The Philippines isn’t a market that we cover very often on, so we were delighted when our roving reporter Bruce Hoggard headed out there to cover a number of annual food industry conferences for us. In this article he also provides a flavour of Filipino food culture and dietary trends, not to mention export activity.

Earlier this month, Manila played host to the global marketing industry as the Asia Pacific Marketing Federation (APMF), the APMF Foundation and the World Marketing Association all had their annual meetings in the city. These events were timed to coincide with the Philippine Marketing Association’s 50th anniversary, a landmark for the region’s marketing fraternity.

These special marketing events provided an opportunity for foreign delegates, as well as the locals, to sample the wonderful Philippine cuisine known throughout Asia and slowly gaining recognition throughout the rest of the world. .

The Philippines’ culture and country is a romantic blend of Spanish, Chinese, Malay, Arab and Indian influences, expressions and impressions. As throughout all of Asia, the average Filipino views food as an important aspect of life. It is an integral part of local art and culture as well as the foundation of communal living, widespread throughout this country of seven thousand islands.

Processed foods growing fast

A rising demand for processed foods and beverages in the Philippines is being driven by several factors. The first is a large population of more than 84 million people and still growing at approximately 2% annually. The second and third factors are a food culture emphasising frequent snacking and the large participation of women in the workforce resulting in the need for convenience foods.

Another important demographic trend is that more than two-thirds of the population is under the age of 30 making the Philippines a youth-oriented food market. This continues to fuel demand for new and trendy products, attractive packaging and sweetened foods and beverages. It has also lead to the appeal of fastfood restaurants and a move towards more western style foods.

However, the evolution of the Philippines and its food is anchored in history, spurred on with arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. It continued through the American’s contribution, following WW II, when surplus canned foods were widely available and there was a shortage of fresh produce. As with everything that is uniquely Filipino, the people embraced this new addition to the kitchen and created dishes that tasted nothing like canned food. This ability to assimilate various foods and the creativity to make it uniquely Filipino continues today, a strong accolade to the Filipino spirit and resolve – and their love for great food.

Big push for exports

Another good thing is that the Filipinos are willing to share these tantalising recipes and sarap (tastes) with the world. After falling to sixth place in food exports (in the 70’s it was first) the Philippine Food Processors & Exporters Organisation, Inc., a non-profit organisation of small, medium and large food manufacturers and exporters, is leading the charge to once again achieve world class status for Philippine food products. This is a bonus for everyone who likes great food.

One of the more popular dishes is Adobo, considered the national dish of the Philippines. This tantalising mixture consists of chunks of chicken or pork or both together. These generous pieces are then cooked in soy sauce, with vinegar, a bay leaf, lots of garlic and whole peppercorns. This Philippine version of stew is then allowed to cook until the meat is tender and the remaining sauce slightly thickened. Served with rice, which remains a staple food and is served with most meals, (even as an option at many of the fastfood outlets spread throughout Manila) this makes a wonderful and filling meal.

Travellers beware

Situated throughout Manila and countryside are carinderias, low-priced eating establishments, (which may be portable stalls) often at roadsides or markets, where many of the locals queue for their meals and snacks. Although the food looks and smells tempting, and is safe for the local people, foreigners are cautioned.

A trait similar to all developing or newly developed countries, is that levels of cleanliness, and sanitary and hygienic conditions are not usually on a par with standards in developed countries. This means consumption of contaminated food can cause a real health problem for the unsuspecting traveller, taking the shine off the trip.

Taste sensation

Filipinos, like most Asians, prefer their fish and other seafood such as crabs, shrimps and shellfish to be as fresh as possible. After tasting some of the best seafood ever, it became very evident why they like it fresh. The fish melted in your mouth while the crab was extremely succulent and sweet. The freshness of the seafood was complemented by locally created sauces and spices, which served to heighten the already intoxicating sarap and langhap (aroma). Although many Filipinos like their seafood left uncooked, in a vinaigrette (kilawin) and sometimes stuffed with onions wrapped in banana leaf, my tastes erred more on the cooked side.

Several other popular dishes include Bibingka – a rice cake often garnished with salted eggs and carabao (water buffalo) milk cheese; Brazo de Mercedesa – a meringue roll with an egg filling; and for those hot, sticky days or evenings a Halo-Halo. This refreshing mixture of sweetened beans and fruits, topped with crushed ice or ice cream, helps to cool the midday sun or take the heat’s edge away at the end of the day.

Another filling and appetising dish is Menudo. Also a stew, this is made using diced pork, chicken, sausage, potatoes, carrots, peas and tomato sauce. Once again it is usually eaten with rice on the side and is good enough to have several servings.

