We were thrilled when we walked into our hostel in Manila to find that they’d partnered with a local company to promote an all new food tour. As you can see from the blog on recent Fridays it’s been a while since we’ve done a food tour and we weren’t expecting to be able to join one in the Philippines.
As with so many places, research done before arriving was somewhat patchy and led us to find only a couple of companies offering these sorts of tours – both either on islands we weren’t visiting or at prices way outside our budget. I don’t know why we keep looking in all honesty, nine times out of ten we find the best experiences once we’ve arrived somewhere and started exploring.
This tour was run by start up, Tralulu, who are working to create ‘guided by locals’ experiences across South East Asia and have both a food tour and a surprise hiking tour on offer in Manila. Whilst the hiking was tempting, we opted of course for the foodie option and for just 950PHP (around £15) we had an awesome few hours eating our way around Manila. Like our experiences in both Laos and Japan where we learned about local food with the guidance of local experts, this was one of the standout food tours on our trip.
After spending a couple of weeks in the Philippines we’ve concluded that the country is bit of a cultural melting pot, to use a well worn phrase. Our tour was to focus on the Chinese influences on Filipino cuisine, and centred on Binondo, the heart of Manila’s Chinatown. This is a fascinating part of the city in itself, famous as the world’s oldest Chinatown, dating back to 1594.
We were to explore this area for almost 5 hours and encountered almost no tourists whatsoever, enjoying one of the most authentic and off the beaten path city experiences we’ve had on our travels. I don’t think we’d have known where to start had we attempted to visit Binondo alone, but our fantastic guides took us to four food stations to try different dishes as well as some extra spots to learn about Manila’s history.
Station 1 – New Po Heng Lumpia House
Our first stop was through an unassuming door and down a dimly lit corridor to an open courtyard, liberally decorated with Chinese lanterns. It was the New Po Heng Lumpia House – home of the best Lumpia in Manila.
Lumpia, for those who haven’t had it, is a kind of Asian style burrito. A large ricepaper pancake is rolled around vegetables including beansprouts and carrots, mixed with minced meat – often pork, although chicken and beef can also be found. It’s served with dried seaweed and crumbled peanuts and drizzled with a sweet sticky sauce and is a complete mess to try and eat with any sort of grace. Apparently this isn’t just a problem we faced which is reassuring!
It’s tasty and filling, and is one of the most popular fast foods in the Philippines. We enjoyed ours fresh but if you like a few extra calories then they’re also served fried in many places. The cafe we ate at serves over a million Lumpia Rolls a year and the phone was ringing off the hook with takeout orders while we were there – definitely a great local experience to start us off.
Station 2 – Ying Ying Tea House
This was another very unassuming spot, located on a street corner with steamer baskets piled high outside and several fish tanks full of sleepy looking fish. Heading upstairs, Andrew our guide ordered an absolute feast of dimsum. One of my favourite foods anyway, this was a highlight of the tour.
Only at one point did my confidence wane – when I heard a reference to shark fin dumplings at our table. Only to discover that in many places in Manila they’ve developed a mushroom based alternative that avoids using shark fins altogether. We were pretty thankful to discover this and ate so much dimsum we could hardly move – including by far the best pork and shrimp dumplings I’ve ever had.
We had some great conversation with our guides at this station and got a lot more insight into what it’s like to live in the Philippines, especially as a young, ambitious Millennial. Andrew founded the company after finishing his studies in Business & Engineering, and it’s truly a passion project with the team working all hours to try and build a successful business to promote sustainable and educational travel experiences in Manila and other locations across South East Asia.
We discussed everything from digital marketing to living with the policies introduced by the infamous President Duterte, and it was a real privilege to get such an insight into daily life in a city that’s seen so often in the news for its more troubling aspects.
Station 3 – New Toho Food Center
Our next stop was the oldest restaurant in Manila, one that’s actually survived since the Spanish ruled the Philippines. Decorated in purple and yellow to symbolise royalty and wealth, it looks run down from the outside but inside had impressive high ceilings and was a comfortable local spot filled with families. Our waiter had worked there for an incredible 25 years and was so friendly – apparently it’s very rare for westerners to stumble upon it.
Here the food was more representative of the fusion of cultures in Manila – we had cold cuts and sweet & sour beef that were reminiscent of dishes we’d enjoyed in Taiwan and Hong Kong, together with seafood noodles that tasted far more European with Spanish inspired flavours.
By this point we were pretty full and we’re glad to know it was a longer walk to our next station. Turned out it was via one of Manila’s best view points at the top of an apartment block, and we were treated to some incredible views of the city. Our guides pointed out the different districts, from the slums to the old city walls of Intramuros and the skyscrapers of Makati. Seeing Manila from above makes its challenges all the more evident – with desperately poor streets alongside prosperous areas.
Station 4 – Cafe Mezzanine
At our final station it was time for pudding, and we miraculously recovered our appetites. This cafe is Another with interesting history. The neighbourhood of Binondo used to be primarily wooden buildings and has been burnt down multiple times over the years. Cafe Mezzanine is fire service themed in recognition of the firemen who have saved the area so many times and all profits are donated to the local fire service.
It’s decorated with news stories of heroism from firefighters together with fire helmets and uniforms, and it was great to see it so filled with people. Here we enjoyed lava pao – various custard filled dumplings that were once again messy to eat, but like everything we tried – delicious.
We spent the rest of the day exploring some other areas of Manila, feeling a little more confident to do so alone after our morning’s experiences and were over the moon that we’d managed to find such a good food tour with only a day to spend in the city. At this stage we’ve enjoyed cooking classes or food tours in eight countries and this one shot right up to the top of our list – try to check it out if you’re ever looking for a food tour in Manila!