Episode 11: Eat your way through Chinatown! The Big Binondo Food Wok!

Ah, Binondo, Manila’s Chinatown. The long-enduring witness to the heritage and identity of the Tsinoy community. A district that’s home to 400 years of history, religion, Filipino-Chinese friendships, trade and commerce, international influences…

…And tea houses, steamed dumplings, noodles, street food, hopia, and that purple hopia fire truck.

Yup, welcome to Binondo.

The “Big Binondo Food Wok” is one of the popular historical tours of Old Manila Walks, the city’s walking tour outfits. Here we can see Binondo, not only as a bustling community or a historical landmark, but also as a “food-obsessed historical quarter.”

Ivan Man Dy, also our tour guide at the BCG Passion Fest Food Tour last May, led the tour around Binondo’s heritage and food trail. He also gave us a lot of tidbits about Binondo and Chinese cuisine’s place in the district’s history.

Binondo is located near the Pasig River in Manila, across what would become Intramuros, the Walled City. It was established in 1594, and is known as the oldest known Chinatown in the world.

The Chinese have been trading with the ancient Tagalogs for some 800  years. It was easy for them to immigrate to the country because of its proximity to China. (Today, the Filipino-Chinese or “Tsinoys” is the largest ethnic group in the Philippines, making up about two percent of the total population.)

When the Spaniards first came to the country in 1521, they made it a point to return to Manila and establish their seat of government there. Recognizing the large number of Chinese that have immigrated to the city, the colonizers established Binondo and urged them to settle there.

Binondo was founded in what the Spanish call “extramuros” (outside the walls), as opposed to “Intramuros”, the only part recognized as “Manila”. The Spaniards gave the Tsinoys there self-governing privileges as a reward for converting to Catholicism. However, this was actually to stem the Chinese community’s numbers and prevent them from revolting. It helped that Binondo was within the range of the Walled City’s cannons.

The district has a mix of Catholic and Chinese influences. One of the most popular of these is the Binondo Church, now known as the Minor Basilica of St. Lorenzo Ruiz (the first Filipino saint). Despite the colonial features, the church squeezes in one reference to the influence of Binondo’s Chinese: its octagonal bell tower.
Another Catholic icon is the Santo Cristo de Longos Shrine. Legend has it that a deaf-mute Chinese found an image of the crucified Christ near an old well and regained his speech. The shrine was the site of that well. Today you can see people praying to the cross while waving incense sticks, a remarkable mix of Chinese and Catholic rituals.

Towards the 20th century, Binondo became Manila’s central business district. The already existing businesses there were among the factors behind Binondo’s financial success. For some time Binondo was home to a bustling banking and financial community.

The Tsinoys have kept in touch with their ancestral roots while adapting to Filipino society for 400 years. The mix of Chinese-Filipino influences have resulted into a cultural heritage that has made Binondo so unique.

The Chinese immigrants in Manila were mostly Hokkien peasants who only had their street smarts. Without the educational attainment to make it big, these settlers engaged in the trading and service sectors. All they needed were suppliers, customers, and a long credit line. This gave rise to the proliferation of specialized businesses such as slippers, construction materials, clothing… and yes, FOOD!

Our first food stop was Cafe Mezzanine, a coffee shop for volunteer firefighters at Ongpin Street. The place is owned by Gerry Chua, the owner of the Eng Bee Tin Hopia Factory franchise. (The purple hopia fire truck I mentioned a while ago was donated by Chua. It’s colored purple in homage to Eng Bee Tin’s ube hopia.)

Here we tried the Kiam Pong, a Fookien rice meal with pork, chicken, dried shrimp, mushroom and peanuts. Ivan said this, mixed with a simple soup broth, was a staple meal among the common folk. The meal came with a refreshing glass of cold coffee.

Chua’s story is typical among the businessmen of Binondo (and Filipino-Chinese in general). After working with Eng Bee Tin for so long, he inherited the family business, and eventually managed his godfather’s restaurant (part of which is now Cafe Mezzanine). Most businessmen here start out with the simplest of tools to start a business, just like the peasants of long ago, and their descendants eventually develop it.

