From Kwek-Kwek to Fish Balls: The Secret Origins of 6 Pinoy Street Food StaplesJanuary 12, 2019
- Serna EstrellaWords
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.