From Kwek-Kwek to Fish Balls: The Secret Origins of 6 Pinoy Street Food Staples

January 12, 2019

The first time a childhood playmate shared a skewer of fish balls with me was nothing short of a revelation. My first bite, along with the hundreds that followed, of that crispy, flattened sphere of undifferentiated mystery meat drenched in glorious sweet and sour sauce was very much an act of rebellion. Though expressly forbidden by my mom from consuming street food, I would still line up with the other little girls in our starched blue uniforms at this old man’s fish ball cart near the school gates once classes were dismissed. I used to burn my tongue scarfing all those hot fish balls down in an effort to finish them before my mom arrived and caught me, but it was so worth it. As with braces, acne, and getting one’s heart broken for the first time, my first taste of street food was a rite of passage. But unlike braces, acne, and heart break, noshing on street food is one experience I’ve willingly (and happily) repeated throughout my life.

Exactly when street food first appeared on Philippine streets remains unclear, but its presence was first documented during the Spanish occupation. Unlike in other countries where street food came into being out of necessity, its emergence in our nation had more sinister roots. The conquering Spaniards considered the natives as second-class citizens fit only for slave labor, and thus kept the best parts of the animals for themselves. All that remained for the Filipinos were cow lungs, pig intestines, and chicken livers: parts that the Hispanic conquerors considered unsuitable for human consumption. To make the undesirable portions easier on the palate, Filipinos came up with creative ways of cooking them. They became adept at cleaning, flavoring, and grilling the innards, and eventually started selling them to fellow workers as a quick snack in between bouts of forced backbreaking work.

The following street eats are a testament to Filipino ingenuity and our ability to see the bright side no matter how dire the situation (and make a little money to boot).

6. Banana-cue/Camote-cue

A merienda staple in many homes, schools, and offices across the metro (and beyond), the banana-cue or camote-cue is comprised of banana or sweet potato slices that are skewered on wooden sticks, coated in brown sugar, and fried in oil. Its name is derived from the merging of the words banana or camote and barbecue, a reference to the skewers and the fried brown sugar coating that produces that charred look.

Tasty and Tax-Free (via AllVoices)

Originally, the banana-cue and the camote-cue (and their cousin, the turon) were developed by households that lived near abundant fruit trees or root crop fields. The surplus was at first usually given away to neighbors, but eventually the more astute realized they could make money selling the banana and camote-cue by the roadside to hungry passersby.  Since the well-loved snack requires very few ingredients and no special cooking equipment, it became a popular choice for street food vendors as the urban population continued to increase (and grow ever more frenetic). Nowadays, it isn’t uncommon for most offices to have a suki supplier for their banana/camote-cue fix.

5. Ice drops/”Dirty” Ice Cream

Like the banana-cue/camote-cue, ice drops and “dirty” ice cream were thought to have come about as a way to prevent the harvest season”s excess produce from going to waste. Since fruits were abundant during the hot summer months, a lot of resourceful households sought to preserve and cash in by turning them into cold treats. It’s generally thought that the Japanese invaders first introduced Filipinos to frozen desserts. Kakigori, a traditional Japanese dish of sweet, flavored syrup poured over shaved ice, is believed to be the inspiration for our local ice drop and ice cream (and the halo-halo, when it comes down to it, but that’s for another article). Filipinos took these food preparation ideas and ran with them. They pureed ripe fruits with sugar, milk, and/or water, and then froze the mixture in small canisters. To facilitate the easier retrieval of the frozen delights, they inserted sticks atoledo.com into the sweetened fruit puree before chilling the lot over huge vats of ice.

Just as hipster as all those fancy gelato places, but a lot easier on the wallet. (via CoffeeMakesMeWeak)

Generations of parents have told their children not to buy “dirty” ice cream from the colorful rudimentary carts that sold them because they were supposedly, well, dirty. But children continued to buy them anyway, since they had unusual delicious flavors like corn, ube, and cheese, and were sold at prices that were easily within reach of their daily baon. As the industry picked up, “dirty” ice cream carts upgraded their décor and even added insulated walls for different ice cream flavors, along with new innovations (such us monay or pandesal for ice cream sandwiches in lieu of cones). Far from being a parent’s nightmare, these colorful carts are now a standard in many children’s parties (including the sorts that are held in the gigantic ballrooms of the city’s swankiest hotels). For a more visually orgasmic representation of this, check out our comic on sorbetes here.

