How to love Filipino Food // Toyo Eatery - Manila

There are cuisines that are like love at first sight, like Thai food for me. We were made for each other and we have a long-lasting relationship that is based on the smell of burning fish sauce floating across alleys, temples and pavement, perfect for both the flashpacker and the foodie in me.

Filipino food though, has proven harder. In all fairness it was not going to be easy for me: once in Asia, and with the heat, I can barely eat any meats and, even worst: I don’t really like stews. Pork, beef, chicken, as Peruvian as I am, stews are not my thing. I’m not a winter person. I love barbecues, raw everything, roasts, woks and sweets. Direct fire, always. So the Adobo, I can conceptually get it but is was going to be a case of: It’s not you, It’s me. Worst than tinder.

Then, there is the issue with fast food. Fair enough, The Philippines have gone through two periods of colonization, one under the Spanish rule, with all their stews and rice based dishes, and a second one under the Americans with all their, well, fried chicken. I’m not being a snob here, it’s literally everywhere and has shaped an hyperbolic way of eating fats and sugars. So, if I was set to expect another Bangkok, I had to change my expectations. The Philippines are probably the less Asian of the Asian countries, a particular mix of European influence across jaw-dropping islands and one hectic urban jungle.

 Kinilaw, Bohol

Kinilaw, Bohol

Now, on the other side, Filipinos have an amazingly welcoming character inclusive of their food sharing celebratory courtesies. Always in big portions, just like the Lechón: golden and massive, always a feast. Only because of this cultural bond I manage to get my way on some more food insights in Cebú, but apart from the kinilaw - the filipino ceviche, with calamansi, vinegar and sometimes coconut milk - I’m more conquered by the produce than by the dishes. Algaes, fish, vegetables, very diverse for a collection of small terroirs, to be honest. The underwater world is just pristine, and urgently demanding of protection too.

On a sweet note, The Ube ice-cream made of a bright violet tuber similar to sweet potato by Chef Vicky Wallace in her bit of paradise and successful franchise the Bohol Bee Farm leaves a lovely and happy tune for the road.

Back to the jungle, in hectic Manila, I trust my chances to my amazing friend Cheryl Tiu, filipino food ambassador, lifestyle journalist for Forbes, and creator of the platform Cross Cultures, who has brought chefs from around the world to experience and exchange with the filipino tastes.

 A force, Cheryl Tiu from Cross Cultures

A force, Cheryl Tiu from Cross Cultures

I had already set my eyes on Toyo Eatery, by Chef Jordy Navarra and May Navarra at the FOH, recently named the One to Watch restaurant at Asia’s 50 Best, and now I have the privilege of going with Cheryl. Let’s say Toyo comes as an easier journey through Philippines, with less ferries and buses. Toyo is a warm, chilled, hip, open space. Industrial looking with the brigade as a central act, or not, depending on how you feel like.

We start with a Tapuey Sour, a cocktail quite familiar to me, made with a sort of wine rice that I would compare to Arak only for the general understanding. Tapuey is made of glutinous rice and traditionally combined with onuad roots, ginger extract and bubod, a wine rice yeast. The one in Toyo is commercialized by ProudlyPromdy, literally proudly from the province, offering a great alternative in the kingdom of rum - as cheap as your imagination can go, and mine can go far. The cocktail, finished with banana liqueur, is soft, delicate, sweet and fresh. Designed by David Ong from The Curator. It’s probably as addictive as my pisco sours.

Along the menu, our food journey takes us through produce and reimagined classics. Their signature pork barbecue elevates a street food basic working with three cuts of pork - shoulder, belly and butt - on a stick slowly cooked for 12 hours, combining it with beautifully served fried rice, topped with an egg yolk and chicharron crumbles. I can list the menu but it’s worth experimenting yourself, specially because the service is top-notch and they can guide you through each dish, ingredients and sources as if you did not have the time to travel the seven thousand islands.

To finish the meal, my favourite - because I like revolutionary hacks, contemporary twists and iconic irreverence - is the last dessert: chocolate bombom filled with dulce de leche and fish sauce. How not to love it? Dessert and colonial tradition overtaken by this super classic Asian timeless smell. Instead of saltiness, Jordy chooses to go with the fermented vinegary way. Straight to the nose, soft and clean.

After a happy meal, surrounded by happy smiles and a great playlist - seriously, this needs to be a thing - I leave with a window open to come back to the ferries and buses for an extended journey. I need a year off to explore the islands of the world.

For a great guide of Manila, I share Cheryl’s 5 Chef Driven Restaurants List to visit. Honestly a privilege to have her guidance. Salamat :) 

Another great guide: The History of Manila in 9 Dishes by Timy Syitangoo published in R&Ks.

Faith over Reason -- Malapascua, The Philippines

Reason dictates that in a country with seven thousand islands, and with ten days to spare, I should at least have seen two of them, following a perfect 10-days in the Philippines list.

I went for only one: Malapascua.

Malapascua is a throw stone away of Cebu, six hours north by bus and ferry combined. Being an undeniable fan of Anthony Bourdain I had the visual imagery of the The Cebu Lechon episode stuck in my head. I made myself believe that I just had to find a bbq party to get invited to. Easy. Once in Cebu, the sight of the city send me directly on the look for the islands.

 Kalangamman, Malapascua.

Kalangamman, Malapascua.

