Despite it being around for ages, I only got around to visiting Mercato Centrale when my Cebu-based friend Kaith came to Manila two Saturdays ago and wanted to check it out. It was good to finally have an excuse to haul my ass there. I have heard that Mercato is a place where establishments like Manang’s and Offbeat Cafe got their start, and there’s nothing that whets my appetite more than discovering delicious and unusual goodies to sink my teeth into, before its vendors make it big.
To give you a picture of what I enjoy eating: I prefer the diversity of Asian cuisine over the meats and carbohydrates of Western food any day. And by “Asian cuisine” I don’t mean like the safety of Chinese and Japanese food (which I also enjoy). I’m talking the whole gamut of Asian flavors, from the richness of Indian curry, to the warm simplicity of pho. Filipino food is something I eat on a daily basis, so it’s not something I look for when I eat out, unless I’m in the province or going to Abe for kinilaw. (If I died from mercury poisoning from eating kinilaw too often, it would have been totally worth it.)
So with Marco in tow, I went to meet Kaith at Mercato Centrale and was overwhelmed by all the available food choices. There was barbecue to my left, and paella to my right! We filled our bellies with Ilocos empanada, the paella we saw upon entering, fried risotto balls from a new vendor called Bistrology, and the most expensive isaw I’ve ever had in my life (P35 a stick, but it was lean and marinated so well, you could eat it without vinegar). These were foods that I haven’t had in ages, and I relished in their flavors in spite of their flaws. The Ilocos empanada was too eggy and the paella was more like tasty rice than paella, but the fried risotto were a delicious novelty and surprisingly filling despite their size. When we couldn’t hear each other over the obnoxious volume of the pitchy acoustic singer, we went back into the fray for dessert: a rich fried Mars bar and ice cream from Merry Moo. Mercato Centrale is not a place I would recommend to people on a diet.
We returned last Saturday because the risotto balls made quite the impression on me, plus our friend Paul who runs Wrap Battle was around that evening. Marco and I were hungrier than when we were the Saturday before, but after making a beeline for Bistrology’s risotto balls, it took us a very long time to decide on what else to eat. After walking through the stalls for about twenty minutes, Marco got a burrito while I settled for some fried pizza and slightly-cheaper P30 isaw from a different vendor (fatty and not worth the 5-peso difference). Neither of us were particularly thrilled about our food choices.
“Mercato is missing something,” Marco said. “But I can’t put my finger on what it is.”
After dragging Paul out of his booth for an hour-long cigarette break, I realized why we had such a hard time finding food we liked: Mercato doesn’t carry Asian food. Or more specifically, Mercato doesn’t offer interesting food choices. For every food stall that piqued our interest, there were twenty others that sold overpriced barbecue and familiar permutations of burgers, lutong-bahay, forgettable meat dishes, and cakes. The vendors are so skewed towards the meat-eating market that I feel bad for vegetarians who hope to find a dizzying array of options in there. Wrap Battle is one of two food stalls that actually had veggies on the menu; the other was a burger joint that tried to pass off some wilted lettuce leaves as “salad”.
I pointed out the lack of variety and international food options at Mercato and Paul said, “There was a stall that sold Indian food, but it didn’t do so well.” After a little discussion, we realized that Mercato isn’t so much a place for foodies as it is a destination for locals who only want familiar dishes for cheap. Paul knows he’s done for the night when he runs out of beef for his best-selling beef taco wrap; no mater how good his other wrap flavors are, no one will buy them because they don’t contain the most appealing meats (or any meat at all). Stalls that offer something too foreign for the Filipino palate are eventually doomed to fail, supported only by the few who actually enjoy the novelty offered by that stall. We arrived at the conclusion that whoever wants to have a very successful business there should probably open yet another barbecue stall and sell overpriced isaw (just think of the huge margins!), or Filipinized versions of international cuisine. The joke was that if we were to sell Thai food, we’d have to call our pad thai “Thai pancit canton” and our pork satay “Thai barbecue” just to appeal to the market. Marco thinks “Thai-nese” food could really be a thing.
There’s nothing at all wrong with wanting to eat Filipino food (or Filipinized foreign food) for the rest of your life, but I don’t understand why it is often done with a certain closed-mindedness to other types of cuisines. I totally get what it’s like to want to order the same foods at the same restaurants – I’m quite guilty of that myself. But it’s one thing to enjoy comfort food, and it’s quite another to only buy from vendors who adjust to your tastes buds instead of the other way around. With its cheap rent, Mercato has the potential to be an avenue for budding food entrepreneurs who want to introduce new flavors or innovate upon existing dishes. But its market encourages the proliferation of passionless food stalls, the kind that satisfies the need for cheap eats in the easiest way possible – by offering affordable variants of food you can easily buy outside Mercato.
Later on, Marco told me about an overheard conversation that made me think that there’s more to the unadventurous palate than just the desire for familiarity. The crowds at Mercato forced us to share a table with a mother and her son; she had a plate of steak while the boy ate what looked like fishballs. The mother says, “Tignan mo, naglo-lobster balls ka dyan, habang ako steak lang.” (“Look at you, so fancy with your lobster balls, while I’m only eating steak.”) Never mind that the lobster balls probably cost far less than the steak.
It’s interesting to discover that there may be a kind of shaming or victim mentality projection that plays into why Filipinos aren’t one for trying out different foods. The accusation here is enjoying “exotic” foods like lobster balls is some assertion that you are better than than others, or that you are “too good” for more “ordinary” foods like steak. I don’t get why this happens, but I have been on the receiving end of this type of shaming, although it’s more for the way I speak English more than it is about what I eat. But I’m not going to explore this relationship tonight. I’m not an expert on the Filipino psyche, and writing about all this food is making me quite hungry.Google+