There is popular saying that you can learn about a country’s culture by eating its food. While street food may not be entirely representative of Philippine culture, it does give you insights on how Filipinos value their resources. The best street food ideas in the Philippines are simple creations but are rich in history and meaning.
When money was tight, Filipinos had to find ways to stretch the budget by maximizing whatever was available. Nothing was wasted; every part of the animal was used. Deep frying was the preferred method of cooking. It was cheap, simple and reusable. Thus street food was the response to the basic need to eat. Eventually, it gave people a source of livelihood as well.
The sauces reflect traditional Asian taste: sweet, sour, spicy and savory, to fit every preference. Food presentation is non-existent. Street food is skewered on a stick, stuffed in a plastic cup or poured in a bowl. Street food in the Philippines is all about the tastefulness of simple food and the beauty in its convenience.
Before you could only find street food along the side streets and corners of the most densely populated cities. Makeshift food stalls or mobile food carts are hastily set up with a few plastic tables and chairs on the wayside. Lunchtime crowds were composed mostly of blue-collar workers; people who work in construction, the traffic aide, public utility drivers and students subsisting on street food to save up on tuition.
Today street food can be found in commercial centers, popular food markets and re-imagined in some of the fanciest and most expensive fine dining restaurants. There are fast foods franchising concepts that feature street foods. Instead of the humble mobile food cart, we now have street food prepared and served from grandiose and sophisticated food trucks.
Why the resurgence of interest in street food?
It Resonates With Everyone. It doesn’t matter who you are; what clothes you wear, where you live and if you drive a car or take public transportation. Tough times affect everyone. And you still have to eat.
Street food remains affordable. You can get an order of siomai (dumplings) with rice and sago gulaman (tapioca pearls with sweetened gelatin) juice for 40 Pesos. That’s a complete meal for under One Dollar! How about a plate of beef tapa (sweetened beef jerky) with fried rice, egg, and relish for 85 Pesos?
Nowadays, you can see office workers in their long sleeved shirt and tie, dress pants and blouse eating alongside blue collar workers in a fabricated food stall.
A friend of mine who underwent hard times when his business collapsed existed on street food for three years until he recovered financially. Although he could afford to eat steak every day of the week now, he still eats at his favorite street food corner store as a constant reminder of the struggles he went through.
It is Prepared Fast and Served Conveniently. The resurgence in street food reflects the fast pace of life in the city. Commuters just eat what they can grab on their way to work or a meeting.
Traffic has grown worse in the metropolis that if you don’t get something to eat while you still have a chance, you will get hungry the rest of the day.
You can find street food stalls near the MRT stations. And the faulty conditions of the MRT have translated to big business for these food stalls!
It Has Become Socially Acceptable to Eat Street Food. Over the last few years, Philippine street food has been featured in various television and Internet videos.
Popular travel and leisure shows such as “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern” and “Street Food Around the World with Ishay Golan” regularly feature Philippine street food.
Recently, speed eating champion, Furious Pete visited the Philippines to document his experience eating Philippine cuisine especially the “Balut”.
But perhaps no one has put Philippine street food on the map and in the mainstream consciousness quite like American celebrity chef and best-selling author Anthony Bourdain.
Bourdain’s shows “Parts Unknown” and “No Reservations” strongly promote Philippine food. Bourdain has eaten “Balut” many times including a recent stint at “Live with Piers Morgan” on CNN and has raved about the “Halo-Halo”.
All of a sudden more Filipinos are taking selfies with their Halo-Halo!
Philippine street food has become en vogue; it has gained wider acceptance and prominence that you could make it into a lucrative small business. It is one of these business concepts that you may not have to make a project study. It has all the elements of a successful business:
- People are aware of the product
- It is cheap
- Food cost is low
- Margins are flexible
- It is not labor intensive
- It is not capital intensive
- It provides convenience
- There is a market for the product
- Your location can be mobile
- You cater to a highly diversified market
If you are planning on starting a Philippine street food business, there are many concepts to choose from. But here is a list of the top 10 street food ideas in the Philippines which have continued to remain popular and draw the longest queues wherever they open.
Top 10 Street Food Business Ideas in the Philippines
1. Dirty Ice Cream
Who cares if Andrew Zimmern didn’t like it? Dirty Ice Cream remains among the most loved Philippine street food.
It got its name from the impression people got when they saw the ice cream man or “Sorbetero” scoop ice cream into cones without the benefit of gloves.
Still, for many adults who were grade school at the time, Dirty Ice Cream brings forth great memories of having a refreshing, light-flavored dessert with Mom or Dad before going home.
Among the traditional flavors are Cheese, Chocolate, and Ube or Purple Yam ice cream. An interesting offering is the “Ice Cream Sandwich”; generous scoops of assorted flavors stuffed in a freshly baked soft buns.
An interesting concept would be to introduce more Filipino themed flavors such as “Avocado”, “Cashew at Langka”, “Buko Macapuno” and “Mantecado”.
Perhaps introduce milkshake concepts that are made with fresh carabao’s milk or goat’s milk.
