Sunday, June 23, 2013

Food Tour of Manila Chinatown

The area of Binondo, otherwise known as Manila Chinatown, does not have a lot going for it in ambiance and charm. Roads are narrow and street vendors vie for what little space there is with cars, loud Filipino jeepneys, and the local version of the tuktuk, the trike. Fumes billow out of mufflers and mix with the potent stench of the polluted Pasig River and its tributaries. There aren't any historic Chinese heritage buildings here either. Most of the structures in the area are modern, if uninspired, because it was bombarded several times during the British takeover of Manila in the 1700s and because Manila was practically bombed off the map during WWII.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Binondo could not be the setting for some of the most delicious foods you would ever encounter in the Philippine capital. After all, for many local eateries around the world, where ambiance is only second priority, food more often than not is exceptionally good. In my experience, that proved true in my food tour of Bangkok Chinatown as well as my visit to the street-side eatery of Anthony Bourdain's Lunch Lady in Saigon.

Binondo, Manila's Chinatown, Philippines
One of the loud and busy entry points to Binondo in our food tour of Manila Chinatown

That is how I found myself once more walking around this neighborhood of Metro Manila, the city I was born and raised in. I was meeting a few friends at the San Lorenzo Ruiz Church, a parish founded by the Spaniards for their converts in the Chinese immigrant community. Food tours of Manila Chinatown are recently becoming more popular thanks to local historian and food expert Ivan Man Dy of the famed Old Manila Walks tour group. So, on this hot and sticky day, we were here in Binondo to do our own food tour of Manila Chinatown.

Binondo, Manila's Chinatown, Philippines
The main landmark in Manila Chinatown is not a temple, but rather a Catholic church—the San Lorenzo Ruiz Church (Binondo Church)—built by the Spaniards in the late 1800s for their converts in the Chinese community.

I shall stop with the introductions right here and get right on with our food tour of Manila Chinatown, or what I like to call Dumpling Debauchery 2013 and then some. Here we go:

1. Dong Bei Dumplings

Binondo, Manila's Chinatown, Philippines
Dong bei style dumplings are dumplings boiled in shallow water, rather than steamed.

At the northern end of Yuchengco Street, you will find a small eatery called Dong Bei Dumplings which prepares dumplings like they do in Northern China (dōng běi means east-north, or northeast, referring to the Manchu region). This preparation is a rarity here because the Chinese immigrants who moved around Southeast Asia during the 1800s were from Southern China (regions like Fujian and Guangzhou). The difference lies in the cooking. The south uses bamboo baskets to steam the dumplings, while the north boils the dumplings in shallow water. Thus, dong bei style dumplings tend to be very moist and cooked thoroughly. While I favor the southern preparation, dong bei style dumplings (these ones here with minced pork and chives) are themselves excellent, especially with soy vinegar and lots of chili.

Binondo, Manila's Chinatown, Philippines
We got a serving of xiao long bao, or soup dumplings, too. How could we not?

We could not help but order ourselves a basket of xiăo lóng bāo, or soup dumplings, too, for this food tour of Manila Chinatown. Xiao long bao is a delicacy from Shanghai. Soup is solidified into jelly form, mixed with meat fillings, wrapped in dumpling dough, and then steamed. You need to bite carefully into the dumpling and sip the meat-flavored broth inside before you can gorge on the whole piece. It is particularly delightful to eat.

Binondo, Manila's Chinatown, Philippines
The ladies of Dong Bei Dumplings prepare the goodies right at the front doors of the restaurant. The width of the sliding doors is more or less the width of this small eatery.

2. Kiampong (Fried Rice)

Binondo, Manila's Chinatown, Philippines
Just one small serving of kiampong and goyong for the four of us. We just wanted a taste of it. Verdict: flavorful.

We headed back down Yuchengco Street towards Ongpin Street and got ourselves a table at the very busy Café Mezzanine. Here, we ordered kiampong. Kiampong refers to a variant of fried rice invented by the Filipino Chinese of Binondo. It is usually made with sticky rice, mixed with slices of mushrooms, thereby giving it that dark, earthy flavor, and soy sauce. You can add chives, Chinese sausage, peanuts, and mustard leaves, if you prefer. This one, served at Café Mezzanine, is quite plain. It is still very flavorful, however, and it goes well with other dishes, too. In our case, we ordered goyong, a type of sausage, drenched in sweet-sour sauce, to go with our kiampong.

3. Fried Siopao (Bāozi, or Steamed Buns)

Binondo, Manila's Chinatown, Philippines
Preparing to gorge on fried siopao. We were underwhelmed to find out only the bottom part is lightly pan-fried.

Siopao (bāozi or steamed buns) is a Chinese food I am very familiar with. It is a popular to-go snack in the Philippines. Here, siopao is sold in two variants: pork asado or bola-bola. Pork asado is pork cooked in a sweet, soy-based sauce, while bola-bola is basically pork meatball. Whichever you choose, you can be sure it was prepared the same way—steamed. This was why fried siopao was to us quite a novelty. Of course, we were rather underwhelmed to find out in our food tour of Manila Chinatown that the buns at the Shanghai Fried Siopao store is steamed first, and only the bottom part of it is then lightly pan-fried. I am not sure if that makes any difference in texture or flavor, but the fried siopao we had in our food tour of Manila Chinatown was good enough. It was of the bola-bola variant and the meatball inside had a few bits of chives and other vegetables for that extra variation in taste.