Not forgetting those with a sweet tooth, a typical snack or dessert in the Philippines is called a Turong Saging. This is a deep fried banana fritter, usually cooked in oil with brown sugar and some jackfruit strips or other fruit. Be sure to leave room as you will not want to miss this at the end of the meal or just as a snack during the day.

The 80%-20% rule applies

Driving all of this great food is the Philippine food processing industry that continues to expand reaching total sales exceeding US$11bn per year. There are close to 5,000 food and beverage manufacturers in the Philippines. However, like the rest of the world the 80%-20% rule applies where the majority of sales are by a small number of large locally owned companies, such as San Miguel, RFM, (established as Republic Flour Mills) and Universal Robina and multinationals, led by Nestlé and Del Monte. However, most small and medium-sized processors are poorly equipped and continue to struggle as they face numerous challenges including high electricity costs, outdated equipment and facilities, and gaps in the cold chain.

The tropical climate limits production of many agricultural products, which in turn creates a greater demand for imported ingredients. Even when local product supplies are available, they are often hampered by inefficient post-harvest and storage facilities and costly farm-to-market transport. These factors often drive prices higher than those in the world market, making it cheaper, easier and more secure for manufacturers to look overseas.

High profile of US products

Unlike markets in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand (also part of the ten-country ASEAN Region), the grocery stores in Manila had more America products on the shelves whereas the other countries noted above have visibly more British and EU products. However, as with everything in the region, there is a move towards convergence as the stores increase the square footage of floor space. This allows the number of actual products in each store to grow towards the numbers found in North America hyper-marts and mega-grocers. This in turns allows retailers to add more product and brand selection and is creating opportunities for foreign food producers to expand into the market.

With such an inviting and interested market waiting to taste the next new product or produce the next new Filipino creation, the 6th International Food and Beverage Expo was held 30 June to 3 July at the World Trade Center Metro, Manila. There were more than 200 exhibitors displaying the newest technologies to process every kind of food and drink and the latest food and drink products from around the world.

Many of the large food and drink players were there including San Miguel’s Purefoods Division, Thailand’s biggest donut franchise, Mister Donut, and numerous American food providers and services including Monsanto, Coca Cola, Gourmet Farms, Inc. and Actron Industries.

Local producers fighting back

However, even with the global giants there, the Philippines has become a “giantkiller” of sorts. Local Filipino companies and producers have taken them on and in several examples are winning in their home market.

This is most evident in the fastfood industry where the Philippines is making its own mark with the emergence of a strong national brand called Jollibee. Having turned 26 years old in 2004, Jollibee is the number one fastfood chain in the Philippines and is double the size of the better-known, worldwide American McDonald’s. Similar to McDonald’s, which owes its success to ice cream, (the multi-spindled blenders that drew the attention of Ray Kroc), Jollibee started its early days as an ice cream parlour.

The Jollibee restaurants today serve all the international favourites expected at fastfood restaurants, including burgers, chicken, fries and milkshakes (the mango was great). However, it also offers a more Filipino menu selection as well, including spaghetti, rice and Palabok (noodles topped with pork, shrimp, smoked fish and sliced eggs).


The menu items are reasonably priced making them even more attractive, with the fve-piece chicken meal costing PhP190 (US$3.40) and the five to six-person serving of spaghetti costing PhP160. The Palabok, (shown above), also serves five to six people and is PhP220. You can also get a single serving if you are eating alone or not that hungry.

Jollibee also serves breakfast, giving you another choice instead of the outrageous prices charged in many of the hotels. The breakfast steak was PhP40 and includes an egg and rice, while the Beef Tapa was PhP50.

For dessert and to beat the high humidity and heat, there is the Ice Crave, only P25, and a sure means to bring a cooling sensation any time during the day.

On the offensive

With so many years of “importing” tastes from around the world, the Philippines and specifically Jollibee is leading the charge in exporting that unique Filipino sarap (taste).

Building on the premise the “best defence is an active offence”, especially in the international fastfood market, Jollibee has started its invasion of the Americas. It has opened nine restaurants in California, the original home of McDonald’s, with plans to expand even further its network of more than 400 branches including stores in Hong Kong, Saipan, Guam and Brunei. This brings the saga of Philippine food almost full circle, as the importer and student becomes the exporter and teacher.

As I sit down to another wonderful meal, Philippine food offers a hint of familiarity with a blend of the truly exotic, mirroring the rich cultural heritage that has influenced it over the past 300 years. It is a mixture Eastern and Western cultures, stirred into a very large cooking pot and served with respect, dignity, pride, but most of all, with a smile and a second serving.

However, as with any trip it would not have been complete without a pasalubong (a gift brought home from a trip) for readers: this article.

Bruce Hoggard is Canada’s representative to the Asia Pacific Marketing Federation.