I was just scrolling endlessly on my social media feed like any other day when I stumbled upon the best reason to go to Baler – FOOD.
I have always wanted to go to Baler, but I wanted it to be more than just surfing. Since I already knew I could ride the waves in Catanduanes, I was looking for something else. I’m like on sabbatical these past few months because the project I was in ended abruptly, so what else to do? Aside from staying in bed all day due to overwhelming happenings, I knew I needed to go somewhere to wander. While living vicariously via social media, I saw a post that made me jump off my bed and pack my bag to Baler. 🎒
Yes, I know I know, I can be bribed with food. But who wouldn’t be? You gotta eat while traveling, might as well eat good local food right?! To be brutally honest, I have no idea what a poke bowl was. But who cares, Baler here I come! So I dropped an email to The Circle Hostel Baler and to realize they had a little typo error. I sent them a DM on IG and they were a sport about it. They even offered free coffee or beer! Not to mention I won a free stay at any Circle Hostel last year in an event where Raf Dionisio, Co-Founder at The Circle Hostel, was the speaker. So I’m definitely going to Baler now! Wait, how am I gonna go there? 🤔
So here comes an impulsive solo travel to Baler. Though, I was kind of scared with the idea of taking the night bus solo going somewhere I have never been. However, there is always a first time. I did research on how to go to Baler beforehand, yet as expected, info was not updated. So, I just grabbed my bag and went to the bus terminal. And instead of taking the direct route, I decided to have a stopover in Cabanatuan city. What the hell was I thinking? None the less, it was an interesting midnight bus ride. At around seven o’clock in the morning, I arrived in a sunny Baler. Yas, I made it alive and in good weather, perfect for the market day! 🌅
The hostel was jam-packed with guests and locals when I arrived. They were hosting a couple of events that weekend, so the introvert in me was like, why am I here? Half-awake I then met Rafa Oca, the Cheif Experience Officer at The Circle, who introduced me to chef Grai. Grai is not really a native, however, she is one of those who loved Baler and lived there for some time. And as a chef, she definitely knows Baler’s flavors like a local. The Circle Hostel Baler partnered with Chef Grai to highlight indigenous ingredients and promote market to table concept in Baler. Since it’s still early to check in, I went out to the beach. Ah yes, the waves, the boards, and surfers.🏄🏽♀️
Poke, pronounced as poh-KAY, is an appetizer or sometimes the main course in Hawaiian cuisine. It also means, to cut, chef Grai explains further. A classic poke bowl is basically portioned bowl of base (rice/greens), protein (fish) and sides (fruits/greens/nuts). It’s chef Grai’s dish inspiration to incorporate Baler’s flavors. At around ten a.m. chef and I went to the local market. And on Saturdays, locals have this bagsakan weekend market, like a pop-up market showcasing local produce. From fruits to veggies and interesting products like pineapple and banana vinegar. Also local organic red rice, and fresh catch.😋
I am not that well versed in the kitchen, that’s why I wanted to expose myself to market and kitchen activities like this. I need to satisfy the foodie in me. While at the market, chef and I were like kids in a candy store. What caught my attention was the pineapple vinegar. I couldn’t believe it, there’s a vinegar made out of pineapples? It’s a way for the vendors to salvage the pineapples that were not sold according to chef Grai. Then as we go deep into the market, there’s another fermented goodness, banana vinegar. Same ideology on why locals came up with such product. We then went to the fish section and being a coastal town, Baler is rich with fresh seafood. From local salmon to yellowfin to lobster. We also got fresh greens, pako or fiddlehead fern which grows abundantly in the area plus kamote tops for the side dish. Then chef got local organic red rice, a different variety from the Cordilleras. We also came across an NSFW ingredient called kaba-titi leaves, apparently, it’s a souring agent. Actually, kaba-titi is not the only NSFW Tagalog word here, even our main dish, poke. In Filipino’s mainly used language, Tagalog, poke means vajayjay and then titi is the male counterpart. Those words are somewhat considered vulgar when said in public.🙊
En route to the hostel kitchen, guests can use the kitchen at the hostel, by the way, we now prepare our poke bowls! As for the base, a mix of the local organic red rice and white rice with drops of Bignay vinegar. Geez, Baler never runs out of vinegar eh? Chef Grai got this Bignay vinegar at a farm in Baler. Bignay or bugnay fruit is usually turned into wine, first time to see a vinegar bignay. Then for the protein, we got local salmon. Chef opted to use citrus or local orange with coconut milk and sesame oil plus diced mangoes and chili for the kinilaw na local salmon or local salmon ceviche. For the side dish, a different take on pako salad. A mix of pako and kamote tops with a hint of patis bagoong or patis labo or fermented fish paste plus caramelized onions and cherry tomatoes. Chow time! We shared it with the staff and a couple of hostel guests and they giggled when asked what it’s called.🍲
I spent the rest of the afternoon at the beach. I was thinking of surfing but man, the waves were intimidating. At dinner time, I tried out a nearby restaurant that’s said to have good food. Then at around ten o’clock in the evening, I passed out. So much for being awake for twenty-four hours. The following morning, I was at the beach before sunrise, it was such an amazing sight. Then I decided to check out tourist spots in Baler.😎
Before I left Baler, we managed to make a cocktail, of course with local ingredients, the Pineapple Coco Whiskey. For the base spirit, chef Grai got Banayad Whiskey, distilled coconut wine. I kept thinking why banayad whiskey sounded so familiar, chef then said, “Banayad whiskey commercial in a movie”. Right, the infamous commercial that got the actor drunk, contrary to its name banayad or gentle because of re-takes. Cheers! We then went for a walk to check out another restaurant that’s close to chef Grai’s heart. While walking, we chance upon a couple more local finds right on the sidewalk. Passionfruit and wildberry.🍹
My take away.
I so love what my tote bag says, “Time wasted in Baler is time well spent.” More than wasting time, I had an awesome weekend! I learned a lot from chef Grai. And people at the Circle Hostel Baler were definitely welcoming, thus no strangers there!
Baler as a whole is rustic, straightforward and flavorful. A lot of interesting local finds though, sadly, locals do not fully utilize these. I do hope to see more local flavors when I go back. Maybe a poke bowl and cocktails soon at the Eats @ the Circle Baler? Who knows?😉
UPDATE: On October 20, 2020, the Circle Hostel management announced via social media that they’d be closing (for now) their Baler and Zambales branches .