By Gian Franco 2021-06-06

Origin Story of Filipino Street Food

Every country has its own exotic delicacies from longstanding traditions and with sometimes controversial origins. Take for example, Iceland and their stomach for hákarl or the Sardinians in southern Italy and their baffling fondness for casu martzu infested with live maggots. Even then, only a couple of countries have their street food getting more attention than and shaping general perception of local cuisine. Filipino street food is not exactly the darling among exotic food finds around the world. Its poster boy balut or fertilized duck embryo is deemed a revelation of Filipinos’ cultural taste. The frequent appearance of balut in Western TV shows certainly helped stir open-minded curiosity and genuine interest. Beyond the talk on balut, there are other grubs that could better tell the rich history of street food culture in the Philippines.


Filipino street food is mainly known by its two generic categories: “inihaw” (charcoal-grilled) and “tusok-tusok” (literally, pierce-pierce). You can tell the two apart by the way they are cooked and presented to hungry souls foraging the streets. Inihaw is, simply put, any meat skewers grilled over burning red charcoal. On the other hand, tusok-tusok refers to bite-sized pre-cooked rolls and balls, among many other options, that are deep fried in a steel wok of piping hot golden brown oil. Outside these categories, Filipinos also consider noodle dishes (e.g., pancit canton, pansit bihon, etc.), any kakanin (rice cakes), and other merienda staples (e.g., banana cue, turon, siopao) as street food.  


Filipino street food culture


Inihaw and tusok-tusok are peddled in wooden or aluminum carts that are often stationed along the sidewalk, moving from one street to another, and pulling up where there is foot traffic. The street food cart is an enduring element of streets in the Philippines. It tells you more than what you need to know about the people. For one, flocking to a cart is a social affair: there you see a place of merry gathering after school or work. Bonds are strengthened through the grit and soot. It is a picture of Filipino grit and resilience. A scene that unmistakably gives you the sense that small feats and great sorrows have been shared. As a kid, rummaging for spare coins and sneaking out of the house to buy yourself a tusok-tusok is one of your most memorable acts of defiance. They told us to stay away from street food because it’s dirty, but we knew our parents had their fill at some point. The adults know exactly what is so appealing about street food. The grease and the dirt make it all better.


Nowadays, that’s not necessarily the case. Even with the Westernization of Filipino palette, Filipinos of all socio-economic status enjoy making their trip to a nearby street food cart for cheap snacks. It doesn’t have to be in the street around the corner. Street foods have made its ways to kiosks in malls and watering holes as a bar chow. Even some upscale restaurants in business districts of the country’s capital included street foods in their regular menu to introduce this part of local cuisine to foreign tourists.


Out of necessity

Let’s talk about the exotic selections among tusok-tusok and inihaw. If you are unfamiliar with the landscape, the understandable disgust penetrates the eyes. No animal parts are wasted in inihaw. Even the gnarly scraps from pig and chicken that should have been discarded find its second life in a street food establishment. Oh, and don’t let this surprise you: in the case of chicken and duck, any stage of their development is normally ready.