Speaking of Eng Bee Tin, hopia was a relatively new pastry introduced by Hokkien immigrants during the American period. There are two types of hopia: the flaky type which uses Chinese puff pastry, and the cake dough type which uses a soft cookie dough. Eng Bee Tin claims to have popularized the ube hopia.

Our next stop was Dong Bei Dumplings along Yuchengco Street. Dong Bei, unlike most restaurants who mainly serve Cantonese dishes, specializes in Northern Chinese cuisine. (They also serve pancakes, home-made noodles and fried rice, among others. Most noteworthy is that their dishes are home-made.)

Ivan mentioned that dumplings were actually a specialty in Guangdong province, Northern China.

Dong Bei prepared for us steamed dumplings with meat and celery or cabbage fillings. These were served with two kinds of sauces: one was spicy and the other was a bit sweet and tangy. (Ivan recommended the spicy sauce). They also served meat-filled pancakes, which are just as good as the dumplings.

We then visited what Ivan described as “food street.” Ivan says Binondo’s streets are divided according to the businesses in the district. There’s a jewelry street, a carpentry street, a clothing street, among others.

Ivan says some parts of Binondo have a so-called fraternity, where each Chinese can bond with fellow Chinese with the same family name. If, for example, a person with the surname of Tan comes to Binondo, he may visit the Tan “fraternity” who will help him settle down. He says this tradition has been followed since the colonial times.

At the food street, we had a small meal consisting of pan-fried siopao and bicho-bicho (fried dough pastry) at a street shop. Ivan actually lampshades the Filipino’s fascination for siopao; apparently what is considered a light meal among most Chinese only functions as a side dish to mami (noodles).

Street shops like the one we visited are popular in this area; these sell other food items such as roasted meats and fish, noodles, fruits, dimsum, and bread. There are various restaurants and groceries around the area too.

Along the way we passed by a bakery named “Ho-land”, which, like Eng Bee Tin, sells hopia and other Chinese pastries and breads. Apparently, bakeries such as this have been popular in Binondo, so popular that at one point in history, even Eng Bee Tin almost lost to the competition, if not for the ube hopia, but that’s another story. To prove this, Ivan mentioned another hopia business and a rival of “Ho-land”. Its name?

“Polland.” No kidding.

We ended our tour at the New Po-Heng Lumpia House, located in Uy Su Bin Building at Quintin Paredes St. near Binondo Church. Po-Heng is known for its fresh Hokkien spring rolls, made with vegetables and crushed peanuts. It also has peanut sauce on the side for dipping, made more delicious with chopped garlic.

Here we’ve learned that the recipe for lumpia was brought from Fujian province and became one of the country’s most popular dishes associated with the Chinese. Now if there’s one thing we Filipinos have taken for granted as far as Chinese food is concerned, it’s lumpia. Heck, we’ve made so many variants of lumpia (lumpiang Shanghai, anyone?), it’s already a staple in every restaurant and feast.

There are so many places worth visiting in Binondo that stands witness to everything distinctively Tsinoy. So much can be said of this place’s history and surroundings, its cultural heritage and culinary delights… but visiting Binondo first-hand is one experience tourists, history junkies, and foodies should never forego, and can never go wrong with.

When you find yourself in Binondo one of these days, take the time to look around, savor the sights and sounds, learn the history, and then perhaps follow the scent trail to the nearest hopia store or tea house. It’s gonna be a trip that will make you hungry for knowledge… and hopefully, dumplings.


Episode 10: Cheese is love! The world record breaker, Cafe 5845!

Believe it or not, I’ve been trying to train myself in food writing by learning about food and food-related events around me. Experience is the best teacher, after all, and going to these events (and eating there) helps me enrich my knowledge.

Unfortunately, I only get to know about this stuff by chance, and by the time I do, it’s already old news, or the event highlighting such is over. Worst of all is when I find out there’s an event featuring certain food like desserts or wines, and that I never get to visit them because I’ve not known about them in the first place. (Being at work while one is happening is another story.)

Take, for example, the day when the chefs of Magsaysay Center for Hospitality and Culinary Arts (MIHCA) bagged a Guinness world record. With the help of major sponsor Kraft Food Philippines, they defeated India’s record of 4,668 unique cheese-infused dishes… by doing 5,845 of them in one day and one venue.

