I’m not the kind to get into a fight. Even less so, within hours of stepping off a long-haul international flight. And into a country—in this case, the Philippines—I’m visiting for the very first time.
Yet, that’s exactly what happened a couple of years ago. It was a torrid day in May when I found myself on a long-pending holiday to visit with friends in Taguig, a bustling suburb of Metro Manila. Itself, the sprawling capital of the Philippines archipelago, located on the country’s main island of Luzon.
Different from what I’d imagined, the fight that my friends, the Loresca family had organised in honour of my visit was thankfully benign and violence-free. For the most part. With a fair bit of pushing, shoving and ‘illegal appropriation’ involved.
Called a boodle fight, and popular as a party showstopper all over the Phillipines, this ‘fight’ is a delicious smorgasbord of a buffet-like feast. Laid out on a huge table that’s covered with fresh banana leaves is a meal that comprises at least a dozen dishes, sides and condiments. All intricately decorated into their own zones along with fresh cut fruits, vegetables and centered around the main dish called ulam.
This can take the form of mounds of rice—fashioned into various shapes or alphabets to spell out the guest of honour’s name. Or, in the case of the boodle feast I partook in, a delicious, whole roasted suckling pig called lechon—replete with that unctuous, crackling skin that glistened in the scorching sun.
An interesting hybrid, this feast originated in the mid 1900s from the traditional Filipino communal meal called kinamut. This style of meal, served atop either banana or breadfruit leaves (called tipuho) is done in the kamayan way: One that is eaten without using any utensils and with one’s hands, much like the traditional Indian way of eating food.
It got its updated name of a boodle fight by soldiers of the Philippines' military in the 1950s. They’d apparently co-opted the colonial American slang for contraband food and rations which was called ‘boodle’. Probably, itself a shortening of the English phrase “whole kit and caboodle”, meaning “the whole lot”.
Their way of eating this feast was to stand shoulder-to-shoulder around a table and grab as much food as they could before the next soldier could stake their claim. All this, in total breach of and disregard for personal space and sticking to one’s section of food. As though part of a sort of predated version of the hunger games! They even came up with a war cry for this feast...
“Ready on the left,
Ready on the right,
Commence boodle fight!”
Like any good meal (and even a fight bout!), a boodle fight is made up of several interesting and integral components. With the aforementioned ulam taking prime position, it is up to the other side acts to further amp up the feast with their variety and colour appeal.
For instance, one could have dishes like chicken inasal. A regional dish from the Visayas (central Philipinnes) are these char-grilled and lemongrass and chili marinated chicken legs and thighs. Also omnipresent is the Chinese-influenced lumpiang Shanghai simply called lumpias which are what the Filipinos call meat- or veggie-stuffed, deep-fried spring rolls. In the smaller islands—where seafood is more prominent in the local diet—I’m told that dishes of fried, dried fish like tuyi, danggit and pusit are quite common.
While those with a yen for a bit of foliage thrown in the fray are known to have a few vegetarian options added to their boodle fights. These take the form of salads like ensaladang Pinoy (literally: Filipino salad), talong (eggplant omelette) and the national vegetable dish of pinakbet (vegetables cooked in fish or shrimp sauce).
There even are a range of pickles called atchara—which I believe are the local Filipino version of our very own Indian achaars. And though not integral, often, desserts like the coconut-redolent buko pie and the coconut and egg yolk bibingka, too, find themselves jostling for space on the already-buckling under-with-weight boodle table.