History of Street Food in the Philippines

Cheaper than “value” meals, your favorite affordable snacks also have stories to tell.
ILLUSTRATOR Jasrelle Serrano

Adidas, Atay, Isaw Baboy, IUD, Walkman, Betamax

What they are: Some of them are much more straightfoward like atay or liver and isaw or intestines, but we have to hand it to Pinoys for the creativity when it comes to street food nomenclature. Adidas, a brand of footwear, refers to chicken feet; Walkman, a sound-listening device, refers to pig's ears. Chicken intestines supposedly resemble IUD, or an intra-uterine device, while cubed coagulated animal (pig or chicken) blood look a lot like Betamax cartridges.


Trivia: When livestock supply was abundant in the 1950s, street food vendors opted to sell more expensive cuts of meats, like pork or chicken barbecue, but when the economic crisis hit the country in the 1970’s, the discarded parts—guts of chicken, pig, and even cows—suddenly became valuable. The term "isaw” cames from the word “sawsawan” or the sauce that you dip the intestines in.

Balut, Penoy, One-Day-Old Chick

What they are: Possibly the most famous street food ever, balut is a boiled 17- to 19-day-old duck embryo which contains the soup, the duckling with bones, feathers, the beak, and yolk. Penoy, on the other hand, is a hard-boiled duck egg without the fetus. In some parts of Northern Tagalog, they call it bilig which means "unhatched." One-day-old chicks or unhatched chicks are boiled and fried. These delicacies are best enjoyed with salt, vinegar, or a combination of both.

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Trivia: These fertilized duck eggs originate from Pateros. They known to be potent aphrodisiacs, which is why vendors usually sold them late at night or very early in the morning.

Kwek-kwek, Tokneneng

What they are: Kwek-kwek is made of quail eggs coated in orange batter made from mixing annatto powder, flour, and water. They are later fried then served with vinegar, salt, and chili peppers. The tokneneng is prepared the same way, but with hardboiled chicken eggs.

Trivia: A local legend details that kwek-kwek was accidentally invented when a balut vendor in Cubao dropped her merchandise. Not wanting to waste what remained of the balut, she peeled off the shells, rolled the eggs in flour, and fried them. Kwek-kwek supposedly refers to bird chirps.

Other stories mention that the kwek-kwek was originally known as toknanay. Tokneneng, on the other hand, allegedly came from the 1978 Pinoy komiks series Batute. In this series, the main character Batute has his own language and he refers to eggs as tokneneng.


Banana Cue, Kamote Cue, Turon

What they are: Slices of banana and kamote (sweet potatoes) are coated in brown sugar, deep fried in oil, then served on skewers. Turon is made of banana slices and jackfruit (if you're lucky), wrapped in spring roll paper and brown sugar. It's also deep fried until the sugar caramelizes.

Trivia: These sweet treats were said to be developed by communities that lived near root crop fields and banana trees. The surplus from harvest was given to neighbors and eventually sold by the roadside.


What is it: The spelling changes every now and then, but this icy treat is made up of shaved ice, strawberry powder, and colored syrup. Traditionally, street vendors already prepare all the ingredients at home then mix them on the spot.


Trivia: The exact origin of iskrambol is hard to pinpoint, with some believing it originated in Iloilo. The big Styrofoam boxes, however, eventually made their way to Manila schoolyards in the '70s and '80s as a popular pampalamig of children.

Iskrambol was also rumored to be one of the culprits of a hepatitis outbreak that occurred around that time. Needless to say, it's waned in popularity but it’s making a comeback with more sanitized stalls in malls offering upgraded versions of this favorite snack. Toppings like marshmallow, chocolate kisses, and rainbow candy sprinkles are offered with the staple powdered milk and chocolate syrup.

Fish Balls, Squid Balls, Chicken Balls, Kikiam

What they are: Fish balls are made from pulverized cuttlefish meat or pollock. The pulp is shaped flat before being deep fried then skewered. You can dip them in sweet or spicy vinegar sauce. Squid balls and chicken balls are prepared the same way.


Kikiam came from the Chinese word que-kiam for its minced meat and vegetables components. However the street food kikiam is a completely from this traditional snack as it incorporates fish meat as well. In Dumaguete, flattened and battered kikiam on sticks are called tempura because they look so much like the Japanese dish!

Trivia: The first fish balls were actually whiter and rounder before, but to cut costs, manufacturers produced cheaper yellow fish balls which were shaped like the ones we enjoy today. These newer versions were sold wholesale in Chinatown and contain only 20% fish meat, with the other 80% mostly flour and seasoning.

Additional Sources:

Balut to Barbecue: Philippine Streetfood by Doreen G. Fernandez
"Have you ever eaten Adidas, Betamax, or Walkman?" by Lara Tan
Popular and Famous Street Foods in the Philippines 

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Nicai de Guzman
Nicai de Guzman is the Head of Marketing of Rising Tide, one of the fastest-growing mobile and digital advertising technology companies in the Philippines. She also writes for and
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