History Through Food: A Food Tour of Manila’s Chinatown

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When Old Manila Walks tour leader Ivan said that the day’s tour would be a history lesson through food, I knew I was in the right place. I’m a bit of a history nerd (it’s what I studied during undergrad) and I obviously love to eat. This Manila food tour was going to be my first real introduction to the city and its history, so I excitedly met Ivan in the lobby of Binondo Church with an empty stomach and an open mind.

Manila Food Tour - Chinatown
The entrance to Manila’s Chinatown.

Binondo is a majority Chinese area in Manila, and is considered to be the world’s oldest Chinatown. 5% of Manila’s population is Chinese, called ‘Chinoy’, and their cuisine plays a major part in the way the people of the city eat.

New Po Heng Lumpia House

Manila Food Tour - Lumpia House
Our first stop

The first stop on our Manila food tour was New Po Heng Lumpia House, a small restaurant located in the back courtyard of an old building. Seated on plastic chairs, Ivan told the group about one of the most famous Chinese foods in Manila, lumpia, or spring rolls. At New Po Heng we would try the most classic type: freshly rolled.

Manila Food Tour - Lumpia
A kind of Chinese-Mexican-Filipino fusion

The lumpia were much larger than I expected, almost resembling a small Chinese burrito and filled with mostly vegetables. Ivan gave us instructions on how to ready them for eating: a dab of hot sauce, a glob of a sweeter sauce, and a dusting of peanuts. The combination of sweet, hot, and the crunch of the fresh vegetables was fantastic and I had to keep reminding myself not to fill up as we still had three more hours of eating.

Dong Bei Dumpling House

Manila Food Tour - Dong Bei Dumpling House
Home to delicious dumplings

After lumpia, we made our way to Dong Bei Dumpling House. Although the majority of Chinese immigrants in Manila came from the southern Chinese province of Fujian, the dumplings of Dong Bei are northern Chinese cuisine.

Everything at Dong Bei is homemade and we were able to watch the employees roll out the wrappers and fill them before they were sent to the back to be boiled.

Manila Food Tour - Making Dumplings
Dumpling making in action

First, we tried jiao tse, a type of boiled dumpling. The jiao tse had three different types of fillings which gave them a slightly different appearance. The dumplings filled with chives were a vibrant green, those filled with celery and cabbage looked much more pale, and the ones with shrimp inside were slightly orange. Next up, we tried a Chinese stuffed pancake, similar to something I’d made in Taiwan, which is almost like a dumpling that is pressed flat.

Manila Food Tour - Steamed Dumplings
A variety of jiao tse
Manila Food Tour - Savory Pancake
Chinese savory pancake

Dipped in a sauce made of soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, and chili oil, the dumplings were delicious and fresh.

Merienda

Though we were starting to feel ever more full, we continued on our Manila food tour for merienda. A holdover from the Spanish colonial times, merienda is a snack between lunch and dinner. This being Chinatown, our first merienda treat was siu bao. Siu bao is a Chinese hot bun that is filled with pork and seven spices and then steamed. The taste was slightly sweet, different from other pork buns I’ve had.

Manila Food Tour - Siu Bao
Pork bun fresh from the steam basket

Cafe Mezzanine

Finally, it was time for the main course, lunch, at a second floor restaurant called Cafe Mezzanine. We were served salted rice, a type of white rice cooked with soy sauce, peanuts, and chives, and fish ball soup. We were instructed to dip the rice into the soup broth to wet it slightly. Luckily, the portions were small as I was positively stuffed at this point.

Manila Food Tour - Cafe Mezzaine
The main course

Dessert

The last stop on our Manila food tour was for dessert. Ivan brought us to a small shop selling hopia, a pastry traditionally filled with bean paste. At the mention of bean paste I was hesitant. I’d choked down enough red bean filled desserts in Korea to know I was not a fan. But when I was handed a newer version of hopia, filled with a sweet pastry cream, I was impressed.

With that the tour was over and it was time to roll my over-indulged self through the sweltering streets of Manila, back to the air conditioned sanctuary that was my hostel to recover.

The morning spent exploring Manila’s frenetic Chinatown with Old Manila Walks was entertaining, educational, and, most importantly, very filling.

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A Food Tour of Manila's Chinatown

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