Friday, January 27, 2012

Chinese Weekend

gabi "babies"

It was a long weekend and several groups of family and friends were scrambling to plan where to go and what to do. I was game for anywhere and whatever, but two days before Saturday I received a text from my kids' school asking me to fetch my eldest, who was feverish. The youngest had fever the night before, too, so I tentatively informed everybody we may not be up for any trip that weekend.

Inexplicably, all plans were canceled (hopefully not because of us!), and we were left with three grounded days. Good thing there was a party to attend early Saturday morning at the Mall of Asia. And since we were already in the metropolis, and it was Chinese new year weekend, it was but a natural turn of things that we decided to go to Chinatown after the party.

ginger & pineapple "buddhas"

I thought it was still early for the crowds, but there they were, shopping for beribboned bulbs and rhizomes whose outgrowths made them look like grotesque babies. Pineapples were surrounded with tiny pineapples, or were wreathed with dalandan. Edible good luck charms.

All kinds of fruit were on sale at every street corner. Every time I am in Ongpin, the main street in Chinatown, I shop for fruits, but this time the prices were so high that we only bought a piece each of sweet, sweet honeydew and fragrant melon, both at Php120/kg. But it was nice to see the colorful spread, with pomegrenates, heart-shaped mangoes so humongous they looked like they came from Davao, passionfruit, large imported strawberries, Mayan-temple/pineapple-look-alike yellow-green fruit said to be called dragonfruit, and several varieties of plums.

There were the more common grapes, apples, orange varieties in many shapes and sizes, and there were big green balimbing that looked molar-numbing, as well as some small mangosteen that looked still out of season.

I usually go to Chinatown by way of the south gate fronting the Sta. Cruz church. This is because I have favorite restaurants in the southern half part. Last Saturday we went to Ongpin Street through the northern gate, adjacent to the Binondo church, because I wanted to try several of the restaurants in the other half of Binondo. We were only a small group - just me and three small kids - so we couldn't sit down to a proper Chinese meal, for the normal size of servings in Chinese restaurants would limit us to only one dish.

The restaurants (more like eateries) in the northern half part of Binondo tend to be small and serve a "focused" menu - specializing in one or two dishes and serving multiple variations of them. So I planned a "walking food tour" - eat a dish in one side street, then walk to another restaurant to try another dish.


We started at Dong Bei Dumplings along Yuchengco Street, an alley perpendicular to Ongpin right at the back of Binondo church. I took the kids there for some dumpling-making demo, and for a taste of dumplings not Cantonese - Dong Bei being the term for northeastern China, or Manchuria.

The dumplings can be ordered fried or steamed (they looked boiled, served still dripping wet). The fillings of all kinds of dumplings had minced kuchay and leeks, which were being stripped and sliced at the tiny kitchen as we ate. So no, we weren't crying because the dumplings were so good, but because the leeks hurt our eyes.

But yes, the dumplings were great - the fresh, thin made-to-order wrappers cooked just so they were soft but still had bite, and the dipping sauce was black vinegar spiced with chopped onions.

We had an order of xiao long bao, pork dumplings with a pocket of broth, which were good, though Lutong Macau's version is tastier and firmer. It was amazing, though, how everything looked the same from when I first ate at Dong Bei some five years ago. It's like time stopped. Same people (the proprietor-cook even looked the same!), same five tables, two of which were occupied by dumpling ingredients and paraphernalia, same set-up, even the same freezer and kitchen equipment.

There was a chiller by the glass front with cans of soda, and this iced tea. It purportedly is a "cool" drink, because it keeps away "heatiness." It was good with the dumplings, tasting exactly like sweetened Chinese green tea (the one in tea bags in jumbo green boxes). The kids said the taste vaguely resembled sago't gulaman with a certain moldy edge to it. They downed three cans, and were cool to go to another dumpling house.

We walked back to Ongpin to take in more of the sights and partake of the air of revelry. There were groups of teens doing the dragon and lion dances, and we crossed paths several times with Ivan Man Dy's walking tour group. We peeked in at the stalls by the estero and espied frog legs, but nothing more exotic was on display, so we proceeded to Salazar Street.

