When I'm traveling and want a taste of local flavor, I head straight to the supermarket.
Scanning the produce and foodstuff aisles offers an acute glimpse into a region's lifestyle. It's also an affordable place to find souvenirs, so I was thrilled when my friend brought me back a bag full of snack food from her trip to the Philippines.
Having been raised by a Filipina mother, I was happy to discover some goodies from her country.
The country may be a small island nation in the Pacific, but global traces of Chinese, Spanish, and Malay influences are found throughout its cuisine. The goodies that I sampled were simply made, mostly flour and sugar based, without the use of corn syrup or preservatives.
Below is a rundown on the taste testing extravaganza:
This isn't quite a snack food, but calamansi is one of my favorite citrus. This miniature, round green fruit packs a punch of bright, tart flavor. Just like lemon or lime, it's versatile in cooking. Calamansi is most commonly used for juice, dessert flavoring, or seasoning vegetables and meats. Combine it with some soy sauce, garlic, and pepper flakes for a tasty, traditional Filipino marinade.
Much like in Latin America, Filipinos love using bananas and plantains in both sweet and savory dishes. You'll find them frittered, stewed, and mashed. Heck, the fruit is even part of the country's staple sauce: banana ketchup.
I received a pack of pinasugbo, a treat made of thin slices of banana caramelized in molasses and brown sugar and sprinkled with sesame seeds. The end product is a type of brittle that's crispy and sticky – not friendly for those with teeth fillings. The version I tried had undertones of mellowed sweetness topped with the thick, starchy flavor of bananas.
Ugoy Ugoy is a delicately layered flour biscuit topped with granulated sugar. It's crunchy and dry and best enjoyed with coffee or tea. The cookie itself isn't very sweet and is reminded me vaguely of Filipino pan de sal bread topped with sugar and salt that we ate at family gatherings.
Piaya with Ube
Piaya is a flatbread with sweet filling. The flaky pastry tastes like a pie crust molded into pancake form. The version I sampled used an ube – purple yam – filling. Though most Westerners treat yams and sweet potatoes like a vegetable, it's often used in desserts in eastern Asia. This gooey filling can be found in buns, moon cakes, and ice cream not only in the Philippines but in China, Japan, and Korea as well.
The last (and favorite) snack in my gift bag was an assortment of Goldilocks Polvoron. It's a shortbread candy influenced by Spain's colonial rule. This simple treat is made with a base of flour, milk, and sugar and may be flavored with additional ingredients like nuts and coffee. Polvoron has a crumby and powdery texture, but melts away in your mouth. It's the perfect for satisfying your sweet tooth at the end of a meal.
Discover hundreds of recipes and the history of Filipino cuisine in the book Memories of Philippine Kitchens by Amy Besa, the celebrated chef of Purple Yam and Cendrillon in New York. The author traces the origins of native Filipino foods and the impact of foreign cultures on the cuisine.
Do you have suggestions for delicious Filipino snacks? Leave your comments and questions below for other travelers.