Isaac Newton famously said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”. Of all the East and South-East Asian countries, the Philippines might appear to be hiding in the shadows of Chinese, Thai, Korean, and Japanese culinary giants. But what Filipino food lacks in fame, it makes up for in sheer, and sometimes bizarre innovation.
The Philippines has some truly exotic and weird dishes, from the humble woodworm to the still-developing duck embryo delicacy. It’s also got some unmissable favorites too that we'll shine a light on.
Asia is famous for hosting an unbelievable range of some of the world's best cuisines, and even more amazingly strange dishes. The Philippines is no exception. On tropical beaches, hillside rice fields, and in Filipino street food stalls, people are innovating and pushing the boundaries with these bizarre Filipino foods.
Taho – Starting off easy (or for some, queazy)
This flavorful dish is a common street food snack made with tapioca pearls, a syrup called arnibal (tagalog for syrup, arnibal is generally made from sugar and water), and silken tofu (a softer, squishier style of soybean curd)
While this is a strange dessert in terms of the mix of ingredients, it does look quite enticing. And most people would give it a go based on looks alone. The contrast of dark syrup and black tapioca layered with snow-white tofu places this at the low end of the “weird” spectrum. Unless, of course, you're not partial to tapioca and tofu.
Soup Number 5 – The First Rule About Soup Number 5 Is….
Yes. You read that right. A soup so sinister it hides behind a number.
So what's so shady about the infamous Soup Number 5? Well, sometimes a customer might not want to just yell across a busy counter that they've got a craving for bull's testicles. The fact that they're considered an aphrodisiac might also contribute to the dish's bashful, clinical naming.
But judging this dish with your eyes, rather than your mind, it looks pretty great, like a pale goulash or any other beef stew. Soup Number 5 is prepared by sautéing a whole bunch of aromatics and boiling No.5 until it's nice and soft.
It's particularly popular in areas with larger Chinese migrant populations who are thought to have originally brought the dish with them from their Hokkien region in South-East China.
Isaw – Skewered Pork Intestine
Pig's intestines are coiled up to around 60 feet, which is probably the same distance you'd get a whiff of this Filipino finger food.
Isaw is a charcoal-fired skewer made with either pig or chicken intestines folded along the length of a piece of sharpened bamboo.
The smoky, burnt flavor is enough on its own, but locals like to match it with vinegar, onions, and a bit of spice too!
This is one dish that will either have taste buds turning or stomachs churning.
Woodworm – adobo-style, you might just like it
Foods that some people might refer to as gross might be delicacies for others. Sometimes it's hard to tell which is which. Could it be that the dish is unusual and delicious or that it's weird and needs a publicity campaign?
Woodworm (Tamilok) is mostly eaten in just a few regions of the Philippines and is commonly served at big gatherings or celebrations with family.
The name is slightly deceptive, however, and although this creature eats and lives in the wood, it is actually a mollusk, like a mussel or an oyster, which explains its slimy body.
It is either eaten raw, ceviche style, called kinilaw in the Philippines. It is also served cooked, sometimes with some wasabi for dipping.
Mangga at Bagoong – Shrimped up Mango
Like most countries, the Philippines has a staple food pairing. Italians have cured pork meat and melon, Americans have peanut butter and jelly, Filipinos have green mango and bagoong (fermented shrimp paste).
The sour hit of green mango is balanced by the salty flavor bomb that comes from the shrimp paste.
It's a bizarre food combination, but as they say: opposites attract.
Itlog ng Antik – Anyone for ant caviar?
There might be a sinister bit of revenge in this one. Antik is a type of weaver ant who isn't afraid to use its sharp teeth to defend itself. Itlog is the Filipino word for eggs, so itlog ng antik means ant eggs.
As far as weird food goes, it's not really that intimidating, especially when you consider that people gladly consume expensive caviar, which is fish eggs. Small insect eggs are the same thing, but in this case, there's less yuck factor when you consider that this delicacy is prepared with familiar favorites of garlic, herbs, and onions.
Or even more enticing: itlog ng antik cooked adobo style transforms it into a range of delicious dishes with plenty of other spices.
Durian Coffee – Stinky Coffee
Once you've had an encounter with durian, it's not something you'll forget. This famously stinky fruit is the peak of “love it or hate it”. Durians are banned in many hotels around the world because the smell can easily overpower not only your own room but the neighbors too. It's been compared to the smell of rotten flesh, rotten onions, and sewage. Nice.
Making coffee with durian is kind of like trying to make it with pineapple and pomegranate. But hey, they love it in the Philippines. And as one of the world's most enthusiastic foodie nations, we can't disagree.
Champorado – Who's idea was this?
- Chocolate? Sign me up!
- Sticky rice? sure.
- Salted dried fish? mmm, are we just listing foods now?
Yes, this strange and unique taste takes everyday ingredients and makes them weird. In case you're thinking “what is with the weird exotic food in Asia”, the blame (or praise) for this one comes from Spain.
Since both the Philippines and Mexico were part of the Spanish empire, trading boats leaving Mexico spread this dish, originally made with maize to the Philippines, who swapped out the corn for sticky rice.
Karioka – Sweet, Sweet Rice Balls
Like a candied apple, this skewered snack comes to life when glutinous rice and coconut milk are combined to make a dough that is then dipped or drizzled in a caramel made from coconut and sugar.
