Oh My Gulay!

The Philippines

eating bibimbap in Incheon Airport

As I organize my notes and pictures from a trip taken to the Philippines over a year ago, I am reminded of why I wanted to make this blog. It was on this trip, where food could have been a challenge for these two veggie voyagers (but wasn’t, thanks to the attentive nature of our amazing hosts, and little tricks we picked up along the way), that I was first inspired to document recipes, techniques and foods for other travelers and curious eaters out there. In fact, it was during our 14 hour layaway in Incheon International Airport in South Korea that I sat down at one of the computer stations and checked to see if “theveggievoyager.com” was available. (First tip: If you ever have to be stuck in an airport for extended amounts of time, this is the one. It was quite posh, with free private bathrooms including hot showers, internet stations and Korean craft centers.) While on the subject of Korea, I suggest bibimbap as a good veggie voyager choice. I love all the pickled accoutrements, and the rice continues to cook at the bottom of the bowl while you eat, resulting in crunchy, tasty rice covered with veggies and other fun stuff. Just ask for it without the meat and you’ve got a veggie voyager feast!

With Uncle Ed at a pit-stop

Gulay is the Tagalog word for vegetables, and one we learned well. Oh My Gulay is also the name of one of the only vegetarian restaurants in the country, at least on Luzon. People who have never visited the PI will be surprised to learn that, like California, there are many different climate zones and eco-systems there, from tropical monsoon beaches to pine forest mountains. While there, we stayed on the island of Luzon the entire three weeks, as the guests of Ryan’s uncle and aunt. Aunt Nida is from Luzon, and Uncle Ed is a Midwestern boy who fell in love many years ago… They now divide their time between Fort Wayne Indiana, and the Philippines. These two people are not only the best hosts ever, but they are funny and kooky. Aunt Nida is not to be trifled with. Standing tall at about 5 feet, it seems that she is the Queen of her world, usually getting her way. Uncle Ed is her King. He himself is unclassifiable, making him interesting and mystifying. Needless to say, we were well cared for. The first half of our trip involved visiting the village that Aunt Nida grew up in (and where they now own a house and have many friends.) Called Caloco, the village is situated in a cove on a beach on southern Luzon. It was remote and stunning. The second half of our stay consisted of Uncle Ed, Ryan and myself zipping around the northern parts of Luzon on dirtbikes, riding for much of each day, stopping in towns and villages, checking out rice terraces, bat caves, village dogs, food, and local art. It was a wonderful trip, barring all the sore riding muscles…

lunch in the home of our tour guide in the rice terraces

When we first arrived, we were told that the main topic of conversation around the house for the past month had been “what are we going to feed these people?”. Apparently Aunt Nida and her friends were completely mystified as to what to feed us. When we arrived, we told her, “anything you eat, just without meat or fish in it!” I think she thought we wouldn’t be eating noodles or rice, or bread, or… We thought it was hilarious and were glad to see the look of relief on all faces when they realized we were going to be easier to feed than originally thought. And Uncle Ed was happy to find a beer drinking partner in me. We ended up eating so well that I gained weight while we were there. Culinary highlights include: Sitawu (green beans stewed in fresh coconut milk), Heart of Banana flower croquettes and salads, fresh heart of palm dishes, a delicious corn soup, sauteed pumpkin leaves, sticky rice dumplings, local coffee from the mountains, black mountain rice, stewed jackfruit, and vegetarian lumpia. I have recipes!

Aunt Nida (center) & co making sitawu (green beans)
While we did eat very well, it wasn’t always so easy. When looking for restaurants or other eateries that were vegetarian friendly, we had the most luck in the mid sized cities in the mountains of north Luzon. This is the vegetable-bowl region of the Philippines and it is easy to get stir-fried vegetables with rice at small hotels and eateries. This is usually on the menu as “chop suey”. There are funky little cafes that cater to travelers in places like Banaue and Baguio City. You can also find black mountain rice and local coffee up here.

The farther south, however, the more difficult is the time for the veggie voyager. Other than the myriad of fresh fruit and street snacks (our #1 veggie voyager source of food), none of the places that we dropped in on had options for us beyond steamed rice and soy sauce, and so we learned to rely on a few essentials. (Although we did discover a local 2 location chain: Mushroomburger. This place offers burgers with mushrooms on them, as well as mushroom sandwiches, mushroom dessert soup, and a myriad of other mushroom products and really great T-shirts. Although not super-delicious, it was funny, edible and novel.)


