Finally I fulfilled a short escapade to Manila, after an aborted plan more than a decade ago to visit the Palawan for scuba diving. Philippines has always been on my bucket list since. But any visit to any country is better late than never. Most of us in Singapore would have “felt connected” in some ways with Philippines through their domestic helpers, Filipino friends in professional capacities or perhaps Jollibee food outlets.
With a population of more 100 million and an estimated 10 million working overseas, it’s one of the largest diasporas in the world. This is an immense archipelagic country of more than 7000 big and small islands that defies the imagination and simple categorisation.
Philippines is a country on the move except that different segment of the populace moves at different pace. Most visitors would think of Philippines more likely as beach destination of Boracay or Cebu than the bustling metropolis of Manila. But dig deeper and you will uncover an adventure quite unlike anywhere else on Earth. Come along as our escapade to Manila objective to hunt for the best lechon in Manila turned out into something else.
Brief Insights on Manila
Manila is the capital of the Philippines and the country’s education, business and transportation hub. The most densely populated metropolitan region is Metro Manila that includes the city of Manila and surrounding cities like Makati, Mandaluyong, Muntinlupa, Paranaque, Pasay, Pasig, Quezon City and Taguig.
A 2016 census list the population at 1.78 million. It’s infamous as being a congested, polluted concrete jungle and is often overlooked as a mere transit point for visitors travelling to other provinces or islands. But Manila is advancing on a hurried pace and has its own rich history and experiences to offer. The bustling city excites with a vibrant multi-cultural heritage and varied nightlife.
The Filipino Food Trail
Lechon @ La Loma in Quezon City
This escapade to Manila key’s objective was to discover Lechón, which is gaining popularity in Singapore. The Philippines inherited this dish from Spain as it was its former colony. Lechón is a Spanish word referring to a roasted suckling pig and features a whole pig cooked over charcoal.
In most regions of the Philippines, is available throughout the year for special occasions, festivals, and holidays. There are two key differences in the preparation of lechon – the “Manila lechon” (or “Luzon lechon”) and the “Cebu lechon” (or “Visayas lechon”). Visayan lechon usually includes scallions, bay leaves, black peppercorn, garlic, salt and lemongrass, and or leaves from native citrus or tamarind trees, among other spices stuffed into the pig and usually cooked over coconut husks fire. It is paired with dipping sauces made with salt and vinegar or silimansi (soy sauce, calamansi and labuyo chili).
By contrast, Manila Lechon is generally not stuffed with herbs. When it is, it is usually just salt and pepper. The distinct character of Manila lechon comes from the “lechon sauce” made from vinegar, brown sugar, salt, pepper, mashed liver (or liver spread), breadcrumbs, garlic, and onion. Manila lechon is prepared over a charcoal fire.
Most lechon can either be cooked based on the two main or mixed versions. Both variants also rub salt or spices unto the skin to make it crispier, as well as continual basting of the lechon as it cooks. They are cooked by constantly turning over charcoal for 2 hours. This process of cooking and basting gives the pork skin its crispiness, which is a distinctive feature of the dish.
The lechon shops do brisk sales but this staff’s cheery disposition certainly helped in the sale among so many lechon shops in the area.
Patrons can buy by weight or the whole pig. A 1kg portion sells at P700 (S$18.90) while a whole pig is about P4400 – 11500, depending on weight.
The dish bonds family and friends during joyous or sad occasions with the signature crackling skin suffice to send diners salivating. Lechon is like a reminder that whatever life throws at you, that there are good things to look forward to and be thankful for.
Staff preparing our order – the secret to experiencing the best lechon is to go early or eat it fresh with shops that have high turnover. Nothing beats freshness.
The ambience feels like in Cuba, rendering our escapade to Manila like a trip to Cuba, exotic and exciting.
Our plate of lechon – 500gm at 250 pesos (S$6.75), rice and drinks not included (just 1 peso each).
World’s Oldest Chinatown @ Binondo
Binondo is Manila’s Chinatown. Established in 1591 during the Spaniard colonial days, it’s the world’s oldest Chinatown. Its influence extends beyond the places of Quiapo, Santa Cruz, San Nicolas, and Tondo.