4. Lugaw/Goto/Arroz Caldo

Lugaw, or rice gruel, is another culinary legacy from early Chinese traders.  One key difference between our local lugaw and the traditional Chinese congee lies in the texture. The latter is almost like a rice soup, with the grains practically falling apart from prolonged cooking. Our lugaw retains the shape of the grains, and typically has a thicker consistency. Lugaw also has a more pronounced flavor, as it’s usually cooked with a stronger broth and with a few slivers of ginger. Goto, meanwhile, is simply lugaw with beef tripe added. Local variations on the rice gruel toppings also include the zesty tokwa’t baboy (tofu and pork), dila (pig tongue), and litid (beef ligaments). Lugaw, like congee, is traditionally given to the old and the sick, but street vendors and big-name franchises alike continue to make a killing by marketing it as comfort food for the masses.

Whether you’re sick or not, a steaming bowl of lugaw is a welcome sight. (via Wikimedia)

Arroz caldo, which literally translates to “rice soup,” is usually assumed to be a European creation, but it’s actually a Chinese dish that was tweaked to appease the Spanish colonizers who patronized Chinese eateries (hence the Hispanic moniker). Tinged with yellow from the added safflower flavoring, the peppery gruel is sometimes eaten with prawns, olive oil, and Chinese sausage.

3. Fish balls

Though you may question whether fish balls contain any actual fish meat, you can’t deny that you stop caring about the answer once one of these floury spheres find their way into your mouth. Initially a Chinese creation, fish balls were made from white fish with a bit of flour mixed in as a binder. While its European counterparts consisted of ground meat, Chinese fish balls utilized pounded meat, which resulted in a smoother texture.

Those don’t look like fish gonads at all. (via TipsNiKaToto)

The original fish balls were white and were rounder in shape, but the fluctuating economy led manufacturers to produce the cheaper yellowish fish “balls,” which were shaped like flattened circles. Usually sold wholesale in Chinatown, they are less than 20% fish meat, with the majority percentage comprised of flour and other flavorings. Fish ball vendors serve them in the same way (skewered on a stick and fried to a crisp), and exert their creativity instead in devising different kinds of sauces for the nostalgic snack.

2. Adidas/Walkman/Isaw/Betamax

When the Japanese occupation finally ended in the 1940’s, things gradually normalized and by the 1950’s, the food supply became plentiful again. Skewered chicken and pork barbecue became a staple in roadside eateries and were a favorite of those working the afternoon-evening shifts. Since there were no more wars to disturb the raising of cattle, poultry, and pigs, the meat supply remained plentiful enough for street food vendors to only use the meatier (and more expensive) cuts.

Isaw, it’s like (legal) crack for university students. (via Lyfunli)

However, an economic crisis hit the country sometime in the 1970’s, and people were again driven to find ways to save money. Pig’s ears and intestines, chicken wings/necks/feet/heads, and even cow lungs were meticulously cleaned, looped on thin skewers, and grilled on coals. Since “pig’s intestines” wasn’t exactly a catchy name, savvy street vendors christened their snacks with pop names that endure to this day. Grilled chicken feet were called “Adidas” (after the famed footwear company), pig’s ears went by the nickname “Walkman” (for all the kids reading this, that’s what we called portable cassette players with earphones. Wait, you don’t know what a cassette is either?), the grilled coagulated blood squares they grilled were called “Betamax” (after another piece of multimedia technology that youngsters won’t be familiar with), and chicken/pork intestines were renamed “isaw” from the sawsawan (sauce) you need to fully enjoy it.

