At a very young age, I traveled a lot for academic competitions. My travel fund would always be limited, so I had to be creative to survive a week-long trip with only about two thousand pesos. There was even a time during a regional schools press conference in Marinduque that I shared fried pork chops with a friend the entire trip just to save money so I could buy ‘pasalubongs’ for my classmates.

Filipinos have a strong love for food. And street food is an integral part of our daily lives—an essential part of the country’s vibrant food culture. From the bustling streets of Manila to the small towns in the provinces, street vendors selling all sorts of snacks and delicacies can be found everywhere. Filipino street food is a reflection of the country’s diverse culinary heritage.

As an archipelago with over 7,000 islands, each region has its own unique cuisine. Street food vendors take inspiration from traditional dishes and add their own twist to create something new and exciting.

We were visiting our friend who was doing a surgical residency in Davao when I first had a taste of balbacua. Our friend whom we were supposed to visit was so tied to the hospital that only her then long-time boyfriend, whom I was meeting for the first time, was the one who showed us around and brought us to Balbacua Ni Tolit’s.

Balbacua is a Filipino stew made from collagen-rich beef parts such as oxtail, skin, and joints, added with various spices and cooked for several hours until the meat becomes so tender it literally falls off the bone. It is typically served with white rice, but it also has other variants such as ‘balbacua con misua’ and ‘balbacua con miki’, or partnered with misua or miki noodles.

I was so full that I could barely stand up when we were dragged for a street food crawl at the night market. Located smack in the middle of Roxas Avenue in Davao City, Roxas Night Market is nirvana for the seasoned bargain hunter and avid street food eater. It served endless food packed with so much history and flavor that it felt like a party inside my mouth.

My love for street food can be traced to longing. Growing up, I remember the streets coming alive at dusk with makeshift stalls offering barbeque, isaw, kwek-kwek, adidas, betamax, lagang, and helmet.

Street food became such an integral part of my life that, at one point, I made it a routine to have a few kwek-kwek at the stalls near LRT 2 Santolan just to de-stress from hectic work. Corporate life somehow became bearable because it felt like a reward at the end of a long day.

In Cebu, my most favorite city, street food is a staple. Food parks have been sprawling all over the metro, and each of them seems to have its unique ways of enticing customers. We hopped around several food parks, ate the food they offered, drank, and argued with my friends that ngohiong is lumpia.

Ngohiong is a deep-fried gem of julienned vegetables with ground meat or shrimp seasoned with five-spice powder in a thin egg crêpe. Non-Cebuanos would often make the mistake of identifying the dish as lumpia, but what mostly separates it from others is its history. It is Cebu’s ode to China’s Fujian province, where most of the emigrants came from, bringing along with them the five-spice powder that gives fried ngohiong its distinctive flavor.

Filipino street food is a culinary tradition that is as colorful and diverse as the country itself. From savory and spicy to sweet and tangy, these dishes are a reflection of the unique blend of cultural influences that have shaped the Philippines over the centuries. It plays an important role in the country’s cultural heritage and is a testament to the country’s rich culinary traditions, which are deeply rooted in its history.