Pinoys sharing food, culture and having the best times of their lives

Community News & Features Aug 23, 2019 at 3:36 pm
Filipino style Pork and chicken barbecue were the bestsellers at Taste of Manila.

Filipino style Pork and chicken barbecue were the bestsellers at Taste of Manila. Photos: Marites N. Sison

Taste of Manila 2019: The food and the ambience

By Marites N. Sison

WHO was it who once said that Filipinos laugh in order not to cry when life deals them a bad hand?

One should add that they also eat, sing and dance to forget their woes.

The rain was still pouring by 9 a.m. on Saturday, August 17, the official start of the two-day Taste of Manila, which organizers dubbed as “the largest Filipino street festival outside of the Philippines.” I was worried that the festival, which I was attending for the first time, was going to be a wash.

Thankfully, by the time I arrived at 11:30 a.m. the rain had momentarily stopped, although the steel grey skies were threatening more. But it was all sunny as far as Filipinos were concerned — pork and chicken on sticks were being barbecued, pancit of every kind were being dished out, music was blasting on different corners of Bathurst and Wilson, aka Little Manila, a flash mob was dancing and gyrating to the eponymous Manila and to Annie Batungbakal — both popularized by Hotdog, a Filipino pop and rock and roll band that topped Philippine music charts in the 70s and 80s.

One of many stalls selling Filipino street food at Taste of Manila, August 17.

One of many stalls selling Filipino street food at Taste of Manila, August 17.

For several hours, I forgot that I was in Toronto. I was transported to what would typically be a peryahan, the Filipino fair of my childhood.  The only thing missing were amusement rides and circus acts. But everything else was here — the cacophony of voices inviting you to try their Ilocos empanadas, to quench your thirst with buko pandan or ube milk tea, to drop by their lugaw station, to try their new “invention”of sisig pizza, or to snack on the staples of Filipino street food — banana cue, isaw, balut, karioka, turon, taho, and something else I hadn’t even heard of, tokneneng (hardboild chicken or duck eggs coated in orange-coloured batter and deep fried). 
Cruising through the different food stalls, I was reminded of how vast and different the cuisines are of the Philippine regions. There were foods that were unfamiliar to me, which made me a bit sad. I thought I knew the land of my birth, but it turns out I didn’t. I was too full to try them, but took note of one, sarabasab, which I was told is an Ilocano style sisig, a Pampanga appetizer made from parts of pig head, chicken liver and heart, crispy pork skin and served on a sizzling plate. Sarabasab is pork cooked in an open fire and seasoned with onion, ginger root, bird’s eye chili (siling labuyo), pepper, calamansi, soy sauce, vinegar and salt.

My biggest find of the day was the Torta Mamon Cebuano, a beloved dessert of my childhood, which I don’t typically find in Filipino stores in Toronto.  I had been drawn to a stall that sold Bohol calamay (a spread made of pounded glutinous rice, fresh coconut milk and brown sugar), and longganisa de Cebu (sausage from Cebu), when Sandra Arcayos, who was manning the stall, invited me to try her torta. I didn’t need any convincing, and came home with three big tortas, which for $10, was a steal. For the record, they are delicious. 
Along the way I interviewed some Filipinos, and one of them, Leila Diaz, said it was her first time at the festival and she specifically came for the siopao (steamed bun) and Mama Sita oyster sauce. Diaz, who hails from La Union, says she was also pining for a dish of her childhood — dinakdakan, another dish I hadn’t heard of. Dinakdakan, it turns out, is another version of sisig, and is made from grilled pig’s head, ears and brains, and seasoned with onions, chili peppers, and calamansi.

Handing out samples of chicharron or fried pork rinds.

Handing out samples of chicharron or fried pork rinds.

Sisters Reggie and Reyze were also there for the first time and were carrying cups of taho with arnibal  (silken tofu with tapioca pearls and brown sugar syrup). They had recently gone to the Philippines for a vacation and got hooked on them, said Reyze.

