It may not be as famous as French, Indian, or Chinese, but Cebuano cuisine holds its own against the great culinary cultures of the world. The style is distinctive and the flavors are subtle. Like other cuisines common in humid climes, such as Thailand, Cebu's dishes tend to be wet - soups and sauteed dishes prevail. Even table salt has been replaced by a liquid seasoning. This may take some getting used to at first, especially for Europeans. But the effort to adapt and learn is definitely worth your time.


There are two crucial elements of Cebuano cuisine which pop up in numerous dishes - almost all, in fact. One is the local chilli, sili. The other one is native vinegar.

The Cebuano chilli, like most vegetables found on this island, are tiny. Few specimens are longer than an inch. But do not confuse their diminutive size for puniness, for the sili is in fact the hottest chilli on this planet. Oh sure, I've heard of the habanero. But it can't be as hot as the sili, found only in the Visayas and the island of Guam, where it is known as the donne sali.

It is impossible to eat a sili. The way it is usually used is in a sauce used for flavoring, such as soy sauce, where it is squished to release the juices into the surrounding sauce. Usually, one sili is enough to make a bowl too hot for most Europeans. Aficionados crush as many as five.

Now, you musn't think about sili in the same terms as Tabasco, or the habanero, or any other stuff you use to make your food hot. Sili actually has a unique flavor, and plenty of it. It is hot, yes, but it is tasty in its own right. True sili lovers do not flavor their food with sili; they eat the main staple - such as chicken or fish - as an excuse, or mechanism, to partake of the sili and enjoy its rich aroma. My own private theory is that sili, like cocaine or nicotine, are highly addictive. Incidentally, be careful not to touch your eyes after handling a sili - or you'll be temporarily blinded.

Native vinegar - suka bisaya - is made from the sap of coconut trees. Suka bisaya has rich, inimical flavor and develops out of an alcoholic drink called tuba. [MORE ABOUT TUBA] Sadly, these days many Cebuanos use factory produced vinegar - a vile-tasting acid in comparison to suka bisaya, and more expensive - instead of their traditional vinegar, due to the magic of TV advertising.

Suka bisaya is used to flavor just about all dishes, and can be used as a sauce, with squashed sili, for eating buwad, or salted fish. Salted fish is, in fact, the simplest and most common source of protein for the masses, much as salted cod was for medieval Europe. The dried fish is distributed all over the island via the wholesale center of Tabuan. [MORE]


Here are some common styles of preparation, which may feature different materials, depending on what is available. Barbecue, known as sugba or sinugba is covered separately, under Barbecue. Note that, as is the case in Korea or Japan, a meal in Cebu consists of a bland staple - either boiled rice or corn - with one or more side dishes, known as sud-an. The following are all examples of sud-an.


This is sometimes loosely translated as "salad." But a European would be pretty surprised to order a salad and be served a "kinilaw." Semantics aside, kinilaw is one of the tastiest dishes Cebu has to offer. Native vinegar, coconut milk and sili provide flavor for morsels of raw fish and vegetables such as tomatos. If a fish known as tangigue is used, dish is known as "kinilaw nga tangigue." Other fish commonly used for kinilaw are molmol and the tiny bulinaw. Vegetables can be used as alternatives to fish; cooked jack fruit makes kinilaw nga nangka.

I believe the Peruvians have something similar to kinilaw, called cebiche or something like that, but I bet it doesn't taste as good as the Cebuano version.

Inun Unan

This tongue twister involves fish cooked in vinegar and lots of garlic. Usually an earthenware pot is used, as vinegar corrodes metal dishes. Just about any kind of fish can be used for inun unan; some common ones are the flat bilong-bilong, bangus (milkfish), tilapia, tulingan (bonito), and budburon. Now, judging from this paragraph, inun unan probably sounds disgusting, so disregard what I said and try it just once. I guarantee, you'll be pleasantly surprised.


This method is commonly used for vegetables. The vegetables - such as dabong (bamboo shoots), tawgi (bean sprouts), kangkong (swamp cabbage), batong (string beans) - are sauteed in soy sauce, vinegar, and condiments such as garlic and onions. For some reason tourist-oriented establishments serve only kangkong in this style, and call it adobong kangkong, perhaps because the term adobo has been made famous as a Filipino dish.


