“Too much eating…can we take a break?” whispered the man next to me. Blasphemous statements if I ever heard it. Apparently some of us (amateurs) thought that there wasn’t enough of a break between food! Please. You guys don’t take breaks at buffets. Nor do you rest during marathon Noche Buenas. But you can’t handle a few tastings here and there after our 2nd stop?! The Force is weak with these ones I thought as we continued our Binondo Food Tour (Part 1) down Ongpin Street in Manila.
I strode forward confidently, belly first, having grown soft from the past few days of feasting. Like some jiggly Alexander the Great, ready to conquer, one plate at a time. Full or otherwise, I was gonna get my money’s worth!
Our next stop was Dong Bei, known for their dumplings. Supposedly their Xiao Long Bao (or soup dumplings) are on point but our tour guide Anson wasn’t impressed by them. Instead we had simple pork and chive dumplings and fried pancakes. Don’t let the to-the-point names fool you. After all, a pork and chive dumpling in Binondo is named the same as one found in some podunk Chinese take-out eatery in Iowa…but the quality is worlds away. Would a dumpling by any other name taste as good (sorry Shakespeare…had to do it)? These dumplings were hand-filled merely steps away from us by 3 Filipina ladies who would have put the corner store in Lower East Side, NY to shame.
The skin was translucent with a slight sheen. Firm yet not overcooked and chewy. If it can hold despite being half-bitten long enough for an Instagram pic, you know it’s good! The flavors simple, clean, and unpretentious. Paired with the chili-soy sauce, this was a dish whose aim was to please, not impress. The pancakes were just OK. The right amount of breading, good filling to starch ratio. Nothing wrong with it…just not that impressive. All in all, Dong Bei is the type of hole-in-the-wall you go to on a lazy Sunday afternoon when you want something predictable and consistently made right.
We polished the last few dumplings and exited quickly. As a bonus, we made a stop at a nearby vegetarian spot where we sampled fried spinach dipped in a tempura batter. Not exactly as crispy as it should have been but good enough. We also had “faux meat”, a sticky gluten mixture that tasted, looked, and felt exactly like a beef stir fry. Had they kept quiet, I would totally have been fooled. Funny how dishes like these were already being made ages ago while the Western world has only begun experimenting with meat glue and similar ingredients (at triple the price too!).
Just when the majority of us were about to throw in the towel from being too full, Anson took us to a Chinese drug store for a quick break. The place was stuffy; the pungent aroma of Chinese herbs mixed with perfumes and humidity hung in the air. From scented Florida water to repel mosquitoes to dried lizards for asthma relief, the place was the stereotypical house of exotic wonder.
Next was a street vendor a few blocks away (everything seemed to be a few blocks away) selling Siopao (steamed buns) and the long Chinese donuts usually served with congee. Anson explained that these 2 dishes, while having its roots in Chinese cuisine, transformed in the streets of Binondo. Roast pork was replaced by adobo fillings for the siopao and apparently, the entire bun is now fried to create a golden, crisp bottom. The Chinese donuts were placed in a bag and sprinkled with sugar (much to my mom’s confusion as to how something that was supposed to be savory turned into a dessert). With a side of hot chocolate, the whole thing could have been some Asian version of the churro!
Our final spot was not unknown to us: Eng Bee Tin Chinese Deli, famous for their ube hopias (small, round pastries usually filled with a bean paste but now filled with their signature purple yam mix) and moon cakes. Such was its popularity that there was almost one on every block; the Binondo equivalent of Starbucks in its ubiquity. Purple-hued walls and decor greeted us as well as an entire wall filled with every imaginable hopia flavor: ube, keso (cheese), moccachino, custard, mango, mung beans, chocolate, wintermelon, squirrel (kidding on that last one).
We grabbed a basket and picked 2 flavors to try: the custard and the cheese and purple yam. The custard was served chilled, with the creamy filling tasting slightly like a thick leche flan. Dark yellow and smooth, the mix was sweet though not cloyingly so. It was the first time I had a hopia chilled but the flaky exterior was close enough to the original that the pastry didn’t seem gimmicky at all.
The cheese version was even more interesting. Mixed with ube, the cheese looked dark orange and tasted nothing like it. The closest description I can say is the semi-sour aftertaste of the plain cream cheese one uses on bagels and cheesecakes. It took more time for my brain to process the combination than it did to chew it. How Filipinos decided to “dessert-ify” cheese (I mean…we make cheese-flavored ice cream after all) in the absence of traditionally lighter and sweeter cheeses like ricotta is beyond me.
Just as I was halfway through my second hopia, the tour ended abruptly with not much of a concluding statement or fanfare. We said our goodbyes right in the store amidst customers attempting to go around our large group. In between our final bites of flaky hopia, it’s hard not to notice the duality of our tour. Chinese in sensibility, but distinctly Filipino in its own sense: siopao with Filipino entrees as fillings, sweetened Chinese donuts, and hopia with unusual flavors. Not entirely accepted by either culture, but enjoyed by both.
I was reminded of a strange sight halfway through our tour: a roadside shrine of a Christian cross worshiped in the Chinese manner of waving burning incense sticks thrice. Anson mentioned that only here in Binondo did the Tsinoys combine Taoism, Buddhism, and Catholicism into some “fusion religion”. “Mga Tsinoy kasi…segurista [Chinese-Filipinos leave nothing to chance]. At least when they die, whoever’s up there will take them!” he jokingly said. I prefer to think that the people of Binondo were like sponges, soaking all of their surroundings to create new, exciting forms. The creation of a new dish here was no momentous occasion, it was simply a daily affair. A daily exclamation of: “Home is where I make it to be”.