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-scented soups, 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).
The packaging itself warrants close study. The first thing you’ll notice is that this is an export bag, and not one that would actually be sold in the Philippines, because I am lazy and randomly pulled the first thing I found in Bing image search. (Yes, I use Bing! Could I be any more contrarian?) The second thing you’ll notice is that the packaging does an exceedingly good job of illustrating what’s inside – when you buy a bag of Ding Dong, you are in no position to claim that you were duped as regards its contents, unless you were also expecting the bag to contain an elf lounging underneath a ginormous mushroom. Mostly, though, one of is left with the question of whether the elf is Ding Dong, or if he is simply the mascot of Ding Dong – a haze of ambiguity not seen since the heady days of Hootie and the Blowfish.
I ate Ding Dong for the first time a few months ago, but never paid it much thought: it was just something that my neighbours would bring over in tiny little packets during our drinking sessions. Any characteristic flavour usually ended up getting lost amidst many the bottles of Red Horse and the eventual collapse on my bed, so it didn’t have much of a chance to distinguish itself. (Also: I have since stopped drinking alcohol.) Considering that I had never eaten it before in all my years here, I assumed that Ding Dong had a fairly lowly status as A Thing You Eat While You’re Getting Drunk.
However, I was recently attending a meeting at an office in Pasig City, and two nice young ladies who were doing their on-the-job training there randomly offered me some Ding Dong. The fondness for sharing food is one of the most endearing Pinoy traits, and their generosity already did much to create warm association with Ding Dong. Shortly afterward, on my way out of the office, they offered me another handful for the road, which I accepted gladly.
A few weeks later I was back in the office, attending a workshop, and the trainees gestured to me from the hallway to come out from the conference room. I felt like the workshop had to take precedence over their concerns, Ding Dong-related or otherwise, so I awkwardly shrugged at them from a distance. A few moments later, a man came into the conference room and handed me two large bags of Ding Dong, so hefty as to dwarf the tiny one-peso single-mouthful sachets that I had grown accustomed to. Apparently the trainees had decided, solely on the basis of me accepting two handfuls of Ding Dong, that I was The Ding Dong Man, and must be given as much Ding Dong as possible.
During the next day of the workshop I ran into them again, and they asked if I had already eaten the Ding Dong. I somewhat brusquely pointed at my bag and told them “Mamaya!” (Later!). I felt bad about it afterward, and will make sure to thank them effusively for their generous gift of Ding Dong the next time I attend a meeting in their office.
Somehow, having an entire bag of the stuff to tear into helped me appreciate just how tasty Ding Dong really is. Like many salty, MSG-riddled snacks, the more I eat, the more eager I become to eat more, like some sort of umami positive feedback loop. A lot of snack foods go for the classic salty-crunchy combination, but somehow Ding Dong’s assortment of dessicated crunchables, each with its own slightly different kind of crunch, hits a special kind of sweet spot.
But what is the secret to Ding Dong’s Ding Donginess? The list of ingredients reads:
PEANUTS, GREEN PEAS, CORN, BROAD BEANS, IODIZED SALT (SALT, POTASSIUM CHLORIDE), SUGAR, HYDROLIZED SOY PROTEIN, VEGETABLE OIL (PALM, CORN AND COCONUT OIL), WHEAT FLOUR, SPICES, ARTIFICIAL COLOR [FD & C YELLOW #5 (E102), FD & C YELLOW #6 [E110] AND FD & C BLUE #1 (E133)], MONOSODIUM GLUTAME (E621) AND TBHQ (ANTIOXIDANT).
Let’s work our way through the list backwards, starting with the least numerous ingredients. TBHQ is an antioxidant, and I hear antioxidants are healthy, so I guess I should be promoting good health through a diet rich in Ding Dong. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is the reason why none of the healthy vegetarian food I cook at home tastes as good as Ding Dong. I can only speculate that the yellow and blue food colourings combine to create a green that makes the green peas suitably green, thereby compensating for nature’s failures. Spices and wheat flour make things spicy and wheaty and floury in the way we love, while three kinds of vegetable oil create an exquisite melange of oilynesses. Hydrolized soy protein has the distinction of being a second kind of MSG, and thus a second reason why none of the healthy vegetarian food I cook at home tastes as good as Ding Dong. And well, salt is salt – What can we say about it that hasn’t been said a thousand times before, and far more beautifully?
Finally, we reach the mixed nuts themselves. However, broad beans are not actually a nut, but rather a bean. Nor is corn, which is actually a corn. Green peas may be green, and they may be peas, but they are certainly not nuts – you could say that two out of three ain’t bad, but for our purposes it’s probably more accurate to say that it’s really zero out of one. Last but not least, and also not actually last, since they’re actually first, are peanuts. And, as a person with a nut allergy, I’ve had to explain until I was blue in the face that PEANUTS ARE NOT A NUT. ARGH. COME ON, PEOPLE – IT’S JUST A STUPID NAME, LIKE COCONUTS OR WATER CHESTNUTS. (By the way, I was blue in the face from frustration, and not from an anaphylactic reaction to peanuts, because they are NOT A NUT.) Don’t believe me? Ask the intrepid souls at The Peanut Institute, who helpfully explain that peanuts are a legume, belonging to the same family as beans. They also mention that “In the U.S., peanuts and peanut butter are the most popular nut choice and comprise 67% of all nut consumption,” which makes me think that they need to get their story straight. But regardless, peanuts are most definitely not a nut, unless you define nut to mean “thing that is crunchy when it is roasted”.
So in fact, Ding Dong Mixed Nuts should be called Ding Dong Mixed Three Things That Are Obviously Not Nuts, and One Thing That People Think Is A Nut But Isn’t. I imagine that name would create some nigh-insurmountable marketing obstacles, though, so I guess the wily spin doctors at JBC Food Corp would never let such an honest name see the light of day.
I feel betrayed. I feel hurt. But on the other hand, my mouth feels happy because it just ate half a bag of Ding Dong. In the end, Ding Dong, I must forgive you for your lies, because you are delicious. Let’s be friends, and hang out together inside my mouth. And then I will grind you mercilessly between my molars, force you down my throat, and dissolve you in a bubbling lake of stomach acids and ravenous bacteria, until you are expelled from my colon as a foul brown slough and flushed into Laguna de Bay. What else are friends for? Ding Dong, I love you!