Last Adventure Saturday FB and I set off for a girl’s day out. SB had just returned from overseas and needed to sleep and BB was sick with the flu, so we left the boys to it at home and headed off for a walking food tour in Binondo, China Town.
Settled back in the late 1500’s by the Chinese Migrants, Binondo is one of the earliest settlements in Manila. It sits on the other side of Pasig River to Intramuros, the other ‘old town’ and early Spanish Settlement. The Chinese are known for their cooking and I was looking forward to learning more about the history of the area and tasting some gorgeous food.
I booked the tour with Old Manila Walks, a great company that runs a variety of walking tours of the area and we met our guide Ivan at the Binondo Cathedral. Built by the Spanish back in the day to convert the Chinese to Catholicism, this Cathedral is large. The exterior is covered with that black soot that covers everything here, aside from some small shiny gold statues around the perimeter of the building, so it doesn’t look like much from the outside. Beggars line the doorways into the building and children, scruffy and filthy from living on the streets walk up to you inside the foyer asking for a few coins. Once inside, the Church is enormous, imposing and awesome. The walls are shiny and white and statues in alcoves are lit up, rising high up the wall to the very high ceiling. People sat interspersed in the pews as the Priest at the altar led Mass. This Cathedral is so huge the Priest up the front looked tiny and he used a microphone to be heard.
As I waited for Ivan in the foyer, I watched people walk into the Church and felt a little out of place. I observed one young man walk up the stairs, he looked like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders, and as he reached the doorway he let out a huge breath and his shoulders slumped. He lit a candle and rested his hands on the feet of a large Virgin Mary statue hanging on the wall. His head fell between his shoulders and he looked like he might cry. I wondered, what had happened to him, to feel such emotion as he prayed.
When the tour started Ivan gave us a historical overview of the area which was really interesting. Soon enough we were walking down narrow sidewalks, weaving through the congested traffic and side stepping through alleyways. The atmosphere here was buzzing with noise, with the busy-ness of people around us. Everyone seemed to have a purpose. It was already hot and humid and sweat poured off us as we struggled for breath in the smoggy, claustrophobic space. I ended up carrying FB for most of the tour, she was so exhausted and overwhelmed by the environment. China Town, wherever you are, just seems to have this vibrancy about it. A richness and depth that is hard to replicate. I love to visit these kinds of places. When you get to do a food tour with it, well that just adds to the experience. Food is history, it is storytelling and it brings communities together.
Our first stop was at New Po-Heng Lumpia House. This kitchen was in an old apartment building. Sitting on the ground floor, down a long corridor, it doesn’t look like much. That is the charm of these kinds of places. Plastic condiment containers sit on simple tables and chairs. Piles of pans and bags of supplies fill corners and sit precariously on top of each other. Pedestal fans struggle to create air flow and an urn of hot weak tea sat ready for diners to help themselves. I poured a cup for FB. Ivan told us how he was not allowed to use his microphone in this place as there was an elderly resident in her nineties living a few floors up, overlooking the tiny courtyard this restaurant opened out onto. She does not like the noise.
Lumpia as most people know it is a kind of cooked spring roll. Not necessarily fried but soft. This kitchen makes traditional Lumpiang Sariwa, which is freshly wrapped Lumpia, and the wrapping is a light rice paper. Traditionally fillings include minced pork, shrimp and finely chopped cabbage, carrot, tofu, peanut and seaweed. You use an assortment of condiments to add flavour to your Lumpia, to suit your taste. Ivan showed us how to put a drop of the home made semi-sweet sauce on top, then a drop of chili sauce. Use the back of a spoon to spread it around, then use the now sticky spoon to pick up the sweet crushed peanuts and dab those on, then pick up some Hotif the same way and smear it all on. Hotif is a mixture of dried seaweed and dried rice noodles. I used this combination to put on my Lumpia and it was so divine. FB just had hers plain and she loved it. As I was devouring my first Lumpia Ivan told us this tour was ‘all you can eat’ and I knew I would get in trouble. I wanted to pace myself but to go past this would be just wrong, so I ate a second helping. As we ate, we started to introduce ourselves. At my table were two Chinese expats, and an Irish chap here on business who loves photography and dreams of being a travel writer when his kids have finished school. His photographs are lovely.
