Food and the armed forces

Any readers who may be browsing at National Bookstore should head over to the cookbook section and check out an interesting title:  Pulutan: From the Soldiers’ Kitchen, by Elmer Cruz and Emerson Rosales.

This little book is a compilation of recipes gathered from the Magdalo, mutineers, who were arrested after the Oakwood Mutiny in 2007 against the Arroyo government. An interesting project, given that the recipes were collected after they were detained… I guess they had plenty of time while in detention.

In any event, the book got me to thinking about food and the rations given to soldiers. In the course of my work, I have become acquainted with numerous officers in the AFP and PNP, and we have chatted about their time in the military over a number of occasions, cold pilsen in hand. Often, the conversation goes quickly to food (after the normal talk about girls and so on… Soldiers and sailors, remember?).

Philippine Army
Philippine Army

Now, I can only use my own US Army experience to compare. In the mid-’80s, I was in when MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat) first came out. These were our field rations, though we always got served hot meals (“Hot A’s”) while on base (The base food was always good… seriously. Despite the jokes, the cooks really did a great job). At the time, they were technological miracles: A fraction of the weight of the old, canned rations, and they could be eaten without heating. Problem was, those early meals, though pretty much immune to spoiling and quite convenient, didn’t taste all that good. (In those days, we had the dreaded chicken loaf! Untradeable if you were unlucky enough to receive that one. Meatballs were easy to trade, as were hotdogs & beans. As soon as they were issued, people started trading to get the meals they liked.) The contents were normally: An entree, in a foil pouch; a package of crackers; a package of cheese whiz, peanut butter, or jam; a candy bar, or “cake”; instant coffee, creamer, cocoa powder, and lemonade powder; a piece of gum, and a wet wipe. I remember that the creamer was great as brass polish (I saved it for inspections), we made “mocha frosting” for the cake by combining the coffee, cocoa, creamer, and a tiny bit of water, and the lemonade powder was a good fire starter (Yes, they fed us flammable food). Many civilians like to buy MREs at surplus stores for use in camping, as they are really convenient. Each meal contains enough calories for a full day. Loaded with salt, fat, and sugar: Not bad if you are in training and need energy… Not so good if you are just messing around all day. It is my understanding that the taste and quality of the MRE has vastly improved since those days, with many different choices. The military always tries to give soldiers decent food… As Napoleon once said, “An army marches on its’ stomach!”

So, what does the AFP issue to its’ soldiers? An MRE that is pretty similar to  that in the US Army. Typically, they include: A small can of sardines (or tuna), instant noodles, Sky Flakes, Nescafe, a small packet of peanuts, ginger tea, and a biscuit (cookie). Occasionally, a chocolate bar, manufactured for the heat, is included.  The AFP also has a canned rice meal that is generally not very popular with the soldiers (Longganisa and rice). Why? Because rice gets sticky and lumpy when canned, and Filipinos tend to like fluffy rice. How is a soldier going to cook rice in the field? Well, the Rice Institute is continually developing new ways to package rice for the armed forces. Not haute cuisine, by any measure, but enough to keep a soldier fed.

It is interesting to note that, after Desert Storm, Hershey and other American food manufacturers that provided ingredients for the US Army MREs, tested their hot weather rations in the Philippines, the logic being that if items like chocolate could withstand the Filipino climate, then the Middle East would not present a problem.

C Rations
C Rations

As to the Navy, when talking about food, the Navy is a whole different matter entirely. Men cooped up together on a ship need diversion, and food is the best way to ensure good morale. Most naval ships have well-equipped galleys, and the Philippine Navy is no exception. One admiral I know once told me that his favorite missions were out in the Spratleys. Why? The fishing was excellent, and their cook was top-notch: Fresh seafood every day. Current Filipino warships are always staffed with good cooks who can prepare both Filipino and some western dishes. As the Admiral told me, the Navy does not skimp on feeding its’ men. He always took a personal interest in what his men were eating.

A friend of mine works in the offshore industry. He once told me that his company seeks out retired Philippine Navy cooks, because the largely Filipino crews really appreciate the cooking skills developed within the Navy here. On his ship (Crew of 20), the cook makes three entrees for each meal, along with several starches, vegetables, desserts, and at least one soup. Skills learned in the Philippine Navy. Yes, even in the civilian world, companies recognize how important it is to keep their vessel and rig crews well-fed and happy.

So, back to my original statement about the book. Why would anyone be interested in what a soldier would cook in the field? Simple. They are highly adept at making something tasty from the ingredients at hand. Soldiers are trained to live off the land, under difficult circumstances. Remember that much of the Philippines is wild and remote: Deployed soldiers cannot exactly eat on base or run to Jollibee. So, they cook what they can find in order to suplement their issued rations. Why pulutan? It is simply, usually high in calories, and tastes pretty good.

