I liked everyone I met. It started with the first smiley “good morning ma’am” from the customs officer at the airport. But it’s not just the simple things — here are four more of my favourite Manila moments from my first visit.
Eating Duck Embryos
They were once featured in the American stunt show Fear Factor but in The Philippines, they are just a snack: fertilised duck eggs, boiled on the 17th day, called ‘balut’. They are also found in Vietnam, known as hot vit lon. But in the Philippines they seem to be somehow more obvious. On a late Saturday night I sat down at a tiny food stall on the always-busy Adriatico Street in Malate and saw a big styrofoam container with “balut” written on it. Alex, the vendor, looked at me, laughed, and said, “Never in ten years have I seen a westerner eating a balut”.
I cracked open the top, sprinkled in some salt and slurped out the juice, which tastes like chicken broth. Then I peeled it a little more and ate the yolk, which is covered with dark pink veins. The embryo usually appears as a vague grayish chunk but sometimes, if you get one on the more mature side, also includes the beak, eyes, feet and the feathers. I could feel my heart beating faster when I took the first bite. Surprisingly, it didn’t have much of a consistency. It’s all soft and tastes like a hard-boiled egg.
“It’s good for your health, it makes you strong,” said Alex. “And it’s good for couples.” Balut is believed to be an aphrodisiac.
And Chicken Guts
My friend Lawrence introduced me to ‘isaw’. He showed me the Tiendesitas complex — a place in Pasig that looks like a food fair and gives you a quick overview of culinary specialties from all corners of the country. That’s where we had grilled chicken bowel pierced on a skewer in squiggles.
While eating it, I had to laugh slightly at my thoughts about what exactly was inside the intestine. But they get cleaned and sometimes boiled before they are grilled. They were a little chewy, similar to squid, but without that squid taste.
There are many more interesting types of street food to explore. Some with funny shapes, and some with funny names. Such as ‘adidas’, or chicken feet. Grilled chicken heads are called ‘helmets’ and ‘betamax’ is curdled blood.
And The Hobbits
Likewise with the ‘Hobbit House’. Later on at night, in downtown Manila, when I stepped into the dark, candle-lit J.R.R. Tolkien themed bar on M.H. del Pilar Street, it was like diving into a fantasy world. A dream of peaceful happiness. But then I woke up and found that this place was making a difference in the real world.
The live music bar that claims to have “the smallest waiters in the world” is run and staffed by little people. It has been there for a long time, since 1973, when former Peace Corps volunteer Jim Turner from Iowa opened its doors. All he wanted was to hire two little people to work as doormen. But then little people from all over the country came and asked him for work. Now 15 hobbits run the bar, with the doorman being the smallest. In a country where there was no association for little people whatsoever, Turner gave them not only a job, but also a place that unites them and gives them something to be proud of. Some are second generation. Jim Turner, now 71 years-old, gave the ownership of the bar to the hobbits — who, for the record, prefer to be called ‘hobbits’ over ‘midgets’ or ‘dwarfs’ — a long time ago. He still visits the venue as a guest and good friend, and every night he props up the bar joking with the staff. “They’re like my children”, he said.
I stayed until the bar closed at 2am. It was great fun, listening to their stories. If you ever make it to Manila, stop by and hang out with Jim and the hobbits. Say hello for me, and tell them that I miss them. And that I miss these Manila moments.