Saturday, January 2, 2010

Binondo Christmas

To my late father-in-law, who knew Binondo well and inspired me to discover it.



I was in Manila for barely four days last week--Christmas week--called back for an unexpected and sad journey with my wife. Fortunately, I still found a few hours in the day to escape and put my sad feelings aside for the brighter side of life.

On my second day in Manila, just two days before Christmas, I invited my youngest brother and his family for lunch in Binondo, where my father-in-law, during one of my infrequent visits to Manila took me to the original Mañosa, famous for take-out Maki. This fried pork cutlet, drowned in thick broth-infused red sauce, is irresistible over steaming rice or noodles.

Located on the north side of Pasig River in Manila is the old district of Binondo. Founded in the 16th Century, this teeming, crowded section of narrow streets and canals that feed into Pasig has been a settlement for traders and merchants for centuries. Since being settled, Binondo has been an enclave for Chinese-Filipinos or Chinoys, hence the place is also referred to as Manila Chinatown.

The district's epicenter is the landmark Binondo Church, which was built in 1596, and is also known today as the Minor Basilica of St. Lorenzo Ruiz, after the sainted Chinese mestizo, Lorenzo Ruiz.

Aside from being a haven for the religious, Binondo was for centuries the Philippines' trading center. And until the 1960s, it was where the dominant bourse, the Manila Stock Exchange operated.

In Binondo, the Pasig may occasionally overflow, but that's nothing compared to swarm of people that constantly flood its narrow, crowded streets. To feed this teeming humanity are the numerous eateries and street-food vendors.

At Panciteria Lido I find the essence of Binondo in the food it serves. A panciteria is the equivalent of a tea house or a café. Though pancit is erroneously referred to by Filipinos as a noodle dish, the Hokkien (my father-in-law's Chinese dialect) word actually means food cooked quickly. Mee, is the Hokkien word for noodle. Hence, a panciteria would serve all sorts of noodle dishes, dim sum fare, and a slew of wok-fired and clay-pot dishes.

Panciteria Lido is an institution in Binondo (recently it branched out in Ortigas and Fairview in Quezon City). It was opened in 1936 by a Chinese cook named Lido, who started a huge following by serving a combination of Chinese and Spanish-Filipino dishes--noodles, steamed buns, roast pork, braised beef and potatoes--washed down not just by tea, but by excellently brewed coffee. How's that for Filipino fusion!

Aside from local folks, the eatery is frequented by celebrities and powerful politicians. Many come for its unique brewed coffee, made from roasted beans grown in the Philippine provinces. And as early as 1994, Lido installed very expensive Siphon coffee-makers, fifteen years ahead of San Francisco's Blue Bottle Coffee!

After lunch, I walked the streets of Binondo, with its vendors spilling on the narrow sidewalks, hawking their wares to Christmas shoppers. I snapped photos as I wondered at the craziness of the scenes. The streets were clogged with vehicles and hawkers, including locals who find it a conducive place to repair a tricycle. A pedicab passing by with a Chihuahua atop its roof. And my favorite--castañas (chestnut) roasters blocking the street corners!

In my mind, I wished my father-in-law could still show me the Binondo he knew.

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