cic*e*ro*ne / noun / 1. a guide who gives information about antiquities and places of interest to sightseers. origin early 18th century: from italian, from latin cicero, apparently alluding humorously to his eloquence and learning. (oxford american dictionaries, macbook pro edition)
for the third time, i played the part of cicerone for my friends who asked that a 3rd installment of the binondo walking tour be organized for the foodies and photographers. arnel had introduced this word on the eve of our visit to chinatown. so on a sunny saturday morning, i found myself holding my camera in divisoria, taking snapshots of streetlife, but with the camera's strap wrapped around my wrist at least twice. if ever i'd suffer the ignominy of having my camera swiped from my hand, they'd have to take my arm with them. sometimes though, i have too much faith in human nature that i tend to do these stupid things.
we converged at the 168 shopping mall. when i went inside and the lady guard saw my camera, she said: "sir bawal po kumuha ng litrato sa loob." to which i snapped: "bakit? may maganda bang tanawin dito?" i still find it amazing that this whole building of bric-a-brac draws thousands of patrons, when its narrow corridors define claustrophobia, and that there is neither rhyme nor reason in the arrangement of the stores and the products they sell. those who criticize SM malls and their poor planning should take a peek at the chaos that chokes the mall and its ill-defined layout.
when nearly everyone had arrived, we trekked to our first destination. i hadn't marked it on the map i drew, but kuya mar and mardel suggested that we pass by lucky emperor for bowls of black chicken soup. but as luck would have it, they'd ran out of this delectable dish, and we instead ordered some bird's nest soup, in honor of the olympic stadium in beijing and the 2008 olympics. i don't know how authentic lucky emperor's bird's nest is, but someone in the group was positively puzzled, if not, perplexed, that the name of the soup was literal. it is made from the nests of birds. when we took out our cameras to photograph the food, i discovered i was outnumbered (nay, overpowered): mardel, kuya mar, arnel, and marga all have canon 40Ds, while bitoy and angie also have canons. but the discovery in this restaurant is its spareribs in salt and garlic. each one of us hummed several m's while lavishing each juicy bite of the meat, which had layers of flavors tucked inside its crunchy exterior. it was as close to food heaven, as i would imagine, regardless of the fact that binondo still pretty much mirrors the rest of the city of manila: little gems covered in soot and squalor.
our next stop was lan zhou la mien. during the last two visits to binondo, we didn't manage to sample this small restaurant along benavidez street. it was already surrounded by other famous eating places like wan chai, masuki, and golden fortune, but we have heard raves about its hand-pulled noodles. there were 11 of us in the group, so when we looked inside, it was very clear that we wouldn't fit. but the chef, barking things in chinese, mandarin or fookien, i had no idea, cleared a table for us. he basically stopped a couple from eating, transferred their bowls to another table where 2 other persons had already seated, and put together 9 chairs to fit all of us. i've always wanted to see how noodles are hand-pulled, so despite the cramped conditions, we settled in. preparing these famous bowls involved a lot of noise and knuckle-crunching. from a slab of dough, the chef, who is from lan zhou and has only been in the philippines for a few weeks, begins kneading with his sore knuckles, until he has long strips that he pulls. and this is when the banging starts. when you're out at the entrance, you'd think someone is being punished, but he's just pulling noodles, from their uneven diameter of maybe 6 to 8 inches, the dough becomes several strings of noodles so uniform in size you'd think they came from a machine. it would have been so easy to pig out in just one restaurant but we had at least 5 in our itinerary map.
lan zhou la mien's best selling specialties
after hand-pulled noodles, we had dumplings, and where else but at dong bei. it was a short trek along binondo's dust-covered streets and its expensive cars to yuchengco. while waiting for our orders, china's version of takeshi's castle was playing, and although we couldn't understand a word, it was fun to watch. i've had dong bei many times already, but it was still the same good dumplings as the first time. we had all kinds: chives, pork, shrimp. also different ways it was prepared: steamed (more like dumped in boiling water, actually), and fried. the servers were still rolling coin-sized dough slices and filling them with generous heaps of stuffing, which can also be purchased for take-out. mardel bought some tsing tao at a store nearby and we weren't charged for corkage. how cool is that? just to emphasize how good dong bei's dumplings are, we all had more than we should have. i insisted that there were still 2 restaurants listed, but it couldn't be helped. good food is good regardless of the promise of more.
steamed or fried, dong bei's dumplings deliver
since we ate too much, i suggested that we go around the block, look inside the binondo church, where wedding preparations were well under way, in the hope of burning some of that fine chinese food we just ate, before we would proceed to sincerity chicken. i had also included café mezzanine in my itinerary but it offers nothing in the way of authentic chinese food, so we skipped that. instead, kuya mar and i went ahead to sincerity while the others bought eng bee tin. at sincerity, we were asked which group we were part of. i explained that we are members of a photography club (it being AMCIphots). but kuya mar promptly added that i'm from a newspaper. "the manila bulletin", i added. "which section?" the owner inquired. "lifestyle. travel," i replied. at sincerity we ordered just one whole chicken and a small oyster cake. but i don't know if my being a contributor to manila bulletin had any part in it, but they gave us free kikiam and dessert. at first i said "we didn't order that." but the waitress winked and just said "hindi sir inorder nyo yan." and woe to those who stuffed themselves silly because despite the chicken being so damn good, we couldn't get ourselves to chew on another bite.
a sincere love for food
last stop for the trek was ang tunay beef house. even i wasn't sure if i could eat another morsel of sesame seed -- by this time, things became mechanical, and my taste buds had suffered fatigue. too many flavors bursting and swirling in your mouth. and i was really already very full. as i recall, ang tunay's specialty was the steamed fish. this time around though, they varied it ever so slightly: it was steamed lapu-lapu fillets on a bed of tofu, and soaked in light soy sauce. still pretty good, although suspiciously different from the last time.
i really didn't do a lot of annotation in this particular trip. i'm not a binondo insider, and i haven't really done much research. i did, however, talk a bit about how pasta arrived in italy from china courtesy of marco polo via the silk route, and that cicero was a roman intellectual during the time of julius ceasar. all this based on a frazzled memory of general knowledge. a lot of people are already doing these walking tours, and rather well, i might add. but i guess the difference is that in my case, i'd do it for free, and often, i am myself the tourist, so much less the guide. except maybe, i always walk ahead, and always hold a map. having said that, we're already cooking up our next food trips and tours. to have friends with really itchy feet.