Exploring Philippine Farmers' Markets with an Eye Towards the Twin Cities

After my husband and I sold our house and moved across the globe to the Philippines last October, I braced myself for missing so many things in Minnesota: strolls through the Landscape Arboretum for spring garden inspiration; summer bike rides along lakeshores and wooded trails; weekend excursions to view autumn foliage; and, yes, even winter, for outdoor ice skating and hot cocoa breaks. Most of all, I would miss seeing the seasons change at my favorite Twin Cities farmers' markets. From morel mushrooms in May, to juicy berries in July and crisp parsnips in October, the amazing produce and products offered at these markets taught me the joys of eating fresh, local, and seasonal food. Luckily, those lessons made the trip to Asia with me.

Here in Manila, there are only two seasons: hot and humid and extremely hot and humid. But the market scene is just as vibrant and dedicated to local and seasonal foods as the one I left behind, albeit with some definite differences in what, when and how they offer their fare.

Public Markets: Feeding the Neighborhood

In many parts of the US, particularly in cooler climes, farmers' markets are fixtures for three-quarters of the year, when temperate weather from spring to autumn showcases the fresh bounty of farms. Despite an increasing number of year-round markets, such as the Minneapolis Farmers Market, and facing competition from superstores, co-ops, and specialty grocers that offer local and sustainable products seven days a week, most are still open only on certain days or on weekends. In contrast, brick-and-mortar stores, though numerous in Manila, are not easily accessible or affordable to a large portion of the populace. Instead, neighborhood and municipal palengkes (open-air markets) provide a household’s necessities on a daily basis.

In the Makati City area of Metro Manila where I now live, there are at least 10 barangay (ward) public markets centrally located so that residents can easily walk for their groceries. Vendors’ stalls are housed in a roofed structure to protect people and food against the hot sun and torrential rains. Inside, the makings for the day’s meals can be found: rice sold by the kilo, fresh fish and meat (including some live chickens) ready for butchering, and vegetables and fruits picked in the morning and trucked in from farms just outside the city. It doesn’t get much more local or fresh than that.

Yet the convenience and affordability of these barangay markets are offset by drawbacks that may be disturbing to those who are used to the bright cleanliness of Western-style supermarkets. Palengkes are also known as "wet markets" because their floors are hosed down with water to clear away debris, including blood from freshly butchered meat. Unlike the vacuum-sealed, frozen chops and roasts from the likes of Blue Gentian Farm at the Minneapolis Farmers Market, meat and fish at the dimly-lit Poblacion Public Market, a few minutes walk from our apartment, are laid out in the open and barely kept cool by electric fans propped up on the counters. Even knowing that the meat and seafood sold here are meant for immediate cooking, the market’s practices would rattle any state food safety inspector’s clipboard.

Municipal Markets: Food Lovers’ Destinations

Local officials are well aware of these issues and have taken steps to improve conditions as best they can with small budgets. Larger municipal markets fare better and some have succeeded so well in rehabilitating that they have become food lovers’ destinations. The Cubao Farmers Market, in Quezon City just northeast of central Manila, found itself in the international spotlight when none other than Anthony Bourdain visited the venue for a 2009 episode of his gastro-travel show No Reservations. Friends and family tell me that Cubao was once a disorganized, dirty mess – a far cry from today’s huge, well organized open area filled with all manner of produce and meat, as well as flowers, household goods, and a food court. Here, seafood is so fresh, the catfish are still wriggling on the table and live clams in buckets spit seawater at passers-by. Across the aisle, sausages are made from just-butchered pork and all parts of a goat are dressed and ready to go. It’s the epitome of nose-to-tail food shopping.

Like the Poblacion palengke, Cubao’s market is not air-conditioned, although a good supply of ice helps preserve the seafood and meat a bit longer. As such, seasoned market-goers know to bring a cooler for perishables; even better, some know exactly when deliveries are made, getting first dibs on the freshest products and avoiding those that may have been sitting out for hours. These insider tips come straight from the sellers themselves, as part of a patronage system called suki – a personal market relationship in which customers buy exclusively from favored vendors and, in return, receive special treatment, such as discounts and choice items reserved especially for them. Much like the "know your grower" movement in American markets, the suki system fosters goodwill and confidence in the quality of products being purchased.

Weekend Markets: Gourmet, Organic, Artisanal

Every day, these palengkes offer affordable local ingredients – raw fruits, vegetables, and meats – from which Filipinos’ daily meals are made, but Manila’s affluent foodie community is also producing another, more focused kind of farmers’ market. Mirroring the ecological concerns of food production in the West, Filipinos are developing a keen interest in organic and sustainable practices. Coupled with a growing culinary sophistication and an appetite for gourmet fare, markets specializing in prepared foods are fast becoming staples of the weekend. While a recent Washington Post article described tension at traditional farmers’ markets between growers and prepared-foods producers, Manila’s weekend-only venues such as the Salcedo Saturday Market and Mercato Centrale were developed primarily to showcase artisanal products made from local agricultural ingredients.

On my first visits to both venues, I was strongly reminded of Mill City Farmers' Market: located in a compact urban space and offering a variety of specialty foods, organic produce, and made-to-order dining choices. At the Salcedo Market in the heart of Makati, metro Manila’s central business district, regional Filipino food purveyors compete for hungry customers with vendors selling global fare ranging from Breton crêpes to shwarma and dim sum. Meanwhile, its cross-town competitor Mercato Centrale, located on a former army camp at Fort Bonifacio, first pitched its white tents last November, modeling itself after European outdoor markets and focusing on healthy, organic products. Among the most popular growers are Kitchen Herbs Farm and its eponymous organic plants, and Pamora, a free-range chicken farm owned by an expat Frenchman, offering whole chickens, fresh eggs, and traditional French pâtés produced under European Union standards.

While I sorely miss the many vendors and organizers of Twin Cities farmers markets from whom I learned so much about good food, the variety of markets that are open to me here in the Philippines allow me to continue practicing those valuable lessons. It just goes to show that the principles of healthy, sustainable, and local foods have a prominent place on the global dinner table.

Tracey Paska lives, eats and writes in Manila, Philippines, where she revels in the fact that she can wear flip-flops outdoors in January. When she's not exploring Manila's foodscape, she freelances for a national food magazine and writes about the complex and fascinating connections between food, culture, and society on her blog Tangled Noodle.