1. Balut/Kwek-kwek/Tokneneng

Whenever western television shows want to do a “shocking food from around the world” episode, balut always seems to be the notorious dish of choice (remember that Fear Factor episode?). Despite the shock and disgust of foreigners, our nation’s love affair with this rich, hearty (and heart-attack inducing) delicacy shows no signs of diminishing anytime soon. Originating from Pateros, these fertilized duck eggs are sold once they’re 17 days old, when the chick inside is somewhat formed but still lacks a hard beak or feathers. They’re believed to be potent aphrodisiacs, which is why vendors usually sold them late at night or very early in the morning.

tokneneng

Why aren’t eggs called chicken balls? It just makes sense. (via Bubblews)

The kwek-kwek was an accidental variation on the balut snack. Legend has it that a balut vendor in Cubao once dropped her basket of eggs, cracking their shells and letting the precious, savory broth seep out. Thinking quickly, she peeled the eggs, rolled them in flour, fried them up, and served them in little bowls of sauce made with little chili peppers, vinegar, and salt. Nowadays, the fried eggs are coated in a bright orange batter prior to frying. They’re called “kwek-kwek,” supposedly for the chirping sounds that birds are wont to make. The tokneneng came shortly after as a riff  that utilized smaller quail eggs.

Filipino cuisine made fancy may well be on its way to becoming the next global phenomenon, but I think that our street food remains to be a more accurate reflection of our culture on the whole. These humble delights are a testament to what we’ve experienced as a people, how we set out to rise above trying circumstances, and how we will always end up going back to our roots no matter where our journeys, culinary or otherwise, takes us.

What are your favorite street food snacks? Know of any unique hard-to-find examples? Share your stories below.

References:

Allain, A. & Winarno, F. (2008). Street Foods in Developing Countries: Lessons from Asia. Bogor, Indonesia: Bogor Agricultural University.

Fernandez, D. (1992). Balut to Barbecue: Philippine Street Food. In Walker, H. (Ed.), Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery: Public Eating (pp. 98-104). London, England: Prospect Books.

Higman, B. (2011). How Food Make History. London, England: Wiley-Blackwell.

Vesagas, P. (25 Jan. 2011). On a Street Food Trip. Sun Star Cagayan De Oro. Retrieved Oct. 2, 2013.

Serna Estrella SEE AUTHOR Serna Estrella

Serna is a slim piggy who heartily believes that salads are not real food and that desserts (fruit salad not included) should have their own food group. When she's not terrorizing people with her Grammar Nazi tendencies, she likes to hunt for the perfect afternoon tea spot that lets her pretend she's still in the age of Austen (albeit with electricity and better dental care).

41 comments in this post SHOW

41 responses to “From Kwek-Kwek to Fish Balls: The Secret Origins of 6 Pinoy Street Food Staples”

  1. Teng says:

    Nice article. Made me miss the days when my mom nags me about eating isaw after school. Lol

  2. Birdie Salva says:

    Taho naman next time 😀

  3. Hanzel Eusebio Conchas says:

    for fishballs..(along with his cousins squid/chicken/kikiam), its all in the sauce!!! make great sauce, people will flock you. We sold fish/squidballs and kikiam in front of our house during the mid-90s(coz my mom was bored at home), and people go back to us just for my mom’s sauces. sometimes people will just come and buy just the sauce hahaha.

    for homemade kwekkwek, i find using pancake mix a lot better. and if we dont have quail eggs, we usually hardboil some regular eggs, sliced in four, dipped in pancake mix, then deep fried.

    • Sergia Susana says:

      Hello, Hanzel! That’s very true! I think you can buy the fish/squid balls from many suppliers in the metro and they’re all pretty much the same, so it’s all down to how you make the sauce. 🙂 What was your mom’s sauce like?

      Ooh, and using pancake mix for homemade kwekwek sounds intriguing. I imagine it would result in a fluffier coating? 🙂

  4. Ren says:

    Hahaha~ maybe next time you can feature the less popular streetfoods:
    Scramble, binatog, mangga/sinkamas/santol. hehe~ XD The streetvendor’s bagoong is also special, like the fishball sauce. XD

  5. STO says:

    the smaller quail eggs are called “Kwek-kwek” in our place while we call the bigger eggs “tokneneng”.

