My name is Bloggerbels, and I have a problem. No, I’m not talking about the problem of being a horrible person – that’s a topic for another post. The problem I want to talk to you about today is my debilitating coffee addiction. You see, I have an addictive personality, something that may or may not be related to my Asperger’s Syndrome. I have been addicted to food, to alcohol, freight trains, classical music, “the ladies”, and now, to coffee.
I developed a taste for coffee a while back. I enjoyed a daily cup or two for several years, but as soon as I stopped drinking alcohol I noticed that, like some sort of Alcoholics Anonymous stereotype, my coffee consumption went completely through the roof. At this point I realized that my restless, addictive mind just needed something to latch on to, and if I wasn’t going to become addicted to making people smile or to curing cancer, I may as well just embrace my addiction to the mostly harmless drug that is caffeine. And embrace it I have!
Another of my addictions happens to be travel, although it might be less of an addiction and more of a bright, multi-coloured distraction from the yawning emptiness of my life. For a time, my addiction to travel meant that my coffee addiction could not always be properly fed – some travel destinations don’t have much of a coffee culture, or good coffee may be prohibitively expensive. Or, in the worst-case scenario, one may find oneself in a veritable coffee desert, where good coffee is simply impossible to find. (Ironic, since the desert-filled lands of North Africa and the Middle East did much to spread coffee throughout the world!)
That all changed the moment I discovered the espresso pot. I was traveling around British Columbia and the Canadian Rockies with my dear father, who surprised me on the first day of our trip by yanking a coffee pot out of his suitcase. At first, the idea struck me as ludicrous, and I ladled untold scorn and derision upon the man who brought me into the world; but over the two weeks of the trip, I learned that the pleasure of starting every morning in your hostel or Airbnb with a good cup of coffee is easily worth an extra kilo of baggage. So, who’s laughing now? Nobody, because coffee is serious business.
The Tunasan Rat Patrol (TRP) is a crack force of one human (Bloggerbels) and two dogs (Bop and Chichi) who work tirelessly to keep one house in the Tunasan District of Muntinlupa City… well, if not exactly rat-free, then at least within an acceptable rat limit.
On the evening of Sunday, January 8th, 2017, the human member of the Patrol returned home to the Rat Patrol HQ to discover that the shower drain had been forced open. Unfortunately, this is a typical way for rats to gain entry into the house. But even more unfortunately for the rats, the TRP was on duty that night, and its canine members (the Spotters) began following their noses, hot on the trail of the rodent intruder.
Ever since the age of 14, I have devoted inordinate thought to the ethics of meat-eating. Around that age, my mother became a pescatarian; and I, being a hopeless mama’s boy at the time, was quite ready to emulate her example. It wasn’t a difficult decision, and not just because she was the only person I was living with at the time, as well as the one who cooked my meals. I had always loved animals – as a person with autism, I often found them much easier to relate to than people. And although I was certainly a gluttonous little porker, meat was never one of my favorite things to stuff into my greasy little piehole – you could’ve given me a bag of salt & vinegar potato chips over a juicy T-bone any day of the week.
My first memory of wrestling with the thorny issue of culinary ethics was from fifth or sixth grade, on the playground with my inseparable chum Dan. At the time the media was abuzz with the clubbing of baby (“baby”) seals in the arctic, and Dan indignantly declared, with a withering contempt far beyond his years, that the same people who bellyache about seal clubbing don’t care about millions of chickens being killed everyday. I had no answer to this at the time, but perhaps my eventual vegetarianism was a delayed act of spite – an “I’ll show him”, with my revenge exacted a few years too late. He did have a point, though.
Something wonderful is happening in Manila right now – something that too few people are commenting on, even as that effervescent, unmistakable sparkle of magic fills the air! That is, cheap coffee is starting to get really good.
For too long, coffee in Manila has been divided between between the dodgy and the highfalutin. On the dodgy end of the spectrum, you could plop yourself down at the local corner store and order a sachet of 3-in-1 instant coffee mix for a few pesos, and get an incredible sweet coffee-like beverage that is more palm oil and sugar than actual coffee. (I will make an exception for Kopiko Brown and Black, two instant coffee mixes that contain even more empty calories than their competitors, and don’t get much closer to tasting anything like actual coffee, but do have the significant advantage of actually tasting really good.)
On the other end of things, there has long been no shortage of places for the beautiful people and those who wish to be seen as beautiful to plop down more than 100 pesos for a cup of actual coffee or, more popularly, a shot of espresso and 500 calories of sugar and whipped cream. When you want to take the best possible selfies while also getting a bit of caffeine in the process, Starbucks, The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, and their various competitors are always there to satisfy your cravings. I personally avoid these options, not just because of my pathological cheapness, but also because I am opposed to paying western prices or higher for a cup of coffee that is being served to me by people making decidedly less-than-western wages. All the more so in a country that grows a good amount of its own coffee, if only anyone would bother to drink the local stuff – which I can say isn’t the best coffee I’ve had, but is actually pretty damn good! (Please, support your local barako farmer!)
