It was a throwback to my high school days when my gaze landed on the food cart and the man behind it. The cart of fish ball, chicken ball and squid ball were the day’s appetiser/pre-lunch snack at a gathering hosted by Uncle Hermie, my mum’s cousin. He had family come over his house in Parañaque, Philippines, a day after New Year. I was agog with delight and curiosity so I had one plate of it. It had been decades since I last saw a fish ball cart and tasted fish balls, and it was one nostalgic trip to JASMS with every bite of the balls. Back then, my parents forbade my sister and me to eat fish balls, street food actually. They didn’t trust street food and they still don’t. I’d just watch my classmates eat them after classes and wonder what they tasted like.
The set up at the party was completely different. The thin sticks were still there and so were the jars of sauce. But this time the balls were no longer skewered but ladled on to rectangular paper plates and the sauce drizzled or poured, whichever way you prefer, over them. The stick was now a “fork” and double-dipping was obviously frowned upon.
Double-dipping in the sauce and skewered balls were the norms of the fish ball culture back in my days. There were two ways to buy fish balls – one of the many staples of Pinoy street food – at my school JASMS (Jose Abad Santos Memorial School on EDSA). One was when the sundo (a Filipino word that is pronounced soon-do and which refers to a person who comes to pick up someone via a private car or public transportation) was already there so you’d be let out of the school compounds by the formidable security guard, Mang Pabling. This meant you can stop by the fish ball trolley and get a few sticks before you go home. The other way was through the wire fence; you call the attention of the vendor, tell him how many balls you want and in a few minutes he’ll walk over to the wire fence and pass your sticks of fish balls through it, and in turn, you hand him your payment. Those who bought through the wire couldn’t double-dip though.
In university, being an adult, I bought a few sticks with sweet sauce but, not used to eating fish balls, I stopped eventually. This time the street food menu included kikiam or que-kiam, a type of Chinese pork sausage wrapped in thin bean curd sheet, and squid balls. Double-dipping in the sauce was a no-no now; the vendor took to placing the skewered balls on a paper plate and pouring sauce of the stick. If you wanted more sauce you’d have to ladle it yourself. The choices for the sauce were sweet (thick brown gravy made of cornstarch, ketchup and sugar), sweet sour (the tweaked version of the sweet sauce – it packs an extra punch with the added chilli) and sour (vinegar with diced onion and garlic).
In high school, it cost PhilP0.10 a ball and most would buy PhilP1.00 worth, or 10 balls, which was filling enough. Others with bigger appetites would go for two sticks, or 20 balls, for their after-school snack. These days the prices are, according to blogger Vince Golango in his blog entry “Fish Balls – Best Street Food in the Philippines” in http://www.wheninmanila.com, fish balls now sell at PhilP0.50 per ball while the chicken and squid balls and kikiam go for PhilP2.00 per piece. Also nowadays, fish ball vendors and their carts can be hired for parties, which was what my uncle did. Prices, I suppose, pre-paid: one buys an x number of packets of balls and kikiam bearing in mind the number of guests and their appetite.
A fish ball cart in a party is not a bad idea at all. It adds colour to the party and tides the guests over till the call to dig in is uttered by the host.