Malapascua - what-a-name - is a 2.5 x 1km island, a tiny paradise of sandy beaches, almost no WiFi and a fairly poor 4G signal. To make up for your lack of Instagram facilities, there are thresher sharks. The thresher are an endangered specie, incredibly elegant in their use of their seriously long tail as a hunting weapon that helps them catch the tiny but overwhelming sardines that populate the Visayas (see video and get amazed).

Friends from the road are another endangered species since the addiction to social media became the norm for ego sustainability amongst world travellers, millennials or not. Both easy enough to find here.

The island has many dive-shops to choose from but I can personally recommend French Kiss Divers. I reckon an addiction to remain lost in translation but they are also an excellent crew, and they have the best sunset bar. Evolution Divers are also highly recommended, sure the Irish flag on their boat gets me all inspired. In both cases having technical divers around helps a lot to the curious mind. There are two main dive sites not to be missed: Monad Shoal for the thresher sharks - advanced level, 4.30am, better with nitrox - and Gato Island, with caves, white tips and sea-horses if lucky.

 French Kiss Divers Sunset Bar.

French Kiss Divers Sunset Bar.

By day two I’ve already extended my stay, my diving schedule has increased, my crave for lechon is gone thanks to the unbeatable heath, and I’m basically living in a reggae bar. 

villa sandra crew

Villa Sandra is the place to be. You will think you know better, even dare to explore, but you will come back because there is no place like home. Jon Jon, clearly a local elevated soul, has built this forest of bungalows, dorms and vegetarian restaurant shaping it into a social experiment: to see what happens when you let people restore their capacity to socialize freely with the absence of wifi and great music on the background. Jon Jon himself also experiments with the food using moringa, rice and coconut, dreaming new ways of boosting happy people.

We, me an my new friends, also find La Isla Bonita, excellent seafood joint, think diving-island levels, that serves everything but specializes in the grill. They make kinilaw, the filipino ceviche, that gets in my list of daily dishes, and we get a blue marlin that is just to die for, from the next beach around. Then we find the fishermen from the next beach around, and learn that filipinos love to share their grills. Tasty nights on the go.

Fiishing though has become an issue here, and in all The Philippines.

Many have gone for dynamite fishing, the short term killer of the ocean. In a creative effort beyond any digital campaigns, the divers have gone for an action that I call The Sinking Virgins of Malapascua, sinking religious statues with the hope that this will actually make the fishermen retrieve. This is a catholic country after all, three-hundred years of colonial brainwash could have left a way, and where reason does not work, maybe faith can make it. Naif but proactive enough.

 Ready to dive. Thanks ©Alex Harrison, the coolest, for the pic.

Ready to dive. Thanks ©Alex Harrison, the coolest, for the pic.

 Pandan Ice Cream, Bohol Bee Farm

Pandan Ice Cream, Bohol Bee Farm

I leave only because I have to board a plane from Bohol, with enough time to make a last dive and taste one of Bohol Bee Farm famous ice creams, made with local fruits, coconut milk and honey, in choices of Ube, Pandan, Moringa, Seaweed, Mango, etc. I’m addicted to Pandan. It doesn't make up for the feeling of leaving this time, but is fresh and sweet.

I know I will come back.

Any place is a leap of faith when you travel alone. This one made me smile, so openly.

Beware though: accommodation in Malapascua is not top notch, so if you are looking for luxury, think that here you have a full island of empty beaches, white sand and transparent water covering corals. This surrounded by interesting people with no wifi and a real will to share. Get over the five stars. Go for it.

I saw three sea-horses and I was very lucky.


Flying to Cebú is easy, from either Manila, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. Getting to the Visayan island involves a bit more patience. A taxi to the North Terminal (180P), a bus to Maya Port (220P with A/C) and a boat to cross to the island (100P, every half an hour). Ideally, this can take around 7hrs, but the ideal part is not the one that improves from backpacking to flashpacking.

 Soy yo.

Soy yo.

Check this Complete Non-Divers Guide of Malapascua for more info and probably better pics.

The Crave

Always on the look for ways to create and boost fun ways to boost gastronomy and nourish chef’s, I’m not sure how it happened but I’ve been converted from a literature geek into a food passionate. I guess food nourishes both my senses and my crave for great and impactful stories. It’s a drive. And honestly, I think we can change our future through the way we approach food. If only we can change the way we see food and the cultural value behind it.

It has been a bit over a two years since I decided that I needed to learn more, becoming a semi-nomad trying to keep her home plants alive. Since my brain and soul are still processing everything, while I create and produce projects on the go, a good friend Miss Cheryl Tiu suggested that I needed to keep track and share. It’s probably the best way to rethink things and to express gratitude to the many people I meet on the road and that share their stories with me. Maybe I even get to inspire someone - at least one - to hit the road and fulfil their chase. It’s always worth the jump.

I can only share the way I do this, and I hope this is the strength of what I share. I’m a flashpacker  with an open heart and chilled standards. Probably you will not read much here about five star hotels and uber luxury experiences. I've exchanged them for five star relations and conversations with five star people. Pure magic. Dreamers, game-changers. And since the ad says "the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do" I suggest you keep track of them. 

As a bonus, I might also have good traveling suggestions, is not all about food. It just all relates. So, here I go. Post one, done. (from Malapascua, inspiring paradise).

 Here, a moment that was a milestone to me, at  Food on the Edge  2016, eating mussels with  Will Goldfarb  and  Luciana Bianchi , amazing cooks, researchers, but over all: beautiful human beings. 

Here, a moment that was a milestone to me, at Food on the Edge 2016, eating mussels with Will Goldfarb and Luciana Bianchi, amazing cooks, researchers, but over all: beautiful human beings.