Always go for the banana egg roll over the stodgy muffins
Merienda in Manila
Below a posh cafe close to where I live in Manila, a lady works her gas stove promptly, every morning at 10. In a small bamboo shack with wire screen windows, she heats a large wok of oil. For the next hour, she prepares mouth-watering turon—a kind of banana spring roll. The wok is filled with saba, or cooking bananas, and jackfruit dusted in brown sugar and neatly rolled in flour wrappers. They are then fried to a golden crisp.
In another wok, a savory alternative of lumpia, or vegetable spring rolls, is submerged in hot oil. Before sunset, the woman sells everything to students and teachers at the nearby school, and her wares far outshine the stodgy muffins presented at the café above her.
If there is a country that has a penchant for serial snacking, it is the Philippines. Don’t be surprised to be asked by a local to have merienda a few hours before or after eating a heavy meal. Merienda, like in most Latin cultures, is a morning snack, brunch, or a light meal equivalent to afternoon tea. An average day in Manila would entail three square meals with rice and a lot of snacking in between. If your will is weak, packing on a couple of pounds is inevitable.
The Philippines may fall short in the variety of street food offered, compared to other Asian countries. But the snacks make up for it. It is the perfect combination of local flavors infused with a rich past that incorporates Spanish, Chinese, and American influences.
Ranging from rice cakes, tapioca porridge in coconut milk, to stir-fried noodles, sweet buns, pastries, and rice soups to refreshing drinks such as sago, and desserts such as halo-halo, down to the bizarre heart-clogging skewered meats and challenging balut, there is a snack for every mood. The choices vary throughout the island, with each region specializing in a particular snack using indigenous ingredients.
The trick is to find any large building in the city filled with people. Take, for instance, a government building, a school, a hospital or church. Across the road from any of these establishments between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., it’s common to find a whole line of pushcart vendors selling a dizzying array of fresh snacks. It’s meant to be fast and cheap. All over the country—schools, factories, companies, and even colleges allot at least 15 glorious minutes a day for merienda.
Before my morning market run, I stop by the bamboo shack for merienda and purchase a portion of freshly fried turon. The lady wraps it in banana leaves to help it keep warm.
The crisp caramel glazed parcel is the perfect street food snack before a busy day. It is crunchy, sweet and satisfying. The bananas remain firm and the addition of langka, or ripe jackfruit, adds tang, texture, and tropical sweetness. It tastes like a cross between a peach, pineapple, and mango.
The country’s obsession with snacking feeds both ends of the social and economic spectrum. Whatever one fancies in the end, merienda is a good reason to keep up with tradition.