Leading off perpendicularly from Salazar was Benavidez Street, and just several stalls into the alley was this small eatery with red Chinese signage in front and no English translation. It was beside Wai Ying Roasts, and it was what we were hunting for, for another round of dumplings.

Binondo denizens swear the dumplings here are better than at Dong Bei's. The wrappers are thinner, shaped into pockets unlike Dong Bei's which were pressed crescents. They had the same filling of finely ground pork mixed with kuchay, but the dumplings are slightly bigger. One serving has about sixteen dumplings, and the staff who waited on us suggested that we have half of the serving fried, the other half steamed.

The dipping sauce is served along with the dumplings. But a host of other condiments is present in every table, for the noodles. For this is actually a noodle house, the Chinese signage meaning Lan Zhou La Mien, as indicated in the t-shirts of the servers, la mien translating to hand-pulled noodles.

The condiments were akin to a Vietnamese pho house - bowls of sliced spring onion, chopped wansuy (cilantro or coriander), several different bottles of chili sauce, chili powder, black vinegar.

Above the clear glass wall encasing the kitchen were blown-up photos of the house specialties - noodles with a variety of toppings, plus the dumplings. We were told the beef la mien showcases best the capabilities of the kitchen, and beef la mien it was for us.

From our table, which was just a table away from the kitchen, we witnessed the manipulations of the cook pulling on a hunk of dough. The kids asked if they served pizza, because there were a lot of dough-tossing and turning like in a proper Italian pizzeria. A minute later, though, the enormous slab of dough magically transformed into strands after much fast pulling and pulling and pulling.

Kids: Is that dough?
Mommy: Yes.
Kids: Can we eat it?
Mommy: Yes, of course.
Kids: Why can't we eat our play dough at home?
Mommy: Let's see you try pulling it into noodles.

But frankly, the beef noodle soup was the best we've ever had. The soup spoke of hours of boiling meat and bones, with not a hint of broth cubes or bouillon, nor a ton of flavor enhancers. I think it was perfect as it is, flavorsome as it was. I snobbed all the condiments on the table and ate it as it was served. There was no need to add anything.

And the noodles - the noodles were an incredible revelation. Soft and spongy, yet possessing a firm bite, and had an unexpected rich flavor. I once swore off hand-pulled noodles because the one I tried one time in a mall was so bland it made the commercially packaged dried egg noodles sold in supermarkets ambrosial in comparison. But Lan Zhou La Mien redefined what a bowl of noodle soup should be. I cannot be satisfied with anything less from now on.

We walked back again to Ongpin, our stomachs full of dumplings and noodles, debating if we could eat some more, as we still had a couple more restaurants in our itinerary. We decided to wait for sundown, and not to order rice.

But we passed by Lord Stowe's, and I couldn't help myself, seeing as the stall was not so crowded and there were some vacant seats. We gave our legs and feet a much needed respite from all the walking while sipping Japanese iced tea and waiting for the egg tarts to bake.

After all the dumplings and noodles it was nice to munch on something sweet, and a freshly baked, piping hot tart with an almost runny custard just hit the spot.  

The multiple lines snaking out of the three Eng Bee Tin stores along Ongpin weren't getting any shorter, but it was already getting dark, so we fell in line ourselves before all the shops closed. I held my place in the line while the kids got as much hopia and tikoy as they wanted and carried them to my basket.

mocha hopia

I grabbed what I could reach as the line moved ahead, and I got the new hopia varieties as well as the standard ones. Store crew kept stocking the shelves but the hopia kept disappearing. Basic flavors red mongo (premium), yellow mongo and ube were in stock, but there was no pandan and our favorite combi (combination), ube-queso and ube-langka that day.

The new variants were more than enough to keep me happy, though. Mocha, super premium, mochipia - how much more adventurous can you get? Biting into the new flavor mocha hopia was like biting into a thick, velvety cup of coffee.

super premium hopia 

This is the super premium mongo. I like the premium mongo best of all the basic hopia flavors, which uses red mongo. This new variant uses yellow mongo with the yolk of an itlog na maalat (salted duck egg) inserted in the middle. The saltiness of the duck egg was unusual and unexpected in a hopia, but not unpleasant. The flavor combination, and the fine silkiness of the yellow mongo calls to mind a lotus mooncake with egg yolk.

