“Four hundred years of history and up to four hours of decadence.” This is how the Old Manila Walks, a group of passionate tour guides of Manila, describes one of its popular tours, the Big Binondo Food Wok.
Basically, it is an appetizing, mouth-watering walk along the streets of Binondo and dubbed the ultimately food trip for Chinese food lovers. This walking tour takes participants to various historical sites and landmarks in Binondo while making several stops at food stalls and shops to sample authentic Chinese fare.
Down Memory Lane
When my office at the Foreign Service Institute organized a tour of Binondo to appreciate relations between the Philippines and China, I was not exactly thrilled. I was raised in that all-too familiar place, and I felt that I knew everything about it. Surprisingly, however, the tour proved to be a welcome rediscovery.
Ivan Man Dy, our tour guide, walked us down various places in Binondo like Plaza Calderon dela Barca, Basilica de San Lorenzo Ruiz, Ongpin street, and Carvajal alley market. He shared a lot of information and told stories about the history behind these sites. For example, the bell tower of the Basilica de San Lorenzo is actually a Chinese pagoda. Its hexagonal shape supposedly keeps evil spirits away. Carvajal alley, meanwhile, is still known as 'umbrella alley' among many Chinoys for the umbrella merchants that used to line the small street. The interesting tidbits behind these places give one a more enlightened view of a place that most people often take for granted.
As we passed through these sites, Ivan narrated the Chinese influences on Philippine history like the Chinese contribution to the Philippine Revolution against Spain. He also shared how the early Chinese immigrants influenced economic growth in the community. These historical insights reflected the long-standing relations between the two nations.
Ivan also pointed out the many complexities of both Chinese and Filipino culture and the intricate fusion between the two that essentially characterizes Binondo. The Santo Cristo de Longos Shrine on San Nicolas Street is a good example of this: people put sampaguita garlands, but some also burn Chinese incense sticks and offer fruits at the crucifix.
Nibbling through Binondo
But the highlight of the tour was undoubtedly the sumptuous Chinese food that is synonymous to Binondo. Our first stop was at a fastfood restaurant that serves Hokkien food popular in South China. My colleagues and I sampled kiam peng (salty rice) and tsui yi teng (meatball soup). It tasted like home-cooked food that mom or Amah (grandma) would cook on special occasions or during a Sunday lunch with the family. Being a Chinese-Filipino or Chinoy, I savored the dishes not with weary taste buds, but with a hearty appetite that also savored the childhood memories that came with the food.
Next was Dong Bei, a nondescript dumpling restaurant that serves mouthwatering dumplings of different varieties: pork, shrimp, and vegetable. They make the dough fresh every day and the fillings were very tasty. One could eat those dumplings even without vinegar. The place is a no-frills affair,though. Just five tables with four stools each.
Roaming around the area, we also sampled tea eggs, fried siopao, and bicho-bicho until our stomachs were filled to bursting. As if we hadn't had enough food, we ended the food trip in Uy Su Bin, an old Art Deco building, for Hokkien-style lumpia stuffed with vegetables, seaweeds, and fried noodles topped with thick brown sauce.
The food trip was a delicious journey that highlighted the best of Chinese food, particularly from South China, for Filipinos to enjoy. It offered many appetizing discoveries that give Filipinos an alternative to yang chow fried rice, siomai, lumpiang shanghai, and sweet and sour pork.
It was certainly an enjoyable experience among Filipino friends in the office who were appreciative and open to tasting Chinese food that Chinoys like me have grown to love.
The Binondo Experience
Indeed, beyond sharing one’s food, it was the imparting of Chinese culture to Filipinos that made the tour a unique experience. It was also a showcase of the legacy of Chinese influences in the Philippines and the enduring fusion of both nations’ cultures and traditions.
The Big Binondo Food Wok is an interesting tour with Ivan as the tour leader. Describing himself as a 'street walker', Ivan is witty and charming with a lot of really funny jokes to crack. Dressed in a Chinese traditional costume with matching hat and queue, he captures the attention of the tour participants and sustains their interest.
If money is not an issue, the tour is a nice way to spend a stomach-filling, mind-enriching afternoon with family, friends, or officemates. The tour is quite expensive, though, considering how inexpensive food in Binondo is. Although we sampled a lot of food during the trip, the price of the tour is not that reasonable.
Luckily, once you've participated in the tour, you can pretty much be the certified food guide to your family and friends should you decide to bring them to Binondo.
Still, the Big Binondo Food Wok is a great adventure for those who appreciate history and good food. This learning and appetizing encounter is good exposure to appreciate Chinese traditions in the Philippine setting. Despite the price factors, the experience is still worth the trip downtown.
Print ed: 06/10