Midnight Appetites: Mercato and Banchetto

“Look Lori, load up on coffee throughout the day and for god’s sake, don’t forget to take that disco nap,” my friend Ian, tells me the day we’re set to hit the food night markets.

Note: To know whether photo was shot at Mercato or Banchetto, let your mouse hover over the image.

I have always and will forever be a day person. I get by on 4-6 hours of sleep a night (can’t seem to sleep anymore) and I’ve been told (with much irritation) that I’m abnormally chirpy at 6am. My nocturnally-inclined friends alternately make fun of but are also maddened by their inability to get me to go clubbing, drinking, or otherwise. The latest I normally stay out is 11pm, and that’s only if there are really, really good cocktails involved.

Then, by some sheer force of serendipity and an assignment from my editor, I’m tasked to check out the midnight markets. I call on Ian and Sam, two good friends who’ve been regaling me since October with their adventures at Banchetto.

There are two markets: The progenitor and acknowledged “mother” of Manila’s midnight markets is Banchetto, located on F. Ortigas Jr. Road, formerly Emerald Avenue. There are three Banchettos in all, but this article focuses only on the original, which dubs itself “The FIRST OVERNIGHT Street Food Fiesta” (caps theirs). Open from 12 midnight on early Saturday and onwards until early morning, it’s a multi-colored, multi-sensory, surround-sound attempt to live up to a banchetto, Italian for “feast.”

They say that it was the call center generation that spurred food companies to stay on and open 24/7. So powerful and pervasive are their numbers and buying power that now even midnight food markets or tiangges, as some insist they be called, have joined the fray.

The other midnight market is appropriately called Midnight Mercato, the nocturnal sister of Mercato Centrale, the weekend food market at Bonifacio Global City. Open from 10pm-3am, it’s the more mellow Banchetto – if you will – although it’s no less frenetic and frenzied.

And smoky. Stepping into these markets is like stepping in front of those smoke machines they use in stage productions. The source: the numerous ihaw stalls catering to every persuasion of street-food-on-a-stick that my midnight appetite could possibly desire: betamax, isaw, tumbong, liver, tenga, as well as all the other more intimate parts of the animals’ anatomy – both chicken and pig. I’m stupefied by how there isn’t a single innard of either animal that was spared from the griller and that includes the exteriors – head and feet are also on offer. The only thing that’s not being sold is the pig’s oink and the chicken’s squawk. Of course for those with weaker fortitudes (pity that), there’s ordinary pork barbecue and hotdog on a stick.

The grill is the thrill here at these markets and there’s plenty that fascinates me. My mind fills with prospective plates of kebabs, successive slices of beef and chicken and pork and shrimp charging down like a choo-choo train down a stick before getting derailed by chunks of green peppers, red tomatoes, purple onions, and white garlic cloves. Butterflied fish marinated and charred are enticing as are large squid, tentacles intact, to be dipped in lots of mouth-puckering vinegar. Another stall proffers prawns, breaded and grilled – their juicy heads ready to be sucked of their roe.

If grilling is the theme at these night markets, then deep-frying is its refrain. Just as hot and sweaty bodies are the signs of a scorching summer, so is shimmering meat the sign of a successful midnight market. Everywhere I look, there are baskets of chicharon bulaklak glistening in their naked heat. I grew up on these fancy “flowers” – my tito would cook them for me every weekend and I’d watch as they bloomed voluptuously in the embrace of hot oil. I love them still and revel in each feral, almost earthy bite.

At another stall, slabs of bagnet with bubbled skin and gleaming sheen blessed by the fryer await, and I nearly trip over my tongue trying to get a closer look. I also spy bagwang, a new-fangled take on bagnet, and the reasons listed why it’s “better than bagnet.” Marinated pork jowls (pig cheeks) dredged in flour promise a thunder-crunching, new taste sensation. I quiver at the thought. More banal than bagnet but perfect as is are plates of fried chicken and look, those reams of fried potatoes stretched out on a stick – whimsical, but how do I even begin to eat it?

Shawarma stalls abound of course, it being one of the definitive late-night foods. But I consider the other edibles here that wish to put new meaning to the term “late night eats.” Alpha-male (no, make that alpha-female) slices of Chicago-style deep-dish pizzas grunt with the heft of cheese and meat, while pork longga balls cooked in peri-peri sauce (Portuguese chili sauce) present possibilities. Bowls of shabu-shabu make an unexpected appearance, and the touted-as-authentic Hainanese chicken rice is sold by a woman whose midnight temperament reminds me of mine in the a.m.

And be still my thankful heart – there are vendors who haven’t deserted the possibility of dessert at a midnight market, including gelato.

Similarities abound between Mercato and Banchetto – indeed, some stalls are found at both markets. The stark difference between the two is that Banchetto is larger and by sheer force of its size, also attracts more people. I find it downright stressful making my way through the stalls, wending my way while clinging to Ian and being coasted along by the massive number of (sweaty) bodies that squirm and shove their way forward. And because I’m rather short, taller market-goers obstruct my view from seeing the food on display. It’s quite the challenge trying to order, pay, and eat while being charged at from all sides. At Banchetto, don’t expect to sit down and eat. The few tables and chairs available are perennially occupied so most people end up squatting on the steps of the buildings that line the road, or eating while seated on the hoods of their cars.

For a more enjoyable experience complete with almost-guaranteed seating, Mercato is my better bet. The festive and less physically restrictive atmosphere appeals to me and I appreciate how the stall-owners make an effort to present their food attractively. We eat with our eyes first, after all. And after scouting the stalls at Mercato, Ian, Sam, and I get to sit down and feed our midnight appetites.

Because the point of a midnight food market is moot if you can’t eat.

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