Any city's Chinatown is bound to be a culinary adventure, and given that Binondo is one of the oldest in the world, a food tour here is one way to, as Old Manila Walks tour guide Ivan Man Dy puts it, experience history through your tummy.
But with its narrow and sometimes winding streets, old buildings, and countless shops and restaurants, taking on Binondo all by your lonesome, especially when you aren't too familar with that part of the city of Manila in the first place, can be a very daunting and stressful endeavor. Which is why we were delighted when we were invited on a food tour that would give us a chance to try out the newly launched Otterbox Commuter Wallet, a handy phone case built for the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S4 that comes with a slide-out compartment that can hold up to three ATM or credit cards or a combination of a couple of bills and cards.
Our experience was fun and fulfilling--in terms of knowledge as well as the contents of our tummies. We got to sample not just the expected dishes like lumpia, hopia, siopao, and more, but we also got to try things like innard soup and cumin chicken. We learned about the different Chinese cultures that came to settle in Manila--not just the majority of immigrants who can trace their ancestors back to China's Fujian province, but also those from Canton and the northern provinces.
Binondo Food TourClick through the slideshow below to see pics from our own jaunt through Binondo's culinary history.
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- The Big Binondo Food Wok TourTour guide Ivan Man Dy starts the tour by giving us a bit of the historical perspective to the food tour we're about to embark on. He shows us a map dating back to colonial times, which clearly shows Chinatown just outside the walls of Intramuros.
- The Big Binondo Food Wok TourThe first stop on the food tour is the Po-Heng Lumpia House, found in the courtyard of one of the area's buildings.
- The Big Binondo Food Wok TourOne absolute must-try at Po-Heng Lumpia House is the freshly rolled Hokkien-style lumpia, also known as Chinese lumpia or lumpiang sariwa outside Chinatown--in Binondo, however, it's known as just lumpia. It's made mostly from mixed veggies, although shrimp, peanuts, tofu, and ground meat have been added for extra flavor. This dish is meant to be eaten burrito or shawarma style.
- The Big Binondo Food Wok TourMisua guisado is another favorite at the Po-Heng Lumpia House. Ivan recommends asking to have the dish topped with roasted peanuts. If you like it a little wetter, you can also ask for vegetable broth to mix into this dish, which tastes similar to pancit canton, except that the misua adds a unique element to it.
- The Big Binondo Food Wok TourThe next stop has us going through a narrow alleyway to access it, and the passage is made even narrower by the stacks of fresh fruit for sale on both sides. Apart from the usual apples, oranges, and pears, you also get more exotic fruits like kiwis and pomegranates.
- The Big Binondo Food Wok TourCleanse your palate with assorted preserves available from this corner grocery store.
- The Big Binondo Food Wok TourThe assortment of preserves means there's something for every palate--preserved red ginger for a spicy kick, salted plum to pucker your mouth, cornick for the crunch, and many, many more items.
- The Big Binondo Food Wok TourThe next stop is Cafe Mezzanine, which is perhaps one of the better known stops on this tour. It's on Nueva (Yuchengco) Street, just around the corner from the Binondo Church. It specializes in cantonese cuisine.
- The Big Binondo Food Wok TourPosters of the restaurant's best sellers serve as teasers before we head upstairs.
- The Big Binondo Food Wok TourCafe Mezzanine's kiampeng rice is a must-try at the restaurant, and while flavorful, this is not so overwhelming that it needs to be served as a separate course. In fact, it goes very well with many of the restaurant's soups.
- The Big Binondo Food Wok TourThis Gokong, or five-herb soup, definitely lives up to its name. The broth has a distinctly herby flavor with notes of meat thanks to the addition of both chicken and pork to the list of the ingredients.
- The Big Binondo Food Wok TourThe Kamto soup is made with innards and cartilage. The flavor of the broth is much lighter than that of the gokong dish, but not so light that you miss the taste of the meat or get so full that you feel unable to continue the tour.
- The Big Binondo Food Wok TourThis bowl of fishball soup is just lovely. The clarity of the broth makes for a light, delicate soup. The fishballs aren't the ones you buy from the street vendor, either--they're firm and solid and everything fishballs should be.
- The Big Binondo Food Wok TourHave a bit of this tofu appetizer with a generous helping of chili sauce and horseradish--it's got that great salty-savory yet filling appetizer that tells us this works well as a light lunch or afternoon snack.
- The Big Binondo Food Wok TourThe restaurant's special kundo (wintermelon) juice is very refreshing and has an almost gulaman-like appeal.
- The Big Binondo Food Wok TourThe restaurant is owned and run by volunteer firefighters and is decorated with old firefighter memorabilia.
- The Big Binondo Food Wok TourProceeds from the restaurant's earnings go toward supporting the volunteer firefighting group.
- The Big Binondo Food Wok TourDong Bei Dumplings is a bit of a walk from Cafe Mezzanine, but it's well worth it. The restaurant serves up traditional dishs from China's northern regions.
- The Big Binondo Food Wok TourWhat's more, all the dumplings are made fresh right in front of you. In fact, you can watch the dumpling-making process from just outside the shop since it only seats around 20 people.
- The Big Binondo Food Wok TourThese homemade dumplings are very tasty--you really get a sense of how fresh they are with every bite. Some versions come with plain ground meat, while others contain greens like kutchai as well as ground meat, which, by the way, is also ground by hand.
- The Big Binondo Food Wok TourThis Cumin Chicken dish is Chinese, but the use of this particular spice gives it an almost Indian flavor.
- The Big Binondo Food Wok TourThese fried "pancakes" stuffed with ground meat and (in some cases) veggies are suprisingly moist and definitely both fresh and flavorful.
- The Big Binondo Food Wok TourSiopao and hopia stands abound in Binondo. This one comes with neither seats nor tables, but it's popular nevertheless for its bicho-bicho (fried dough with sugar often referred to as the Filipino doubhnuts).
- The Big Binondo Food Wok TourOutside Binondo you have two options when ordering siopao--A for asado and B for bola-bola. But in Binondo, you also get a third option, Option C, which is a siopao stuffed with ground meat, steamed, then pan-fried.
- The Big Binondo Food Wok TourThe Eng Bee Tin Chinese Deli is actually a pastry shop and pasalubong center--in fact, it's the best place to buy goodies to take home because it's the last stop of the tour.
- The Big Binondo Food Wok TourEng Bee Tin's shelves are lined with colorfully packaged food gifts.
- The Big Binondo Food Wok TourThe Chinese deli's hopia ube and tikoy ube are two of the items that catapulted it to fame. These remain extremely popular purchases.
- The Big Binondo Food Wok TourOur favorite flavored hopia, however, was the chilled custard hopia, which was great and refreshing after walking most of the afternoon.
- The Big Binondo Food Wok TourYou can get mooncake and tikoy all year round at the Eng Bee Tin pastry shop and Chinese deli.
- The Big Binondo Food Wok TourThe Big Binondo Food Wok is just one of the tours offered by Old Manila Walks, a tour company conceptualized by Ivan Man Dy. For more information on the various tours available, you can check out their website.
You can book a spot on the Big Binondo Food Wok Tour (or even book a private tour) by Old Manila Walks by sending them an e-mail or giving them a call at (0917) 329-1622 ot (02) 711-3823. Look for Ivan or Cherry. You can also learn more about Old Manila Walks via their website.
Photos by Cons Reyes
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