Thank you Philippine Daily Inquirer for having me grace (again) the glossy pages of your Sunday Inquirer Magazine.
For a change, its really nice to have my fingers (instead of my feet and mouth) do the walking this time.
Sunday Inquirer Magazine
Wok-king with Anthony Bourdain
MANILA, Philippines – It started with a text message from artist-chef and fellow half-kabalen (from my matrilineal Kapampangan side) Claude Tayag. The message was deceivingly simple: “A US-based TV host is doing a shoot in the Philippines. I would like you to show him around Manila.”
Now showing someone around my city is something that I take to as naturally as fish to water. For more than three years now, I have been the main face and feet behind Old Manila Walks, a tour outfit that has taken countless numbers of enthusiasts chomping down Chinatown’s hidden alleys, poking around the Presidential Palace’s halls and discovering architectural gems inside a cemetery. For me, Manila is one big cultural smorgasbord and needs to dug into to savor her delights.
“It’s Anthony Bourdain,” Claude spills a few days later. Ok, so I know he’s a chef, and I saw him on television—but what I didn’t realize was how big his cult following is in this part of the world, until I walked with him in Manila.
The instructions from producer Jared Andrukanis were clear-cut and simple: for the show “No Reservations Philippines,” the Manila segment was to be as local as possible. No frills. No fine dining. Just the real deal best summed up in his own words, “gritty but tasty.” “Great,” I thought, Manila is a gritty place so that takes one off the list. Now I just have to take care of the tasty part.
So what constitutes a very Manila dining experience? For me it has to have variety, a fusion, a mishmash of various ingredients from our indigenous Malay (in all its sub-categorical forms, Tagalog, Kapampangan, Ilokano Bikolano, Bisaya, etc.) to the ones brought in by our historical contacts, the Chinese and the Hispanic—all flavors thoroughly mixed up on one delicious plate that is quintessentially Filipino. Think of eats at a typical fiesta spread: Pansit side-by-side with lechon, callos swimming in tomato sauce with finely chopped sisig. An endless supply of soy sauce and soda-marinated barbequed pork skewered on a bamboo stick. All the beer you can drink. Karaoke music in full blast! And finally, all these food spiced up with our people’s infectious happy spirit. To me, this defines my city’s dining experience, and this is what I highlight in any media shoot.
I came up with a list of places and restaurants that fit the required theme; places that I thought would look visually appealing while showcasing the flavors of Manila and Filipino cuisine to curious viewers. Only three places on my list were approved: Binondo, dampa and a tapsilogan. Short though it was, I felt all three places were strongly representative of Manila’s dining culture, while fitting the prescribed “gritty yet tasty” category. Quiapo was canceled due to time constraints; the Salcedo weekend market was crossed out because of the complicated logistics of filming “too many stalls in one day.” Finally, a pares-mami joint was edited out because I think it had to be shot too early at dawn.
I met up with Tony on a hot and humid Saturday morning. At about 6’5”, he has an imposing physical presence. We began our walk around Binondo. If ever there is a place built for walking and sustenance at the same time, it has to be old Chinatown. Not only is it a culinary paradise, but visually, the streets burst with local color and nuances of everyday street life. This corner of Manila is eye candy made from the city’s rich melting pot of people and cultures. In a market alley, Tony becomes the quintessential Caucasian tourist. Many would call out, “Hey Joe, here, here!” (complete with Cory-sign-framing-the-face pose). But some did recognize him. One lady’s jaw literally dropped in shock when she saw Tony coming out of the restaurant. Even a security guard from a grocery store recognized him “as the guy from that food show.” I would find out later that as word spread that Tony was in Manila, many geared up for Anthony Bourdain sightings. I was told of some folks who even camped out at his hotel just to get a glimpse of this alpha chef. I also know of people who drove all the way to Pampanga—one of the many shoot locations —the day before, just to catch sight of (and possibly have their books signed) by him. No wonder local fixer Rich Alindogan called me hours before the shoot, asking if I was coming by myself. Bourdain was prized meat and everybody wanted a bite of him.
After Binondo, next stop on our list was a dampa. Whoever thought of these dining establishments that combine the wet market “paluto” (to cook) concept and karaoke joint certainly knows the way to a Filipino’s heart. Food, family and singing sensations, what could be more Pinoy than this? In the end, the dampa in Cubao won me over with its clean and brightly-lit market, great ambiance, bamboo counter theme, banderitas and, of course, the very good market selection. Even Tony noticed how fresh the day’s catch was.
I had prepared five dishes that are typical Pinoy fare (and that I love to eat) but had to trim it down to three, one vegetable and two kinds of seafood. I gave specific and very strict instructions to the chosen “paluto” joint: “Do not over-sauce the dishes and do not overcook the vegetables!” However, the ensuing buzz going around was, did Tony eat balut? No, he did not, at least not in my segment. As much as I like this delicacy, I think it has been negatively overused to represent Filipino food. Worse, what they keep showing in Western television is the balut which most of us (including me) do not eat—the over-mature one with feathers, beaks and all the scary half-fertilized membranes. And besides, Tony himself admitted that doing balut again was so “last week!”
In the end, I was all smiles when the veggies I ordered came out perfect—all at once crisp, salty, bitter and sweet—perfect with rice. The seafood was even better. Tony looked like he enjoyed it so much he made simut to the last morsel. Over lunch, I asked him what he knew about the Philippines. “History-wise, I know some of our military involvement here.” What about the food? “What do you think of Filipino food so far?” He chews on the thought: “I’m still digesting everything, the culture has the multiple influences, and I’m finding the flavors to be wonderfully confusing.” Yes, wonderfully confusing, perhaps because ours is probably one of the truly global fusion cuisines out there, a true marriage of South-East Asian and Hispanic flavors, defined by our landscape, our history and our people.
Before we leave, I ask him one final question. “In the years that you have lived this culinary traveler’s life, do you get jaded with the food that you’ve eaten?”
His answer: “In parts of Europe yes, but never, never in Asia. How can you be? You can eat one new dish in China every day of your life. I’m starting to feel the same way about the Philippines.”
Spoken like a true culinary traveler. But for me, it’s all just another day’s work as a cultural ambassador to this city—and cuisine—of my affections.
And while we’re at it, a BIG thank you too to U.K.’s Motoring and Leisure magazine for the lovely write up on the Philippines, Manila and yours truly. Also for taking time to actually send me not just one, but two copies! Most of the time, writers and TV show producers/researchers knock at our doors for resource, reference and story features promising to send us a copy for our time but they almost never happen (this is also true with local publications and media). I’m glad M & L Magazine took the effort even if it meant mailing it all the way from London. Maraming Salamat!
Finally, muchos gracias too to Toni of Wifely Steps for sharing her thoughts on one our BIG Binondo Food WOK tour in her blog!