I like Eng Bee Tin hopias, and they are the best in terms of quality among all hopia in the country today. I can't say I like them best, though, for I find the filling a little bit too much - the filling-crust ratio is not well-balanced. But I am rethinking this, because Eng Bee Tin has come out with its mochipia line, and it has solved the thickness issue for me.

The mochipia is mochi and hopia rolled into one. Mochi is filled tikoy balls (ground glutinous rice flour shaped into spheres with a paste filling in the middle), while hopia has a flaky flour crust and a paste filling. Combine the two, reversing the mochi so that the rice flour is inside and the filling outside, then use that as the filling for hopia, and it becomes mochipia.

There's a play of textures here - sticky tikoy, silky paste filling, flaky crust. It teases the mind as well as the senses. Whay hasn't Eng Bee Tin thought of this sooner? Now I don't think the filling is over-indulgent. Now I can't get enough of mochipia.

The mochipia flavors available last weekend were ube macapuno, which is tikoy inside an ube hopia, and buko pandan-ube, which is pandan hopia filled with ube tikoy.


Before we went to Chinatown we had been enjoying SM bakeries' hoptik, which pretty much had the same idea as the mochipia. The hoptik had tikoy as the core, surrounded by bean paste, then encased in a much more flakier crust. The hoptik has a thinner filling, which isn't as fine-ground as Eng Bee Tin's. But it's enjoyable, too, because the tikoy is thick, and the textures scintillate. In yellow mongo, red mongo, and ube flavors.

The kids love Eng Bee Tin's tikoy rolls. We didn't bother with the Chinese tikoy - those thick  slabs in boxes that have to be fried before eating - but the kids each got ten packs of tikoy rolls, two of each flavor (ordinary, pandan, sesame, strawberry, ube).

Tikoy rolls are ground glutinous rice (malagkit) filled with kamote (sweet potato) or yellow mongo paste and shaped into rolls. The malagkit is flavored with strawberry, ube, pandan, or coated with sesame seeds. They are soft and chewy, and are perfect snacks to bring to school, but the rice flour in which they are rolled to prevent sticking can make a little mess. 

By the time we came up to the cashier and completed our purchase the restaurants on our itinerary had closed. But we were satiated, and we had enough hopia and tikoy to last us a month, so we called it a day. Other Chinese delights could wait, and we promised to come back at a calmer time, proceeding at a more calmer pace so we could eat more. But these ones we're eating again, for sure.  

Dong Bei Dumplings
Yuchengco Street, Binondo, Manila

Lan Zhou La Mien
818 Benavidez Street, Binondo, Manila

Eng Bee Tin
628 Ongpin Street, Binondo, Manila

Related Posts
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Mochi of Pampanga

Tikoy Recipes
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Home-Made Tikoy


jaylen watkins said...

Hi all this is very much impressive post. I just loved reading it.

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i♥pinkc00kies said...

i love ube hopia and tikoy rolls too! i wanna try that mochipia... btw i tied the mocha hopia but didnt like it that much :(

Anonymous said...

chinatown. more fun in the philippines!


flipster said...

Hello Kai,
You opened up fond memories of my adventures in the world's oldest Chinatown. Thank you.

Kai said...

Didn't like the mocha, too, but I thought it was because I didn't drink coffee. ;-)

Lou, yeah, it was fun, but from the movies I've seen it looked more fun in the US!

Flipster, and where is the world's oldest? NY?

Anonymous said...

i think the oldest chinatown is manila's, and the largest is san francisco's.


Kai said...

Oh la la! That's a nice bit of trivia, Lou!

Edd Wyn said...

The Mocha Hopia reads delicious! And the pics of those succulent dumplings makes me salivate to no end! Let's go on a food trip with Malen. Valentine's?:-)

Edd Wyn said...

Ooops. Grammatical correction -- " me salivate..." OC mode, hehe.;-P

Kai said...

Edd, Valentine's this year is on a Tuesday, unless you're suggesting we don't go to work....which is fine with me, heheheheh!

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