Third time’s a charm or at least that’s how the saying goes and this time it proved true. After my first jaunt around the Philippines in early 2016 and Manila being the main port of call I found myself here a couple times. Both though with failed attempts to dine with the Chinatown Food Tour hosted by Ivan Man Dy of Old Manila Walks. Well, I was back again for TBEX Asia – Philippines 2016, not that I needed a reason to come back, but it turned out my luck had changed. Old Manila Walks offered their food walk as a Pre-BEX tour which I lunged at immediately, teeth snapping.
A police escort (TBEX style) through the otherwise traffic barricaded streets of Manila from the Convention Center to Binondo Church at the heart of Old Chinatown. This is where we were introduced to Ivan for a quick history lesson on Manila, particularly the Chinatown district. Discussed were where in China the majority of people came from bringing their cuisine with them and the political situation between the Spanish, Chinese and Filipino. Making nothing lack some of his own quirky humour and energetic enthusiasm, he’s got a flare for making you want to listen to his vast knowledge of his city, people and cuisine.
Onwards to our first breakfast, the New Po-Heng Lumpia House. Through an unsuspecting door off a main road and into what seemed like an apartment building. Turns out it was as we were led into a courtyard, sat down at the tables and warned about an elderly lady that would get angry if we were too loud. I guess this was learned from experience.
It kind of looked like a cafeteria line that serviced the building. Pumping out fresh Tsinoy (Chinese/Filipino) style lumpia, we all waited patiently as the staff delivered them. Lumpia are more or less a spring roll, but these resembled more of a burrito with their size and crepe like wrapper. A spoonful of ground sweetened peanuts spread over the wrapper This followed by a spoonful of a crushed toasted rice noodles and seaweed mixture. A large scoop of lightly cooked carrots, cabbage and pork before being rolled leaving it warm in your hands. According to Ivan, the best way to go about eating these is to spread a thin layer of a sweet brown sauce and chili sauce over the end. Then a light dusting of some extra peanuts and the rice/seaweed mixture finishing it with a drizzle of vinegar. Constructing each bite to your preferred taste, it is sweet, savoury, soft and crunchy. A textural symphony and a perfect light snack. It was hard to not keep eating, but there was more to come.
A short walk into the alleyways of Binondo to Amahs’ Kitchen, a landmark café since the 60’s. We started with their version of the empanada. With a good meaty flavour, for me they had the texture of a canned dog food leaving me thinking of the superior empanadas to the north in Vigan.
Their signature dish created here was set on the table and dominated it like a center piece. A brick of tofu deep fried until beautifully golden, set in a thin pool of sweet soy with more and chili sauce dripping down the walls. Julienned cucumber and coriander perched on top with a sprinkling of crushed peanuts. A thing of unadulterated simplicity and one of my favorites of the day.
Everyone starting to feel the need for more food slip away, we had to trudge on… there was more to eat. Dong Bei Dumplings was a small narrow building with production on the main floor and seating on the two floors above. Here everything is handmade from the grinding of the pork to the kneading of the dough. This house produces a labour of love. The first plate down was a Beijing style dumpling called ‘jiaozi’ where it is boiled opposed to steamed or fried. Filled with fresh ground pork and chives it is then dipped in soy, aged vinegar and chili oil. A light porky pillow of heaven.
The second helping was described to us as a crispy stuffed pancake. About the diameter of a wheel of brie and an inch thick, it was cut into wedges and dipped in the same condiments. The dumplings were good, but this was divine. A crisp flaky dough and tender juicy filling of pork, celery and cabbage. I had to stop myself as there was still two more courses to go.
These short walks in between places were my saving grace activating my digestion making room for more. Luckily from here on though it would be on the lighter side of things. Into President Tea House for our first couple bites of dessert. Soaking in the air conditioning, an unnaturally florescent yellow steam bun treat was place in front of us. Filled with a salted duck egg custard, I would have had no idea. It was sweet and rich. A much better version of a Cadbury cream egg. This followed by a palate cleansing chilled mango soup with tapioca balls. Refreshing and sweet, I was ready for the last bites of the tour.
On our way we made a surprise stop at a ‘convenient’ shop selling local preserves. Seeing these large plastic tubs full of miscellaneous preserves all over, I’d never actually stopped to try any. Fiery red ginger, a candied anchovy-like fish, a salty/sour plum and my personal favorite, the pork floss. Shredded dried pork meat with the texture of fairy floss. Ever since finding this pork oddity on Banh Mi sandwiches in Vietnam, I’d love it and wished I could get it at the carnival.
Eng Bee Tin was the sixth and final stop for the morning and I was satisfied. A sweet shop saved until last where we tried 4 different kinds of ‘Hopia’. A small pastry disc about an inch thick with different fillings of salted egg, ube, coconut/pandanus and coconut. A bit dry for me and although they sound good in reality weren’t the most desirable flavours for me, but nevertheless I tried a couple bites of each. Even though it might not have been my choice winner of the day, it was a perfect way to end. With a dessert enjoyed vastly among the locals.
Eight months in the making for me, but it must have been meant to be. To finally indulge in the culinary secrets unveiled by Ivan from behind the walls of Binondo is nothing short of a treat. One that will fill you up, teach you a little something and have you coming back for the other good eats around the area that’s outlined in his handout map. This is by far up there with the best things to do in Manila so thank you to Old Manila Walks and TBEX for arranging such an amazing Pre-BEX tour. I’ll be back for the Soup#5.
For more information on Old Manila Walks, click here.
For more information on TBEX, click here.