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Photos by Glynn Pogue I woke up to a loud pitter-patter on my tin roof—another cold, gray morning in central Cambodia. The rainy season had...
Located in the center of the 7,107 islands that make up the Philippines, Cebu (“se-boo”) is a tropical playground disguised as a business hub…or is it the other way around? Cebu the island—the province and cosmopolitan capital city share the same name as well—is 251 km long (156 miles) and just 46km (28.8 miles) at its widest, so travelers for pleasure or business have everything close by: white-sand beaches, exclusive five-star resorts, a bustling business district, world-class dive sites, important historical landmarks, shopping malls and food courts (ahem). Of course, visitors here are horribly spoiled for choice when it comes to nature and the outdoors—but we’d say the same for the wide range of local food reflecting Cebu’s diverse history.
A brief recap: Zubu, or Sugbo—Cebu’s ancient name—is believed to have been part of ancient Indonesian and Indian empires when the Spanish conquistadores came along, in 1521 (Cebu was the first Spanish settlement in the Philippines). Many of Cebu’s (and the Philippines’) traditional food items and cooking styles are thus shared with those Asian neighbors; centuries of (pre-colonial) trade with China have long left their mark as well, with beloved dishes that Cebuanos have come to claim as their own. While the Spanish colonizers were thrown out after 300 years of rule, Cebu’s gastronomic landscape remains heavily colored by fruits, vegetables, and cooking skills from Europe and the New World, the latter largely due to the Galleon trade (1565-1815).
Despite the many international options on Cebu today, traditional or native Cebuano dishes passed from mother to child still hold their ground as daily fare, reflecting the island’s rural roots. These dishes lean toward the simple in terms of preparation and presentation, relying on super fresh meat, fish, and produce, and eschewing complicated flavors in favor of subtle aromatics: Savory plates are often adjusted to taste with patis* (soy sauce), suka (vinegar), and bird’s eye chilis, all three ever-present on dining tables. From the bucolic utan bisaya (a vegetable soup), colorful binignit (a creamy fruit stew), hand-stirred sikwate (hot chocolate), and Anthony Bourdain’s favorite lechon (roast pig), Cebu’s quintessential eats offer plenty for carnivores and sweet tooths alike. Eating is an institution and a past time here—not even a trip to the beach is without some noshing, thanks to portable snacks like puso (“hanging” rice wrapped in coconut leaves) and pilit (rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves).
It’s time to dig into Cebu. Mangaon ta bai! (Let’s eat, friend!)
—Cebu text and photos by Mona Polo
*When in Cebu, patis is soy sauce. Nearly everywhere else in the Philippines, patis is a fermented fish sauce.
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