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.