The Spaniards set up Binondo as a settlement near Intramuros but across the Pasig River for Catholic Chineses, so that colonial ruler could keep a close eye on their migrant subjects. It was already a hub of Chinese commerce even before the Spanish colonial period.
Eng Bee Tin, one of the oldest establishments, was founded in 1912 on Ongpin Street in Binondo, by Chua Chiu Hong, a migrant from mainland China. Eng Bee Tin’s most popular product is the hopia ube (hopia translated to mean ‘good pastry’, with 22 variants. It’s an inexpensive Filipino pastry traditionally filled with either munggo (dark beans) or kundol (white gourd cooked in lard to pass as pork).
Established for more than 75 years, Chuan Kee is among the oldest Chinese Fast Food here, serving the best of Hokkien cuisine has to offer.
Typical street scene along Ongpin Road. Feels like a scene from Hong Kong, minus the bells of trams and the constant ticking of pedestrians’ crossings.
Everyday Filipino Food and Desserts
Just as the diverse nature of Filipino culture defies simple categorisation, the same can be said of its cuisine. The cooking style and the food associated with it have evolved over many centuries from their Austronesian origins, intertwined with Malaysian and Indonesian cuisines, to an infusion of Indian, Chinese, Spanish, and American influences and adapted to local palate and ingredients.
The Halo-Halo (Tagalog for “mixed”) occupies a special position in the Filipinos sweet-tooth psyche. You just can’t leave Manila without tasting this iconic dessert which is made of crushed ice, evaporated milk, and various ingredients like ube, sweetened beans, sago, pinipig rice, fruit slices, flan and topped with a scoop of ice cream. One popular location to find this cool treat is at Chowking outlets.
No list of Filipino food would be complete without adobo, a ubiquitous dish considered the unofficial national dish. The cooking involves pork, chicken, seafood, or vegetables marinated in vinegar, soya sauce, garlic, and black peppercorns which are browned in oil and simmered in the marinade.
Another lovely dish that should please you is – Bam-i Guisado – (“ghee-sah-do,” meaning stir-fried), it came topped with Lechon Kawali (or crispy deep-fried pork belly).
Sinigang is another popular Filipino stew. It is a meat-based, sour and savoury dish using tamarind or kalamansi as the flavouring base. Frequently served as a stew or soup accompanied with lots of vegetables like okra, water spinach, radish, onions, and aubergine (eggplants). Pork (sinigang baboy) is the most common meat for Sinigang but chicken (manok), beef (baka) and fish (bangus) can also be used too.
The Tocino Pork became one of our favourites quickly. It’s a dish of pork cured in sugar, pepper, garlic and got its signature hue from red food colouring or annatto. Do check out this delicious sweetish meat dish, best when paired with vinegar and pickles.
Local snacks that will tickle your cravings for desserts. From top center (clockwise) – Ensaymada – Soft sweet bread with cheese shavings. Pichi-pichi – steamed glutinous cake made with grated cassava and coconut juice. Kutsinta – sweet glutinous rice cake. Puto – steamed soft rice cake and Ube Halaya- a dessert made with purple yam.
How Manila Moves Around
Manila’s transportation system is not one of its success stories, with the congested city straining with traffic jams at most times of the day. On our ride to the hotel from the airport, the Grab driver even lamented his city with the “best traffic jams in the world”.
The most popular travel mode is the public jeepney, which has been in use since World War II. For short distances, auto rickshaws or “tricycles” and pedicabs are used. It also has rapid mass rail transit although with grossly inadequate coverage. With Uber exiting the market in 2018, Grab is the sole private-hired carrier.
The Jeepney is certainly the iconic face of the Philippines, with decorations that have become a familiar symbol of the country’s culture and art. They are infamous for crowded seating, cramping 12-15 passengers sitting knee to knee. As the state does not subsidise jeepneys, the drivers function on a system where their wages are determined by the number of commuters they picked up. Given this and the lack of designated jeepney stops, drivers would stop anywhere along their route to pick up and drop off passengers.
A motorised pedicab and cycle rickshaw. The cab has two seating areas that face each other. The seat that faces forward is the wider seat and is less than a meter long. The seat facing the back is narrower and meant for children but teenagers may be spotted sitting on them too.
The best practice is to always confirm the fare before getting on, although most foreigners probably will not have many opportunities to use pedicabs. Also, they don’t normally travel more than two kilometres “point-to-point”.