As many of my friends know (and are quite tired of hearing), I am honestly not the biggest fan of food in Manila. To get a really good meal here requires either a lot of determination or a lot of money – and given the minuscule portion sizes relative to my chubby 6 foot frame, a small appetite doesn’t hurt, either.
However, I do love a lot of Filipino food. The Philippines boasts some delicious regional cuisines, such as Bicol’s red hot specialties, or the turmeric-mad (and equally chilli-saturated) food of the Maranao. Perhaps best of all is the irresistible freshness of Cebuano dishes, with their mouth-watering lemongrass-scentedsoups, incredible kinilaw (basically a Filipino version of ceviche), and delectably tender barbeque – all of which have spread through the southern Philippines and, in some cases, have even been improved upon in places like Davao City. But one thing that Manila is good for is snack foods. There are plenty of salty, sweet, guiltily delicious ways to fill in a spare corner of my stomach, even if actually filling it to capacity tends to be a challenge given my monstrous appetite. Stop by the local Family Mart, 7/11, or, if you have no choice, Mini-Stop, and take in the vast cornucopia of addictively unhealthy munchables!
And it’s a great time to be a lover of snack foods in the Philippines. Even a few years ago I felt like I had to rely on expensive imported US brands to really satisfy my MSG cravings, but the country appears to be undergoing a snack food renaissance. Local snack food manufacturers are really bringing their A-game with new offerings like Oishi’s Gourmet Picks (in the absolutely divine wasabi flavour and its somewhat less impressive counterparts), or Leslie’s new Farmer John chips – the salt and vinegar flavour is pretty close to heaven, and ensures that I’ll never have to waste my money on Lay’s again. I know this sounds like a press release, but I really do love a good potato chip – all respect due to the food chemists who engineered these modern-day marvels!
One of the less glamourous old-school entries in the Philippine snack food lineup is Ding Dong. Basically, it’s an assortment of dried crunchy things that is, for some reason, being marketed as “mixed nuts” (more on that later).
Tonight I had an experience that is quite rare for me: I ate at a high-end buffet. Given my notorious stinginess and my staunch “I don’t eat out in Manila unless it’s canteens, pizza or fast food” policy (which will get its own post, of course!), it takes some truly unusual circumstances to drag me out to the high-end smorgasborgs which have sprouted up throughout the Metro.
As it happens, this high-end buffet served as a most unusual location for a first date with a local woman off an Internet dating site. (What can I say? I’m trying to get out more.) For some reason, she decided that such an ostentatious choice would be ideal for the first meetup between two total strangers; with my usual suaveness, I informed her that I would only eat at such a ritzy establishment if it were birthday or if someone were treating me. Although I expected her to simply lose interest and find another dining companion who wasn’t a stingy jerk (or who was currently celebrating his birthday), she surprised me by insisting that she’d pay for both of us. After a few incredulous rounds of “Do you really want to pay for me?” and several affirmative responses, I finally accepted. I was pretty baffled, but since it’s not every day that strangers offer me expensive meals, it was hard to say no. So, after meeting up with her in Makati and wandering around the malls for a few hours, abusing the free karaoke machine demos in music stores and searching for a pepper mill – more of the makings of a great first date – we ended up at Buffet 101, which touts itself as the longest buffet line in the Philippines. (Incidentally, I did manage to find an inexpensive pepper mill, and I expect my nose to be very happy during the coming weeks and months.)
Buffet 101 is one of several highish-end buffets that can now be found in Manila and other major cities, along with such competitors as Dad’s, Yaki Mix and Vikings. A meal at one of these restaurants could run you between 500 and 1200 pesos ($11 to $25 US), which sounds like a pretty wide price range, but all are equally unaffordable for your average indigent rice farmer or sidewalk cigarette-and-mint vendor. These massive food-based amusement parks have popped up all over Manila, Cebu and Davao as the aspirational middle class continue to seek out new ways to celebrate the sweet life. Or, to put it another way, they provide a helpful answer to the nagging question: “Now that I have all this money, what can I spend it on so as to avoid giving it to the poor?” Read More
As much as possible, I like to buy my fresh produce in Manila at the traditional market (or palengke) instead of the supermarket. I don’t do this as an affectation or an attempt to be “quirky”, and I don’t do it out of a desire for authentic cultural experiences. After having lived here for this long, I am no longer searching for the exotic, and at this point pretty much everything feels normal to me, anyway – it’s just my everyday life.
