Will Work with Food: The Business of Feeding Filipinos

Saturday, March 3, 2012 6 comments
French-toasted Monay with Ube Sorbetes

Food is serious business here in the Philippines.

In a country where the official minimum daily wage rate in the National Capital Region (NCR, aka Metro Manila) is 426 pesos - or roughly 10 US dollars - and even lower in the provinces, Filipinos from all walks of life look for other opportunities to earn additional income. For many, food is the key to opening the small business door to independent means.

Whether it's a Makati matron offering authentic Spanish meals-to-go at the upscale Salcedo Saturday Market; an energetic 20-year-old baking cupcakes inspired by those she enjoyed at Magnolia Bakery during a visit to New York City; a grandmother preparing hundreds of llaneras of her special leche flan for holiday orders; or a single mother dishing out some menudo and rice in her tiny 6-seat eatery, there is a veritable army of food purveyors working hard to satisfy the seemingly insatiable appetites of their kababayans (countrymen).

Food tricycle: Hungry customers mob a mobile karinderiya
Food entrepreneurship enjoys strong encouragement from related industries: cooking publications, such as Yummy magazine, devote special issues to starting a food business, while newspaper food sections are peppered with advertisements for culinary school classes offering recipes and product ideas to budding business owners . Then, there are the pop-up food bazaars, such as those organized by popular bloggers Anton Diaz of Our Awesome Planet and Lori Baltazar of Dessert Comes First, promoting stall upon stall of start-up gourmet companies selling everything from macarons to malunggay pesto. A good number of these sellers come from an affluent social echelon, and their products, prices and target market generally reflect this. For some of them, a food business is what one friend calls 'a profitable hobby' - a serious endeavor to be sure, but one afforded by ready financial capital and stemming more from personal interests, like introducing new foods discovered during international travel, rather than immediate economic need.

For many others, however, a food business is negosyong pangkabuhayan - a livelihood business. These micro-enterprises are focused first on generating a steady flow of income by serving their immediate community whose working residents benefit from having an inexpensive source of meals during the workday or access to specialty foods. On each block in every barangay, you'll likely find a karinderiya¹ fronting a private residence, occupying a tiny stall or operating from a cart. These no-frills sidewalk eateries (with or without available seating) cater to taxi and tricycle drivers, construction workers and office clerks, who congregate during lunch and merienda hours to fill up on lutong bahay (homecooking) for as little as 40 pesos (about US $1) for rice and ulam (e.g pork or chicken). Not as visible but equally popular and usually working by pre-order are home-based producers who are well known in their neighborhoods, say, for their baking skills or perhaps a single specialty from a family recipe. My father regularly orders from one local lady who is renowned for her rellenong bangus (stuffed milkfish) - her best and only product.

From their home kitchens:
(from left) Assorted sticky rice snacks, fluffy
puto & homemade pastillas
It is difficult to tally how many such businesses exist in the country: Most abide by the law and secure appropriate licenses from local governments, but many do not and operate instead in a kind of 'shadow market'. One estimate of karinderiyas, registered or not, is put at 3 million nationwide and that figure is likely even higher for those who prepare packaged products (e.g. candies, breads) in home kitchens. These independent owners and operators rely primarily on their negosyong pambahay (home business) either as their sole household income or as an integral way of augmenting it; they do not necessarily have a 5-year plan for expansion or dreams of global mall domination. However, there are plenty of encouraging rags-to-riches stories as proof that a great product and a little perseverance can propel a small food business toward long-term success. In Marinduque province, for instance, a modest family-owned bakeshop established in 1946 grew into Rejano's Bakery, arguably the most famous brand name of uraro (arrowroot) cookies sold throughout the Philippines today.

It all has to start somewhere and there are plenty of books, magazine articles and websites giving advice to would-be entrepreneurs on how to parlay a working stove and some dependable recipes into a viable food business. For those who want to take it to a higher level but have limited funds for formal training in food services or cooking classes, there are workshops offered for free or at low cost by non-profit organizations like The Center for Small Entrepreneurs, and local food companies such as Spices & Foodmix House. The website EntrePinoys Atbp is an excellent resource for information about such seminars as well as a database of recipes for food products.

