Monday, April 16, 2012

Mission Impossible: Eating Vegan in the Philippines

This post should technically, chronologically fit in right between Christmas and my one year Veganniversary, but it would appear that that's not how I roll, cuz when it comes to blogging I'm inconsistent and unpredictable...which some might find exciting and intriguing :)

Or not.

Anyhoo, just before New Years, I went to the Philippines for 12 days as part of my school's mission team, which has been traveling to the Philippines for several years now, building houses. A perk of teaching in a school that's big on outreach and social justice is that I've been lucky enough to go on the mission trip three times now (four if you count my trip to Tijuana ninety-eight years ago when I was a student). These trips always involve meeting incredible people on the other side of the world, playing with adorable local kids, and having your eyes opened so you can see the world in a way that you never have before. There's something about coming face to face with true poverty, interacting with people that live in conditions the likes of which we do not see here in Canada, that gives you a huge reality check that pictures and videos just can't. Especially when you realize that the vast majority of the world's population lives like this.

This trip is an incredible, life altering experience, not just for the students that go, but the teachers as well. In my opinion, it's the most important thing our school does, and I feel so incredibly privileged to be part of it.

There are always challenges that we face when we go, and I had a rather interesting personal obstacle to tackle this time around...this was my first Phils trip since going Plant-Strong.

It's hard enough for Filipinos to get their heads around vegetarianism. "Vegan" is an entirely foreign concept altogether.

I prepared myself in advance that I'd likely have to submit to some cheating (with dairy or eggs, never with meat), and I made sure to take along two big-ass ziplock bags of protein bars (mostly Cliff bars) and fruit snacks. I was determined to do my best with what the Philippines had to offer, but practically speaking, unless I was prepared to live off of white rice for 12 days, I'd have been screwed without my stash.

I had to break into my stash as early as the plane ride. Our dinner options were chicken or sausage. If you wanted a vegetarian meal you had to request one beforehand, which I did not. So I had to veganize the meal by myself.


I fared not much better at breakfast, but overall I had enough on the plane to get by.

We arrived bright and early to a gorgeous sunny day, and although it was breakfast time in the Philippines, we were still on Canada time. No worries...first stop: Jolibee!

Disclaimer...this pic is from my 2009 trip...I didn't have any pics of Jolibee himself this time around :(
If you've ever been to the Philippines, you know who Jolibee is. This is like the quintessential Filipino fast food McDonald's, but more Filipino, and with a happy bow-tie clad bee mascot. In addition to burgers and chicken, they also serve spaghetti, so I decided to not even ask whether the noodles were made with eggs, and just go for a plate of spaghetti. Unfortunately, the sauce had meat in it. 

I inquired whether they had any menu items that were meat-free. This was it:

Not quite the pinnacle of a healthy, Plant-Strong breakfast, but you know what? It was kinda delicious at the time. And I was kinda happy about being "forced" to eat fries, because fries always, always taste good, and are a pretty awesome guilty pleasure. And the puck of white rice came wrapped up like a burger...goodtimes. 

Our days in the Philippines were spent working at our village site, and our evenings were spent at our home base (a resort & conference centre). All of our meals were provided, and as expected, there was relatively little I could eat. Case in point, a typical breakfast...

Lucky for me, we had some fantastic group coordinators traveling with us, and they asked the people preparing our food if they could accommodate vegetarian meals. So my breakfasts ended up looking something like this...

Crunchy noodles and veggies for breakfast? Surprisingly, really good. Not your conventional western breakfast food, but I grew to love this stuff.

Crispy noodles.
Breakfast of champions!

Something definitely not a breakfast of champions? Deep fried tofu. 

I was not a fan of the deep-fried tofu. I know, I know...vegans are supposed to love tofu in any shape or form, and always be grateful for its presence at non-vegan establishments. But this stuff just was hollow and pretty flavourless. I can't remember if that was syrup or soy sauce on the plate, but I do remember being especially grateful for our abundance of fruit on this particular morning. 