A simple variation is to tope each rice ball with sweetened shredded coconut.
Chicharon Bulaklak – Mouth Wateringly Crispy Pork
For a nation of islands, it's curious that the most popular meat in Filipino food is pork.
Out of all their amazing pork dishes, chicharon bulaklak stands out for its simplicity to flavor ratio.
Korea is famous for fried chicken, and the Philippines should be famous for their own version, and for taking up a notch by using pork. This crispy snack is dipped in spiced vinegar.
This traditional Filipino recipe gets its insane-level crispiness from a particular part of the pig – ruffle fat – a tissue that connects a pig's internal organs to its body. This is simple, rustic Filipino food at its finest.
Oh, and it's also a popular bar food snack to have with a cold beer.
Spiced Vinegar – Acid Hit
With the exception of Italy's great use of balsamic, most American and European dishes do not include much acidity or sourness. Mexicans know the power of lime in a good meal, and similarly Filipino's have embraced spiced vinegar as a national favorite.
Spicy vinegar is used to create a balance between sweet (sugar or syrup), salty (fish sauce or soy sauce), and sour (unripe fruit or vinegar). Often this “balance” leans towards the sourness of vinegar.
Cane vinegar is commonly found throughout the Philippines due to the high yields from sugar cane.
There are also coconut vinegars. Sukang tuba comes from fermented coconut tree sap while suka ng nioy is made from coconut water. Palm vinegar is less common because of the workload needed to make it. Interestingly, palm vinegar continues to ferment since it is a living process (like kimchi or kombucha).
Turon – Sweet Spring Rolls
This “grab it and go” street food is a sweet take on a spring roll.
Banana and sometimes mango or sweet potato are sliced lengthways and given a sprinkle of brown sugar before being deep-fried in regular spring roll skins.
The simplicity of turon, mixed with the warming oil and sugar, makes this a popular snack throughout the Philippines. It's not the weirdest of Filipino foods but it's certainly not as simple as rice and beans, a sandwich, or soup.
Lechon – Pig On A Stick
Lechon describes the roasting of a piglet that has been exclusively fed on its mother's milk. A dish that is still made in Portugal and Spain.
Filipino lechon uses an adult pig and is so popular in the Philippines that it is considered an unofficial national dish.
There are two types of lechon in the Philippines:
- Visayan lechon – Also called “Cebu lechon”, the pig is prepared by being stuffed with a variety of herbs and spices and cooked over coconut husk charcoal. The flavour of the dish relies on the infusion from the stuffed spices, and is eaten with very little additional sauces.
- Luzon lechon – Also called “Manilla lechon”, in this dish the meat is seasoned with a bit of salt and pepper and roasted. The real magic happens when vinegar, brown sugar, salt, pepper, mashed liver is mixed with breadcrumbs, garlic and onion to make a sauce. This is then roasted over a wood fire.
If that doesn't leave you salivating, rub salt into the skin of the pig to ensure that it comes out extra crispy.
If you like the sound of crispy pork, check out our tasty Lechon Burger recipe. Silimansi ( soy sauce, calamansi, and labuyo chili) is another delicious sauce also pairs well with pork meat.
Chicken Feet Adobo
This dish can be served as an appetizer or as a main course and consists of, well, the not-so-meaty feet of chickens (don't forget to remove those nails), soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, and bay leaves. This dish is seriously flavourful and many Filipinos can munch on these crunchy ankles and toes like their candy. So don't pass it up.
We've got a full chicken feet adobo recipe for you if you want to get started.
Balut – Winner of the Weirdest Filipino Dish award
This dish should almost come with a trigger warning. There are exotic foods from exotic places, and then there's balut, which comes from another planet. Fertilized duck egg is, without a doubt, the wackiest food in the Philippines. No amount of Googling “balut” will normalize this. It’s even made it to Western TV shows like Fear Factor and Survivor.
Some tourists consider eating this as a masculinity challenge, and vendors have started selling it in the nighttime when tourists are feeling drunk and less faint-hearted.
Imagine this pitch by one of the Philippines many balut vendors: “Hello, how developed would you like your steamed duck embryo? We have 14 days, 18 days and 21 days in stock. The 14 days is nice and tender, but the 21 has a bit of a crunch in the bones”.
Academic articles have been written to understand this popularity of this strane food. However, it's not unique to the Philippines. In China and Vietnam, people have fermented bird eggs to preserve them for longer in times when refrigeration was unavailable. The Chinese for balut is “maodan” meaning “hairy egg”.
Chinese traders brought these hairy eggs to the Philippines as far back as the 1500s, so they've had time to get accustomed to them! But it wasn't until WW2 food scarcity that balut become a mainstay in the Filipino diet. A balut egg generally costs just 15PHP, or 30 cents USD.
Balut is also one of the main reasons ducks are now raised in the Philippines with roughly 45,000 tons of duck eggs produced yearly.
And if you need a drink after all of this exotic dish, you could sip the equally weird, yet traditional rice wine called tapuy. Yes, this is wine made by fermenting glutinous rice.
Are you brave enough to try everything on this menu? Have you eaten any of these deliciously exotic Pinoy dishes? What did you think?