2.034 Gatang Sigarillas + Bicol Express + Sinangag


8 (Tue) February 2011

Gatang Sigarillas + Bicol Express + Sinangag


at Cabalen

(Robinsons Place)

-Ermita, Manila, Metro Manila, Philippines-

with the KSY

Research Trip to the Philippines, Day 2.

In Manila.  Here Monday through Thursday to meet with WHO to initiate a project reviewing health legislation in countries across the region.  Excited to visit the Philippines for the first time.


Lunch in the WHO cafeteria.

I tried the so-called Cantonese steamed tilapia, which came in a sweet soy glaze, with brown rice and sautéed.  The fish was kinda slimy.  The rice was kinda crumbly.  The vegetables were kinda mushy.  Disappointing.  The Coke Light was the best part of the meal.



Cabalen is a Filipino restaurant.  Located in Robinsons Place, a mall near WHO.  A modest buffet, at least by Korean or American standards: 20 or so tables, a dozen or so main dishes, some sides, some dessert.


On one hand, a buffet makes sense when trying a national cuisine for the first time, given a wide variety of dishes that can be sampled in small portions.  The problem with buffets, however, is that the preparation of the food in big batches, as well as the necessity of leaving the food in chafing dishes or on open platters for extended periods of time, can adversely affect the quality.  Cost minimization is also a factor.


That said, I wasn’t sure what to make of the food.  Overall, it was vaguely reminiscent of other Southeast Asian cuisine in appearance.  But the flavors were somewhat unusual, sometimes unappealing in their odd combinations of salty-sweet-sour-bitter.  I also found the meats were too meaty for my tastes (i.e., the fish was fishy, the pork was porky), whether due to a lack of freshness or to an inherent gaminess, I don’t know. At just 320 pesos person, I have my suspicions. The again, most things in the Philippines seem to be pretty cheap.


Three dishes were agreeable enough to bring me back for a second helping.

One was the gatang sigarillasa vegetable with the taste and texture similar to broccoli (a tad sweet), cut cross-wise into star shapes, sautéed in soy sauce (a tad salty).

The second was bicol express: sliced pork bellies in a coconut curry (a tad spicy).

And finally the sinangag: garlic fried rice (tad bitter).

I can’t say that I enjoyed them, but they were more accessible than the other dishes.


Incidentally, the WHO Regional Office for the Western Pacific (WPRO), which covers 37 countries and areas around Asia, is based in Manila, in what used to be the city center back in the day but has long since gone to the weeds as businesses and agencies have abandoned the neighborhood for newer/nicer parts of the ever-exanding Metro Manila.   Only WHO WPRO and a handful of embassies remain.


I’m staying at the Hotel Soriente, a flophouse within a couple blocks of WHO.  It’s the best within my budget that I could get at the last minute.



One food-related perk here is AFC (Asian Food Channel), a 24-hour cable network that plays a variety of food programs from around the world, mostly those of the Food Network from the United States with some Hong Kong and Singaporean shows thrown in. My otherwise crappy hotel room, a room without a refrigerator, a room with lipstick stains on the pillow cases, has cable TV.  Because our cable TV package in Korea doesn’t include a food-dedicated channel, I am grateful.

A program that’s no longer in production but currently available in Seoul, on the Elle Living channel, is French Food at Home, which was produced in Canada and starred food writer Laura Calder.  AFC aired an episode at 2AM. Ms. Calder has both skills and assets.



More bored and curious than actually hungry, I ventured out and got a few grilled pork skewers from a street vendor across the street.   They were terrible, overwhelmingly porky and otherwise tasting like charcoal.  I had one nibble and threw out the rest.

(I woke up the next morning with a grotesquely puffy face, likely food poisoning.)


I also stopped by the Mini-Stop on the ground floor of the hotel and got a bottle of Red Horse, an “extra strong” beer (7% alcohol) from the makers of San Miguel. A bit flat in suds, a bit flat in flavor, not as cold as I would like.


From start to finish, my second day of eating in Manila turned out to be worse than the first.


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