What remains, however, is an appreciation for the friendly, casual chaos of Manila street life, with vendors crowding the sidewalks and shouting out alluring descriptions of their wares. I like it even more when I compare it to the stifling corporate culture of the malls and supermarkets. Market vendors are more fun to talk to and more likely to joke around with me (even if it’s at my expense), without fear of being fired by their malevolent corporate overlords and quickly replaced with another minimum wage-earner in the single-minded pursuit of maximum profit.
Plus, the vegetables at the market are fresher!
When I want to grab a few things in a hurry, there are plenty of vendors in my neighbourhood that will do the trick, including a small local market. But if I feel like buying so many vegetables that I risk tearing the straps off my heavy-duty eco-bag, I usually go to the Alabang Public Market. The Alabang district of Muntinlupa City is known mostly for housing old-money types in high-end, heavily fortified gated communities like Ayala Alabang; it’s also becoming increasingly important as an up-and-coming business district. However, away from these moneyed enclaves and closer to the expressway, you will discover that Alabang also boasts plenty of lively street life, from a seemingly endless supply of sidewalk sock vendors to the charmingly dodgy karaoke bars and surplus TV stores that lurk underneath the viaduct. Best of all, you can experience it all without some of the more pungent odors that your nose might pick up in more crowded areas of Manila.
Alabang is just a short ride from my house, so let’s go!!! And buy some beans!!!
To get there, we hop on a passing jeepney along the highway. Given the swarms of jeepneys that dominate the roads in the Philippines (and have earned them the moniker Kings of the Road – and verily, they are cruel tyrants), it’s not a long wait. In fact, if you have to wait 3 minutes for your jeep to come in Manila, you’ve waited too long! Sorry, sucker!
We’ll be taking the expressway to reach Alabang without getting caught in Manila’s notorious traffic, and not just any jeep is street legal for that purpose. Only jeepneys with jerry-rigged gates at their rear entrances are judged worthy to pass through the Gates of Toll, presumably so that passengers don’t simply slide out the back at 80 km/hr – something that would certainly be within the realm of possibility. Interestingly, each expressway-ready jeepney gate seems to be a unique piece of hand-made craftsmanship. The number of different ways that they slide, lock or are tied into place is truly impressive, like an infinite number of unique and precious snowflakes that allow public utility vehicles to legally travel in the winter wonderland of the expressway. The jeepney driver brusquely instructs the passengers to close the gate before the jeepney enters the expressway, and the passengers closest to the back are stuck having to fumble their way through each completely unique door-closing mechanism.
One morning while I was puttering around the house, cooking rice and sweeping up dog poop in the yard, I heard a feeble “Tao po?” (Is anybody there?) emanating from my front yard. I ambled outside to discover a fresh-faced young man with a hopeful expression on his face, standing outside my gate.
“Good morning, sir. I am a working student from Biñan, Laguna…” he began. Inevitably, anytime someone in the Philippines tells you that they are a working student, they are about to try and sell you something. I have almost never heard anyone here describe themselves as a working student for any other reason.
I was about to brush him off, when suddenly he raised two packages of biscuits into the air. He now had my full attention! I asked him what he was selling. “Biscocho and broas,” he answered.
Biscocho? Since it’s kinda like Italian biscotti but not nearly as good, maybe not.
Broas (pronounced “Bro-ass” – well, OK, actually “bro-as”)? Although I am a total bro, I’ll pass.
“Do you have otap?” I asked, hopefully.
To my delight, he quickly produced a package of otap, one of my favourite Filipino snack foods, from his bag of treasures. Why didn’t he mention it in the first place? I can never resist the flaky, buttery goodness of good otap from the Visayas. In fact, I melt before it just as quickly as it melts in my mouth.
Happy to have the chance to help a working student – arguably the hardest-working type of student – while also helping myself become grotesquely fat, I purchased one package and began to munch away. And as I snacked, I got to thinking: That would be a great way to murder someone (not, I must hasten to say, that I would ever want to do such a thing myself)!
Think about it. In the Philippines, at least, door-to-door vendors are not uncommon. All you would have to do to dispose of your enemy would be to send an innocent-looking young man to their door selling packages of poisoned biscocho, poisoned broas, and, if the victim actually has good taste in snack food, poisoned otap.
After a day of sporadic otap-snacking, I still feel fine; I guess the otap really was just a way for a dedicated young man to make a bit of extra tuition money, rather than a nefarious criminal ploy. If there’s any lesson here, I suppose it’s that we constantly put our lives and personal safety in the hands of others, and even with all the dangers in the world today, it’s a miracle that our tattered social contract continues to hold up as well as it does. OK, I’m probably overreaching now – I think I’ll just shut up and eat some more otap.
Note: My macabre train of thought may have been unconsciously inspired by the pretty terrible story of the milk tea poisoning deaths that recently occurred in Manila. It’s really a horrible tragedy, and my heart genuinely goes out to the victims and their families. I don’t want my readers to think that I really find humour in the idea of a real human being actually dying from poisoned food – except, of course, for myself!