Cheap communal dining at Cebu’s ‘pungko-pungko’

By Narciso Tapia,

It's 7:30 in the morning and Jojo dela Cruz is already busy serving food to a number of people along a busy street in downtown Cebu City.

Elbows touching, diners huddle around a narrow rectangular table with a big plastic container on top containing all sorts of fried goodies: ginabot (deep-fried pork intestines, similar to chicharon bulaklak), ngohiong (a fried spring roll stuffed with meat and vegetables), dila (fried pork tongue), bola-bola (fried meat balls), and chorizo (pork sausage).

Instead of utensils, customers use their hands, which they encase in small plastic bags, to handle their morning nourishment.

The food might not be the healthiest and the locale the most sanitary to begin the day with, but Cebuanos who eat their breakfast in the "pungko-pungko" eateries are drawn by the affordability of the food.

"Sa una pa, estudyante pa mi mukaon na mi ani kay barato ug lami lang gihapon. (We've eaten here since we were students. It's delicious and inexpensive)," said pungko-pungko regular Mike Go, 25, who came with call center co-worker Aezi Sumayan, 24.

The ginabot, utok (pork brain) and tambok (pork fat) cost P10; the chorizo P8; and the ngohiong P5. For a little over P20, a diner can tuck into a hearty meal.

Fried pungko-pungko fare is often paired with the puso or hanging rice—which is cooked rice inside woven young coconut leaves.

The pleasures of pungko-punkgko
Pungko is Cebuano that means "to squat" and pungko-pungko eateries are so named because customers often sit on small, low benches or squat by the roadside to eat, especially when the food is brought from ambulant vendors.

Pungko-pungko has sprouted near churches, along busy streets, outside school campuses, and an enterprising person has come up with a mobile pungko-pungko using a multicab.

But it is not just the price that brings people to the pungko-pungko.

"Murag Coke ug effect. Mura ka maganahan. (The effect is like when you drink Coke. You seem to want more)," said customer Ralph Noval, 25.

His friend Niño Arañas, 24, added, "Once tasted, always wanted." Their friend Neil Languido, 24, nodded in agreement. The three are nurses coming off from night shift.

Jojo, at his makeshift stall, provides regulars with sauce made of vinegar, chopped onions and sili or hot chilies.

Mike dunks his favorite, the ginabot (fried pork intestines), in the vinegar mixture and bites into it with a satisfying crunch.

Cholesterol? "Ok ra man. Bata pa man. (It's OK. I'm still young)," Mike laughed.

Jojo, a pungko-pungko food handler for eight years now, is happy seeing the smiles of his customers. His simple business allows him to earn around P300 a day, which he brings home to his family of four kids, aged 2 to 7.

Cleanliness a problem
But no matter how satisfied the pungko-pungko seller and buyer are, it's plain to see that the manner by which these eateries are run leave much to be desired in terms of cleanliness.

Dr. Virginia Mesola, a well-respected microbiologist in Cebu, pointed out: "The problem with the pungko-pungko is that the food handler did not pass through the city health office for clearance."

Stalls don't have running water to wash hands. "And then they are handling money at the same time," she said.

Sellers could be carriers of Salmonella typhi that cause typhoid fever and other bacteria. Contamination may occur during the handling of food after cooking.

Though she noted improvements in hygienic practices including the use of plastic bags as gloves as well as the use of tongs to pick up food items, "the danger is still there," she warned.

Despite these concerns, people keep coming to the pungko-pungko. It might be the price, the taste, or because one can come in with a free-spirited disposition and enjoy the food in the company of friends and strangers. But what is undeniable is that the pungko-pungko brings Cebuanos from all walks of life together.