Another unconventional breakfast...mashed potatoes with gravy and veggies. Go figure.

I was super excited about this breakfast. Oatmeal & hash browns...a pretty traditional breakfast, and a little bit of home for which I was grateful.

You might notice bananas at almost every meal. That was because I ate a banana (or two...or twelve) at pretty much every meal. Filipino bananas are SO DELICIOUS! The insides are more yellow and they are smaller than the bananas we get over here. The smaller, the sweeter.

Lunch was prepared for us daily at the work site by the lovely Mabuhay ladies who lived in village.

I  always worked up an appetite...

...even though most of the work I did involved visiting with adorable kids...

...visiting with adorable farm animals...

...and filming the work everyone else was doing...

The food at our work site was plentiful and delicious, and the cooks were great at accommodating me with a vegetarian option, usually just a larger portion size of a veggie side dish with rice. 

Helloooo mango. The mangoes in the Phils are INSANE. So freakin' sweet and delicious. 
It was always exciting to see them at meals. It was funny because everyone at our table would get at least one or two pieces of mango, and then there'd be one left over, and we'd all wait and see if anyone else was going to take it, knowing that everyone wanted it but not wanting to be the jerk who took the extra mango; so the mango would kinda sit there on the table, taunting us with its orange glow, until finally someone would take the plate and say, "OK, anyone want more mango?" And we'd all try to act all nonchalant like we don't really care if we get another piece, like we'd be doing the table a favour if we ate it so it wouldn't go to waste, when really we're all secretly salivating, walking the fine line of waiting just long enough to reach over and take it so we don't seem too eager, but trying not to wait too long to allow someone else the opportunity to grab it, until finally someone would sigh and "reluctantly" claim the last piece of mango, and everyone else at the table would secretly hate him/her for the rest of the day.   

Some sort of squash and okra...anything green makes me happy :)

OMG PANCIT!!!!!! LOVE. PANCIT. SOOOOOO MUCH!!! This was supposedly a veganized version, but I think they just picked out the meat. That's ok though, because I had seconds from the meat-inclusive pile, and just picked around it myself. This stuff is SO amazing.  

There was always something I could make a meal of, except for one day... boiled pork soup day. 

I was given a broth with green veggies in it, and in spite of the rather unpleasant smell, I took a spoonful...and for the first time on the trip I actually gagged. Turns out this was a pork broth that just had the meat removed from it. Now, generally the smell of seasoned prepared meat doesn't turn me off. I guess boiled meat is another story. 

I can't help but wonder whether the broth would have smelled and tasted as nasty to me in the pre-vegan days. I used to eat (and enjoy) boiled chicken, and I used to eat meat broth no problem. But this particular dish this time around really wasn't something I could down. 

I didn't want to be "that annoying vegan" who ungratefully shunned the food at the table. I made a point to always be super grateful for the special meal they would provide for me, and eat it enthusiastically, which until this soup hadn't been a problem. But unfortunately, I had to leave this bowl full and resort to my plan B:

Thank God for Cliff bars.

You know what else I'd like to thank God for? Fried bananas.


On our last day at the work site they brought in a roasted pig for us. Like, the whole pig. Roasted. I snapped a pic after its upper half had already been chopped up.

I've eaten this a few times before. On my Philippines trip in 2010 I took a pic of myself kissing the pig's head. 

I thought it was kinda gross and funny at the time. Now it just makes me sad. And ashamed for posing like that.

Would I have ever posed with a roasted dog? A roasted cat? No. After all, that would just be barbaric. 

So what's the difference between a roasted pig or dog or cat? Hmm, let me think...there is none. 

Yah, makes me sad. 

But on a happier note, I got to eat taro for the first time! Green veg + gorgeous purple juice = double happy for me :)

Indeed, lunches at our work site were pretty darn impressive. 

Dinners at our hotel...well...they tried. There were a couple of nights where I was able to make myself a meal out of the side dishes they served, but most nights my special vegetarian dinners alternated between a plate of raw veggies and a plate of pasta...

