Manila, PH: Feasting Safely On Street Food

By Sol Vanzi | Manila Bulletin


Street food is conquering the world. The tidbits once abhorred by jetsetters and fashionistas as trash and junk now dominate the TV Food Network’s prime shows hosted by acclaimed chefs from food capitals all over the planet.

Street food reflects the culture and lifestyle of a city and its people, and is often inexpensive and easy to prepare using the barest kitchen implements. In my travels overseas, I seek out street food and rely on them for adventure and survival.

Among the most memorable are takoyaki in Osaka, wonton soup in Kowloon, thick ful soup in Cairo, crunchy falafel in Amman, smokey grilled lamb innards in Athens, cheese and olives in Mainz, tiny grilled langonisa in Mactan, empanada in Batac. You get the picture: food that’s handmade, cheap, tasty and could be consumed without cutlery.

BEWARE OF FOOD-BORNE AILMENTS — Despite all those years of enjoyable foraging through the sidewalks of many continents, I shirk at the thought of eating street food in Metro Manila, where most food vendors handle their goods with bare hands and keep raw and undercooked food unrefrigerated for hours, The heat, the humidity, the flying and crawling insects, the air filled with germs and bacteria – all frightened me enough to make my kids swear they’ll never patronize a sidewalk stall.

HOME-COOKED BANGKETA FARE — Not wanting my kids to miss out on delicious food, we eventually found a way around that over-protective precaution. My children grew up eating street food quite often, yet they never once got food poisoning or stomach ailments from this indulgence. The secret? They only ate street food at home, never in the streets.

A TRIO OF BALLS — Our first home venture involved fish balls, squid balls and kikiam, the holy trinity of skewered bliss sold straight from their hot deep fryers at virtually every busy street corner and school gate all over the metropolis.

These are sold chilled or frozen at public markets and supermarkets, in ¼ kilo, ½ kilo and 1 kilo packs, and do not have to be thawed before cooking. They can go straight from the chiller to the fryer.

START WITH COLD OIL – Contrary to western cooking methods, fish balls should never be dropped into very hot oil or they will never expand. The extremely hot oil will immediately cause a hard crust to form on the surface of the balls, preventing the air bubbles trapped inside from expanding and making the balls bigger and lighter.

Place the cold balls in the warm or cold oil over low heat, cook slowly to let the oil heat up gradually. Patience is key. The heat may be turned up to brown the surface once the balls have expanded to their maximum size.

Before frying the second batch of balls, allow the oil to cool down a bit before starting the process all over again.

SECRET’S IN THE SAUCE – All fish ball vendors have their secret sawsawan, or dipping sauces, which often come in pairs: one red and sweet, the other is brown with a tangy spiciness. Both sauces are thick, the better for them to stick to each ball.

Fish balls have become so mainstream that bottled fish ball sauces are now sold at supermarkets alongside oyster sauce and catsup. However, it is cheaper and more rewarding to make your own sauce with ingredients already in your shelves.

For the red sauce, the main ingredient is banana catsup, which will provide the thickness, color, light chili heat and some sweetness. Add chopped onions and minced garlic and thin with water, beer or any soft drink. Taste and adjust seasonings.

For the brown sauce, start by dissolving brown sugar in a little water in a pan over low heat. Keep stirring until dissolved and watch to prevent scorching. Add a packet of chicken powder or a bouillon cube, one crushed red hot pepper, black pepper, crushed garlic and chopped onion. Stir in some soy sauce and a tablespoon of cornstarch dissolved in water to thicken the sauce. Lastly, add vinegar to taste. Adjust thickness by adding more water or cornstarch mixture.

BE AUTHENTIC – The small oval paper trays used by sidewalk vendors to serve fish balls are sold at supermarkets and at small stores in public markets. They are cheap as short bamboo barbecue skewers are used to spear and eat the balls with.

My children and their friends used to get a kick out of eating fish balls with all works in our very own home. We’ve also served them at family gatherings, birthdays and other festive occasions.

LUMPIANG SHANGHAI – The supermarkets have taken the guesswork out of making Lumpiang Shanghai; they now offer freshly mixed ground pork, carrots, kinchay, spices and binding all ready to be stuffed into lumpia wrappers and fried.

To stretch the budget and make more lumpia from a small amount of filling, we sometimes add panko (Japanese bread crumbs), mashed or grated potatoes, chopped or shredded leftover meats and an extra beaten egg as binder. Serve with fish ball sauces.

MEXICAN LUMPIA – Using the same supermarket mix, we make Mexican-style appetizers by adding mashed cooked kidney beans, hot chili peppers and grated cheese. We serve fried Mexican lumpia with a topping of fresh salsa (chopped tomatoes, onions and cilantro seasoned with lemon juice and Tabasco) and a mound of fresh avocado slices.