The food in the Philippines garners mixed reviews from expats, but, as with most things, they might not be eating the right things. Beef is harder to come by here, and usually much more expensive. Fish, white meat (chicken), and the other white meat (pork) are the meats of choice in the country. And everything comes with rice. Rice and eggs for breakfast, chicken and rice for lunch, rice and anything else for dinner. When in doubt, I know I can’t go wrong with old faithful – grilled barbecued chicken on a stick.
Yesterday, I had to run some errands, so I ate lunch by myself at Mang Inasal, famous for its “unlimited rice.” It is basically a fast-food joint that serves barbecued chicken and pork on a stick, with all-you-can-eat rice. At Mang Inasal, unlike other restaurants, everyone eats with their hands. Around the room, people are pulling pieces of chicken off the bone, dipping them in a combination of soy sauce, hot chilis, and lime juice, and washing it down with a Pepsi. They break up the rice with their fingers and pick up a chunk at a time, licking their fingers after each bite. This is the sort of thing that would make Amy Vanderbilt voluntarily blind herself. For someone like me, on the other hand, it’s Shangri-La. Those who know me can attest to the fact that table manners are not my strong suit, so, naturally, Mang Inasal feels like home.
I ordered my food, sat down, and went to town. I must’ve looked like a caveman, picking away at a freshly-killed woolly mammoth (with a side of unlimited rice). Food was flying everywhere, and the refuse pile at the corner of my table began to grow. I was halfway through my first cup of rice, when a 15 year-old kid working his first job at Mang Inasal interrupted me: “Excuse me sir, do you need a fork?” Looking past him, I could see his manager, a middle-aged man in a tie smiling at me, fork and spoon in hand. “Sure,” I said. I gave up, and ate the rest of my meal with a fork and spoon.
The salient point of this story is that not only do I lack good table manners, but I am not even good at bad table manners. There is an art, apparently, to picking up chunks of rice from a pile on the side of your plate and shoving them into your mouth. It was a truly demeaning moment for me. Here, in a place where my style of eating was embraced, I was rejected – an outcast in a community of sloppy eaters. Someday I’ll find a home, but apparently it’s not here.