Binondo, Manila's Chinatown, Philippines
Fried siopao is sold by Shanghai Fried Siopao, located at the corner of Ongpin Street and Bahama Lane.

4. Fried Chicken and Oyster Omelet

Binondo, Manila's Chinatown, Philippines
You know you want some of that fried chicken goodness.

While not particularly Chinese, the fried chicken sold at Sincerity Restaurant, located along Yuchengco Street near Carvajal Lane, is still a popular stop for those doing a food tour of Manila Chinatown. Heck, let's face it. Who can resist deep-fried crispy fried chicken? The chicken is chopped in smaller pieces to make it more crispy and tasty. Another popular delicacy sold in this Binondo restaurant is the oyster omelet. Unlike many oyster omelets I had in the past, this one I liked. I noticed the oyster omelet recipe at Sincerity uses tikoy in the mix. Tikoy, or nián gāo, is a cake made with glutinous rice, something which lends the oyster omelet a very sticky consistency. The omelet is served with pickled turnip, which cuts the richness quite well.

Binondo, Manila's Chinatown, Philippines
Unlike the many oyster omelets I have had, this one in our food tour of Manila Chinatown I actually liked!

5. Dumpling Overload in Wai Ying Fastfood Restaurant

Dumpling Overload in Wai Ying Fastfood Restaurant, Binondo Manila Chinatown, Philippines
Steamed pork wontons, hakaw (or xiā jiăo), and shrimp chong fun (or shrimp cháng fěn)

The afternoon was wearing on and we were beginning to become quite full. However, there was one more stop that has to be done to complete our food tour in Manila Chinatown. That was Wai Ying Fastfood Restaurant. This restaurant in Binondo is particularly well-known for their roast duck. I have had duck before and I cannot say it is a favorite. Apparently, none of my companions are big duck fans, too. That's alright, we thought. There are a lot of other things Wai Ying Fastfood Restaurant does well.

Not yet satisfied with the amount of dumplings we have had for the day, we ordered some more. This time, we had steamed pork wontons, hakaw (or xiā jiăo, which are shrimp dumplings), and shrimp chong fun (or shrimp cháng fěn, which is a rice noodle roll with shrimp pieces inside). I particularly liked Wai Ying's shrimp chong fun. The shrimp inside is only lightly cooked and the sweet soy sauce it is bathed in complemented it well.

Binondo, Manila's Chinatown, Philippines
You know the food is good when the two-floor, cramped eatery has fire hazard written all over it.

6. Goodies for Take-away

Binondo, Manila Chinatown, Philippines
Left to right, top to bottom: Black bean mochi, fortune cookie, machang (or zongzi, bachang), and a roll of pure unsweetened chocolate tablets

Before we ended our food tour of Manila Chinatown, we went to a few shops in Binondo to get some take away. I bought myself black bean mochi and fortune cookie from Holland Bakeshop. I also got machang, otherwise known as bachang or zongzi, which I got from Shanghai Fried Siopao store earlier. This is glutinous rice stuffed with pork and mushroom and then wrapped in bamboo leaves and steamed for hours. Finally, I also bought a roll of pure unsweetened chocolate tablets from La Resurrección Fábrica de Chocolate. These chocolate tablets are the ones we use to make the Chinese-Spanish fusion dish popularly eaten for breakfast in the Philippines called champorado. Basically, it is rice congee but with chocolate. It is one of my all-time Filipino food favorites.

Having traveled in China and other Southeast Asian countries with a significant Chinese population, I found it fascinating how everything tied up. The dishes I had in this food tour of Manila Chinatown were familiar, yet it was distinctive in that the versions of the dishes served here go back to the story of the Chinese immigrants who settled here. I have had siopao in Thailand, which there they call salapao, and in the many varieties of the steamed buns I had there, I have never encountered one with pork asado filling like the ones we have here. I would certainly never find champorado (chocolate rice porridge) anywhere else in the world but here in my country. Needless to say, I had a new-found appreciation for Chinese food, and I did not need to go far to get it.

Bonus: Map of our food tour of Manila Chinatown Binondo

Click on each pin to see restaurant name and the recommended dish there.

How to Go to Manila Chinatown Binondo

From San Juan & Quezon City: Take the LRT 2 and get off at the final stop, Recto Station. From here, you can take any Divisoria-bound jeep and get off at Benavidez Street right after the first estero (canal). You can walk from here.

From Manila (city) & Makati: Take the LRT 1 and get off at Carriedo Station. Get out and walk towards the Carriedo Fountain/Sta. Cruz Church. In front of the church, you should find a Chinese arch flanked on one side by an old, decrepit (if attractive) building. The street behind the arch, the same one filled with jewelry shops, is Ongpin. That's one of the main streets of Binondo.

Are you a fan of Chinese food? Which dishes are your favorite?

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