“Filipinos have always bonded through food,” said Ivan, “The best deals have been settled on the dining table.”
With that, we began our journey into the Philippine culinary world. In Manila’s Binondo district, also known as Chinatown, we met up with our guide, Ivan Mandy, who co-owns Old Manila Walks, an outfitter that aims to unpeel the skin of Manila for the curious visitor. Spotting an animated personality, the Filipino-Chinese spoke with much passion and enthusiasm about Filipino food, he said, “I like the cultural aspect of food – especially of our own country, it reveals so much about us.”
Binondo – translated to mean ‘hilly’ – used to be a ghetto for the Chinese who had immigrated here in search of work and is said to be the oldest Chinatown in the world (no one knows for sure – but Binondo is as old as the city). It is now a vibrant district characterized by neon-lit Chinese signs and pagodas alongside traditional shop houses – and home to a large Filipino-Chinese population. Ivan, born and bred here in Binondo, believed this was the best place to start our Philippine culinary education.
“The Chinese, Spanish conquistadors and Americans all came to the Philippines and left their mark in the country’s cuisine,” explained Ivan. Today, Filipino food is a fusion of all these influences and more. Just like the other aspects of Manila (such as its culture and language), food is a good indicator of its past.
Learning About Manila Through Food
Our first stop was New Po Heng Lumpia House, a small eatery tucked within a narrow alley that we would have easily dismissed as someone’s home. A lady was stirring up a massive pile of cooked-to-softness Chinese cabbage. Ivan ordered a couple of vegetable lumpia for us to try –and we watched as the lady did her magic. A round, thin-as-wafer rice flour skin was laid out on the chopping board and then filled with a scoop of the cabbage along with a whole series of condiments including nuts, before being wrapped up into a roll. With a dollop of vinegar and raw garlic plus a dip of vinegar, I gulped it all down and boy did it taste explosive. I’m no stranger to lumpia, as it’s part of the Singaporean cuisine, but this – was clearly something special.
Next, we wound past small canals and creaky bridges to Carvajal Street, better known as Umbrella Alley. The narrow dark lane was lined with rainbow-colored umbrellas providing shade for the tiny street food carts – here was the best place to try turo-turo (literally translated to mean ‘point point’- as a way of eating from street food stands), a favorite culinary practice amongst the locals.
We sat in a tiny hole-in-the-wall eatery where plates after plates of merienda dishes (in-between-meal snacks) were served. “The Filipino practice is to eat five times a day. The ‘merienda’ is a colonial hangover (adopted from the Spanish),” revealed Ivan. Out of the collection of sweet snacks, my taste buds were particularly enticed by the palitaw, chunks of sticky rice sprinkled with dried coconut shavings and sesame seeds; and ginatian, coconut milk pudding with rice balls, sweet potato and jackfruit in the mix. Coconut – commonly found in numerous local dishes- is the tree of life here in the Philippines.
Continuing on our walk in Umbrella Alley, we came across an eatery with a massive suckling pig on display. Unfortunately it wasn’t the much-talked-about lechon – roasted suckling pig barbecued to golden crispness; but the B-grade version: lechon kawali, suckling pig deep-fried in a wok. Cheaper, easier to prepare, but almost as good as the real thing. When dipped in thick liver sauce, the soft juicy layers of fats and the crunchy skin, were a perfect combination.
Tackling Bizarre Foods
Right by the stall, an old man was selling baskets of balut (half-fertilized duck embryo) – I’d long heard about this bizarre food, and now I was eager to put my guts to the test. As I cracked open the egg, I followed Ivan’s guidance of sipping the juice that flowed out from within and slurping up the yellow bag resembling a yolk – the smell didn’t entice me much but I was determined to go on. Once the yellow bag was gone, however, my gung-ho attitude completely vanished — a semi-formed baby duck lay crouched in a fetal position within the egg; its eyes, beaks and feet all visible. As Ivan sank his teeth into it, I heard crunching sounds of the duck embryo smattering into pieces. It was then that all my sense of adventure disappeared and I had to throw in the white towel.
I was both disappointed and relieved to move on to some comfort foods. Meandering our way into the chaotic Ongpin Road, we dodged tricycles and passed waterways to get to Sa Lido, an old fixture in Binondo’s culinary scene. This was one of the most famous pansiterias – old-style Chinese restaurants dating back to the 1800s, where the Filipino-Chinese intellects used to gather to plan the revolution. Sa Lido had an old-world charm to it, with white-haired men sitting in groups, discussing the latest gossips in a mixture of Tagalog (Filipino language) and Cantonese (Chinese dialect). Pansiterias came from the word pansit, stir-fried noodles, so clearly the specialty of this place was their yellow canton noodles. Aside from pancit, we dug our chopsticks into baskets of dim sum and a platter of asado (roast pork) and ended the day off with a colorful bowl of halo-halo, crushed ice dessert drenched in syrup and topped with ice cream.
As we bid farewell to Ivan, he gave me a firm handshake and a wide smile – as though it was a seal of approval for the completion of my culinary education in the Philippines. In just one day, I’d had a good glimpse into Filipino gastronomy and while I’d probably missed thousands of other local dishes, I’m sure this was just the start to future culinary adventures in the country.
This trip was made possible by Department of Tourism Philippines. Special thanks to good friend and local expert Ivan Henares for organizing this. All opinions expressed here are entirely my own. Read more about our trip through the Philippines here or follow our journey on Twitter using the #WJAsia hashtag.