Walking through a Filipino Palengke for the first time is an explosion of sensory experiences. The warehouse is open on all sides and the aisles are lit only with ambient light from the city outside. It takes a second for our eyes to adjust from the strong Philippines’ sunlight to the dimly lit market aisles. The pungent smell of fish, meat, and produce, sourly climbs up our noses, but our brains are so busy with our other senses the smell seems to fade. The cracked, chipped and discolored white tile counters are filled with fish of every color and size. Each vendor has their own small bare florescent light bulb illuminating their counter.
We shimmy around one another in the crowded aisles and are sprayed from either side by fish scales and salt water. The Tilapia vendor lets close to 30 fish flop across his counter. In an attempt to escape, one throws itself on to the concrete floor of the market. I scoop him up and my stomach turns a little as I return him to the counter, where he waits to be de-scaled and gutted alive. The other fish lay dead in humongous piles on the tile. Almost every fish you could possibly imagine has passed through this market.
Barracudas, that must have been equivalent to the length of the vessel they came into port on, tuna heads bigger than my own head, beautiful watercolored Parrotfish the size of dinner platters. Cross sections of Morray eel’s whom, when they were whole, must have resembled the sea serpent that slithered through your childhood nightmares. Hundreds of lapu-lapu (grouper) bright red with metallic blue flecks concentrated at their heads and scattered across their bodies. As we walked through the market I realized I had never seen most of these fish out of the water and how many of them seemed significantly bigger here, than they did under the sea.
As we walk deeper into the warehouse past the fish vendors we come upon the the prutas at gulay (fruits and vegetables) stands. Their stands have many tiers. Fruits, vegetables, leaves, roots, and spices hang, drape and pile on every open surface. The fruits are strange, and one vendor rip open red fuzzy fruits for us to try. The flesh is white and so sweet we decide to buy a kilo, 90P lang. Collecting new fruits and vegetables along the way we walk even further to the carne vendors. These stands are far from the ambient light of the city but they still glow bright red and I get that eerily feeling that we’re walking into a horror movie. Every part of the animal hangs from giant silver hooks or is set out on silver platters. The vendors wear a white apron stained pink by their work and swing a giant cleaver to chop up kilos of meat.
We approached the smiling vendors and watched as their eyes widened when we said ‘Magkano ito’ (how much is this). They laughed ‘You speak Tagalog?!’. ‘Konti lang, konti lang’ (just a little, just a little). It went on like this for a few hours before we walked back into the Philippines’ sun to leave the market. Our brains were tired and our stomach’s growled at the ingredients in our arms. We made our way back to our small, quiet, peaceful Barangay with arms full of ingredients to make fish tacos (we’re all experiencing a bit of a Mexican food withdrawal). As we cooked up our tortillas and fish, we snacked on the weird little red fruits and decided there is nothing quite like a Filipino Palengke.