It's not a secret that Filipinos love huge gatherings where food, music and laughter combine to make one heck of a party.

Thousands of Filipinos descended on Bathurst and Wilson Streets in Toronto to celebrate their culture during the Taste of Manila festival, held on Saturday, Aug. 20 and Sunday, Aug. 21, 2022. The festival boasted a mix of Filipino musical acts and hundreds of food and merchandise vendors selling anything from lechon (roasted pig), woven handbags, to character cotton candy.

Here are my top eight best Filipino foods to try:

Halo-halo

Halo-halo (meaning mix-mix), is a Filipino dessert made of shaved ice, fruit and ice cream. Photo by Yona M. Harvey, Mabuhay Canada

Nothing beats hot weather like the magical combination of shaved ice drenched in milk and bite-sized, sweetened fruit and beans (yes, that's right: sweet white or brown beans!). Often topped with ube (purple yam) ice cream and a wafer straw, all you have to do is mix all the ingredients thoroughly and dig right in! This dessert is beloved in the Philippines and can be found in every version--from the very basic to the most elaborate creations, with sky-high toppings of ice cream, leche flan (Filipino version of creme brûlée), and crunchy rice pinipig (dried, pounded and toasted rice)--in local restaurants and street stalls.

Pork Belly

Marinated and cooked over a hot grill, pork bellies churn on prongs at the Taste of Manila festival. Photo by Yona M. Harvey, Mabuhay Canada

The sweet smell of marinated, barbecued pork bellies fill the smoky air, the meat sizzling and hissing as the metal prongs churn and slowly cook the delicacy at open air grills along the sidewalk. This Filipino specialty dish, coupled with plain rice and dipped in a soya sauce/vinegar/calamansi (Philippine lemon) juice mixture, is pork at its best: crunchy, chewy, tender and tasty hog heaven. Careful now, you just might get addicted.

Kwek-kwek

A Filipino street food staple, 'kwek-kwek' is made of battered and deep-fried hard boiled eggs. Photo by Yona M. Harvey, Mabuhay Canada

Kwek-kwek is a popular street food in the Philippines made of hard-boiled eggs (or quail eggs), drenched in orange batter and deep-fried. Crispy on the outside, tender on the inside, kwek-kwek by itself is a tasty source of protein, but dunk it in the vinegar-based dipping sauce (mildly spicy, with diced red onions and small chili peppers), and it hits that sweet spot of healthy-but-fun food to eat. Did I mention you eat it by poking it with a stick, like a lollipop? Fun, right? The weird name just adds to its quirkiness. (Just don't ask me what it means.)

Taho

A vendor hands out Taho (tofu dessert) to a customer at the Taste of Manila festival. Photo by Yona M. Harvey, Mabuhay Canada

It's not uncommon in the Philippines to be awakened early in the morning by vendors riding bicycles and peddling their wares with gusto: yelling "taho" or "pandesal" (Filipino sweet buns). The peddlers are forgiven for the wake-up call--the steaming hot pandesal or the warm taho they sell are nothing short of a sweet reward for getting up so early.

So it was a fun surprise to see two vendors reprising that tradition at the festival, bike, rigged cart, booming call and all. Clearly, they were having fun. Taho is comfort food: warm, soft-to-the-palate tofu, with liquidy hits of melted caramel-like sauce, and yes, sometimes, it comes with golden tapioca pearls.

Cotton Candy

Cotton candy, animated, at Taste of Manila. Photo by Yona M. Harvey, Mabuhay Canada

Sure you've had pink cotton candy before, but then there's THIS out of this world cotton candy! Just how do they stick faces to this sugary confection? It matters not...kids, and er, kids at heart, lined up for these works of fluffy art at $10 apiece. When it comes to fiddling with sugary recipes, the Philippines is miles ahead of this trend, having sold larger-than-life, flower-shaped, (among other things) cotton candy for years now. The rest of the world just needs to catch up.

Lechon

Lechon, or roasted pig, is a symbol of celebration in the Philippines. Photo by Yona M. Harvey, Mabuhay Canada

Lechon, or roasted pig, is always at the head table at every wedding, birthday or holiday celebration in the Philippines. Slowly turned and roasted for hours over hot coals, the real test of superiority here is the crunchiness of the pig's skin, then the meat's tenderness and flavour, and then, the sauce. Lechon sauce is light brown, gritty, almost congealed in consistency, but it is the key to a lechon's success or failure as it holds all the flavour.  One can't marinate an entire piglet after all.

Banana-cue

Filipino banana-cue only has two ingredients: saba bananas and sugar. Photo by Yona M. Harvey, Mabuhay Canada

This is a classic example of a recipe that looks super easy on paper to make, yet complex in execution. A banana-cue only needs two ingredients: bananas and brown sugar, but you need saba bananas, which are a bit harder to find here in Canada. They are shorter, chunkier and less creamy in texture than regular bananas. The complexity lies in the deep-frying, as you must achieve the right heat to caramelize the sugar and let it coat the bananas evenly. When the perfect mix is achieved, you're rewarded with a relatively healthy snack, eaten on a bamboo skewer. This treat will surely evoke childhood nostalgia in every Filipino immigrant's heart.

Empanadas

Empanadas are handy to pack for lunches and snacks. Photo by Yona M. Harvey, Mabuhay Canada

Is there a more perfect, filling snack than a Filipino empanada? Filled with beef or chicken, some veggies, and a whole lotta flavour, Filipino empanadas are cute, portable, and savoury.