When in Binondo, Wok this Way
A month after Lunar New Year, TravelBook.ph is still craving the Chinese treats served up in Ivan Man Dy’s famed walking tour.
By Jamie Arcega
March 19, 2011
It began and ended in a lumpia house.
Actually, it really began at the entrance of the Minor Basilica of Saint Lorenzo Ruiz, otherwise known as the Binondo Church where, on the afternoon of the Lunar New Year of the Metal Rabbit, tour guide and entrepreneur Ivan Man Dy of Old Manila Walks gathered a group of forty people, foreigners and locals alike, TravelBook.ph included. The large number was most likely because of the auspicious date, but Ivan's tours have always drawn crowds regardless of what day it is.
After regrouping outside the church, Ivan launched into a brief narrative about Chinatown, citing the significance of the Chinese traders' presence near Intramuros during the Spanish era and their contributions to commerce and history. Even today, the influence on trade is evident in Binondo. This part of Manila is still home to the majority of Manila's Chinese nationals and is known for the thriving businesses and, of course, Chinese food!
After his introduction, Ivan started walking and, armed with walking tour essentials--a bottle of water, an umbrella and a camera--we followed suit. The group walked a short distance to a little sidestreet along Quintin Paredes that opened up into a courtyard and a simple eatery. We found ourselves in New Po-Heng Lumpia House, our first stop. Here the star of the show was the lumpia or fresh spring roll which, according to Ivan, is traditionally served during the Chinese New Year as a reminder of traditions past, when during the harvest, the best vegetables were "rolled" together and enjoyed during the festivities. As we sipped our hot tea, Ivan also recounted how this particular dish originated in the south or Fujian (Fookien) province. In the foreground, we watched as a woman quickly assembled what was to be our first bite of the day: an assortment of vegetables mixed with seaweed, rice noodles, pork and peanuts rolled into rice paper wrappers. We each received half a lumpia which one could garnish with sweet sauce, hot sauce or garlic with vinegar. Needless to say, we had everything on it. Topping off the lumpia was another Chinese new year staple, cha misua or stir-fried noodles. With our appetites whet, we were off and ready for more.
From there, another brisk stroll through Binondo ensued. We passed by vendors on the street selling lucky charms and fruits and soon found ourselves in front of Dong Bei Dumpling on Yuchengco Street. It was, as Ivan fondly called it, a "hole in the wall." The description was apt, for there was nothing to announce the presence of the most popular dumpling restaurant in all of Chinatown. The interiors was sparse save for a set of tables and stools set against both walls with red posters (the menu, presumably) written in Chinese on one, a tarpaulin with photos of dumplings on the other. Two women sat by the window, busy rolling tiny circles of dough and stuffing them with an assortment of meat and vegetables. A bowlful of dumplings, already plumped and pinched, were ready for the kitchen. If we had just sampled food from the south of China, Ivan said, we were now to get a taste of what the north had to offer. Here we sampled steamed and fried kuchay dumplings that were quickly snapped up by clicking chopsticks. After making a mental note to return after the tour to purchase frozen dumplings to take home, we once again hit the streets.
By this time, the crowds had already picked up. The streets were full of merrymakers and the sounds of drums and gongs were in the air. It was a challenge keeping up with the group, but after a buddy system was put in place (a foolproof method that Ivan employs when heading large groups), we were back on track. Speaking of buddies, we soon discovered a pair of lions at our tail, and after some prodding from Ivan, the duo performed a traditional lion dance to ward off evil spirits, much to the delight of the Latina ladies in the group. After the lions received their "treat" (which came in the form of a red envelope) it was our turn. We huddled in front of a little stall on Benavidez Street that served sugarcane juice and steamed hot buns, the stall's specialty, which Ivan called "Siopao Specimen C," containing neither the requisite bola-bola (meat balls) or asado (cured pork), but a secret ingredient he would not reveal. Our put our tastebuds to the test, but couldn't identify the main ingredient--only a hint of wansoy. Three guesses, anyone?
The next stop was a cafe atop Eng Bee Tin's hopia place called Café Mezzanine. The interiors were cozy and inviting. It was only after we were seated that we notice the memorabilia that decorated the cafe: framed photos of brave firefighters in action, an evolution of helmets through the years, and a fireman's hose decorated the walls. (Second only to Chinese food, Binondo is known for their ubiquitous purple fire engines and their dedicated volunteer fire brigade.) We were given glasses of iced coffee, a refreshing welcome after the walk. Next, we were served two bowls, one containing kiampong (salted fried rice), the other containing fishball soup. The trick, Ivan shared, is to pour the tasty broth over the salty rice for a satisfying combination of flavors. As a send-off from the friendly staff, we were gifted with hopia.
Full of food from our fourth stop, we did not expect what awaited us at the end. Two and a half hours after we began our gastronomic journey, we found ourselves back where we began--by the courtyard now bathed in shadows of the late afternoon. The Big Binondo Food Wok had come full circle. While we had visited some of Binondo's best kept secrets (the stops on the tour are conveniently close to one another and are some of Ivan's personal favorites), we were now even more curious as to what other culinary delights could be hidden in the area. Ivan bid us all goodbye and thanked us for our company, but not without surprising us with treats for the new year: tikoy (rice cake) and hopia in various flavors, as well as ang pao (red envelopes). Tummies, arms and shopping bags full, we left Binondo with a deeper appreciation for Chinese cuisine and made a promise to return to uncover more Chinatown secrets (including what's inside Siopao Specimen C!).
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