So, when the book was written, the recipes needed to be tested. Most contained high amounts of chili, and needed to be toned down for the general public (Hey, chili can mask everything from gamey taste to spoilage). The book includes recipes for spareribs, woodworm, calamari, shrimps, and other ingredients one would commonly find out in the field.

An interesting read, should you wish to check it out!

Post Author: JohnM (207 Posts)

John Miele is a Citizen of the World, having spent time in many locations around the globe. Currently, he finds himself in Manila, but travels throughout the Philippines. John joined the Live in the Philippines Web Magazine in mid-2008.

How to Move to the Philippines Manual


  1. Paul Thompson says

    I enjoyed reading this and it brought to mind something I learned in the US Navy back in the 60’s. We’d been on the town in some port in Europe. We are back on the ship and hungry. All the grills in the galley are secured and clean waiting for breakfast. So you go to the ref, take out a frozen hamburg plus all the fix-ens and some tin foil and head to the ship’s laundry. Wrap the burger in the foil and place it on the 54inch steam press and push the buttons. 6 to 7 minutes later the burger is done, put it on the bun with the fix-ens and chow down. Military will find a way. In the Navy we never ate MREs, but I have tried them and the new ones are pretty good.

    • John Miele says

      Paul: Interesting… Necessity is the mother of invention, eh? In the US fleet, I personally think that the Coast Guard has the best food (Though some of the US Navy vessels are pretty good). I was visiting a cutter in Pascagoula several years back, and it was “Mexican Day” for lunch. I honestly could not believe the spread that the cooks prepared. I mentioned to the skipper how I would gain weight onboard, and he told me that it was a challenge keeping fit on that ship! Unfortunately, since I was on an LCM (no galley), we got MREs.

      • Paul Thompson says

        True the USCG (Knee Deep Navy) has good chow, the the best in any branch of service is served to Submarine Crews and they deserve it for the job they do, it’s by far it’s the best.

        • John Miele says

          Never been on a sub, but makes sense to me. When I was in HS, the Navy recruiter tried to get me to enlist in the nuke program… I’m not certain I would have dealt with the claustrophobia. On a ship, you can at least go on deck.

  2. mars z. says

    Ha ha ha, both the Navy and Coast Guard served pretty good food. Since the ’90s, cooks from the Coast Guard, Marine Corp, Navy and Army had apprenticeship and training from top notch culinary schools such as CIA and other cooking schools. Through the effort of IFSEA, annual culinary awards program for all services competes for the honor of the best providers to all service members. There’s a lot of improvements lately by Natick Labs on continuing to pack gourmet foods in the MRE pack, including meals to address non-meat eating countries and vegans.
    But the soldiers still come out with definition such as MRE-Meals Rejected by Everyone or Meals Refusing to Exit. lol.

    Yup, Paul, you know why they only accept six foot and above to join the CG? So that when our boat sinks, we can walk to the shore! Ha, ha, ha.

    Good article, John.

    • John Miele says

      Mars: I recently saw one of those chef cooking shows with a competition at the CIA… Really interesting. I also read that the MREs have gotten much much better in recent years… But, as you know, solidiers tend to gripe as a way to pass the time!

      • mars z. says

        Yep, same on the ship. A Captain of a cutter one time calls a complaining crew is a happy crew. Isn’t it that Marquette has a good culinary arts and management program? Most of the IFSEA members I met and their students are from that University. How long ago was that you were @ Pascagoula on board the cutter?

        New PDF poster below are current and future planned ships for the CG. The CG is still using the 378′ cutters which 8 of those still in service. Those ships have a big Food Service compliments for long patrols. Two has been decom (one given to Nigerian Navy and the first one the Hamilton went to the Philippine Navy. Two will be decom pretty soon and I think plans are to give them to PHL also. Eight still remains in service as the new NSC Cutters go on line.

        This poster is good reference for your job prospect/planning.


        • John Miele says

          Mars: We were installing our sysdtem on the cutter around seven years ago. The skipper invited us to eat so that we could carry on the meeting longer throughout the rest of the day. I know that the Philippine Navy got the one, and at least one more is coming. My experience with the Navy here has been that they are well-trained and motivated, but under-funded since the Army is so heavily deployed in the South.

          As to Marquette, I was in the business school, so not too familiar with hospitality (As a private school, were I to go for Culinary, I think I would choose elsewhere, since the tuition would approach the same levels as the best schools in the world, like CIA). I do remember that UWM (basically right down the street) had a big tourism department… Perhaps that’s the Milwaukee connection you are thinking of?

  3. says

    MREs, especially once they were packaged with the heating pouch, were so much tastier than the T-rations.

