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Binondo: New discoveries in the world’s oldest Chinatown

Steamed salted egg buns at President's Tea House
Growing up in a Chinese household, the concept of Binondo as a culinary haven was the farthest thing from my mind. Eating dishes like noodles, tofu, dimsum and hopia was the rule rather than the exception. Even to this day, the practice of putting the adjective “Chinese” before the word “food” when describing Binondo food sounds redundant and weird to me.

So much so that when I was asked to join the Binondo Food “Wok” Tour, the first thought that entered my mind was if there were still Chinese food that I haven’t tried inside the world’s oldest Chinatown.

I mean, through the years, I have pretty much covered the basics like Peking duck, Taiwanese-style pork chops, tikoy and sweet delicacies. But, as it turns out, there are still hidden places to discover and good eats that my taste buds haven’t yet tasted; secret pockets of culinary goodness that one can only discover during the three-and-a-half hour walking tour conducted by tour guide Ivan Man Dy.

Tour guide Ivan Man Dy shares Chinese delicacies with tourists
The first stop was New Po-Heng Lumpia House on the ground floor of an apartment building along Quintin Paredes Street (across Carvajal Street). The fresh lumpia, consisting of cabbage, carrots, tofu and pork filling wrapped in rice paper served as “appetizer” for the food tour.

Prepared as you order, the spring roll, which was brought over by Hokkien/Fujian immigrants, is served together with two condiments: crushed peanuts with brown sugar and dried seaweed with crispy bits of fried bihon (rice noodles). The ideal way to eat this southern Chinese roll is to sprinkle a little bit of the two condiments after every bite. Hot sauce can also be added for some additional kick.

The fresh lumpia—skip the utensils as it is best eaten by hand—is not only packed with flavor but also nutrients. Protein from the tofu and pork and fiber from the vegetables combine to make the perfect kickstart for the body and taste buds.

After finishing a half portion of sariwang lumpia, our group made a bee line towards Quick Snack. Right in the middle of Carvajal Street, this nondescript stall served the “breakfast” portion of the tour. Three Malay-Chinese inspired dishes: empanada, pansit guisado (stir-fried noodles) and fried tofu were served together with a glass of lemon water.

The empanada with meat, tofu and vegetable filling contains a savory sauce; unlike the traditional Filipino version that is drier and requires vinegar as a condiment. The pansit guisado may have a look of simplicity with only four elements but the taste is something one cannot replicate from a pack of commercial instant noodles.

Quick Snack's empanada.
While the decades-old recipe for the pancit may be a secret, each spoonful of noodle, meat and kangkong definitely gave hints of sambal (chili), spices, and soy sauce. My favorite of the three was the fried tofu, or what Dy referred to as “tokwa ni Amah Pilar.”

I could almost imagine Amah (Hokkien for grandmother) Pilar being similar to my 83-year-old, strict but doting grandmother. Amah Pilar established Quick Snack in 1968 when she was already 60 years old.

If any dish was worthy of carrying her name, the fried tokwa definitely merits the distinction. The crispy skin, soft tofu meat, fresh taste of the herbs and a little bit of heat from the hot sauce all worked together to provide a wonderful mid-day snack.

The next stop may only be a few meters away from Carvajal Street, but taste and origin-wise is thousands of kilometers away from the southern provinces of China. Dong Bei on Nueva Street fits the definition of a hole-in-the-wall eatery, complete with dining and kitchen areas no bigger than a typical studio-type condominium unit.

Tour participants sampled dimsum with the flavor profiles found in North-East China. The kuchay (Chinese chives/leeks) with pork dumplings was served straight from the steamer. The dough had the perfect thickness, not too thin and not too heavy. A little dab of the light soy or chili oil goes well with the sweet taste of the rich and juicy kuchay-pork filling.

Amah Pilar's tokwa
The deep-fried stuffing pancake was a first for me but there was really nothing extraordinary. It was the least healthy of the three and there were not a lot of things happening flavor-wise. Meanwhile, the addition of cumin and sesame seeds on top of the stir-fried sinjiang chicken hit all the right spots.

“Pre-dessert” desserts, mango sago and steamed salted egg buns from President’s Tea House were the next featured dishes. I can probably assume that most Filipinos are familiar with the mango sago, either as an afternoon drink or after-meal dessert. In what could be described as some sort of culinary mystery, the filling of the yellow steamed buns was held from us at the beginning.

We carefully took our first bites and for a few seconds wondered what ingredient we were tasting. The hot filling turned out to be a salted egg-based custard that tasted more on the sweet side than salty. The yellow on yellow dessert, while messy to eat, tasted not bad at all.

After tasting some Chinese preserved fruits, vegetables and meats, Ho-land Hopia, at the corner of Carvajal and Yuchengco Streets was the last stop in the Binondo culinary tour. While the classic mongo and pork varieties continue to be the best-sellers, flavors such as ube-macapuno and buko-pandan also make for ideal dessert treats.

Two tips when buying at Ho-land: first, the hopia cooked using lard/pork fat is the tastier type compared to the corn-oil version. Second, buy hopia at mid-afternoon, when the packs are still warm and almost always freshly made that day.

What to do after?

Binondo has a wealth of attractions, from delicious food to be found in restaurants and hole-in-the-wall places to shopping opportunities in nearby Divisoria. GMA News
All that eating can only result in two things: a fully-charged body with tons of energy to shop, or a need to rest.

For the former, Divisoria has always been known as the Philippines’ biggest market for anything and everything under the sun, from raw materials to ready-to-wear clothes, home and office supplies and even the proverbial kitchen sink. It is advisable to schedule your visit on a weekday as the traffic during the weekend tends to be medium to heavy the whole day.

For the latter, Ramada Manila Central, right across the Minor Basilica of San Lorenzo Ruiz (Binondo Church) and only 300 meters away from the mouth of Divisoria, sponsored the food tour and provided accommodations for the media.

The two-year-old hotel’s main selling point is the location, but the biggest advantage is its hospitable staff.

Personally, I prefer the more relaxed afternoon itinerary of either having a foot massage or watching the latest movies at Lucky Chinatown Mall, a mere 5-10 minute walk from the hotel. 

As I gathered my thoughts about a weekend packed with all things food, I realized there’s one more thing that I need to eat: my own words. Even after spending more than a decade of growing up in the streets of Binondo, I found that there are still establishments, cuisines, flavors and food experiences just waiting to be discovered. — BM, GMA News