes to waste when cooking up a dish. In fact, the nationally-loved dish sisig, made mostly of the parts of a pig’s face, was first created in an attempt to make use of the unwanted cuts thrown away by what was then a US Air Force Base in the country. So don’t be surprised to find entrails mixed into several Filipino dishes. And do you think that lechon (whole roasted pig) is kept whole for aesthetic purposes? No way! Go pinch off that ear!

Sizzling Pork Sisig

Be an adventurous eater

Sure, many Filipino delicacies can appear unusual to some — not everybody eats developing bird embryo or skewered chicken intestines. But to be able to truly immerse yourself in the rich food culture in the Philippines, it’s very important to be a fearless eater, willing to try everything at least once. It’s easy to turn things away when you’ve already given it a chance and decided that it’s not for you. But otherwise, don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it.

Balut (developing bird embryo)

Invite people to eat with you — whether you mean it or not

In the country where instead of “how are you”, people greet each other with “have you eaten?”, it is also common courtesy to invite someone to eat when you’re eating. So for example, if someone were having lunch in the office pantry, and his colleague happened to walk in for a glass of water, the guy eating would normally say, “Tara, kain (Let’s eat),” simply out of courtesy. To which, the other person would reply something along the lines of “Later, thanks,” or “Thanks, but I just ate.”

Avoid taking the last piece of food on a serving plate

While doing otherwise isn’t exactly offensive, the practice of not taking the last pieces of food from the center of the table is subconsciously practiced by most Filipinos. This is mostly out of shyness in case anybody else at the table is still hungry. Among close friends and family, it’s more common for someone to lightly and jokingly announce that he’ll be taking the last piece upon doing so. While in less intimate circles, someone who wants the last piece might first offer it around the table, and after several refusals, only then take it for himself.

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