Did you know that when you eat ice cream, you do not taste its full flavor? This is because the cold numbs the taste receptors on your tongue. A friend of mine suggested warming ice cream in a microwave until it was simmering. He said the flavor would “knock me back a few feet.”
He wasn’t kidding. I warmed up a bowl of Ube ice cream, and the taste was intensified 100 times! It had so much flavor it was amazing! So why not offer “Dirty Ice Cream Soup” with a piece of Otap to dunk in? It sounds crazy but doesn’t knock it until you’ve tried it!
It could be one of the most original street food ideas in the Philippines!
Perhaps nothing is more feared, reviled and at the same time revered as the unassuming Balut. For years, the Balut or “Boiled Duck Embryo” has been the centerpiece in every “gross out” segment in a reality show.
From “Fear Factor” to “Bizarre Foods”, “Street Food Around the World”, “No Reservations” to YouTube’s “LA Beast Challenge” and “Furious Pete’s International Tours”, the Balut seems to represent the pinnacle of gastronomical fortitude.
But for Filipinos, the Balut is simple food that is healthy and can be eaten any time of the day. It has 7 grams of protein; same as a chicken egg, 0 grams of trans fat and only 1 gram of carbohydrates. At 80 calories per egg, two pieces can be a full meal. For me, it tastes great with vinegar or salt.
Lately, some fine dining restaurants have put Balut on their menu. It’s not prepared the traditional way but minced and sautéed in olive oil, garlic, onions, capers, pepper flakes, salt and lemon juice and served with toasted bread.
The Balut has a neutral flavor. Thus, with a bit of imagination, you can probably come up with unique ways to present it to consumers. People are put off by its appearance. So coming up with ways to present Balut in a more palatable way could be one of the more original street food ideas in the Philippines.
How about a Balut sandwich spread with onions, celery, and mayo? Or Balut pate?
If you plan on having a Balut stand, you should include “Penoy” which is the yellow part of the embryo. You can also add deep fried quail eggs or “Kwek Kwek.”
Probably the fastest growing street food type franchise in the market. There are siomai food stalls everywhere!
You can find them on the MRT station, inside the malls, in schools and the food courts of commercial buildings. Filipinos love siomai because they taste great, convenient to eat and very affordable. 28 Pesos can get you 4-5 pieces of steamed pork siomai with chili garlic and soy sauce.
Siomai is easy to make, and the cost of producing them is very low. The incidence of wastage is very low because these are steamed only when the initial batch is running down.
Siomai that has not been sold can be deep fried or frozen then served with noodle soup or fried rice the following day.
There isn’t much you can do to make siomai interesting because it’s a simple dish and many varieties are already available in the market. The differentiator could be of the sauces that you use and the type of chili garlic. The best one I have tried uses crispy and spicy chili garlic which goes well with the drink of choice: sago gulaman.
4. Pinoy Barbecue
The barbecue is standard fare in many countries.
Australia has its version of the “Barbie”. Brazil is known for its wonderful Churrasco; a buffet type barbecue feast that features steaks, ribs, and sausages. Of course, US cities such as Kansas, Texas and Memphis have been competing for the best barbecue in the land.
But perhaps the Philippines has a unique barbecue concepts in the world. Yes we do have great tasting pork barbecue, but where else but the Philippines can you find these creations:
- Isaw – Chicken intestines
- Pwet – Chicken ass
- Adidas – Chicken feet
- Betamax – Chicken blood
Didn’t I mention earlier that nothing goes to waste? These are standard barbecue fare that is part of our street food culture. They can be eaten on their own with vinegar or with rice and best washed down with a cold beer!
If you want to come up with a Pinoy Barbecue street food business, I suggest experimenting with the marinade. Many of the ones I have tasted tend to be on the sweet and savory side. Perhaps come up with spicier and smokier versions.
5. Fish Balls
If there were a singular dish that best represents Philippine street food, it would be fish balls.
I first had fish balls in grade school, and I continue to have them when I have a chance or if a craving sets in. Whether the taste for a fish ball is in our DNA or not, the fish ball is a snack you could have any day of the week.
There is no difference between the fish ball of one vendor over the other. Some will make it crispier than another, but the taste is the same.
The battle seems to be in the sauces they use. The one I frequent has a semi-sweet sauce which I prefer. But lately, I’ve enjoyed fish balls with spicy vinegar. There are also squid balls and chicken balls. The vendor I patronize also sells kikiam which is rolled pork meat that is steamed them deep fried.
Fish balls are no longer skewered because some customers “double dip” sauce which can be unsanitary.
But this is street food which will always find a market wherever it is located.
6. Banana Cue
Filipinos love everything sweet. After all, Filipino spaghetti sauce is made with sugar. So why not over sweet bananas with more sugar?
Banana Cue is a popular snack among Filipinos. It is filling and easily satisfies our craving for sugar. There is also Camote Cue, which is prepared similarly but is made of sweet potato.
Another variation is Turon or bananas wrapped in lumpia wrapper, deep fried and drizzled with powdered sugar.
