Philippines - Food - Island of Sanity

Island of Sanity


Philippines - Food

There are many differences between what people eat in the Philippines and how they buy their food from what I was used to in the US.

A piece of advice I heard early on was that food in the Philippines can be cheaper than in the US. But if you want to eat the same things you had in the US, it will be way more expensive.

Some differences:


First off, the grocery store is in the mall. Every big mall here has a grocery store. Most malls are built around a grocery store and a department store owned by the people who built the mall. Grocery stores in the mall look a lot like American grocery stores: shelves of boxed and canned products, a meat section, a freezer section, a line of cash registers, etc. They are clean and neat and mostly well-stocked, like any American supermarket.

In a grocery store you can pay with cash or credit card just like in the US. You can also pay with GCash, though I don't think I've ever done this. See my post on money.

There are also many open air markets where you can buy directly from farmers or fisherman. But be warned: If you look obviously like a foreigner, you'll pay more. Some expats get really upset about this. I see it as how it is and don't worry about it. (On my very first visit to the Philippines, a cab driver cheated me and overcharged me by 50 pesos, less than $1. I gave him the extra dollar. I thought, if it gives him some satisfaction to say, "Ha ha, I conned that ignorant foreigner out of 50 pesos", let him enjoy his victory.) The open air markets are cheaper and the food is fresher than the grocery stores, but much less clean.

Food tends to come in smaller packages than what I was used to in the US. Where in the US I'd buy a 64 ounce jar of peanut butter, here the biggest I could find was 16 ounces and my Filipina wife called it a "big jar" and wondered when we would eat it all. Many products don't come in jars or boxes but in little plastic packets. The one exception is rice, which they sell in 10 kg or 20 kg bags.

Milk is not sold refrigeraterd, but is sold in cartons from the shelves at room temperature. I don't know if they seal it up airtight or add preservatives to it or what. Powdered milk is also popular here. I find that the milk here tastes different from what I'm used to in the US, whether because of preservatives or just different breeds of cows I don't know.

Similarly, no one here puts eggs in the refridgerator. I read once that when a chicken lays an egg, there's a coating on it that protects the egg from going bad. In the US, poultry farms are required by government regulations to wash off this coating, so the eggs then have to be refrigerated. In other countries they leave the coating on so they don't need refrigeration. I don't know if that's true but it sounds plausible.

Locally produced food is cheaper than comparable food in the US. Like I typically pay about $5 a pound for shrimp, $3 for chicken, less than a dollar for a load of bread. But anything that has to be imported costs more than you'd pay in the US -- you have to pay for shipping and maybe taxes and whatever. So if you are willing to eat mangoes and papaya, it's pretty cheap. If you insist on peaches and strawberries, it's going to cost you.


Most houses here have a "kitchen" and a "dirty kitchen". In poorer house, the dirty kitchen is a stove on a back porch. In upscale houses it's a separate room. In either case, the idea is that you do most of the actual cooking in the dirty kitchen, so that the smell doesn't go all over the house. As Filipinos eat a lot of fish, this is a good idea. Personally I like the smell of a beef stew, but not of fried fish.

Many people have gas stoves or ranges. But in the Philippines, you don't have a gas company to pipe gas into your house. You buy a tank of gas. When it's empty, you take it to a gas company and they refill it. (Or swap it for a full one, then refill yours for the next customer.) Personally I have two tanks, so when one runs out we switch to the other. We have 11 kg tanks, which last us about a month. There are also 7 kg tanks and 22 kg tanks, and bigger for restaurants and other businesses. It can be a bit of a hassle to have to drag the tank to the gas company to get it refilled, but on the other hand it means that if one gas company raises their prices or gives poor service you can easily switch to another. Some of the gas companies will deliver to your home. I've only done this once and I thought it was more trouble than taking the tank to them, as I had to sit around and wait for the delivery guy to show up. But if you're going to be home anyway, it might be more convenient. Many offer free delivery. Filling my 11 kg tank costs about $20 -- and locals complain about how the price has gone up a lot in the last year or so.

Stores also sell electric ovens, but I've never used one here. Before we were married, I asked my girlfriend if she had a gas oven or electric. She said they cooked over charcoal. Poorer families can't afford either gas or electric.

Upscale homes often have microwaves. And a rice cooker.

Side note: Few homes here have dishwashers. Poor families can't afford them, and rich families hire poor people to wash their dishes.

