Halloween in the Tropics


When we lived in NJ, October 31 was around the turning point for the weather.  The trees were still pretty with autumn leaves and the weather was pleasantly nippy, but not cold yet.  Halloween was mixed with the best of the fall, and kids could do things like wrap themselves in bandages as a mummy or wear black plastic sacks to be witches.  We’d bundle them up warm under the costumes and head out for candy.  You could see the kids’ breath when they yelled, “Trick or Treat!”

Not so in Manila.  Late October is the end of the rainy season and the weather is starting to get a bit drier and sunnier.  But we’ve had typhoons disrupt the Halloween festivities before, so they are no guarantees of a rain-free event.  But last Saturday our early Embassy Halloween party was dry with even the occasional breeze.  But that didn’t mean there weren’t a lot of sweaty spidermen in their black stretchy costumes, running around in the heat.  Its hard to wear a mask or man-made synthetic outfit without a river running down your neck or back.  And a kids party is not really the place to come as Tarzan, Pam from Baywatch or some other scantily clad character.  But that would have been much more practical!  I think everyone had fun though, they just headed back into the AC when things got too hot.

Halloween is surprisingly big here in Manila.  Not as big as Christmas, of course, but noticeably present.  But then Filipinos do have a propensity towards many things American, and Halloween is also a big dress up event.  Filipinos love parties, dressing up, all things sweet…so what’s not to love?  Well..costumes and humidity perhaps.  And there seems to be some that consider it anti-Christian, but despite the church and the weather it continues to grow in popularity.  Happy early Halloween everyone! 

Dangwa Flower Market

Its no secret that I love markets and this blog has had quite a run on them lately.  I’ve been back to Divisoria twice since my first visit, and each trip was a completely different shopping experience each time. Divisoria is such a warren, after three visits I can barely say that I recognize anything still.  It might take half a dozen visits and a good map before I’m brave enough to tackle it by myself.

Quite different was my trip last week was to Dangwa Flower Market.  It’s somewhere I’ve wanted to visit since I first heard about it.  Not only is it a market, but wonderfully colorful, selling flowers at really reasonable prices.  There’s something about flowers that always lifts the spirits and to see masses and masses of them — a riot of colour — stretching out as far as the eye can see was a great pick me up at the end of a busy week.

For the equivalent of about ten dollars I bought 4 dozen roses, a dozen giant lillies, a selection of interesting leaves and berries, and three dozen pretty orange flowers that I’ve forgotten the name of.  Not bad.

The Dangwa experience is very different from Divisoria.  Its a 24 hour market which is busy but not heaving because buyers come at different times of the day.  The streets are paved, relatively clean and organized.  Its much smaller and more civilized.  I would totally go back by myself to look around.

Dangwa’s more civilized streets

Most of the flowers come from Bagio, a cooler area in Northern Luzon, and are brought down to Manila in unrefrigerated trucks in the early hours.  Then, depending on the day of the week and the time of year, they suffering differing extents of stress as they sit in the stalls outside waiting for buyers.  I was lucky enough to have a local flower arranger take our tour around the market on a Thursday in October.  She taught us that shopping there at the end of the week in the cooler months helped with both quality and variety of selection.  And she was right, we were there on a good day.  Everything looked fresh and good.  However, flowers in the Philippines are known not to last so long.  The heat, humidity and stress they encounter takes it toll.  We further compounded the problem by leaving the flowers for 4 hours (without water) in a hot van while we attended a flower arrangement class.  Then mine sat in my office for a further 4 hours before I went home.  The flowers were limp to say the least when I got home.  By Monday the petals were starting to drop.  If I hadn’t been so abusive, I’m sure I would have gotten a week out of everything I purchased.  I will definitely return — with a friend — as Dangwa is a great experience to be shared and takes the quality of Manila life up a notch.  Blooming lovely!

An Acquired Taste

Balut. The notorious Filipino street dish. Its a duck embryo inside of a hard boiled egg. A powerhouse of cheap protein, but maybe not to everyone’s taste.

American/European meat preferences are quite different to mainstream Filipino expectations.  Filipinos use every part of the animal to cook, and are very creative in utilizing body parts that westerners turn their nose up at: tongue, heart, lung, feet, bone marrow, cartilidge…you name it.  Most westerners squirm and make faces at just the thought of grilled lung on a stick.  I don’t eat meat at all, so I take the western luxury of choice and preference to a whole new level.  Vegetarianism is truly a luxury for those that can afford it or, for the poor or devote (not in the Philippines), the most dire and humble of diets.  An interesting contrast.