It is not exactly the healthiest way to get fruits into our diet, but consumers do not care. I remember walking down Herrera Street in the Makati Business District and seeing lines of people on every Banana Cue stall.
I have not seen these inside the malls but a few ideas on the Banana Cue or Turon would be to serve them with ice cream and drizzled with chocolate syrup and roasted cashew nuts.
Or perhaps have the bananas thinly sliced and ladled inside a thin crepe or used as toppings on pancakes or waffles.
7. Beef / Chicken Pares
It is nearly impossible to come across a Beef, or Chicken Pares stand that is empty come lunchtime. Pares is a term which means “to pair with.” Its origins are steeped in our Chinese heritage.
The traditional Pares is a choice of beef or chicken noodle soup paired with “Siopao” a Chinese delicacy which is steamed flour based meat pie. The best way to have the soup is to drizzle with soy sauce and a little calamansi or native lemon juice. This is a very filling and affordable meal to have for lunch or dinner.
I’ve seen some Pares stands that carry “Lugaw” or rice porridge soup and “Cuapao” which is another variation of the siopao but it uses pork belly and is topped with nuts.
The key to having a successful Pares food stall is the broth. Many proprietors of Pares will not share the secret of their broth. Traditionally, they use a mix of chicken, pork and fish bones added with a proprietary blend of spices and seasonings.
If New York has its “Steak and Eggs”, the English have its “Big English Breakfast” and Colombia has the “Calentado”, the Philippines has
This is traditional breakfast fare in the Philippines. Tapsilog is a portmanteau of the words “tapa” (marinated beef steak), “sinangag” (fried rice) and “itlog” (egg). Another version is the “longsilog”, a portmanteau for “longanisa” (sausage), “sinangag” and “itlog”.
Although the tapa is popularly served sliced, I’ve been to some tapsilogans where the tapa has been shredded then fried like “beef floss”. There have been some awful ones and some splendid ones.
One of the best I’ve been to has served the shredded beef tapa in a bowl. It was served with a condiment made with radish, onions, ginger, sugar, peppers, and vinegar which you have to mix in with the tapsilog. It was honestly the best one I’ve had so far. You could even replace the white rice with healthy brown rice!
The manager suggested I have it with a bottle of chilled fresh dalandan juice. It was the perfect combination! In addition to tapsilog, the restaurant offered other variants with “tuyo” or dried anchovies, pork belly and Chinese sausage.
This was clearly one of the most innovative and best value street food ideas in the Philippines!
One of the best ways to wake up in the morning is to have a glass of warm taho.
Taho is bean curd that is served with sweet syrup and sago. Almost every neighborhood has a “Mag Tataho” or taho vendor who walks around the different streets barking out “Ta-Ho! Ta-Ho!”
Over the years I have seen different incarnations of the Taho. Most of these were located inside a mall. One proprietor offered different flavors of Taho such as Ube, Buko Pandan, Strawberry, Chocolate, and Melon.
While I enjoyed some of these variations, in my opinion, Taho is best served in its original form. Soybean has a very light, neutral taste and soft texture. The combination of thick, sugary syrup and sago gives it a “signature” flavor and chewy texture which it has long identified with.
Taho is one of these street food ideas that trigger memories. As such, it is best left untouched.
The dessert that has been long identified with the Philippines is the “Halo-Halo.” Translated into English, it means “Mix-Mix.”
Before Anthony Bourdain lavished praise on this unpretentious dessert, the Halo-Halo had been receiving worldwide acclaim particularly on the show “Top Chef”. Contestant Chef Dale Talde, who is Filipino, presented his version of Halo-Halo served with Avocado, which won the challenge and the praise of all the judges.
There are many versions of the Halo-Halo. From the simple presentation known in Pampanga to the more colorful renditions in Manila; Halo-Halo is all about the shaved ice.
The best ones use silky smooth ice which melts like cream when mixed with the ingredients. Hawaii has its version that is topped with flavored syrup and condensed milk.
Halo-Halo is ideal for the Philippines because of our tropical and humid climate. It is a refreshing dessert that can be eaten any time of the year and any time of the day.
The idea behind Halo-Halo opens it up to many interesting varieties. I’ve had some versions with pinipig, cereal, and corn. Regardless of your mix of ingredients, if you plan on starting a Halo-Halo business, invest in a good ice shaver.
Start your Street Food Business
There are other good street food ideas in the Philippines that you could consider. There is “Day Old” which is one-day old chicken that is deep fried. “Maruya” which is banana fritters. “Ginanggang,” charcoal-grilled bananas dusted with sugar. “Binatog,” steamed white corn kernels mixed with milk, coconut and sprinkled with sugar. “Manggang Hilaw,” green mango served with shrimp paste. “Bulaklak,” deep fried pig intestines and lightly salted.
If you have enough capital, a novel concept would be to bring in all the top 10 street food ideas in the Philippines into one dining area or food court. People are already familiar with the food, and it would entice tourists to try local fare in a clean and comfortable setting. If allowed, have a draft beer dispenser in the center of the food court.
While street food is not complex in flavor and extravagant in presentation, it does represent the resiliency and spirit of the Filipino.