Food Itself

Filipinos eat rice with almost every meal. The typical breakfast is rice and fish. If you were born in the Philippines and you don't like rice, you're in for a hard time.

Seafood is also very common. As the country is a bunch of islands, seafood is readily available and relatively cheap. In the US, I had shrimp maybe once or twice a month and crab once or twice a year. Here I have shrimp several times a weak and crab several times a month. But one popular type of seafood here is dried fish. They'll then soak it in vinegar to soften it up. In my humble opinion, this tastes awful. Dried fish in vinegar is the one Filipino food that I don't eat.

Some foods you might have been used to in the US are hard to find here, or if you do find them, very expensive. Like, in the US I ate peaches and plums regularly. I've never seen either in a grocery store here. And no one here even knows what a nectarine is. What you will find a lot of is mangoes, papayas, and watermelon. Apples and pears are also available.

Tang is very popular. Many restaurants will list "orange juice" on the menu but if you order it what you actually get is Tang. Tang here comes in many flavors, not just orange. There's mango and watermelon and a dozen flavors I never heard of. I like grapefruit juice but that's hard to find here, so instead I drink pomelo Tang, which tastes very similar.

Salad dressing flavors are Caesar and Ranch. That's it. In the US, grocery stores regularly have an aisle with dozens of types of salad dressing: French, Italian, Russian, Vinagrette, etc. In the Philippians, it's Caesar or Ranch.

Breakfast cereal is available but more expensive than in the US and in far fewer varieties. You can get corn flakes. Don't expect to find Sugar Pops or Honey Smacks or Fruit Loops.

I've never found blueberries or blackberries or raspberries. Strawberries are available but expensive. Like, one grocery store I visited wanted $30 per quart. Another wanted "only" $5 per court so we bought some, but just once.

In the US I loved Mexican food. There are some Mexican restaurants here but, how do I put this nicely?, they're not very good. I bought a burrito that was hamburger wrapped in a tortilla. That was it. No onions, no cheese, nothing else, Just meat and a tortilla. I haven't been able to find taco sauce or salsa in the grocery stores. I've made myself tacos using steak sauce instead of taco sauce, and that's not bad. I think I'll look up a recipe to make salsa from scratch.

Dining Out

There are plenty of restaurants here. In the bigger cities you will find a wide variety of types of food. Like here in Cebu it's easy to find Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and American. There are a few French and Italian places around. Etc. One trip I made here I ended up having breakfast regularly at a place called "Seattle's Best Coffee". I came all the way from the US to the Philippines to eat at an American chain.

Side note: My Filipina wife says that she like Japanese food but doesn't like Chinese. As an American, I thought they were pretty much the same! It's all a matter of perspective.

Just as foreign restaurants in America adapt the food for an American audience, so foreign restaurants here adapt the food for a Filipino audience. Like, there's a pizza place near me that serves pizza with a side dish of rice.

There are several fast food chains. McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken are all over. The biggest Filipino fast food is probably Jollybees. If you visit the Philippines, you should eat there at least once to get a feel for the country, just like anyone visiting America should try McDonalds! Jollybees main items are hamburgers, fried chicken, and spagetti.

Restaurants are cheap. Well, the restaurants in the malls charge close to what you'd pay in the US and restaurants in resorts can be expensive. But my first trip to meet my now-wife's famly I ended up taking the whole family out to a nice restaurant. Not 5 star, but nice. There were 10 people and it cost me $40.

My personal choices

I mostly eat Filipino food, partly to save money, partly to immerse myself in the culture, partly because I like most Filipino foods -- but mostly because that's whay my wife and our maid cook! "Filipino food" means rice with almost every meal, and usually chicken or fish. I love mangoes and papaya so adapting to the local fruit hasn't been hard for me. (In my humble opinion, the absolute best drink ever invented for a hot day is a mango milk shake.)

I haven't adapted to eating rice and fish for breakfast so I still eat an American breakfast of bacon and eggs and toast.

Sometimes I'll make myself American food for a change of pace. I've made myself French toast for breakfast a few times. I've made myself tacos and beef stroganoff.

Another side note: My wife is unwilling to even taste my American food. When I first met her I thought she was a very adventurous eater because she ate many things that I thought quite strange. But it hit me that the "strange foods" she eats are foods that are common here and that she grew up eating. She's really very reluctant to try anything else. I took her to a steak house once and she didn't even know what "well done" and "rare" meant, because she had never eaten steak before. (She said it was "okay".)

© 2024 by Jay Johansen


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