In Cebu, a habal ride got interesting. In fluent Filipino, the driver talked about his life as a cook for 13 years in Novaliches. What made him leave was the gruelling conditions in the kitchen, particularly frying frozen food in hot oil, which when done on a daily basis could paralyze an arm. His almost got paralyzed – chronic numbness was creeping up his arm – so he swore he’s never going back to Novaliches, nor is he leaving Cebu anytime soon. “This is where my family is.” By January, all habal drivers will get licenses – the scheme is rolled out in Cebu as a pilot – and he’s excited about having a decent uniform.
I only had three hours to roam around, and there are no trains in the city. Grab’s “surges” are also insufferable in Cebu during rush hour. The bus routes proved too complicated to be explained by a local bystander I asked: in perfect English, she advised me to take a cab instead. Filipino isn’t spoken in Cebu, and at one point I felt that anxiety of being lost in a foreign place, as if I were in Bangkok or Hanoi, where I had nervously checked Google Maps every five minutes for my coordinates.
After a quick stop at Good Cup Coffee (where they roast their coffee beans in-house) as recommended by a Cebuana friend, I hailed a cab to House of Lechon, this time suggested by a Cebu-based acquaintance from work.
I asked the waitress at House of Lechon, who greeted me with the customary “How many seats, sir?” if they sell lechon that’s packaged for flights. They don’t. The three- to four-hour shelf life meant the lechon would rot on my lap during my bus ride home. I initially planned to bring home lechon for my son, who’s very passionate about it, from brands that aren’t in Manila, chiefly as a testament that I did visit Cebu, and also because Zubuchon and Rico’s, two famed lechon restaurants from Cebu, are a stone’s throw from where I currently work in Taguig.
Wherever you are in Bangkok, find the nearest BTS train station and get a ticket to Ekkamai (N7). A twenty-minute walk from the station will take you to a joint not different from the ones you can find in storied restaurants in Binondo: rickety chairs and tables, plastic plates, floor-to-wall tiles, dusty portraits of founders and illustrious patrons in sepia or old rose, framed newspaper clippings, and a local clientele. Only when you see the framed photo of their illustrious King Bhumibol Adulyadej behind the cashier will you know you’re in Sukumvhit – at Nomjit Grilled Chicken. The store’s sign won’t say this – nor would Google Translate, nor would their menu, nor would the delivery boy hauling off absurd amounts of takeaway food at the back of his motorcycle when we bumped into the restaurant – so a little faith in Google Maps goes a long way. Or: beam the Thai name (Nomjit Kaiyang: น้อมจิตต์ไก่ย่าง) on your smartphone to trusty 7-Eleven cashiers whenever you’re lost.
There’s always that point in one’s life when, over empty plates, leftovers and crumpled table napkins, a group of friends would broach the question: What would you have for your last meal on earth?
Some of my friends already had things in mind (truffle pasta, bacon…) while others, like me, were scrunching up our faces. Up to this day I couldn’t decide what I would like to have in that fateful day, but you know what? Maybe I’d go for a Pinoy-style porkchop.
I wax poetic at my workplace – or anywhere! – when talk swerves to food (us Filipinos can’t help but talk about food while eating, no?) and as most of the talk about food lead to comfort food, I’d always say porkchop in a heartbeat, vividly recalling each slab I wolfed down as a kid. Curiously, no fastfood chain offers one, so I settle for fried chicken.
An old woman grunted that she could barely manage to stand up: she said the ginataang tilapia, whole tilapia draped in mustard leaves and simmered in coconut milk, was just too good (and too much?) for her. It’s a compliment she wanted the clientele – an interesting mix of students, bank tellers, construction workers, traffic enforcers, grocery baggers from the nearby mall, the occasional bus inspector – to hear. She gave another unsolicited remark aimed – it turned out – at me: “You know… I’ve been telling her to get a loan from a bank so she can start her own food business.” Her skill in cooking, the old woman said in Filipino, is put to waste!