If you take a look at most of the Philippines expat sites, one thing that tends to stand out is that in discussions related to food, one common topic is bemoaning the lack of decent Mexican food in the Philippines.
I mean, it’s counter-intuitive, right? Adobo, the national iconic dish, was originally created as a way to preserve meat on the galleons coming to and from Mexico… It’s sorta Mexican then, right? (Actually, there is a Mexican version of Adobo that uses chiles instead of soy sauce). They make empanadas in Mexico, too (The Filipino empanadas tend to be more similar to the kind found in Chile or Peru). Chocolate: Mexico. Even menudo. You can even see the similarities between baked goods here and in Mexico (Where bread tends to be on the sweet side, also).
However, there just isn’t much in the way of Mexican food here, certainly not the Tex-Mex or LA street tacos with which most Americans are familiar and crave. It just doesn’t seem to match very well with local tastes. I believe that much of it has to do with the spices and seasonings, since many are simply not native here or are not part of the Filipino diet. Cumin, for instance, is very common in Mexico… In fact, indispensible to Mexican cuisine. Most Filipinos seem to dislike the taste. Additionally, cilantro, or fresh coriander… Many Filipinos do not like it. As to chiles, some regions in the Philippines are known for spicy food (Like the notorious Bicol Express in the Bicol region), yet a visit to most carinderias will see little more chile than a bottle of Tabasco or a few chiles in soy sauce as a dip (or used with grilled meat). Certainly nothing near the amount of chile commonly used in neighboring Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, or Malaysia.
However, in the time I have lived here, I have noticed that recently, many more Mexican ingredients are becoming available in supermarkets here. I tend to believe that more and more Filipinos are becoming used to different types of food as they become exposed to different cuisines, for three reasons:
1. As the numbers of OFWs increases, more people become accustomed to different foods while living abroad. When they return, they bring these tastes back with them, sharing them with their families.
2. A look at the number of cooking shows on cable is mind-blowing. Asian Food Channel, Lifestyle, TLC: All have steady doses of cooking shows, many featuring Filipino chefs who are modernizing Filipino food by bringing in external influences. Filipino food is a meshing of cultures, anyway. That change continues. Additionally, there are shows on TV showing many types of cuisine that is totally foreign here, like Scandinavian.
3. The Internet and access to the Net continues to grow… Enough said. If it is cooked, it is on the Net, somewhere.
Contrasting to when I first moved here, my mother would always put a few bottles of Cholula hot sauce and other imported goodies in the balikbayan boxes she sent. As the demand for imported goods continues to grow, the local supermarkets carry goods to satisfy that demand.
Can it be expensive? You bet. However, most ingredients are HERE, if you look hard enough.
On a recent supermarket trip, Shopwise had the following:
- Colby cheddar cheese (The little red cylinders from Texas)
- Ranch Style beans (also from Texas)
- Cholula hot sauce.
- Old El Paso, Ortega, and LaVictoria products (Limited selection, but enough)
- Fresh or frozen flour tortillas
- Frozen or boxed corn tortillas
- Four brands of refried beans (La Victoria, Ortega, Old ElPaso, and a local brand)
- Tostitos Restaurant Style tortilla chips (I have a weakness for the lime / chile, but I love the plain)
- and… most amazing of all… A small selection of Herdez canned goods (All made in Mexico)
With this list above, you can easily find staples:
- Corn meal and lard for masa (Making tortillas… Terra Cotta or cast iron skillet cooks them well)
- Dried pinto beans
- Cumin, chile powder (Though not the good stuff from New Mexico), cilantro are all here.
- Sour cream in the Philippines tends to be watery, much like the “crema” found in Mexico, but it will do.
- Kesong Puti (Native Filipino cheese) is a good substitute for Mexican cotija cheese if you squeeze it dry)
So, the point is that with an Internet recipe, and a little searching, you can easily satisfy the craving by making it yourself. Is it cheap? No, not really. Is it an “exact” match? Again, some substitutions need to be made. However, most Mexican food isn’t really hard to make. A bag of Tostitos can easily get you a plate of decent nachos or a quick tortilla soup. A pack of corn tortillas (or home made) yields some decent tacos or taquitos.
However, on the restaurant scene, not all hope is lost. Within 5 km of my house, two new Mexican restaurants have opened in the last six months. Are they authentic? Not really… Modified to local tastes. However, they aren’t “bad” per se… Just different.
Worst comes to worst, there are around four Taco Bells in Metro Manila… Even these have slightly different menus, but they are pretty much the same on the basic taco, burrito, nachos front that you would find in the US (Though they may need to hunt for the hotter sauces if that is what you like… I find Taco Bell here a little blander than in the US).
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.