I also met Vianne Alexa, a young Filipino-Canadian who took part in the flash mob. It’s not every day that you see a young Filipino dancing joyously on the streets, with other Filipinos much older than her, so I interviewed her. She had been performing in Taste of Manila since 2015, said Vianne, who moved to Toronto when she was 11.  The festival, she says, is not only a celebration of Filipino culture but of “different cultures coming together.” She sees it as a way to introduce Filipino food and the “cheerfulness” of Filipinos, who “radiate the energy of positivity” whereever they go and whoever they encounter.

I had forgotten how Filipinos inject humour into their signage. “Enjoy guilt-free snacks,” said a stall selling different kinds of chicharron (fried pork rind). In case you missed the humour, chicharron is in the category of foods, which when partaken of too much, will likely trigger what Pinoys joking refer to as  “atake de corazon” (heart attack).

There were a few stalls that sold Chinese food, which is hardly surprising since historically and gastronomically, Filipinos and Chinese have always enjoyed a close relationship and in fact, many of us are half-Chinese, or Tsinoys (Chinese-Filipinos).

As is typical in most festivals in Toronto these days, there were businesses that sold services, instead of food. And, with the federal elections coming up, different political parties were also on hand to promote their party platforms. 
The nature of the businesses being advertised in the stalls were what struck me the most, because they somehow jolted me back to reality. 
“Baka gusto mong magpadala sa atin, Ate,” (You might want to send some money back home, older sister), someone said to me. She tried to hand me a business card of a bank that advertised that it costs $0 to send money to the Philippines, China, India, Jamaica, Sri Lanka, and the U.S.  It is certainly a lucrative market.  In 2014, Filipinos sent $2 billion from Canada to the Philippines (Filipinos around the world sent a staggering $33 billion to the Philippines in 2018, according to the World Bank).
Another stall advertised the services of law firms that handle immigration issues, while another offered personal loans and insurance. Yet another advertised a casino, which puzzled me until I realized that some Filipinos love to gamble.

Hanna Jonson proudly wearing the Philippine colours on her shirt while selling siomai, turon, and other Filipino goodies

Hanna Jonson proudly wearing the Philippine colours on her shirt while selling siomai, turon, and other Filipino goodies

Not that many were paying attention to these stalls, however. After all, people came here to eat and be entertained, and to forget their worries, even temporarily.

As I prepared to leave, the performances on the main stage began. There were middle-aged Filipino women in plastic grassskirts dancing the hula to the tune of Pearly Shells, another song of my childhood. How brave they are, I thought, to put themselves out there. I certainly wouldn’t have the gumption to do that.  I also thought about how brave Filipinos are, not just to travel thousands of miles in search of a better future, but to open themselves up and share their food and their culture. When I arrived, I had wondered how the neighbourhood would react to the noise, the smell and the smoke of barbeque from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., for two days. I worried that they would complain and think like you know who, whose divisive message of “send them home” is resonating not just with Americans, but some Canadians.

But as I looked at the festival goers, I saw that they really weren’t just Filipinos.  A stocky white Canadian was trying his hand at being a magtataho (taho vendor) by carrying a pole with two large aluminum buckets, to the amusement of many. A Jamaican-Canadian woman was busy buying barbecue from another stall. A white Canadian woman had joined the flash mob.

And then I thought, what if the festival just had Filipinos in attendance? Would it matter? I realized I was worrying too much about “us” fitting in, while others were too busy sharing what their culture had to offer and having the best time of their lives.

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Marites N. Sison is an award-winning freelance journalist and editor. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @maritesnsison

 

 

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Marjorie Santos proudly wears the colours of the Philippine flag at Taste of Manila.

Festival goers tries his hand at being a taho vendor at Taste of Manila.

Festival goers tries his hand at being a taho vendor.

Bahay Kubo installation offers opportunity for a selfie at Taste of Manila.

Bahay Kubo installation offers opportunity for a selfie at Taste of Manila.