Saturday, November 14, 2009

How Would You Like to Wok Around Binondo?

On October 19 I went to the Binondo district of Manila for a second time during my one-month working vacation in Manila. This time around, I was with a group of food writers and editors that included chef Claude Tayag of Bale Dutung, and the editors and staff of Food Magazine. Earlier, I had e-mailed Claude and his lovely wife, Mary Ann, asking if I could tag along, and he said, "sure." That makes me the accidental (food) tourist in this group.

The tour group met at the centuries-old Binondo Church on the corner of Ongpin St. and Reina Regente, in the heart of Manila's Chinatown. A stone-throw's away is the Eng Bee Tin Hopia factory and restaurant, one of the stops that organizer Old Manila Walks calls "The Big Binondo Food Wok," a romp around the district, visiting and sampling food from close to ten small restaurants and eateries.

It is amazing to note that having lived in Manila for half of my life, I was not aware of some of these restaurants in Binondo. For one, we Pinoys patronized well-known and household name restaurants like Panciteria de Santa Cruz, Panciteria San Jacinto, Smart, etc., not aware that there are other, smaller, but truly Chinese restaurants in the heart of Binondo, in streets like Yuchengco and Carvajal, the latter is more an alley than a street. Here, there is one small eatery called Quick Snack, founded by a Chinese woman who originally came from Indonesia. Hence, the cuisine at her eatery is influenced by Indonesian cooking.

Knowing that we would be sampling food in number of restaurants, I made sure to eat as little as I could to make room for an eight-hour food binge. Here I sampled a spicy noodle dish, whose Chinese name I did not care to put to memory because it is either unpronounceable or difficult to spell. But the verdict for that noodle dish is: it is too foreign for my taste. A taste that had been cultivated by Macao or Hong Kong-style Chinese cuisine.

Our second stop is Sincerity Cafe on Yuchengco St. It's been in that location since 1956, and I never heard or seen it! Walk organizer and historian, Ivan Man Dy tells the group that this restaurant is well known for its fried chicken. Here we were served kikiam, fried chicken, and oyster cake, requested by Chef Claude. Sincerity's version is held together by a tapioca flour base, and as a result, it was quite heavy. We would discover that another version that we would soon eat at another stop, would be lighter and better-tasting than this one. I didn't enjoy this version very much. For one, I did not get the taste of fresh oysters, and secondly, like I said before, it was too heavy due to the tapioca base.

It was around noon when we got to our fourth or fifth stop at Eng Bee Tin Hopia factory and the small restaurant that it operates on the second floor. Here, we were regaled with the presence of Jerry Chua, owner of Eng Bee Tin, who related to us his hopia factory's rise to the number one position in the industry. Jerry is an active member of the privately-owned Chinese volunteer fire brigade in Binondo, and he tells us that he became more known as a member of that fire engine company before he made his name in hopia-making. He has a penchant for making light of himself and his hopia-making expertise. After his talk, he gave everyone a bag of three different versions of the Eng Bee Tin Hopia. I became addicted to the langka-ube combination.

From Eng Bee Tin, we visited a Chinese Drug Store, Bon Shiang Thay. "Chinese medicine is more on prevention," explains Ivan. It's about balancing the body. Like if you have fever, do not eat chocolate, because it packs heat." Then we crossed the street to another small restaurant that specializes in dumplings that are common in Fujian, a province in the Southern part of China. We were served sio mai, which, according to Ivan, is the most common dumpling of all. When we entered the restaurant, two restaurant workers were kneading dough near the front door, in view of all the diners, while the owner, a shy Chinese woman, gave us the 411 on the origin and prepatiion of the dumplings. "Every region of China has its own version of dumplings, " says the Chinese woman. "We are making northern-style dumplings with ground meat as filling."

There is something peculiar about Sa Lido Restaurant. It's perceived as an all-male restaurant, at least before our group arrrived that afternoon. The eatery is located on the second floor, and when we arrive a small gathering of elderly men are already there, smoking, drinking coffee and tea, and talking animatedly. They are "akongs" (elderly Chinese men), according to Ivan. They do not eat a whole lot, but congregate at Sa Lido more as a male bonding tradition. Here, they hold court, talking about what men talk about when their wives and other women are not around. Sa Lido's distinction is "asado" or oven-roasted pork loin that I have known as a young boy. It is one of my favorite Chinese dishes growing up, and is up there with "pancit canton" (chow mein) and "hototay" (pork and vegetable soup).

Our last stop is Masuki (literally, small horse). It was established in 1960, and specializes in mami and sio pao. Before we were served our mami and sio pao, the manager, Willen Ma, daughter of the founder, took us to second floor where one of the hands demonstrated how mami noodles is prepared the old-fashioned way (manually kneading the flour, eggs and water), then feeding the dough to a noodle machine (automated). On they way there, we also passed the kitchen where the sio pao fillings are prepared, and where the mami noodles are dunked into vats of boiling water, prior to serving. It was an altogether interesting but elaborate demonstration. But I doubt if that heightened my appetite for mami. For one, this was our last stop, after a long list of other eateries -- and I, for one, was stuffed up to my larynx. For another, I am not a big fan of mami. So when it comes time to eat, I just tackle a half of a large sio pao. It is excellent, but being flour-based, quite heavy.

All in all, the all-day walking and food sampling tour of Binondo was a mixed bag for me. Of all the dishes we sampled, I would say that I enjoyed about half, and that includes the humble fishball soup that I had at Eng Bee Tin, the pata tim and the asado at Sa Lido, and the boiled beef with radish, and the oyster cake at another. I grew up on Macao or Hong Kong-style Chinese cuisine, eating with my family at restaurants like Panciteria San Jacinto, Panciteria de Santa Cruz, and Smart Restaurant in Manila. But these establishments are no longer there today. San Jacinto had moved to Pasig City, and the two others have either closed or moved elsewhere.

The tour was more than a culinary tour of bacchanalian proportions. It was a trip back in time in Manila's Chinatown.