Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — As a Manileño, when I think of local street food, my mind immediately goes to the usual tusok-tusok: fish balls, kikiam, tokwa, quek-quek, betamax, isaw. The list goes on forever. Yet Netflix’s new show, “Street Food,” presents something entirely different. The documentary series explores the street foods of nine different countries across Asia, including (to much fanfare) the Philippines. Episode nine, however, focuses solely on the province of Cebu, venturing from the city of Talisay where lechon vendors abound, to the sleepy coastal town of Cordova.
Instead of umbrella-topped fish ball carts parked on busy sidestreets, the episode opens with a seaside shack at dawn. An elderly man awakens as fishermen begin their morning routine, waiting for them to return with a fresh batch of bakasi — small, slithering reef eels that will be cooked in a sour stew and served to dozens of visitors each day.
Unlike many food documentaries, “Street Food” is neither history lesson nor recipe guide. Its focal point is on people — mostly self-taught culinary maestros — who’ve transformed and uplifted their communities with food. It reflects who we are as a nation: people whose survival rests on creativity, resourcefulness, and grit.
“The economics of the street food [in Cebu] is they are cooking street food to survive,” says Myke “Tatung” Sarthou, a Cebuano chef who guided the show’s production team around Cebu and who appears in the episode. “They're trying to feed their family. They’re feeding people who have to eat in that particular situation.”
Sarthou shares that this is in contrast to how street food in Manila is more or less industrialized — fish balls and the like are manufactured in commissaries and bought in frozen packs at the supermarket.
Over lunch, we got the opportunity to chat with Sarthou at Toyo Eatery, which was recently dubbed one of Asia's 50 Best Restaurants. Here, we also met the Cebuano food heroes and got a taste of their iconic dishes through reinterpretations done by Toyo’s team of chefs.
For the four culinary maestros — Entoy Escabas, Leslie Enjambre, Ian Secong, and Rubilyn Manayon — their businesses were born out of either a need to provide for their families or a dream to elevate the food for which they’re known. There is a clear sense of community, of nurturing and helping one another to thrive in the face of uncontrollable circumstances.
Escabas is the clear hero of the story, who popularized nilarang na bakasi, which are reef eels cooked in a sour stew akin to sinigang. Bakasi are abundant in the coastal town of Cordova, and Escabas, wanting to provide more for his family as well as bring more tourists to their community, concocted his now famous dish. In the show, he says a road was built just so people could make it out to his seaside carinderia.
Meanwhile, for Secong, there was no need for invention, but rather innovation. His restaurant, Azul, puts a spin on a way of eating that is popular among Cebu’s poor. Tuslob-buwa, or brain gravy, is often served on the side of the road in places like Pasil — one of the poorest barangays in the province. It’s a bubbling gravy made of pig’s brain (leftovers from the litsunan) and sauteed garlic and onions in which people dip puso — hanging rice wrapped in coconut leaves. Azul serves tuslob-buwa shabu-shabu style, where a group of friends can bond over cooking and dipping in the Pinoy fondue.
Everyone in Cebu eats puso, especially the poor. It is cheap, portable, and when accompanied by any viand sold on the streets makes a meal. In places like Pasil, street food is not just merienda, it is a means of survival for both seller and buyer.
Herein lies the heart of the story, and is evident in the other episodes as well. Netflix’s “Street Food” is similar to other food shows where you get to travel to exciting cities without leaving the comfort of your home. It’s where you learn about the history and culture of other people. Yet the similarities stop there, for “Street Food” is an exploration not just of a city’s food, but of the conditions that have pushed people into creating dishes by only using the cheapest, most readily available ingredients.
“[The show presents] street food that exists in the social fabric... Kasi if you go to the provinces, ganun talaga ‘yung dynamic na nagluluto ka para mapakain mo ‘yung pamilya mo,” says Sarthou.
A country’s food can tell you a lot about its people. It can reveal their history, their personalities, their priorities. We’ve long known that our lumpia, pancit, and siomai speak of the years we’ve spent trading with China prior to our colonization. We know our menudo, afritada, and adobo come from the 300 years we spent under Spanish rule. Maybe it’s time we paid attention to the stories our street food could tell us.
“Street Food” is out on Netflix April 26.