Note: In respect for Ivan ManDy’s future street walks, no establishment names and addresses will be given in this post.
Our walking tour is divided between two kinds of food stops: a sit-down food stop and a “sup while standing” food stop. One of our sit-down stops is at a restaurant that’s known for its siopao and mami. Having been around since the 1930’s, it underwent a name change when the family corporation decided to split up. Probably one of the few restaurants that refuses to install air-conditioning, ventilation is provided for by the ceiling fans. Ivan tells us that air-conditioning would toughen the siopaos.
Typical of many Fil-Chinese restaurants, we’re served golden hot tea in short glasses and our eating utensils are dunked in another glass filled with hot water. As I wipe my spoon and fork with a paper napkin, I wonder if there’s anywhere else in the world where people wipe down their utensils before eating.
The house specialty, mami, is served with a side dish of chopped scallions which one adds at will to the soup. The mami is piping hot, its broth cloudy. There are slices of both dark and white chicken meat and the noodles are what I’d expect from a Chinese restaurant: egg noodles that slip and slide, a delight to slurp and spray the person seated beside me. There’s a slightly gamy taste and smell to the soup that comes from the native chickens used to prepare it. After one sip, I follow what the others are doing: squirt some calamansi and some of the house sauce onto the soup. It doesn’t taste any better for me, since I can’t quite get over the gaminess of the soup. So I leave it.
The house sauce here is a viscous and sweet affair similar to fresh lumpia sauce. Light brown, it’s slathered over everything: on the soup, atop the siomai, and in the siopao, which I’m crazy about. Recognizing it as the siopao that my dad introduced me to when I was a little girl, and thus grew up eating, I excitedly tell everyone to order it. “It’s really excellent!” I gush. Slightly smaller than the jumbo siopaos, the ones served at this restaurant have a jaunty topknot. The dough, chewy with its characteristic bite, encloses shreds of moist meat and glistening dice of fat (but not too much). It’s true when they say that nostalgia is really the best cook. Food brings back memories.
One thing that I’ll never understand is why some people peel off the first layer of siopao dough. The dough is my absolute favorite part and I couldn’t bear to peel it off. “It’s because the siopao is dirtied by handling,” someone explained to me once. But that doesn’t make sense to me so live and let eat.
If you go on this walking tour, do order the siomai, but be prepared for something a little different than what you’re used to. These are not your delicate little siomais served in translucent rice wrappers but sturdy dumplings packed to bursting with ground pork. Make a dip by squeezing some calamansi onto the house sauce and add drops of toyo (soy sauce) if you’re so inclined. Sweet and sour and chewy all at once, it’s the old-fashioned style of siomai.
We all heave our now-heavier bottoms from the chairs and trundle on to our next stop. To allow some of the food to “go down,” as it were, our tourist group peeks into a Chinese drug store. Ivan does a spiel on the benefits of Chinese herbal cures, most of which are appetite killers for me, no offense to the Chinese. I cannot, for the life of me, imagine boiling a dried lizard and drinking the liquid, no matter how restorative the cure will be. I have my health limits. As you can see from the photo, every inch of flat space is occupied. As Ivan puts it, the set-up is normal for a store of this sort. I take a peek and am aghast ”“ an English word has yet to be invented for the bedlam (much too mild a word) that my eyes take in. Being an obsessive neat freak, my sensibilities are shocked. I scurry out of the store, but only after jousting for space with one of my group members. I want to snap a photo for posterity.
Along the way, we stop at a Chinese bakery. This one is standard of the lot: lots of yellow, over saturated light and every kind of lard-based pastry jostling for real estate on the groaning shelves. I love it. I pick up a pack of hopia baboy, my favorite variant among the multitude of monggo and ube.
“This is an evil soup,” Ivan tells us as we arrive at our next sit-down food stop. On the contrary, ”˜evil’ is just the first of many adjectives that spring to my mind as this benignly named “Szechuan-style spicy fish soup” is placed before us. For starters, it’s served in a huge aluminum mixing bowl, one of those giant ones that I use to mix bread dough in. What looks to our petrified group like dozens of fiery chilies litter the surface, their hot oils practically leaching out onto the curry-yellow broth. Fillets of fish peek menacingly out from behind their red curtain.
After being stupefied at the appearance of the soup, we come back to life, and following the obligated paparazzi shots, Ivan ladles out the soup. We each accept our bowl with reverence in all its sweltering, fervid magnificence. I notice that some of us actually look scared ”“ I know I am ”“ but it’s dishes like this that test one’s foodie mettle. It can’t always be safe food, after all.
I gingerly take my first sip. Kaie is looking at me amusingly. She knows my penchant for spice, and she’s wondering how I’ll take this one. There’s no one discernible flavor here, nor is it a symphony. It’s a hard-rock concert of one mighty, hot-tempered dish, the kind that lubricates the lips with every spoonful. I taste chili oil, curry, spice, and heat. And more heat. I like it actually, and I decide to scare Kaie by taking one chili pepper and biting into it. With a look of abject horror, Kaie perches on her seat, ready to run for the fire extinguisher. Surprisingly, the chili I bite into has been dried so there’s not much kick left in it, just a tiny sparkler of heat. I serve myself another bowl of soup while my nose starts to run, an aftereffect of eating spicy food.
Seeing the stupor that some of the group is in, Ivan orders some fried dough buns. Dipped into condensed milk, (dairy dissipates heat) the sweet and crunchy doughiness gives our taste buds the reprieve they’re screaming for. Some of us in the group however, are downing glass after glass of cold water, like a fire they desperately want to douse. This is an awesome dish but you’ve got to have balls to try it. It takes a real woman. Or man.
The same restaurant serves an excellent oyster cake, one that can compare to those that I had in Singapore. Not too oily, it has little pockets of saltiness that pop in the mouth, adding to the umami of the oysters.
On to our last stop, our group is chattering, perhaps an aftereffect of all the chili coursing through our petrified systems. There’s a smatter of “Grabe! Anghang!” as we wend our way through Binondo. I personally feel like I could start a fire just by exhaling.
At our last food stop, the sun has gone down and so have our appetites. Even I, the girl who purports to have a bottomless pit, can already feel the bottom bottoming out. Even though it’s just lumpia, (it’s just veggies!) I can truly feel that one bite will push me over the edge.
This lumpia, our last food stop, is the fresh vegetable kind that I often see at weekend markets. A paper-thin egg wrapper is stuffed with chopped carrots, tofu, sayote (chayote), sotanghon (vermicelli or glass noodles), hoti (Chinese nori), and what I consider to be the crowning touch, lots of chopped peanuts and a sprinkle of sugar. This Chinese “burrito” is reminiscent of what they have in Fujian province in China. The lumpia is large but thankfully, each is sliced in half so that we don’t have to finish one whole. Most of us pick at it, our stomachs complaining in unison.
Strangely enough, I don’t leave the tour feeling like a bloated version of myself. I’m even able to attend a dinner that happens later that night. To see Binondo through the eyes of someone who knows it well is this tour’s greatest gift, but it comes second only to Ivan ManDy, an urban adventurer who shares his knowledge and what it means to be a true foodie: someone who tells others where to find (and eat!) good food.
Special thanks to Ivan ManDy, streetwalker and urban explorer extraordinaire.
For future tours and tour schedules, check out his website: www.oldmanilawalks.com.