Filipinos, including Cebuanos, love their soups, and the tinola or tinowa is the most famous of all. Spring onions, tomatos, sili espada (green chilli), garlic, ginger, and leaves known as kamunggay (I suppose these are the Cebuano equivalent of basil leaves) make this soup one of the great soups of the world, along with the Thai tom yan kun. Either chicken or fish can be used for tinola. With fish the soup is called tinolang isda (fish tinola). A tinolang manok (chicken tinola) even makes an appearance in Jose Rizal's famous novel, "Noli Mi Tangere."

You can get tinola just about anywhere. Sencia's, a small eatery between the flyover and the Waterfront in Lahug, makes a particularly mean chicken tinola.


This is another wonderful soup. The condiments are essentially the same as for the tinola, except that sambag (tamarind) is used for flavor. Again, it can be made with either fish or chicken.


Kanding caldereta, or goat stew, is a Cebuano specialty, along with lechon. Apparently you can't get goat stew as good and cheap as that of Cebu in Manila.

Some of the other dishes common in Cebu are humba (heavily flavored pork with boiled eggs), pinakbet (pumpkin and other stir-fried vegetables), bicol express (spicy minced pork with shrimp), kare-kare (beef knuckles with peanut sauce), escabeche (sweet and sour fish), dugo-dugo aka dinuguan (coagulated pig's blood), sisig (the skin from the face of a pig, known as pig mask, grilled or sauteed), pochero (beef soup), lansiao aka Soup No. 5 (bull's penis), paksiw (left-over lechon, flavored with sugar and cooked), balbacoa (pork stew), and of course piniritong manok (fried chicken).

A number of these originated in other parts of the country. For example, sisig is a speciality from Pampanga. The best place to try it, therefore, is an establishment that employs a chef from Pampanga, such as Club Harem (a girlie club in Mandaue). Bicol express, meanwhile, originated (duh) in Bicol.

One of my favorites is paliya (bitter gourd), de-bittered and quickly sauteed in a little oil, often with egg. This simple, hearty peasant dish has a strong taste and is a delight when done correctly. It's also satisfying and filling, for a vegetarian dish.

Cash-strapped students often make do with what is known as Chinese ngo hiong. These look the same as spring rolls. The Chinese ngo hiong stalls usually also sell squid balls [insert predictable lame joke here] as well as fried bits of what might be meat.


Cebuano cuisine boasts a wide variety of native desserts, and most will be unfamiliar to Westerners in terms of content, taste and form. Perhaps only two will be somewhat familiar: leche flan and maja blanca were introduced by the Spaniards. The former is a dangerously sweet milk pudding which goes well with coffee. The latter is a whitish jelly, pleasant to the palate in hot weather.

One of my personal favorites is bud-bud, which is either sticky rice or boiled cassava, shaped into cylinders and wrapped in banana leaves. The cassava flavor combines well with the moist texture. Bud-bud are not too sweet, and make a wholesome snack for the mid-afternoon (though not if you wolf down more than three).

Other native sweets include bibingka, biko, pitsi-pitsi, linusak, and palitaw. These will be covered in more detail as soon as I get off my diet.

There is a stall which sells native sweets near the check-out area of the Metro supermarket in the Ayala Center. The stall is aimed at Cebuano consumers, so you can be assured of getting the real thing. Ordinary non-malling Cebuanos, however, get there sweets from their own kitchen, or from roaming vendors who carry them around in small plastic baskets.


The Philippines is home to San Miguel, the most famous brewery in Asia. San Miguel beer is exported all over the world, but domestic consumption isn't to be belittled: Cebuanos are always drinking beer.

A favorite finger food for beer is chicharon; the English translation is "pork skin cracklings." They look and sound a lot like potato chips. The chicharon industry is huge, and, amongst working-class Cebuanos, chicharon constitute a favorite pasalubong (souvenir) for friends.

Another beer snack made from pork is chicharon bulaklak; these are fried pork intestines and named thus because they supposedly resemble blossoms. (The word "bulak" means "flower.") Bulaklak have a strong taste that screams "PIG!"

Sisig and gambas are both served on sizzling platters; the former is pork and the latter are shrimp.

On the more expensive side, crispy pata (deep-fried pork knuckles) and lechon kawali (deep-fried pork cuts) provides those heavy doses of cholesterol which beer drinkers crave.


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