Now I’m not exactly a fan of cheese, though I enjoy eating stuff with lots of them like cheeseburgers and lasagna. Still, to watch a world record-breaking event would be a wonderful experience, being part of history and all. And having to sample all of them… Mmm.

That date was December 14, 2009. Where was I on that day?

It was through an accidental tip that I learned about MIHCA’s latest venture: a cheese-themed cafe that features all 5,845 of these dishes. They opened the cafe just this Saturday (July 24) at the SM Mall of Asia. The venue’s name? The aptly-named “Cafe 5845”.

The cafĂ© is located near the IMAX Theater, with a great view of Manila Bay close by, a respite from MOA’s bustling surroundings. At first glance it looks like a makeshift cafe despite its European-style design, but the moment you see the lighted candles and couches and feel the quiet ambience, you’d be enticed to sit down, have a cup of coffee while relaxing, and cuddle with your lover while feeding each other cheesecakes or cheese-laced pasta. Cheesy, but that’s how it is. Where was I? Cafe 5845’s ambience alone wins you over, but the thought of those intriguing cheese-based food on your table is something worth experiencing.

As I mentioned, Cafe 5845 is the result of MIHCA’s Guinness record-breaking feat to create 5,845 cheese-infused delicacies. True to their word, they’re serving all of the dishes they made on that day. (For this, I heard they’re going to change the menus often so that everyone would have a taste of each of these dishes.)

First I tried on their menu was the Spaghetti Bolognese, which looks like your normal spaghetti. Believe it or not, looks can be deceiving. The taste of cheese stands out, and it enhances the flavor of the spaghetti sauce and the ground meat.

The spaghetti came with a dessert sampler: cheese cupcake, cream fondant, mango cream cheese tart, and a few cream puffs. Sugar rush, sugar rush! Who’d believe there’s cheese in any of these stuff?

I also tried out one of their main courses, the apple and ham stuffed chicken with Mornay sauce. This came with a side dish of potato croquettes with bacon and cheese sauce, and a Krafty cotta (panna cotta flavored with cheese) for dessert.

The stuffed chicken was delicious; the creamy filling complements the taste of the lightly grilled chicken. The croquettes were filled with air inside, but it was soft and went well with the somewhat spicy bacon and cheese sauce. The Krafty cotta was not too sweet, and it had a nice, gelatinous texture to it. And yes, you can still taste a hint of cheese in the Krafty cotta.

Of course, what’s a cheese-themed restaurant without cheesecakes? The Cheesylicious Cheesecake was surprisingly rich and flavorful, and soft to the palate. Too bad it’s the only cheesecake in the menu so far. Someone probably had it better (cough*Teenwatch*cough).

The sad thing about Cafe 5845 is that the cafe’s not going to stay there for long. I’ve heard that Cafe 5845 will be open until around September. Probably by that time, they would have served all 5,845 of those dishes… and I won’t have much of a chance to try out all of them. Too bad.

Here’s something good I just read: “The health benefits of cheese include relief from hypertension, and osteoporosis. It also helps in maintaining bone health, gaining weight gain and dental care.” Apparently, cheese is rich in calcium, protein, and Vitamin B, as well as “Conjugated Linoleic Acid and Sphingolipids which help prevent cancer”.

There is also a study in Canada that showed milk and milk products like yogurt and cheese seems to be able to help lower blood pressure. Also, “whether cheese’s highly saturated fat actually leads to an increased risk of heart disease is called into question when considering France and Greece, which lead the world in cheese eating (more than 14 oz/400 g a week per person, or over 45 lb/20 kg a year) yet have relatively low rates of heart disease.” * Woo-hoo, safe! More reasons for me to be cheesy, I mean, fall in love with cheese!

Cafe 5845 is MIHCA’s way of showing the Filipino chef’s  record-making ingenuity, skill, and creativity. Hopefully everyone does get the chance to see first-hand this unique cafe’s cheese creations and experience something that has made the country world-class.

As for me, well… I hope I could be part of more events and experiences such as this. For the moment, I’ll just have my cheese dish, sit back, eat up, and savor the thought that I’m eating something that’s worth a Guinness world record.

*Taken from Canada.com and Wikipedia