No-one I know has been hungry enough to eat anything they can find or choose to eat only lentils because of necessity.  I appreciate and admire the filipino ethic of zero waste, but as I won’t even go near Western meat recipes, I remain an interested onlooker in all of this.

The Filipino diet may originate from poverty, but middle-class and rich Filipino palates are more open to diverse meat dishes, so it a cultural thing as well.  The western palate largely confines itself to flavourful tender, lean cuts.  However tasty the flavour potential may be, westerners aren’t usually willing to dig around and work for their food, or to chew and chew to extract it.  This means no bones, no fat, no poking around with a fork to pull out the roe.

Filipino flavours also tend to be on the sweet side for Westerners.  My European palate thought Americans added sugar to everything.  Then I came here.  The bread is sweet, the mayonnaise is sweet, the meat sauces have a lot of sugar in them.  Unlike the Chinese sweet and sour concept, there less balancing of flavour.  Filipinos do add kalamansi to many dishes (its a small native lime) but its not always enough in my opinion.

So when a newly-arrived American family that has never lived overseas, is served chicken adobo by their newly-hired Filipino cook, there can be some surprises on both sides.  The cook may feel she’s done a good job of serving a tasty economical meal.  The American is wondering why there is a pile of bones and tons of rice.  Its a common point of contention, and some helpers who have worked for American families for years have learnt about American preferences.  Many others haven’t.

Which way is better is irrelevant if you’re not serving food that your employer likes.  So we decided to assist a little and run a cooking class for helpers on how to serve classic Filipino dishes to Americans.  It was well attended, and everyone had a great time.

The ladies from our Filipino Cookery for Americans class

I popped in from time-to-time during the work day to see how it was going.  Of course, the class was in Tagalog, so I could only watch and couldn’t understand the instructors message.  I did wonder a little if it became an exchange of regional differences on the each dish, rather than a lesson on American preferences.  Or perhaps it was both, I can only really learn from the sponsoring families whether anything has changed at the dining table.  Time will tell on that.  However, the morning itself was great fun, and a it was a privilege to be invited to eat with everyone at the end of their efforts.  I also learnt how many food items I mispronounce!

On the food front, personally, I continue to be mostly uninspired here.  Its been fun cooking with the tropical fruit, but I’ve found the lack of fresh vegetables challenging and without easy access to markets, my food imagination has suffered. I’m not the cook my friends might remember, and this is the first country that I’ve lived in where I haven’t learnt to prepare the local dishes.  I don’t expect that to change before we leave, but hope Nepal’s temperate growing climate and more vegetarian-based cuisine will inspire me again.

P.S.  Here’s a link to an interesting BBC article on Filipino cuisine:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-19541960

P.P.S.  No, I won’t be trying Balut any time soon!

Would you like fries with that?..

There are lots of lots of opportunities for home delivery of food here in Manila.  Just about everyone does home deliver … even McDonalds….even non-chain, independent restaurants.   You see the delivery motorbikes all the time, making dangerous moves in and out of the traffic.  We don’t really do it usually, but last night was an exception.  Latham had his final TOK rehearsal with his presentation partner, and I bought them delivered pizza to keep ’em going and keep ’em focused.

When the pizza showed up, I didn’t give it much thought.  It was just a pizza delivery. But what transpired was really adorable and sort of left me gaping.  The conversation went something like this:

Pizza Delivery Guy:  Good evening mam.  I present to you your pizza delivery.  Presenting your ham and bacon pizza, mam. <removes insulated carrier from his insulated back pack>

Me: Oh, er, thank you very much.

Pizza Guy:  Your pizza, mam, is delivered to you at 7:03pm, mam. A delivery of 24 minutes, mam.

Me: That’s great, thank you

Pizza Guy:  <removes pizza from carrier>.  Mam, this is your HOT on the DOT pizza. <he whips out a small plastic circular device and holds it over a thermal circle on the box. The disc reads “hot”> As you can see it is delivered Hot on the Dot.  <He points to the circle>

Me:  Oh, thank you, that’s great.

Delivery Guy: <opens box letting out half of the heat> Your pizza mam.  With no mushrooms as you asked.

<produces another box> Also, mam, your pigs in a blanket, mam.

Me: Thank you

Delivery Guy: <whips out a bottle from a previously unknown cooler on his other side>…and your Pepsi Max mam.  I must caution you to take care when removing the lid,  mam, to avoid accidents.

Me: Er, yes, good idea.  Let’s take care of the eyeballs. How much is that?….