Monday, March 22, 2010

I'll Take You Down To Chinatown

A few days ago, my friends and I took a trip to Manila's Chinatown, called Binondo, for a food adventure (aka foodtrip)! It was an amazing experience. We were led by Mr. Karl Go, who seems to have an encyclopedia of knowledge stored in his head about the food and history of the area. Read on, and I'll take you on a photo tour of Binondo, with info on where to go and what to eat. The pictures and some commentary are mine, but I've also included informative captions/descriptions that were provided by Karl. Enjoy!

Karl Go: Manila Chinatown! A land where Chinese and Filipino cultures live intertwined in one another's existence, each one complementing and strengthening the other.
What delights and gastronomic adventures lie within? The answers lie beyond the Filipino-Chinese Friendship Arch that stoically stands in tribute to Filipino-Chinese cooperation and mutual coexistence.

First stop was a streetside vendor that sold us some delicious fried siopao. I've had the regular variety, but this was the first time I've had the pleasure of tasting the fried version. The filling looked like meat, tasted like meat, but was actually tofu!

KG: Fried siopao. Its siopao. Its fried. It's wonderful. :) Shanghai cuisine is characterized by its liberal use of oil in cooking, but whoever stared at a bun filled with meatlike goodness and thought, ''what if i brown that first?'' was a mad genius.

KG: [Picture on Left] ''Ma Mian Di Yi Jia'' - First House of Ma's Noodles
This 80-year old restaurant epitomizes how hard work, good cooking, and secret recipes can leave a lasting imprint on a country's entire food culture.

Established in 1930, this restaurant was founded by Ma Mon Luk, a Cantonese immigrant who peddled his hand-made noodles much like Filipino taho
vendors (on foot, shoulders weighed down by a tin canister-bucket of soup on one side and noodles on the other.) He died with his shoulders permanently crooked, but he died a successful man, even enriching the Filipino language with a new word: mami, from ''ma'' (his last name) and ''mi'' (noodles).

[Picture on Right] The legendary Ma's noodles. See that little bowl behind the glass of oolong tea? Yup, that one dripping with saucy goodness. That little bowl holds all the secrets in the epicurean universe.

Eating method: Dip noodles in sauce. Add sauce to soup. Savor.

KG: Ongpin street in Binondo, Manila Chinatown.

Thrown out of the walled city of Intramuros by Manila's Spanish elite, the Chinese made a home in a community that grew over the centuries. Now a tightly packed jumble of businesses and domiciles, the apparent chaos is only to the uninitiated eye: every street in Binondo is organized according to what is sold there. One street may specialize in fabrics, the next in medical supplies, while another may boast glass and aluminum wares.

One street rules them all, and in the urban sprawl binds them: ongpin street, where you can find a little of everything.

KG: [Top Picture] A temple to Guan Yu, hero of Chinese history, legend, and stalwart mainstay of the Dynasty Warrior series of games. Yes, he's real, and he's the god of war, business, and loyalty.

Taoist concepts revolve around personal understanding of creation, and venerate many long-gone heroes and philosophers by honoring them after death. Remembered for their deeds, their spirits are thought to have influence over specific areas of human experience, allowing them to influence events much like patron saints.

Anyone can walk in and light incense to show your respect. Walk over to the right, light three sticks, face the altar, and place the incense in the huge brazier when you’re done. Don’t forget to make a wish (and a small donation). Who knows, maybe an ancient spirit of warfare and success may just hear your words.

[Bottom Picture]: A thing about Chinese: they are remarkably tolerant of the beliefs of other cultures. Don't feel comfortable lighting incense? Not a problem: light some candles instead, and send a request via another message service. It'll still get there.

KG: [Top Picture] Ah! What is Chinese food without dumplings?

Dumplings (jiaozi in chinese) are part of the Northern tradition of Chinese cooking, where wheat is a staple. Boiled in water or steamed over a slow fire, jiaozi are distinguished from Cantonese-style dimsum by nature of its wrapping and preparation method. Traditionally made by hand, dumplings warm the heart with their delicious simplicity (and the ears, if ancient lore is to be believed).

[Middle Picture] The wrapping and the filling. Go ladies! Thousands of years of Chinese tradition are in your capable (Filipino) hands!

[Bottom Picture] The dumpling, last survivor of a whole plate of 14, which heroically gave themselves over to feed a greater need. Oh, and the whole plate costs 100 pesos, or about $2. you will be fondly remembered!

KG: One of the oldest churches in the Philippines, 427-year old binondo church has survived multiple earthquakes and wartime bombings to stand as an example of Catholic faith in the Philippines.

Positioned at the center of San Lorenzo Ruiz Plaza, Binondo Church is a monument to Spanish colonial life in the Philippines, when communities were built around
a central church and plaza to allow for a place to gather for comfort and security. The bells would be rung in times of crisis, whereupon the priests would stand side-by-side with the community heads as they dealt with whatever emergencies had emerged.

