Considering 20% of the Dubai population is Filipino, it’s a surprise that Filipino food isn’t better known. I would struggle to name a single Filipino dish aside from balut, and I only know that because it’s such a recurring theme on #TTAFChat.
When it comes to food, Filipinos are known for their love of pork and rice (my Filipino friends eat rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner). But they are also known for their unconventional delicacies and resourcefulness in ensuring that no part of an animal goes to waste.
I asked two friends to take me on a Filipino foodie tour and they suggested we go to the famous Al Attar Shopping Centre in Karama. Meet my foodie guides for the day!
I’d been to this shopping centre before but never looked twice at the humble restaurants. Turns out this is a veritable haven of Filipino eateries serving well-known dishes, popular street food, drinks and desserts. (But you won’t find pork or balut here.)
- Cucina Cafeteria– isaw and bicol express
- Turo-Turo Cafeteria – kwek-kwek and turon
- Cabalen Snacks – halo-halo, halaya, and chicharon balat ng manok
First stop: Cucina Cafeteria
Why not get stuck straight in. The first item on the menu, the infamous isaw.
What is it, you ask? (Perhaps it’s better not to ask.) This is Filipino food at its best. Simple yet tasty. A wavy string of fresh chicken intestines threaded onto a skewer, seasoned and barbecued. I was preoccupied with videoing myself so I didn’t have a chance to think about what I eating. But if I had to describe it, it was like eating a savoury gummy worm filled with a soft mushy centre. The barbecued flavor was delicious. As with many Filipino foods, you dip it in vinegar.
They say that “trash to treasure” – using all parts of the animal – is one of the upcoming food trends of 2o16. Sounds like the Filipinos have the right idea!
The second item we sampled was the Bicol Express, named after the train that travels between Manila and Bicol. This dish is normally made with pork, coconut milk and chilies but in this pork-less shopping centre they used a fatty beef and it didn’t taste very spicy or coconutty to me. Not sure how authentic this dish was as my foodie guides had to ask if it was in fact Bicol Express. I like fatty beef anyway so I found it tasty, but I’ll still look forward to eating the real deal.
Second stop: Turo-Turo Cafeteria
This pokey little stand in in the middle of Al Attar Shopping Centre surrounded by kiosks selling handbags, watches and mobile phone covers. They offer a variety of street food such as Chinese siomai, a variety of deep-fried snacks, some drinks and desserts. This seems to be a popular stop with people lining up to get a quick bite.
Folowing our isaw and Bicol Express, we made a pitstop for some snacks – this time deep-fried quail eggs in an orange batter and banana eggrolls. The quail eggs have the best name ever. They’re called kwek-kwek – everytime I hear it I just have to chuckle. They were served lukewarm and were not so crispy, but we still seem to be fighting over them. You eat them with vinegar, of course.
The turon are a sweet plantain wrapped in an eggroll wrapper, then fried and coated with a caramelised coating. The coating on these turons were pretty solid and crunchy. Kind of like a Filipino version of the candied apple.
Third stop: Cabalen Snacks
We wanted to sample more of what Al Attar Shopping Centre had on offer so proceeded to a dessert shop to try their famous halo-halo. Halo-halo is similar to the South Asian falooda (which admittedly I’ve never tried). This half-drink/half-dessert concoction was full of shaved ice, beans, plantains, nata de coco, jackfruit, coconut, and cubes of jelly, topped with evaporated milk and a dollop of leche flan and mashed purple yam. It was very unusual – thick and heavy from the evaporated milk, yet surprisingly not overly sweet.
It’s like a pick ‘n’ mix in a cup. You get a different colourful surprise with every bite.
Alongside we ate some deep-fried chicken skin crisps (chicharon balat ng manok) which you eat (surprise!) dipped in vinegar! Looks like chicken skin but tastes exactly like the pork rind chicharrón you find in some parts of America and Mexico. Sounds like this is normally eaten as a beer snack, but it accompanied our halo-halo just fine.
There were other desserts – in fact the full versions of what we had inside our halo-halo – a purple yam dessert with grated cheddar cheese called halaya and thick and heavy leche flan. What always strikes me as curious is the use of grated cheddar cheese in sweet dishes, like what you find on the halaya below.
The plan was to continue the food tour in Deira, but by this point we were all too full. But since I am yet to try balut, a reprise is definitely on the cards. A big thank you to my foodie guides for introducing me to their cuisine.
Verdict: Filipino cuisine will force you to rethink the way you look at food. The food is definitely unconventional by Western standards but for adventurous eaters, it’s worth giving it a try!
Note to self: Don’t think, just eat!
Al Attar Shopping Centre
Chow for now!