I have to admit, one of my biggest fears before I left for the Philippines was whether I would find food to survive as a vegetarian during my month-long stay. None of my friends or family had visited the Philippines previously, so I had only blogs and websites to rely upon. Most of them detailed accounts of several ghastly (sorry my Pinoy friends), unthinkable foods like Balut (half-formed embryo of duck) and full roast pigs. I couldn’t imagine having to even touch either of those. And then there was indigestion due to excess rice which i faced in Indonesia. So I packed some brown rice and figured that I would simply beg restaurants to serve me some chopped vegetables to eat with the rice.
I was in for a big surprise in the Philippines
From my experience of visiting various places in the four regions of Luzon (Manila, Legaspi), Mindanao (Surigao del Sur, Butuan), Visayas (Bohol, Cebu, Moalboal), and Palawan (Coron, El Nido, Puerto Princesca), only Manila stood out for the lack of local food but a lot of western dishes. It was easier to find burgers, pizzas and steaks than to find an ethnic or classic filipino dish, for which you have to depend upon either the food chains like Jollibee and ChowKing or street food.
The easiest vegetarian dish to ask for anywhere in the Philippines is Chopsuey. Simple and palatable, this dish contains crinkle-cut vegetables like carrots, beans, potatoes, mushrooms, baby corn, lettuce and onions.
Everyone understands the meaning of vegetarian food, but be clear about your expectations.
No matter where I went, I only had to tell my server at restaurants once that I’m vegetarian and they would go “aaaah….” and start recommending dishes. Sometimes they would suggest dishes like “broccoli in oyster sauce’ and “vegetables with chicken” and I would clarify that i cannot eat either, despite them having vegetables. Once at Cebu airport I spotted a burger stall selling a vegetarian burger which was advertised as “suitable for vegetarians”. I ordered it instantly. To my shock and dismay, he started grilling the vegetarian patty alongside the beef one, letting the oil and fat sipping from the beef patty enter my poor veg burger sadly. So even though they understand the meaning of vegetarian food, they do not understand our religious and moral sentiments attached to it, which is why you have to be clear about what you want before ordering.
Don’t ask for “gravy”, they call it “sauce”
For filipinos, rice is an accompaniment for fried chicken, sausages, barbecue pork, and even soup. Most days I was happy with mixed vegetables and rice, but I would occasionally crave gravies and curries. All of them would sadly turn me down. Finally, in the middle of my trip while I was in Bohol, my kind Airbnb hostess pointed out to me that although they do not have curry or gravy, they have sauce. I requested for it and it became one of my most memorable meals in the Philippines. So I continued calling curries “sauce” for the rest of my trip and wasn’t disappointed anywhere.
Most filipino dishes can be modified to make it vegetarian (noodles, fried rice and mains)
Fried rice usually consisted of some form of meat, but I would simply ask them to exclude the meat and I would receive a wonderful vegetarian dish for my taste buds.
The best vegetarian food can be found in the countryside Philippines as they always have the freshest vegetable produce. I thoroughly enjoyed food in the Philippines, despite what I had read and heard about it. I did not encounter Balut and full roast pig even once in all the restaurants and street side stalls I visited, which became the highlight of my trip. I think it’s safe to say that of all the six countries I visited so far, I enjoyed food in the Philippines the most simply because of its people’s ability to understand vegetarianism and openness to modify their dishes.