The majesty of the church also emphasizes an important fact: the Spanish used religion as a means to pacify the warrior hearts of the native Filipinos. Won over by the mysteries and power of organized religion, the Filipinos embraced Christianity and wove it into the fabric of everyday life like no other people in Asia.

KG: When you're in Binondo, you just have to stop by Eng Bee Tin.

Packed and filled to the rafters with Chinese delicacies and snack foods, it is the perfect place to sample some of the specialty pastry and rice cake concoctions Binondo Chinatown is famous for. For New Year, try niangao (tikoy), a rice cake eaten to celebrate family ties.

Feeling romantic? Grab some lotus seed moon cakes (yue bing) for the mid-autumn festival celebrating the most beautiful full moon of the year. Walk hand-in-hand with your loved one as you admire the moon and munch on these special cakes.

And of course, you simply have to try the hopia. A snack cake infused with Filipino-Chinese traditions, it comes in a variety of flavors from the mundane (mung bean) to th
e exotic (pineapple and ube, a purple root crop that tastes better than it sounds).

This is the first purple fire-truck I have ever seen, and definitely the most fashion-conscious. Why settle for just saving lives, when you can save them in style? Also, if you look at the decal on the right, it advertises that you can TEXT IN when you see a blaze. That's also a first for me. "hey fire dept thers a fire on d nxt street dwn. com over n spray sum h2o on it. lolz."

KG: Part of the proceeds of Eng Bee Tin helps support the renowned Binondo Volunteer Fire Department, who pride themselves on being among the first at any fire anywhere in Manila, even blazes two cities away. Water cannons away!

We were starting to get full, but we knew the only way to go was to loosen our belts and hit the next stop, where a symphony for our taste buds awaited. Karl made sure to order their specialties for us, except for one in particular. Its called "Cow Whip." Let me give you a hint - lady cows don't have one.

KG: [Top Picture] The Estero. Simply put, one of the best kept-secrets of Binondo Chinatown. Once you've found this place, you can truly say you've eaten at Binondo.

The open-air facade and rundown appearance hides the fact that this is one of the places where you can get truly authentic Chinese food at the most unbelievable of prices. A huge meal for 10 cost 850
pesos ($1.70 a head), and thats a meal with chicken, beef, noodles and rice.

Don't be afraid to try anything on the menu. Even the most pedestrian of dishes tastes different when steeped in the wok of true Chinese cooking.

[Bottom Picture] What one diner managed to pile on his plate as the food was being devoured.

Food is served in communal plates, with medium servings good for 3-4 people and large servings for 5-6 people. Pick one dish from every major food group and dig in to your heart's content.

Pictured here is beef with broccoli, a filipino-named cantonese noodle dish called pansit canton, and deliciously spicy Szechuan chicken.

KG: [Top Picture] This greasy spoon is more than just a neighborhood eatery-- it's a neighborhood institution.

Now run under the name ''Cafe Mezzanine'', many still fondly remember the times when the former Chuan Kee eatery would offer a multitude of delights in the Filipino ''turo-turo'' (point-point) manner: you point at something you fancy, and eat it as its
placed on your plate almost immediately.

Despite the changes, the food has thankfully stayed the same through several decades. It may not be the absolute best, but almost everything Filipino-Chinese cuisine has to offer can be found here, making it a return destination for the serious food completist.

[Bottom Picture] Zongzi (machang in Fujian Chinese) and nuomi fan (kiam pong): both rice-based, but different in approach.

Zongzi (middle of right pic) is a glutinous snack/breakfast food heartily filling and satisfying. Boiled in leaves and then served hot, it has a distinct flavor that can be further enhanced with an unconventional seasoning: ketchup! (trust me)

Nuomi fan (right side of right pic) is a version of Chinese fried rice you simply have to try in the Philippines. Enhanced by Filipino tinkering and known locally as kiampong, it goes perfectly with kikiam (left side of right pic), a Filipino version of a Chinese pork-tofu roll dish.

As a side note, kikiam is a ubiquitous street food staple in the Philippines, sold by ever-present corner vendors who fry it in oil and serve it on sticks. Nothing beats the crispy-chewy-tangy texture of the real thing in Chinatown, though

KG: Believe it or not, walking is truly the best way to experience Manila Chinatown firsthand. Narrow streets and congested walkways all guarantee that driving a vehicle here is a surefire way to raise one's blood pressure up a few notches.

Feel the pulse of the city in the background with every step into the heart of Binondo Chinatown!

Alas, all good things must come to an end. After day filled with food that caused our taste buds to party almost nonstop, we finally made our way out of the crowded streets of Binondo. As full as my belly was, I couldn't shake the craving for more!

1 comment:

  1. waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! fried siopaaaaaaaaao!! you've been eluding me since last year! grah! imma get you next time!!
    yay for food trip!!