“The story you will hear today,” began our guide in the stuffy lobby of the Minor Basilica of San Lorenzo Ruiz, “is a story of migration. Of entire cultures fusing to create new ideas, mannerisms, and of course as this is a food tour…dishes”.
Home has always been a tricky concept for me to grasp. I’ve lived in the US for the past 8 or so years yet always felt out of place in the Midwest where I spent most of them. I grew up in Saudi Arabia but always knew I was just the son of a temporary employee. And while I’m Filipino by citizenship, I never grew up in the Philippines and so the motherland was just one humid, fun-filled, vacation spot. But if I had to choose a place where the residents’ stories and blood came closest to my Tsinoy (Chinese-Filipino) one, it would be the Chinatowns of the Philippines. Of course my Chinese relatives who run the shops on Iznart St., Iloilo would be closest, but Binondo situated in Manila, purportedly the second oldest Chinatown in the world (ahead of even Japan, Thailand, and Korea), would be a close and much more “flavorful” second.
On a whim (and perhaps guided by some innate attraction to all things food…this is a food blog after all), the fam and I signed up for a food tour of Binondo led by Anson of Old Manila Walks (whose head honcho Ivan Dy, hosted Anthony Bourdain during his visit here). Out of our hotel, a quick train ride, down a few stairs, and once the first subtle hint of freshly made siopao hit our noses…we knew this wasn’t just Manila anymore.
“Binondo is a much shortened version of Maliit na Bundok, or Small Mountain, as sailors coming into the Bay often saw this area before seeing Manila,” explained Anson to our small group of 6 as we stood atop the Ramada Hotel’s penthouse, a failed club turned party room. The area was built for the many Chinese immigrants coming in from the Fujian province where my grandfather hails from. It was in this seaside, cramped area where Chinese (the majority of who came from the Fujian province and thus spoke Hokkien) businessmen, Filipino workers, and Spanish prayles (priests), lived together and would set the stage for our meals today.
We went back down into the Church where Anson proceeded to talk about the role of Christianity in the community but to be honest, my mind went numb. Either from traumatic memories of grade school teachers yelling in heavy Filipino accents and Taglish: “And den Lapu-Lapu killed Magellan kasi di nya gustong mag-convert!” or perhaps as Alton Brown once said, “I’m just here for the food”.
Our first food stop (about damn time) was the New Po-Heng Lumpia House. Hidden in the back of an old alleyway and marked by a dimly lit red sign, the entrance seemed to belong more to some seedy brothel than a restaurant. Keep walking though though and the alley opens into an airy, Art Deco patio lined by plants on one side and old plastic tables on the other.
Every Pinoy knows the Lumpia, or as I incorrectly knew it: the “Spring Roll”. From lumpiang sariwa (lumpia with a soft, egg crepe wrapping) to the more common lumpiang Shanghai (which isn’t really from Shanghai…go figure), we’ve seen enough of them at family gatherings to think we know ’em all. Apparently, lumpia is a derivative of the Hokkien “lun” (easy to swallow) and “pia” (roll). Ours came wrapped in the sariwa style of an egg crepe filled with lettuce, dried seaweed, tofu, carrots, chicken, fried rice noodles, peanuts, and sugar. Anson instructed us to first taste it without any accompanying sauces and then to add minced garlic, chilli sauce, and sweet peanut sauce one-by-one, tasting as we went, to get a melding of several layers of flavors. Leave it to the Chinese to get some harmonious food Zen going on before Iron Chef judges waxed on about flavor themes. As I was enjoying mine, my mom leaned over and whispered in Ilonggo, “kung ka tilaw ka lang sang himo ni ama mo…waay-waay guid ni!” (“if you only tried the one your Chinese grandmother would make, this doesn’t even compare”). Such are Filipino-Chinese parents…never satisfied unless they or their kin make it.
We ate quickly and left once the latecomers (who were Filipinos…no surprise) joined us. After just a few more blocks (or maybe more…I know he was talking about some historical fact of the area but again…selective memory fails me), we were at the next stop: the Cafe Mezzanine, a sister restaurant of the ubiquitous Eng Bee Tin Bakery (more on that later).
Ushered onto the second floor (where food is more expensive due to the presence of air conditioning), we sat amidst old firemen hats as apparently all revenue was donated to the local volunteer fire brigade. Our dishes here began with the Kiampung (“salty rice” in Hokkien), which urban legend has it, was created by a thrifty housewife who cooked her rice in the leftover sauce from another dish. A mixture of slightly glutinous rice, meat, and topped with peanuts, it was almost exactly like the one my mom used to make for Friday lunches in Saudi Arabia. Still she prompted, “kung ka tilaw ka lang sang himo ni ama mo…mas ma gustohan mo pa” (you can guess). Apparently it was missing the broccolli, shiitake mushrooms, and taro of her childhood. I sat quietly, chomping away with the side bowl of Fish Ball Soup and cold Wintermelon Juice. Meh. Food was food…and if Bourdain walked these paths, then I might as well enjoy it too.
Walking down I thought with a hint of bittersweet emotion, “maybe this isn’t home after all”. The people may finally look and talk like me, their ancestors may have ridden the same boats as mine, wore the same clothes, spoke the same dialect. But if even the food, one of the most primal things they’ve shared, couldn’t be agreed on (meanwhile my mom continues to pick at her supposedly sub-par kiampung), is it really home? Binondo’s story, and thus mine in some way, is one of migration. We have no home. Our food is an amalgamation of the people who come and go. The Hokkien method of stir frying here, the Filipino ingredient there. Ever changing yet vaguely similar. I guess home in itself is an ever-changing concept.
The Confucian moment faded away as I washed the last drops of wintermelon juice, walked down the steps, and readied myself for the next food stops. Come with.