The latest “e-Trikes”- three-wheeled electric vehicles, that are aimed at replacing petrol-powered tricycles that have ruled the country’s side roads for decades. But we did not see much of them during our trip as their operation has been the subject of ongoing court legislation.
Discovering the other side of Manila is certainly an eye-opener of this escapade to Manila. This slum community is named Bataan Shipping and Engineering Company or BASECO (abbrev). The 56-hectare land today was once the location of a dockyard of the National Shipyard and Steel Corporation (NASSCO). During the reign of then-President Ferdinand Marcos in 1964, NASSCO was acquired by the Romualdez family, the kin of the president’s wife Imelda Marcos through BASECO. By the late 1970s, the urban poor population was resettled by the Marcos administration to free up space for a planned international seaport. Baseco was formally declared a barangay (smallest administrative division in the Philippines and is the Filipino term for a village, district, or ward) in 1980. Following the People Power Revolution of 1986, the national government under Marcos’ successor Corazon Aquino sequestered the property and the urban poor population began to resettle the area. (excerpts from Wikipedia).
According to our guide, there are about 150,000 residents in the slum and only 90,000 are registered. The tour was conducted by Smokey Tours, an NGO company, with 80% of the proceeds being channeled back to the community for projects to provide relief for the residences.
The only access road to Baseco was via 2nd Street with uneven pot-holed road and a constant stream of pedicabs whizzing by, bringing residences in and out of the compound. The scene changes quickly into one of a harsh and rugged living environment.
Our guide Janet explaining the water meter in Baseco. Potable water to some 800 residents to reduce reliance on expensive water deliveries from vendors for their daily needs. Residents of Baseco belong to the low-income segment, which receives subsidized water rates. However, not many of the households can afford the water pipe laying, the water meter set up cost nor is the infrastructure sufficient to cater to the demand.
Janet explaining the sale of electricity and potable water at the community utility shop. Although not connected to the national grid, power lines are diverted and the electricity is sold illegally here at a very high price.
The Baseco trash disposal point, an unsightly scene that used to be much worse. The residents are reminded of the virtues of reducing waste through recycling and organic trash composting. Rubbish trucks come to collect the trash twice weekly.
I was advised that photography be limited in the slum, for privacy concerns. But I took a few quietly to record the joyous moment our guide distribute the MacDonald’s burgers and hash browns we bought, to a group of the kids around her residence.
Choice Accommodation in Manila
The Grand Hyatt Manila
The Grand Hyatt at Metro Manila, situated in Bonifacio Global City. Our accommodation was a spacious 484 sg.ft King Bed Club Access Room at level 55 of the 57-storey building, with a spectacular view of Metro Manila.
Spectacular view of the city right by the bed. From here, you can see the city undergoing the throes of development.
The Grand Club comes with all-day dining and refreshment, all in a cosy and peaceful setting. Genuine fresh fruit juices and fresh bakes to soothe hunger pangs outside meal times. It has all you need for the best in life has to offer, like San Miguel beer on free flow or robust Arabica on tap.
The Dusit Thani Manila
The Dusit Thani Manila, our second hotel on the trip. The hotel is older than the Grand Hyatt Manila but it triumphs with a better location which has more convenient amenities, like the SM Mall which is just beside it.
Security remains a good point of both the hotels we have stayed in so far, with security control at the hotel entrance with X-Ray screening for our hand luggage. Even the lobby hostesses greet guests with the Thai Wai like we were in Thailand.
I like to describe this “Escapade to Manila” as an eye-opener among all my trips. Having visited the city, I felt I developed a better understanding of the motivation of my Filipino friends for their quest to seek greener pastures far from home. While the Philippines may be advancing, it’s heartwarming to see those left behind still displayed warmth and fortitude that underline their resilience.
The contrast between the opulence of luxury and the grimness of poverty is laid bare for all to see. Trips like this served to remind us what life can throw at us and why we should be thankful for what we have.
Sincere appreciation for coming along on this short getaway to Manila. Do look out for updates on my website in the near future for new trips on the horizon. For other adventures, do check out my other travelogues here.
All pictures used in this blog are all rights reserved and copyrighted to Jensen Chua Photography.