How Manila’s slum hawkers turn unwanted food into delicacies for the poor
Faced with food insecurity, the urban poor in Manila’s biggest slum have learnt to be resourceful with the food they eat and sell. The programme Slumfood Millionaire finds out more.
Tondo, Manila: In its simplest form, monok is an unsophisticated Filipino dish that consists of shredded chicken fried with vinegar, onion, soy sauce and chilli.
But, too poor to afford fresh meat, street hawker Loida has come up with clever ways to make it such that the underprivileged can afford – even if this means recycling food destined for the dustbin.
Using chicken left over from hotels, Loida peels off the meat, re-cooks it and sells it cheaply at just 15 pesos (S$0.40) a plate in Tondo, one of the most impoverished slums in Manila where the poor often scavenge for discarded food from garbage sites.
The chickens from the hotels are usually simmered to extract the flavour in making stock.
“So the meat is tasteless at the end but instead of throwing it away, they sell it to the delivery guy for extra cash. This is the side hustle of hotel cooks,” said Loida.
“Initially, some people said that monok (spicy double-cooked chicken) was dirty…(But) this way, the less fortunate can be fed and there is less food wastage since it is still clean.”
For those living in slums, eating well and having delicious food is a dream – but the new documentary series Slumfood Millionaire celebrates the resourcefulness and talents of street hawkers living in the poorest districts of the world’s most densely populated cities, such as Manila, Mumbai and Bangkok.
WATCH: From Offcuts To Delicacies In Manila's Biggest Slum (23:00)
Using cheap and often overlooked ingredients, these individuals have become experts at making signature dishes unknown to many but those living in the area – such as grilled frog (Phnom Penh) and creamy pufferfish stew (Kota Kinabalu).
THE LESS THEY HAVE, THE MORE THEY GIVE
In the episode on Manila filmed before the COVID-19 lockdown, Loida is seen hauling her blue pushcart filled with plastic bags of chicken, spices, sauce bottles and a cooking gas cylinder through narrow alleyways, before setting up shop at a busy road junction.
This stall was passed down from her late mother, and Loida used to watch her prepare the dish – simmering the chicken pieces in vinegar, spices and dark soy sauce before frying it to achieve that spicy, sour flavour with a crunchy texture.
Living in this neighbourhood where some residents survive on just US$400 (S$540) a year, Loida said: “I know what it’s like to have nothing to eat, to be hungry. I even knocked on my neighbours’ doors to ask for money.”
So her service to the community is to keep her dishes affordable.
A customer told Loida that she used to spend 500 to 600 Philippine pesos (S$14 to S$17) a day on food as she has eight children, until she discovered Loida’s monok stall selling cheap and delicious food.
Slumfood Millionaire director Ericson Gangoso said the production crew were especially moved by Loida’s caring spirit for others, and unwavering dedication to her family.
“Loida is a selfless woman, helping to raise her nephews, prioritising them over her own needs. It made us realise that the less people have, the more they give,” said Gangoso.
He described how every profile in the series – from those living in the slums of Manila to those in Bangkok and Mumbai – are local heroes of their neighbourhoods where “everyone knows them by name”.
“We would often be filming with them and a resident would walk past, saying ‘Auntie Loida! Are they filming your story?’” Gangoso added. “We were humbled to learn about their struggles, how they are working to make their lives better, and how they make their food with pride.”
He said that all the neighbourhoods were noisy as the houses are closely packed, and there was always something happening –be it birthdays, karaoke sessions or people preparing meals.
“Each neighbourhood was filled with smells. Every hour of the day, someone’s always cooking, and you can smell the aromas from every kitchen. You’re always hungry when you smell the delicious aromas in the slum,” said Gangoso.
In the Manila episode, street hawker Rado also showed how he uses unwanted organs to make tumbong (pork intestine soup), which veteran food writer Felice Prudente-Sta Maria describes as “controversial for some because it is the part of the intestine that is closest to the anus”.
This is why Rado insists that the offal be thoroughly scrubbed with salt and rinsed several times to get rid of the nasty bits. The cleaned intestines are then boiled with onions and pigs’ heads for three hours to extract the essence from the bones.
The result is a rich, flavourful broth, which is why there’s always a long queue for it.
Embark on a mouth-watering journey through the slums of Asia. Watch the six-episode series of Slumfood Millionaire here