Note: In respect for Ivan ManDy’s future street walks, no establishment names and addresses will be given in this post.
Binondo is one of those places that terrifies and delights me at the same time. The chaos is maddening, but I revel in everything there is to see (and smell, hear, and taste). My senses are on full-on alert in Binondo, our city’s Chinatown. Today, I have the best person in the world to take me on a tour of this most hallowed ”“ or profane, depending on which side you’re on ”“ part of our city.
Our tour guide is Ivan ManDy, an ebullient Filipino-Chinese. Having grown up in Binondo, he knows the area better than the back of his hand, and his zest for this place is truly contagious. With interests in architecture and history, Ivan is unrivalled when it comes to getting people to love Chinatown.
We stop at a tsokolate factory, the inside of which smells exactly the way I’d expect chocolate heaven to smell like: smoky, earthy, with the deep kiss of cacao. Because the factory narrows as one gets farther in, I totally miss out on Ivan’s talk. But it’s my fault really, since I’m engrossed in taking photos of all the tsokolate around me: there’s a man scooping out tableas from this mass of chocolate using a unique implement; at another corner, palayoks of tableas ready for packing sit patiently. Irresistible though it seems, nibbling on these tableas is not a good idea. Unsweetened chocolate (i.e. pure cacao) is a totally different animal from sweetened chocolate. We’re talking 100% cacao here that not even the most devoted dark chocolate fan could stomach.
As we leave, Styrofoam cups half filled with hot tsokolate are waiting for us. Hot chocolate aficionado that I am, I can only manage one sip. The liquid is thick and scalding and much, much too sweet.
The Chinese believe that dumplings bring closer ties and affection within the family. In some little street far removed from the pandemonium of Chinatown is this little store that serves us dumplings. Hailing from the northern part of China, these dumplings are boiled, which contributes to their slippery smoothness. This is unlike siomai which is steamed and cannot boast of the same attributes.
There are two types of dumplings, one with chives and the other one with herbs and ground pork. They’re excellent eaten while steaming hot and dunked into a tangy vinegar sauce similar to the dumplings served at Mien San.We also get a bite of some Chinese pancakes that remind me of radish cakes in both appearance and taste.
The word “scamper” is what Ivan uses to describe our little contingent as we zip across the streets. Just like in any big city, vehicles blithely ignore us and passenger bikes attempt to overtake us. I try to be macho while crossing the street, but no one can beat Ivan. He holds a tiny Philippine flag that he points at the oncoming vehicle much like a schoolteacher would when reprimanding an errant child. When the car has stopped, we all skitter across the street. Hooray for Ivan!
There’s so much to see in Binondo. So much. And so many photo-ops too. Twice, good friend Kaie and I are left behind by the group because there I am snapping away (always of food, I tell you). But Ivan has a sixth sense about the people in his tour groups and he patiently waits for slowpoke me while at the same time booming, “Lori, Lori, over here!” on his portable microphone which has a mini speaker attachment.
Street food rules here in Chinatown as well as produce. A woman is selling native kakanins all laid out temptingly on a straw basket. A few meters away, I spy vegetable stands with abundant displays of shallots (sibuyas Tagalog), ginger, tomatoes, and my favorite kind of sweet potato (kamote), which has light colored skin and an orange interior. Another stall is selling corn. I’m surprised that the corn “hair” is also being sold, and when asked why, the vendor replies that they’re boiled in water for a restorative hot drink.
Because Chinese New Year is fast approaching, I see a lot of tikoy being sold in the streets as well as gelatin in fish-shapes. Another festival dish are these tea eggs. Named such because they’re cooked in a mixture of soy sauce, black tea, and lots of star anise, the resultant dark liquid stains or “marbles” the white of the now-hardboiled egg.
Another street food that I enjoy is the bicho-bicho. I had this on the streets in Hong Kong some years back and I remember being disappointed at how gummy it tasted. But this! This bicho-bicho in Binondo, just seconds from its hot oil bath, is plump and puffy in its glory. It has a crunch that startles followed by a chewiness unique to itself. Eaten as is or dredged in sugar (which I prefer), these deep-fried crullers are also terrific stirred into congee. Unfortunately, the bichos need to be eaten quickly because exposure to air only hastens the demise of their crispness.