Once finished, we walked onwards down a narrow alleyway lined with fresh food stalls. Small shop fronts filled the spaces in-between, selling everything from household items to traditional Chinese medicines. We stopped half way down at a small restaurant called Quick Snack, or otherwise known as Amah’s Kitchen. This place has been around for about fifty years. The original owner Amah, was sixty years old when she opened the restaurant and they are famous for their Tokwa ni ama pilar, a fried tofu dish with a sauce made of soy, sambal and fresh coriander. It was gorgeous. We also enjoyed their Pansit sate mi gisado, which is by far my favourite Pansit to date. Made with a satay sauce and egg noodles, it was moorish and the waiter kept filling my plate with it. Who was I to say ‘no’? We also enjoyed their Kutsay-ah, a meat pie with a sweet pastry.
We continued our walk down narrow roads, through traffic and around corners to our next stop which was in a hole-in-the-wall dumpling place called Dong Bei Dumpling. In the front window you see a lady with a table covered in white dough, rolling out the dumpling pastry. As you walk into this tiny space, a second small table sits to the side where another lady painstakingly fills each dumpling. It was an incredible sight and it makes you feel a little more appreciative of the effort that goes into the making of your food.
You walk through this tight space, walls painted many years before in pastal colours that lighten up the space. Walk past small tables and chairs jammed against the wall, and piles of cooking utensils to the back where there is a painfully tiny kitchen housing a sink and small bench maybe half a meter long. Slabs of raw pork sit with a knife dirty with use, and it tells you a story of someone hard at work here preparing the days food. This person had moved aside to let us through as opposite this kitchen, by no more than centimeters was an even smaller stairwell. The bottom steps were used as shelving for more pots, pans and piles of fresh ingredients. We ducked our heads as we slowly walked up this staircase to the tiny room at the top. More tables were crammed into this space and an air conditioner blew out icy cold air to dry the sweat off our hot skin. Ivan said this room lacked ambiance but as his father said ‘you don’t eat ambiance’. I liked this. I thought the room had charm though, that lovely Asian kitchen charm that I find so appealing. We ate freshly cooked dumplings called Jiaozi, which are northern style dumplings. They are boiled, not steamed like the other sort. We also ate a fried pancake filled with pork called Xianbing. You eat these meals with soy sauce vinegar, garlic and chili oil, for an extra burst of flavour. The taste of these foods was glorious. You just want to keep going back for more.
The last stop on our tour of restaurants was at the President Tea House, where we tried steamed buns filled with an egg custard, which personally I am not a fan of. Just a bit too eggy for my taste. Others on our tour devoured them and one table took our leftovers to finish. The highlight here for me was the Mango Sago. I love sago, or tapioca, and I love mango. Put those together and you have perfection in a bowl. It was like a soup, and FB ate bowl after bowl. She loved it. This time I was sharing a table with four people traveling together. An older couple who lived between Manila and Washington DC and the younger couple had spent some time in Canberra on a work exchange, and were on their way back to Washington DC. They had a few weeks here and had been out to some islands. The older couple were hosting them and showing them around. We talked about what they could do before they left the following night and I suggested they go to the Greenfield Weekend Markets that were on that night. I described my favourite night market and their eyes looked dreamy at the thought. I really hope they got there, and that they enjoyed themselves.
After the restaurants and kitchens, we stopped at a Chinese supermarket and sampled some preserved fruits. Ginger and blueberry which were yummy, and another kind of stone fruit that was sour and salty. We finished up in a Hopia shop, where we got to try a few different flavours. Now, I am not a fan of Hopia, we got it that time at the Cubao Farmers Market. Outside there was a shop that was making it fresh. I was fascinated with the cooking process but it just is not my thing. It is a very common snack here and regularly given as Pasalubong to family, on returning from a trip.
At the end of the tour FB and I fell exhausted into the car, relieved to be out of the heat. FB fell straight to sleep for the trip home and I dosed lazily. We arrived home feeling excited by our day. I spoke of the food and promised SB that I would book him on this tour. It is an experience he simply must taste.