Finally I fulfilled a short getaway 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 then. 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 a little deeper and you will uncover an adventure quite unlike anywhere else on Earth. Come along as our trip’s key 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. Metro Manila is the most densely populated metropolitan region that includes the city of Manila and surrounding cities like Makati, Mandaluyong, Muntinlupa, Paranaque, Pasay, Pasig, Quezon City and Taguig.
With a population of 1.78 mil (2016 census), it’s infamous as being a congested, polluted concrete jungle and is often overlooked as a mere transit point for travellers aiming for other provinces or islands. But Manila is nevertheless 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
Lechón is gaining popularity in Singapore which triggered this trip’s key objective to discover the ground zero of the dish right here in Manila. 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 the 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 is prepared stuffed with herbs which usually include scallions, bay leaves, black peppercorn, garlic, salt, and lemongrass and or leaves from native Citrus trees or tamarind trees, among other spices. It is usually cooked over coconut husks fire. Since it is already flavored with spices, it is served with minimal dipping sauces, like salt and vinegar or silimansi (soy sauce, calamansi, and labuyo chili).
Manila lechon on the other hand, is typically not stuffed with herbs. When it is, it is usually just salt and pepper. Instead, the distinct character of Manila lechon comes from the liver-based sauce, known as the “lechon sauce” which is made from vinegar, brown sugar, salt, pepper, mashed liver (or liver spread), breadcrumbs, garlic and onion. Manila lechon is also typically cooked over 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 over charcoal for 2 hours with constant turning until done. This process of cooking and basting are instrumental in making the pork skin crisp, 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 brings family and friends together 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. Perhaps this place is Asia’s 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 a district in Manila and is referred to as the city’s Chinatown. Established in 1591 during the Spaniard colonnial days, its the world’s oldest Chinatown. Its influence extends beyond to the places of Quiapo, Santa Cruz, San Nicolas and Tondo.
The Spaniards set it up as a settlement near Intramuros but across the Pasig River for Catholic Chinese, so that colonial rulers could keep a close eye on their migrant subjects. It was already a hub of Chinese commerce even before the Spanish colonial period.
One of the key institution, Eng Bee Tin was established in 1912 on Ongpin Street in Binondo, by Chua Chiu Hong, a migrant from mainland China whose family decided to reside in the Philippines. The business started as a small stall. The main product of Eng Bee Tin is the hopia ube (hopia translated to mean ‘good pastry.’ Hopia is an inexpensive Filipino pastry traditionally filled with either munggo (dark beans) or kundol (white gourd cooked in lard to pass as baboy or pork). In 2013, it was reported that the hopia remains to be the most popular product,which has 22 variants.
Established for 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 attuned to local palate and ingredients.
The Halo-Halo (Tagalog for “mixed”) occupies special position in the Filipinos sweet-tooth psyche. You can’t leave Manila without checking out this delightful dessert which is a concoction 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 process involves pork, chicken, seafood or vegetables marinated in vinegar, soya sauce, garlic and black peppercorns which is browned in oil and simmered in the marinade.
Another lovely dish that should pleases 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 usually 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.
The Tocino Pork became one of our favourites quickly. It’s a dish of pork cured in sugar, pepper, garlic and got its hue from red food colouring or annatto. When vacationing in the Philippines do check out this delicious sweetish meat dish, best when paired with vinegar and pickles.
Local snacks that will tickle your dessert cravings. 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- dessert made with purple yam.
How Manila Moves Around
Manila transportation system is not one of its success stories, with the congested city straining with regular traffic jams at all time of the day. On our ride to hotel from airport, the Grab driver even lamented his city with the “best traffic jams in the world”.
The most popular of travel modes is the public jeepney, which has been in use since the years after World War II. Auto rickshaws or “tricycles” and pedicabs are used for short distances. It also has rapid mass rail transit although with grossly inadequate coverage. Grab is the sole private-hired carrier with Uber exiting the market in 2018.
The Jeepney is certainly the iconic face of Philippines, with decorations which have become a familiar symbol of the country culture and art. It’s the most popular means of public transportation. They are known for their crowded seating, cramping 12-15 passengers sitting knee to knee. Since jeepneys are not subsidized by the authority, drivers operate on a system wherein their wages are solely determined by the amount 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 a cycle rickshaw, two really exotic ways to travel. 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 backwards is narrower and meant for children, although you may see teenagers sitting on them too.
Best practice is to always confirm fare before getting on, although most foreigners probably will not have many opportunities to use pedicabs. Also they don’t normally travel more that 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 Philippines’ side roads for decades. But we did not see much of them during our trip as their operation have been the subject of ongoing court legislation.
Discovering the other side of Manila is certainly an eye-opener of the trip. This slum community is called Bataan Shipping and Engineering Company or BASECO, in short. The 56-hectare land which comprises Baseco today was once the location of a dockyard of the National Shipyard and Steel Corporation (NASSCO). In 1964, during the administration of then-President Ferdinand Marcos, NASSCO was acquired by the Romualdez family, the kin of the president’s wife Imelda Marcos through BASECO. In late 1970s, the urban poor population were resettled by the Marcos administration to give space for a possible international seaport. In 1980, Baseco was formally declared a barangay (smallest administrative division in the Philippines and is the native Filipino term for a village, district or ward). 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 compound of which only 90,000 are registered. The tour was conducted by Smokey Tours, a NGO company with 80% of the proceeds being channeled back to the community for projects to provide reliefs for the residences.
The only access road to Baseco was via 2nd Street with uneven pot-holed road and constant stream of pedicabs whizzing by, bringing residences in and out of the compound. The scene changes quickly into one of 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 utilities shop. Although not connected to the national grid, power lines are diverted and the electricity 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 on the virtues of reducing waste through recycling and organic trash composting. Rubbish trucks come to collect the trash twice weekly.
I was advised that restricted photography be observed 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 the 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 refreshments, 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 better location which has more convenient amenities, like the SM Mall which is just besides it.
Security remains a good point of both the hotels we stayed 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, almost like we were in Thailand.
I like to describe this exploration trip to Manila as an eye-opener among all my trips. Having visited the city, I felt I understand the motivation of my Filipino friends better and their need to seek greener pastures far from home. While the Philippines may be advancing on a fast pace, it’s heartwarming to see those left behind or struggling to stay afloat still display warmth and fortitude that underline their resilience.
The contrast between the opulence of luxury and grimness of poverty are laid stark 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 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 blogs are all rights reserved and copyrighted to Jensen Chua Photography and Jetabout Holidays.