Chinese food has many variations, from Hong Kong, to Taiwanese and Singaporean. Even American Chinese, with its fortune cookies and General Tso's Chicken, is popular around the world. Severely underrated, however, is Filipino Chinese cuisine. As someone who grew up in the Philippines, noodles topped with bright orange quail eggs, pork siomai with soy sauce and calamansi (Philippine lime), and fried lumpiang Shanghai spring rolls, are the dishes that come to mind when I think of Chinese food. Yet most people have probably never tried them.
Tsinoy food, as it is colloquially known, developed when Chinese immigrants used ingredients locally available in the Philippines.
“The merging of cultural tastes allowed the birth of a cuisine that represents so much history, nostalgia, and authenticity at its own right — passing it on to the next generation, keeping the legacy alive,” said Rolando Chiang, owner of The Original Savory Chicken, a popular Filipino Chinese food chain.
The cuisine has a rich history, considering it was created in Manila’s Binondo district, believed to be the oldest Chinatown in the world as it was established by the Spanish in the 1500s. Chiang’s family started Savory in the 1950s, along with other Filipino Chinese restaurants the area is now known for.
This makes Binondo the center of Filipino Chinese food, which is why I joined the flock of merrymakers for Chinese New Year this year, and got a sampling of some of the cuisine’s dishes, some I had never tried before.
Although Shanghai Siopao is a small stall, it had a long queue of people patiently waiting for their orders. There, I ordered the pork asado (similar to char siu) variety of their fried siopao, a bun filled with meat and vegetables. Siopao is a popular snack in the Philippines and can be found in convenience stores, street stalls, and office canteens. It’s similar to the Cantonese cha siu bao, but with more Filipino flavors like sweeter meat.
Fried siopao is a variety that has become popular in the Philippines very recently, proof that Filipino Chinese cuisine is still changing. Although it was smaller than the usual buns, the one I had was definitely a flavour bomb — salty and slightly sweet. Because it was fried, it also had a more interesting texture compared to regular siopaos.
My next destination was New Po Heng Lumpia House, a small eatery that was hard to find. It is nestled in between market stalls, and is only recognisable through the crowd of people entering.
I ordered their famous lumpia, the Filipino version of a spring roll. Theirs is made with fresh vegetables and ground pork. I had it with hot tea, which is served for free in most Chinese restaurants in the Philippines. Their variation of the lumpia contained crushed peanuts, seaweed, and fried bihon (vermicelli noodle) bits paired with homemade condiments such as sweet and spicy sauce.
Unlike your usual spring roll, this came in a wrapper that was thick enough to keep all the ingredients together, but still easy to bite into. It was surprisingly really filling; I only finished half.
The pastry hopia was introduced to the Philippines by immigrants from Fujian but it is now part of Philippine culture, with flavours like ube (purple yam), mango, and even custard.
The classic one is made with a flaky crust and filled with mongo (sweet mung bean paste). I tried a variety called the "Special Hopia," in a noodle place called Lan Zhou La Mien, that was fried and filled with taro. Its consistency was like mozzarella sticks but it was sweet and slightly salty.
Soup No. 5
I wanted to try something more exotic, so I had the mysterious Soup No. 5, one of the most iconic dishes to come out of Binondo. Why? Well, it’s made with bull testicles. I tried it in Cafe Mezzanine, which is frequented by volunteer firemen in the area.
Apart from the bull’s balls, the soup also had different types of meat such as beef and chicken feet. The broth wasn’t too thick and everything slid off the bones. It was actually pretty good.
Also in Cafe Mezzanine, I tried Kiampong, a type of fried rice common in Filipino Chinese households, but not in restaurants. It’s made with soy sauce, diced pork, and veggies, and topped with salted peanuts. It had a stronger taste compared to your usual fried rice and can stand on its own.
It wouldn’t be Chinese New Year in Binondo if I didn’t get tikoy for my family. Also known as “year cake,” it’s a sticky rice dish usually fried with a coating of beaten eggs. It symbolises unity in the family and is by far the most popular dish during Chinese New Year, gifted to relatives and friends.
I bought mine from Eng Bee Tin, a Chinese deli chain. The branch in Binondo was huge and looked more like a supermarket. It was very busy with people grabbing treats and running to the counters. There were shelves filled with different variations of hopia — strawberry, matcha, durian — you name it. There were just as many varieties of tikoy, with flavours like cheese to signify the current Year of The Rat. I even found a ‘lite’ version made with Splenda which my health-conscious self ended up getting.