    In Korea Team Spirit Exercises, I prepared a lot of B-rations. Too many mornings rehydrating pork patties and grilling them.

    UGR-As are fabulous in that it’s very easy for the cooks to prepare and provides nearly identical quality to garrison chow.

    Now a days as the food service Contract Manager over 6 to 10 troop facilities here on Ft Hood I observe that the military often just cooks the chow in the DFAC and trucks it out to the field. Cooks lost quite a bit of skill due to the KBRs and DynCorps of the world. When I was in Iraq as a Warrant Officer my cooks on FOB Warrior (Kirkuk) mainly did anything but cook. MAYBE ONE COOK was allowed to kind of stay in the DFAC and peek over the shoulder’s of KBR’s subcontractor.

    Chow has come a long way since even 1986. Good article !

    • John Miele says

      Pete: Thank you…

      The MREs I know were before the heating pouch (Though I think you could boil in bag, we never had time (or on the boat, no place to start a fire)… Though, we occasionally set them on top of the fuel tanks in the lazzarette to warm them (The chicken loaf was vile enough, but worse when cold)

      It truly is amazing how many people the military needs to feed. I always thought that the bases did a really good job. Not gourmet, by any means, but tasty and filling. Some of the bases had special meals (Like Fridays were always fried shrimp and ribeye steak). With deployments winding down, I wonder if the cooking skills will increase?

  4. Ricardo Sumilang says

    Is it just my eyes, or is that 3rd soldier from the right in the picture a girl? Not only is the face a girl, but the hand as well.

  5. Allan Kelly says

    My brother-in-law, A Filipino, was in the US navy for 20 years. I asked him how the food was on ship considering what he liked to eat. He said “Great! Filipinos run the galleys in the US navy. Always the best in Filipino dishes every day”.

    • John Miele says

      Allan: My understanding is that quite a few Filipinos serve in the US Navy. I was at the base in Cavite, and here, too, the food is really very good.

  6. Pita (Sta Lucia) Mike says

    I actually wrote my own recipes for MRE’s while at Fort Bragg in the mid 1980’s. I had the Print Team from the PSYOP company print up 100 copies of it and passed them out to soldiers from 4th Group who wanted them.
    Step 1 was head out to Taco Bell and pick up a handful of salsa packets, then to Arby’s for Horsey sauce & BBQ sauce.
    (This was before the DoD started injecting mini Tabasco bottles into the MRE’s).
    As far as the old “C-rations” go, I busted a tooth eating a can of beans with a small rock in it while at Fort Knox.
    In Somalia, we would swap MRE’s with the other International Forces like the Brits, Italians and French. We backed away from Pakistani MRE’s. Enough said about that.

    • John Miele says

      Pita Mike:

      I was before the mini-tabasco, but I think taco sauce certainly would have helped!

      There is a website where you can order various MREs online from different countries (Can’t find it now… About a year ago I saw it… They didn’t have the Philippines available), and it was interesting to browse through, seeing what goes into various nations’ rations.

  7. Opus says

    The makers of military MREs also have civilian ones available in the States. I’ve had a box or two and they are quite tasty, for the most part. The applesauce was just bad! I have a box of MREs as part of my emergency supply kit. Would give some to my parents but they aren’t brave enough to eat it.

    • John Miele says

      Opus: They are excellent for emergency supplies, like in a typhoon or earthquake kit (compact and they don’t spoil). I saw them online running around $8 each, but I’m certain shopping around could find a decent deal.

  8. Papa Duck says


    Good enjoyable article. When i was in the Marine Corps it was “C” Rats in late 70’s to early 80’s. The best meal from them was the tuna. We would also set up field kitchens if we would be out in the filed for long periods to get hot meals. When i was deployed on a ship for 2 Mediterranean Cruises most of the cooks were Filipino. Food was always good. While in Italy i got to try the Italian Militaries rations. They are really good. The even came with Cognac, which was a nice bonus. My youngest son is in the Army now at Ft Stewart. He says the food is really good with alot of choices there. He likes to eat out alot at the fast food restaurants on base or eat off the base. I keep telling him he should eat at the chowhalls. He could save alot of money. Take care.

    • John Miele says

      Papa Duck: You are absolutely correct… He could save money, and most of the food at a large base, like Ft. Stewart, should be really very good.

  9. Hudson says

    Hey John<
    I remember those C-rations. Some were quite tasty like the baked beans with brown bread. Some were the worst like ham and lima beans (ham and MF's). I wasn't too keen on the powdered eggs either.

    • John Miele says

      Hudson: I was in after C rations, but I heard plenty of stories (There were still quite a few Vietnam vets in my unit when I was in). I have a pretty good idea about what the ham & lima bean must have tasted like… YUK!!!

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