    • Sergia Susana says:

      In some areas, I think the names have been interchanged, but quintessentially, they all pertain to eggs that have been dipped in batter and deep-fried. 🙂

  6. Jane says:

    I’ve never eaten kwek-kwek / tokneneng (the names are reversed nowadays) that actually used balut :O Only quail eggs or hard-boiled ones :))

    • Sergia Susana says:

      Me too, though I read that they still have balut kwek-kwek/tokneneng in some areas. 🙂 Possibly in places where people aren’t too concerned with skyrocketing sodium/cholesterol levels. 😉

  7. cruisinlife says:

    So used to Filipino fishballs that when I saw the homemade one here in Singapore, I was disappointed. Nevermind that its all flour and other flavorings, it is still the best! Besides, they don’t fry the fishballs here, they use it with soups/noodles

    • Sergia Susana says:

      That’s very true. 🙂 I’ve been to Singapore a few times, and while their street food is out of this world, I have yet to come across anything resembling our fish balls here in the Philippines. 🙂

  8. Raine Santos says:

    Hihi i love the history behind these dishes!! Love this article!!

  9. KoertD says:

    Anyone else here who eats fishballs without the sauce? Haha.

    • Sergia Susana says:

      I tried once, out of curiosity. It wasn’t quite the same. :)) Though I find that they taste better straight from the fryer if you won’t be dipping them in a sauce. 🙂

  10. Rain says:

    Cool. I wrote a paper about this in college and I’m glad you have Doreen Fernandez as one of your sources.

    • Sergia Susana says:

      Hello, Rain. 🙂 Doreen Fernandez’s work has always been one of my go-to sources for my history articles. That lady seriously loved food, and that combined with her undeniable gift for translating such onto the page made for a great contribution to local culinary literature, methinks. 🙂

  11. Maricel says:

    Isaw is actually theTagalog name for a certain section of the intestines and it is not derived from sawsawan.

  12. […] no surprise we end up mixing opposites in other parts of our lives as well. We love our Filipino streetfood. They’re favorites for everybody (rich or poor, young or old) to snack on anytime they feel […]

  13. Rocky says:

    Classic foods! You can see more Pinoy Foods in my blog pinoyfood201

  14. IanD says:

    I dunno, but many of these street foods are Filipinized versions of street foods found in other asian countries and sometimes even with hispanic origins. >> If we are talking about the ‘real’ origins of these street food we go back to why these food items were sold in the streets of Manila to begin with. Remember that pre colonial Philippines were already engaged in trading from China and some Muslim Countries, I guess that through the trading, some culinary knowledge were passed on as well as entrepreneurial knowledge since some of these traders decided to stay in the Philippines even after the country was colonized. So it would be questionable to associate some of the street food item as having a purely Filipino origin and as a response to crisis.

    • SB says:

      That can also be said to all dishes and foods anywhere else in the world! Rather than being an origin, it is more proper to use the word “inspiration”. And it is not productive to discuss the ‘real’ origins of foods because it almost always nonexistent. Because as the recipes are passed from one generation to another, to one person to another, across seas and cultures, the recipes are changed along the way, because we have different palate/set of preferred taste as a culture. You will never have any proof which one is the original! How will you explain the existence of pancit dishes that are not similar to Chinese? Only pancit canton is close but not very much. Don’t you know that some countries fight over the origin of falafel? Same thing goes for street food. Who ate the adidas first – the Chinese or the Filipinos? You will never know because both Chinese and Filipinos eat chicken and rooster in the ancient days.

  15. […] course, when one goes to a place called Isaw Haus, you have to order the isaw. They have a very extensive menu, but I chose to limit myself to the grilled offal. Pictured above […]

  16. […] score some great grub at cheap prices (and almost never get sick from any of it). From the famous isaw to the various kinds of siomai, the street food there serves as a common touchstone for many isko […]

  17. […] From Kwek-Kwek to Fish Balls: The Secret Origins of 6 Pinoy Street Food Staples […]

  18. marikit says:

    uhmm..is there any recipe of kwek kwek ? ung pina level up po..>.<

  19. […] flour. But did you know where it was originated? There’s no official records but according to http://www.pepper.ph/the-secret-origins-of-6-pinoy-street-food-staples/. The kwek-kwek was an accidental variation on the balut snack. And legend proposed that a balut […]

  20. […] I have always been curious with those crispy bubbles I see in Karama. I was wondering, is that like fish ball or kwek-kwek? I had never had the courage to order because I don’t know what to say. I don’t know […]

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