Manila, the Philippines
April 22, 2010
It was said that God made man and woman; everything else was made in China. I would say that everything that God had made was eaten in China and in Chinatowns the world over.
Every major city in the world outside China, it seemed, had a Chinatown. Manila had one of the oldest – at more than 500 years old! After all these centuries, Binondo was still a partly-insulated enclave of Chinoys (Chinese-Pinoy, Pinoy being a vernacular shorthand for Filipino). Binondo was the heart of old Manila. That heart had since been transplanted to Makati in recent years. Now Binondo was more like the belly of Manila – the city’s gastronomic center where dim sum delights and lavish lauriat could be had. I’d always wanted to sample authentic Chinatown cuisine, but it was not common for most to go to Binondo. It was in an out-of-the-way district for people from other parts of the metro. One day, the yuzhou conspired that I should go on a culinary tour of Binondo, thanks to my Chinoy friend who treated us on his birthday.
We all converged at Binondo Church, a logical meet-up place since it was just meters down the bridge that connected Chinatown to the rest of the country. It was still the Philippines so a major landmark in this Chinatown was not a temple but a cathedral, formally named Minor Basilica of St. Lorenzo Ruiz after the first Filipino saint. Ruiz worked in the church for many years until a twist of fate led him to Japan where he was martyred for his faith.
But we were here for physical sustenance, not spiritual. Off to the food trail we scurried. First stop was a hole in the wall, but my friend swore by their dumplings: Dong Bei Dumplings along Yuchengco Street at the back of the church. The restaurant had no more than five tables, two of which were used by the owner and her assistant in making dumplings. This was no assembly line; the owner had a hand, literally, in dumpling-production.
Frankly, I’d rather not see how my food was prepared; otherwise, it could ruin my appetite. However, the scene just screamed cultural experience! It felt like a real organized tour. The assistant was balling up dough into dumpling wrappers on a large wooden board; the owner who spoke Chinese was spreading chopped kutchay mixed with minced meat on the wrappers and cupping them into half-moons.
Immersion much, but what of the dumplings? They were savory, tender to the bite. My friend got us the famous steamed kutchay dumplings, the production of which we were witnessing. He ordered for us in Chinese, as if Tagalog were a foreign language. Most Chinoys, especially the older set, would insist on using their native languages (Fookien, Mandarin, Cantonese) like an insider’s pass.
We ate with steel chopsticks, which meant less trees were cut to make disposable utensils. After dunking a dumpling on a bowl of soy sauce with freshly-squeezed calamansi (small round lime), the diner should devour it in one bite, otherwise the watery content may squirt in a potentially embarrassing trajectory. You may want to leave it to cool down a bit as it was served steaming hot. I didn’t, and consequently burned my tongue. I had to wash it down with service tea and fan my open mouth with my hand.
The word fungus at a menu posted on the wall, however, made us squirm. Before we were served, I had to confirm with my friend that the first item on the menu was NOT what we ordered. He spoke in Fookien, after all. Oh well, it was true that the Chinese would eat everything that walked, crawled, flew, and swam; I should’ve guessed airborne organisms were also fair game. I associated fungus with skin disease.
Before we continued on our food trail, we had a bit of food for the soul. At a street corner stood a curious altar – a Christian cross flanked by Buddhist images. Passersby stopped to pray, lighting Buddhist incense instead of Catholic candles. I knew of some Chinoys who went to both Catholic churches and Buddhist temples and saw no contradiction. This corner altar was a shrine to that Chinoy brand of religious pluralism.
We headed on to the famous Ongpin Street – the intestine of Binondo. The vicinity was home to southern Chinese cuisine in the country. Renowned restaurants like President Grand Palace Restaurant and Eng Bee Tin Chinese Deli were located on Ongpin. My friend, however, ignored the latter and downright refused to take us to the former, saying that there had been a change of management and the quality of food could not match its former glory. Instead, he took us to eateries he regularly went to. These places were not on Ongpin per se, but on its numerous side streets.
We dropped in a mom-and-pop grocery store named Xin Tai Xiang Shi Pin on Salazar Street that specialized in sweets. We tried their vegan hopia (round bite-size pastry, usually bean-filled). Veggies never tasted this sweet. Rows of Chinese delicacies, such as hopia and mooncake, were delicately wrapped in colorful paper. They were literally eye candies. I was rendered illiterate though – the goodies had been imported from Taiwan and labeled in Chinese characters.
After introducing us to Taiwanese delights, my friend decided we should try another local Chinatown product – from a sidewalk take-out counter. Although not peddled in push carts, it was still street food served in take-away portions and eaten on-the-go. Street food was popular in the Philippines, maybe because the average Pinoy loved to “stand by” (a Philippine English expression) on sidewalks.
Being vegan, my Chinoy friend recommended the radish cake. I never imagined radish as cake material, but we could leave it to the Chinese to think of the unthinkable – and make it work. The cake was fried so it packed more crunch and, as any dim sum, dipped in the ubiquitous soy sauce. A friend wondered aloud before spearing a piece with his chopstick, “So does it taste like radish?” Another one bitched, “No, carrot.” Yet another chimed in, “No, potato!” We all had a good laugh.
I had never been a big fan of street food in Manila. Not to unfairly blame the food, which could be delish, the sights and smells just did not induce appetite. Manila was, sadly, one of the dirtiest cities I had been to. Binondo was no exception. In fact, it was known for its filthy canals (estero – literally, estuary) choked by informal settlers and their wastes. Eating amidst the pungent mix of brackish water, rotting food, human excrement, and assorted garbage may require a stronger stomach. To be fair, places beyond estero bridges were not as smelly.
By then, we had walked enough and the host announced that dinner was ready to be served – at Suzhou Dimsum on Gandara Street. Dinner consisted of tofu with century egg, steamed shrimp, braised beef, pork adobo, service tea galore, and of course, steamed dumplings that came in a two-tiered container.
Since it was our friend’s special day, we regaled him with a rowdy rendition of the birthday song in mispronounced Mandarin Chinese. Good thing we didn’t save our bells and whistles because the owner gave us a big fat discount. Thirty percent! Apparently, the birthday boy was not the only one who enjoyed our performance. Xie xie.
We capped the night at my friend’s favorite hang-out, Rosso Cafe, on the same street. But after all the “bottomless” (Philippine English for free refill) service tea we had, we chucked the caffeine and opted for their two-fruit mash-up shakes. I had the strawberry-mango combo which was tangy and sweet – the perfect equalizer to all the flavors I had tasted on this culinary tour.
Any trip to Binondo should be had with this in mind: When in Chinatown, do as the Chinese do – eat everything. Then tell me what that fungus tastes like.