Corporate Good Neighbor
Chefs Leng Gonzales (l) & Queenie Boloron
The venerable Nestlé Philippines Inc., celebrating its 100th anniversary, is also lending a helping hand. The company offers free cooking demonstrations at the Julius Maggi Kitchen (JMK) in its Rockwell Center headquarters that are open to the public, although members of the Nestlé Club get first dibs on the limited seating. The events cover a particular theme each month and feature chefs preparing several recipes using various products in the Nestlé brand lineup. Last week, I attended a session on February's theme: pang-negosyo ('for business') recipes that can easily be added to a karinderiya menu or offered as packaged goods. Chefs Amelia 'Leng' Gonzales and Harlequin 'Queenie' Boloron were lively and engaging as they showed the audience how to prepare simple, economical and appealing dishes for potential customers. Interspersing their suggestions about ingredient substitutions and cooking techniques, they also offered practical reminders about kitchen safety and sanitation - an important issue for any cook, whether they are preparing food for the family or for paying customers.

As part of the Nestlé Club's Lifestyles Lecture series, Chef Leng, a consultant with the Subic Bay Yacht Club and a chef de partie with the Raintree Restaurants group, focused on desserts using the featured product - Nestlé Sorbetes Ice Cream, inspired by the colorful ice cream pushcarts plying neighborhoods and enticing residents to buy scoopfuls of favorite Filipino flavors such as ube (purple yam), queso (cheese) and tsokolate. Demonstrating that inexpensive dishes don't have to look cheap, she focused on visual presentation and commented, "Even if you are cooking at home, you want to make your food look special." With such easy preparations as Chocolate Sundae Shake and Suman, Mangga at Sorbetes Trio (sticky rice cake with mangoes and ice cream), she invited audience members to show off their plating prowess and gave tips on how to arrange the desserts in the most pleasing and appetizing manner.

From desserts, we were treated to a variety of familiar dishes that can be prepared quickly and with simple, affordable ingredients - perfect products for food bazaars or markets. Chef Queenie, a chef-demonstrator with JMK since 2008, deftly cooked up marinara and pesto sauces for bottling, flavored puto (steamed rice cakes), and savory chicken empanadas. As an added bonus, she also shared how to make khao niaow ma muang (Thai sticky rice with mango), which she learned while working in Thailand.

Nestlé pang-negosyo recipes:
Empanadas, marinara & pesto sauces, flavored puto
The audience - nearly all women - enthusiastically participated in the session, asking questions, volunteering for demonstrations and having a great time overall. The festive atmosphere continued with trivia games and raffles conducted by event host Cleng Santos, who handed out prizes such as canvas bags, vouchers for free products and a much-coveted commemorative centennial cookbook which is normally given only to Nestlé Philippines employees. Covering three hours, the session ended with the audience enjoying a small sampling of every recipe showcased.

As the event came to a close, many of the attendees lingered to chat with each other, the chefs and Nestlé staff, obviously excited about what they had just learned and eager to put them into practice. Whether they'll use the recipes to start a food business, to make gifts for friends and family, or just to enjoy at home, the free demonstration was a worthwhile afternoon investment.

For recipes, tips and information about upcoming free demonstrations at the Julius Maggi Kitchen, check out the Nestlé Club website.

Disclosure: I did not receive any form of compensation from Nestlé Philippines Inc., its affiliates or contractors in exchange for this blog post. In fact, I missed out on my free scoop of sorbetes thanks to my incorrigibly talkative nature. I was so busy chatting with fellow attendees that when I finally shut my yap, the ice cream was all gone. Bummer.

Coming Clean About 'Dirty' Ice Cream

The featured product at the Nestlé demonstration was the company's own line of sorbetes (sore-BEH-tess), or what is colloquially known in the 'Pinas as 'dirty ice cream'. It is an unfortunate misnomer that has supplanted the more genteel Spanish-derived name for the Filipino-style ice cream traditionally sold by wandering sorbeteros pushing (or pedalling) colorful carts through the neighborhoods. The reasoning behind this less-than-appetizing label ranges from the benign (its texture is grittier due to the use of powdered milks, granulated sugar and thickeners, like corn starch or flour²) to the logical (as with any food trundled around on the street, it is exposed to air pollution, dirt, etc.) to the downright gross³ (I'm not even going to repeat it...)

The fact that generations of Filipino children, myself included, are not only still alive but also have fond memories of eating dirty ice cream, would indicate that it isn't as bad as its name suggests. Nevertheless, as an adult I prefer to drop the 'dirty' part and acquire my ice cream from stationary, sanitary sources.

