A love letter to the Philippines

Eat My Lunch founder Lisa King on the nation of smiling, singing people that first sparked her sense of injustice in the world.

A street market in Manila. Filipinos love food - with dashes of Spanish spices, mixed with deep fried American and various Asian cuisines. Photo /123RF
A street market in Manila. Filipinos love food - with dashes of Spanish spices, mixed with deep fried American and various Asian cuisines. Photo /123RF

It's hard to forget your first. The Philippines was my first expat posting, my first scuba dive, my first taste of deep fried pig fat and where I received my first (and only) marriage proposal.

Made up of 7000-plus islands, the Philippines contrasts with much of Asia. Set in the Malay archipelago, the country was ruled by the Spanish and then the Americans and has an unusual mix of influences which still runs strong through the food, religion and social structure.

I have to admit I was scared arriving in Manila for the start of my three-year posting. With stories of kidnappings and terrorism, my first purchase was a giant can of pepper spray, (which thankfully was never used). I thought I was prepared for the poverty, but seeing the shacks and cardboard houses built on top of rubbish dumps and the kids in rags begging for money and food, was heart-rending. And I saw this every day out of the window of the condo where I lived with a full-time maid, driver and personal trainer.

But regardless of whether they were rich or poor, the Filipinos I met had this radiating sense of joy and gratitude. Maybe it's their strong faith — 80 per cent of the population are Roman Catholic; or maybe its their love of music that makes them so happy. I never found the answer, but the first piece of advice I received was to choose a karaoke song and to perfect it. I have sung Build Me Up Buttercup more times than anyone should, but how can you not feel happy singing that?

Though singing is part of their daily lives, it takes second place to eating. Filipinos love food — with dashes of Spanish spices, mixed with deep fried American and various Asian cuisines. You can find dishes like chicken adobo, sisig (chopped pig's face, ears and liver), ube (purple yam) icecream and ensaymadas (cheese bread). My favourite was halo halo, a shaved ice dish topped with anything from sweetcorn and avocado, to condensed milk or fruit.

It was also here that I had my first formal culinary training — 16 weeks of learning French classics and techniques at the Centre for Asian Culinary Studies in Manila. I was able to produce a damn good souffle by the end of it.

Lisa King, founder of Eat My Lunch.
Lisa King, founder of Eat My Lunch.

Manila was a dirty, chaotic city, but it provided a great base to explore the undiscovered. Boracay was a favourite weekend getaway; like Ko Samui or Phuket before anyone knew about them. The fine white sandy beaches and warm, pristine water made it the perfect place to relax.

El Nido is another world away, in the south, with the only access by private plane, it was a paradise for for diving and romance.

So I spent three years, working and exploring a stunningly diverse country with its smiling people. It was there in the Philippines, among the excesses and extreme poverty, that a spark of injustice started burning inside of me. It's funny how your first can shape you later in life.

Salamat, Philippines.

Lisa King is the founder of Eat My Lunch, a company on a mission to ensure no Kiwi kid goes hungry at school. For every lunch you buy, they give a lunch to a child in need. In just one year, they have given more than 200,000 lunches away.

Lisa is speaking at LATE:Taste of Inequality, part of Auckland Museum's LATE at the Museum series, on September 5, October 11 and November 7. Head to aucklandmuseum.com to book.

- Weekend magazine

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