Raw veggie night...
Pasta night...
Raw veggie night...
Pasta night...
Raw veggie night...
You get the picture. I must say, though, the pasta was very good. Garlicky & goooood. 

There might have been a night or two of room service fries as well...

During the last two days of our trip we had some downtime at another resort. The buffet was vast and pretty impressive, and I had something I've never tried before...glazed carrots and bananas.

 So weird, but actually good. The carrots and bananas complimented each other, and the sweetness of this combo totally worked. I managed to find some other stuff from the buffet to round out my meal as well. 

Our dinners were pre-plated, and one night I just asked if they could make my plate with no meat and just give me the rice and extra vegetables. This is what I got.

Classy. I thought it was a pretty simple request. Apparently not.

And now, the confessional. There was some cheating. With pizza. And buko pie. 

Pizza was a given...I'm not going to send away a vegetarian pizza ordered especially for me and ask them to bake one without the cheese. I ended up eating a couple of slices with the cheese, and then ended up picking off as much as I could before eating the rest, as I didn't want to be dealing with dairy in my system after a year without dairy. 

Buko pie a whole other story. 


Buko pie is coconut pie. And the buko pie from The Original Buko Pie Bakeshop in Los Banos is probably one of my most favourite things ever. This isn't coconut CREAM, we got actual slices of coconut meat making up this filling...and it is SPEC-FRIGGEN-TACULAR. Our fantastic co-ordinator Lulu remembered how much I loved it from my previous trip and hooked me up with some. How could I refuse??

Because it's coconut pie, it is possible that it might be dairy-free, but I assume the crust has eggs in it.Yahhh, I ate it anyway.

Maybe more than one slice.

Maybe like eleven slices. No exaggeration.

The next time I go back to the Philippines, I may look into the ingredients of this buko pie. But for this trip, I remained blissfully ignorant. And it was indeed bliss.

On occasion I'll notice people argue that vegans need to get their heads out of their asses and focus their compassion on the human suffering in the world. There are countless people living in poverty, fear, hunger, and despair, facing persecution and exploitation, so wouldn't our energy be put to nobler use working to alleviate that instead of focussing our attention on animals? 

Right, ok...but why must we be limited in our compassion? Abstaining from animal products is a choice I can make every day, relatively easily, without uprooting my life too much. It's a choice that any average person can make. I don't get to engage in humanitarian work every day. Though I try to stay informed on the issues, I have not dedicated my life to fighting for social justice. And even if I did, I could still do so as a vegan. 

It's not a matter of one or the other. Just because we haven't found the cure for cancer yet doesn't mean we need to stop Multiple Sclerosis research, or stop buying Girl Guide cookies (though I don't buy those any more...not unless they come out with a vegan cookie...then I'll be all over it hells yes). No, I'm not perfect, but cutting out the animal products is a choice that I have been able to integrate into my life, and my compassion for animals does not diminish my compassion for my fellow human beings. Except those  idiots who make dumb statements suggesting that vegans have no business working to raise awareness of animal rights when the world has so many other problems plaguing people...I got no compassion for them. People like that are just trolls that deserves an upper cut to the jawline and a flurry to the solar plexus.

Oh, hey, maybe if we stopped filtering our crops and natural resources through the billions of animals we inefficiently and unsustainably raise each year for consumption (with seriously devastating environmental ramifications, I might add), we could focus distribution of these crops to feed people. What a concept. 

But I digress. 

In a nutshell...The Phils were awesome. The people were amazing. The food was deelishus for the most part. Filipino Starbucks had soy milk. Score.

The food on the plane was not delicious at all...or maybe it was, but I couldn't eat it. Which is why my first stop upon arriving back in Vancouver was Dharma Kitchen for a veggie burger. 

Followed quickly by a much needed ten hour shower at home. 

*photo not available*


  1. It's awesome to hear that someone other than Filipinos enjoy the trip to the "motherland" :) Thanks for posting Yola!

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