A sorbetero making a dirty ice cream sandwich.
Check out the plastic bag of bread rolls...
One memory of sorbetes that I do not recall from my childhood is having it served inside a bread roll. To my frustration, as with many other food adaptations in the Philippines, no one seems to know exactly when, where or why bread was first used as a substitution for the more familiar crispy cone. During a visit to Manila for his show Bizarre Foods, chef Andrew Zimmern tried a 'dirty ice cream sandwich' and offered as explanation that sorbetes customers once had to provide their own containers, with omnipresent tinapay proving to be a popular and cheap choice. Score one for Filipino entrepreneurial ingenuity? Not quite. It seems that we are not alone in this peculiar way of dishing up ice cream - a Serious Eats article about an ice cream sundae served in a hot dog bun at a Bangkok market generated many comments from people who have enjoyed the combination in Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and even Italy.

Although I have yet to try ice cream in a bun from a good old-fashioned sorbetero and therefore have no basis for comparison, I decided to make Nestlé's good-for-business take on this Filipino street food classic...

1. Karinderiya (alt. spelling: carinderia) is a small sidewalk or roadside eatery, usually with seating (if any) for no more than a half dozen customers at a time. Also known as turo-turo ("point-point"), they offer prepared food in pots displayed on the counter from which customers may choose their meal.
2. Homemade dirty ice cream recipe from EntrePinoys Atbp.com
3. Yahoo! Answers: What is dirty ice cream made of and why is it really called dirty? 

Monay Ice Cream
(reprinted with permission from Nestlé Philippines, Inc.)

When it comes to making a dirty ice cream sandwich, the ideal bread is a smooth-crusted roll called monay (rhymes with 'oh my'). Larger, sweeter and less fluffy than its better known cousin pandesal, this Filipino bakery staple is ostensibly a version of a Spanish bread called pan de monja (nun's bread)*. For this updated presentation of the popular street treat, a monay is split in half and French-toasted with sweetened condensed milk, resulting in a beautifully caramelized, softly chewy base for your ice cream. The monay is cooled a bit before adding the frozen stuff so that it doesn't turn into a soupy, albeit tasty, mess. 

Enough said - just make it. 

*Note: At this time, I am unable to find any reference to a 'pan de monja' among Spanish baked goods. However, the research continues...


4 pieces monay bread, halved (I used mini-monay, about half the size of a regular roll)
1/4 cup sweetened condensed milk
1 egg, beaten
2 Tbsps butter
Nestlé Ice Cream Sorbetes (my choice: Ube)
Chocolate syrup (optional)
Pinipig (toasted rice - optional)

To make:

1. Heat butter. Dip monay in sweetened condensed milk, then in the beaten egg.
2. Fry dipped monay in butter until golden brown. Transfer on a plate with paper towels to drain excess buttery-ness. Set aside to cool**.
3. When toast is cool enough to handle, top one piece with your favorite Nestlé Ice Cream Sorbetes flavor.
4. Sandwich with another piece of toast and serve immediately. Drizzle with chocolate syrup or sprinkle with pinipig if desired.

**The caramelized sweetened condensed milk is extremely hot, so please be very careful while cooking and handling.

What kind of ice cream would you serve with some French-toasted bread rolls?


  • Unknown said...

    This almost sounds like serving ice cream with bread pudding - a combination I love! And really, when it comes to ice cream - any flavor will do. I'd really be interested to try the Ube flavor sometime - I love the vivid color!

  • Hornsfan said...

    Very cool to see that a company as large as Nestle is encouraging micro-company growth, it makes me look more kindly upon them as good corporate citizens :)

    The ice cream and toasted roll look amazing!

  • Betty Ann @Mango_Queen said...

    You had me at the sight of that delish Ube ice cream. And throw in Monay bread? I am melting at the sight of this photo! Great post on food businesses going on in Manila. When we lived there, as a young, newly married wifey, I used to make "tocino" and "longanizas" from my kitchen, while juggling full time work as an ad agency copywriter + college instructor. So I get what you mean! Thanks for sharing this, Tracey!

  • Dudut said...

    now i want one! this is very timely due to the hot weather, tracey! you got ne drooling!

    i enjoyed reading the article, very informative and intense. i agree with the food business everywhere here in the philippines, if i will create an equation for this it will be Filipino=Food...ahaha!

    nice photos too!


Clean Template ©Copyright 2011 Tangled Noodle | TNB