Atsara…a lifesaver

Get yourself a jar of Atsara, and keep it in your pack. This sweet, tart relish is made from green papaya, ginger, garlic, onion and vinegar. It is delicious on everything, and when you find yourself at an eating establishment where there seem to be no options, you can ask for plain rice and a little chopped garlic and be reasonably satisfied with your meal of rice, atsara, soy sauce, and garlic. Sometimes vegetarian food can be a real challenge here…but this trick saved us multiple times.

Also good is Sukang Sawsawan, or hot vinegar. Just a marinade of coconut vinegar, hot peppers and garlic, this adds depth and heat to any dish. It is found everywhere, so no need to carry it with you…

I’m going to post a couple of recipes right now, and more in posts to come. These recipes, although I learned them from the ladies of the PI, have been adapted to work for most Western kitchens…as I imagine that most of you will not be physically voyaging there any time soon, but would still love a taste. 


2 hot peppers (jabanero, thai, or serrano)
1 green papaya (shredded)
2 carrots (shredded)
1 red bell pepper (diced)
1″ ginger (peeled & grated)
1 small onion (diced)
3 cloves garlic (diced)
1/2 cup coconut vinegar
3 TBS sugar
1 tsp salt

Boil vinegar together with salt & sugar and hot peppers. Mix all other ingredients together and add vinegar mixture. Allow to marinate for at least one day. 

The other recipe I’ll leave you with today is the basic go-to method that our hosts used to prepare most gulay for us. Basically, any vegetable du jour was chopped and added to sauteed garlic, onion, hot peppers, and fresh coconut milk. This would be stewed until the gulay was soft and the coconut milk cooked down to a thick sauce. Served over rice with Atsara on the side…

Ate Lija scraping coconut

A word about village cooking: when you don’t have toys (blenders, gas stoves, etc) things take more time. I was impressed with the traditional method of extracting coconut milk from the nuts. After harvesting mature coconuts (no lack of those there), they would be cracked open and then scraped on a special blade that was fixed to a small stool. The blade would shred and pulverize the flesh of the coconut so that water could be added, and then all the fatty goodness squeezed out. I tried this method and succeeded in scraping the skin on my hand. The food would then be prepared over a small coal pot. (I think I like cooking toys so much because I have spent so much time in kitchens like this.) Tradition can be very time consuming!

Anyhow, the food we had in the village of Coloco was delicious, and I wish I could say that the food I make stateside from my recipes tastes exactly the same, but it doesn’t. However, it’s good enough… Considering that I use boxed or canned coconut milk, I guess I can’t ask for too much more. A word to the wise veggie voyager: In the Philippines they LOVE to cook with MSG. Even in the smallest village, “magic sarap” is a flavor used in every dish. I think it is very unfortunate as not only is MSG bad for one’s health, it makes all dishes taste the same. After we discovered that our food was inundated with it (headaches for me), and asked not to have it, the subtle, natural flavors of everything we ate began to shine through immediately. Such an improvement. I suggest that if you are in the Philippines, that you request no “magic sarap” if you can do so without offending.

making sitawu in a village kitchen

 At home in California, when I decide to make this dish I usually do a combo of sitawu (long green beans) and eggplant. We are lucky in San Diego to have no less than 4 huge Philippino supermarkets nearby, so I have no trouble finding most of the ingredients I need, but if you can’t get long beans then regular beans will do just fine. I also always try to find the coconut cream with the highest fat content…cause I like it that way.

This dish is about as straightforward as it gets, and I hope you enjoy it as much as we do. Serve it with steamed or fried rice.

also pictured: heart of banana flower salad

Sitawu Stewed with Coconut Milk

6 cups green beans or other vegetable (chopped into bite size pieces)
3-4 hot peppers (chopped small)
1 onion (chopped small)
5 cloves garlic (diced)
2 cups coconut cream (or milk)
salt or soy sauce to taste

Saute onions and garlic with a small amount of oil. Add coconut milk and boil until it begins to thicken. Add the beans and peppers and cook until vegetables are cooked and the sauce is thick and oily.

Published by kirstingreen

professional mosaic artist, jewelry designer, cook, expressive arts therapy graduate student & teacher www.kirstingreen.com

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